Toads & Good Ideas

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In the 1920s Austrian biologist, Dr. Paul Kammerer, was conducting controversial experiments on the evolutionary process with amphibians—including midwife toads. His work challenged conventionally held beliefs and advocated the Lamarckian theory of inheritance which argues that organisms can pass acquired characteristics from one generation to the next.

His research was deemed fraudulent by American herpetologist, G.K. Noble, in the journal, Nature. He charged that Kammerer had injected his mid-wife toad samples with ink so they would appear to have carried on characteristics from their environment.

Soon after the review was published Kammerer killed himself.

But was Kammerer’s work fraudulent? Did his suicide indicate a confession?

In The Case of the Midwife Toad, Arthur Koestler attempts to figure out whether or not Kammerer was telling the truth.

At the time of Kammerer’s research Austria was in political turmoil and the Nazi party was tearing the intellectual community apart.

Koestler discovers that Kammerer’s toads and notes might have been tampered with by a colleague at the University of Vienna who was a Nazi sympathizer. The motive of the suspected sabotage, Koestler reasons, was to discredit Kammerer who was a public pacifist.

If that was the case, Kammerer’s research may not have been fabricated and would have firmly run contrary to the scientific orthodoxy of the time.

Modern science suggests that Kammerer’s work, while running contrary to Neo-Darwinist evolutionists, may explain epigenetics—the study of heritable changes in genes caused by factors other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence. In other words, Kammerer may have found evidence that would suggest some acquired traits can be passed on from generation to generation.

While Koestler artfully tells us the engaging story of Kammerer he lets us decide whether or not Kammerer’s work was falsified.  He gives a fair and critical analysis of Kammerer’s work and also explains it with simplicity.

The Case of the Midwife Toad teaches us the old lesson: people who challenge the status quo might not be entirely crazy. It’s a valuable take-away for leaders who propose new and different ideas.

Even though you may be right and your evidence is strong you will attract critics who play the “got-you” game.

Defending conventions is the refuge of the nervous and unwilling, standing up for new ideas takes daring. Kammerer’s case exhibits all of the pitfalls and highpoints of walking into new territory.

A Promising 12 Point Program to Success, Happiness, & Riches

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Jesse Thorn is a self-made man who considers himself successful. He’s got a family, money in the bank, and a growing radio business he loves.

Thankfully, Jesse isn’t a secretive man. He’s written down his road-map to success and given it the modest title: Make Your Thing: 12 Point Program for Absolutely, Positively 1000% No-Fail Guaranteed Success

Every one of Jesse’s points is illustrated by a quirky, real-world, example. He suggests you build a community much like Insane Clown Posses. He recommends you “Keep Your Legs Moving” just like the rapper Killer Mike. He also doesn’t think it’ll be a bad idea if you keep it ‘real’ in the same vein as rock musician Andrew W.K.

Jesse isn’t saying that you must paint your face like a juggalo, start a record label like a fringe rapper, or thumb your nose at the establishment like a punk rocker in order to become successful. He’s arguing that you can learn from the accomplishments of people who have been briefly acquainted with success.

However, his 12 point program comes with a caveat. Point 12 demands that you actually get to work and start exercising your talent. I was hoping he’d have horse racing tips.

Leadership in Higher Education: The Skills of Political Competence

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innovation safety leaders

In my neighborhood job security meant working for AT&T, teaching K-12, or joining the ranks or higher education. The latter career track came with the additional advantage of containing a bit of prestige. But there was also a sense of calling, a sense that you’d be serving some collective good by adding to the knowledge of society, and moving truly important agendas ahead.

You also entered higher ed because you felt it wouldn’t be a pressure cooker and the ruthlessness of the private sector wouldn’t rear its head every time you made a mistake.

Well, things have changed.

In a world where AT&T can’t provide job security and the U.S. auto industry almost disappeared, we can’t assume that you favorite college or university will be there tomorrow.

For years higher ed has been dominated by two mantras. One for administrators: “Leave well enough alone and things will get done in their due time.” The other for academics: “Let’s have a faculty meeting.”

But now the clock is ticking.

Higher ed is no longer the proverbial, angelic, oasis amidst a sea of private-sector sharks (if it ever was). Today, higher-ed organizations must keep moving in order to stay afloat. The Ivy League right down to the smallest of community colleges can no longer be guided by the stars—they need leadership that is proactive, pragmatic, and aware that change is crucial. They need the type of leadership that gets things done.

First and foremost leaders in higher ed must understand the three reasons universities and colleges often resist change.

  1. Intransigent culture: Leaders in higher ed must appreciate how to subtly move around the deep culture which has been celebrated and worked for so long. The very culture that has given higher ed its identity must now be adjusted.
  2. Turf protection: Higher ed is an arena of turf and silos. In a world of minimum resources, zero-sum games, and department elimination, this is becoming more evident. We need leaders who have political competence and can mobilize around these issues.
  3. Tension between administration & faculty: Traditionally, there has always been tension between administrators and faculty and each group quickly dismisses the other. Each has their own stereotypes of the other. It’s the false distinction between a stereotypical bureaucrat and a stereotypical academic. In a world where we want to increase shared services and shared missions, leaders must help administrators and faculty come together.

In the context of all this leaders within both the faculty and the administration must develop a degree of political competence. They must understand how to bring people together, mobilize around agendas, and sustain change.

A number of years ago, a colleague of mine told me, when assuming the chair of a large science department, “I don’t do politics.”

My answer was, “Don’t be a chairperson.”

The university is a maze of mixed interests, mixed agendas, and inconsistent visions. Political competence is the minimum we should ask of leaders in higher ed.

Three Blind Leaders

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Leadership is about the moving of agendas–but sometimes micro agendas get in the way of macro visions and, dare I say, real accomplishments. Sometimes leaders get so obsessed with the incremental, the immediate, the necessity of the moment, that they simply blow off the big issues.

Sure, leadership is about keeping people on your side, but this over obsession of trying to sustain a coalition, this over management of making sure your people are with you, can really take you from the position of leadership to a position of tactical compliance, or even worse, passive acquiescence.

So let’s think for a moment about Barack Obama, Bebe Netanyahu, and Mahmoud Abbas and the speeches they gave at the United Nations last week.

What do they all have in common?  Simple. All were obsessed with their internal coalition, their micro-political agenda, and not with truly visionary movement.

Let’s start with President Obama.

His recent General Assembly speech was a long way from his 2009 Cairo Speech. President Obama no longer challenged Netanyahu, but he reinforced him. As a good friend of mine recently said, “Obama became more Netanyahu than Netanyahu!”

What was the point of the speech?

Well the point was the 9th congressional district in Queens where Republican Congressman Bob Turner recently beat his Democratic opponent David Weprin in a largely Jewish district.

President Obama, having slipped in the polls and needing all the support he can get on his jobs agenda, crafted his speech in order to keep “the Jewish democrats” in his corner.

Now, let’s look at Netanyahu’s speech

Netanyahu speech appropriately states the classical Jewish Zionist vision–and dismisses the issues of the settlements.  He presents the purity of his vision and brings up the classical arguments and says that the Palestinians keep missing opportunities.

Netanyahu, however, was well aware of the context. He knew that Israel’s left leaning labor party was becoming more and more invigorated and that he had to speak to his base.

Now, let’s finally analyze Abbas’ speech.

Abbas’ speech addressed the 1948 Al-Nakba, but it ignored the principal of a Jewish homeland, the Jewish tragedy, and the Jewish state, and essentially gives a micro list of his perceptions of injustice. He gave very little and implied a live-and-let-live mentality.

However, Abbas speech couldn’t ignore reality. Hamas still maintains strength in Gaza and indeed many of his critics would feel that any recognition of Israel would be inappropriate.

Here’s what we have. Three leaders who are concerned with maintaining their coalitions. Three leaders, who are avoiding an opportunity to leap forward because they are fundamentally concerned about the degree of their political survival.

Obama could have simply said that we wanted to be the neutral broker and, using the ‘getting-to-yes’ mindset, he could have declared in some dramatic way: “this is an opportunity to bring all parties together.” But, he failed to do that.

Bebe Netanyahu had the opportunity to recognize Palestinian grievances and a bit of the Palestinian narrative. He could have used the opportunity to legitimize some of the Palestinian pain by simply saying, “I recognize that the Palestine’s have their grievances.” If he had done so, he would have shifted the dialogue.

And Abbas failed just as dramatically. Rather than recognizing Jewish historical claims, Jewish contemporary fears and anxiety, he chose to speak only to his own narrative.

We can learn a few leadership lessons from these UN speeches.

1. Focusing on your short term collation is political survival, not leadership

2. The key to creating change in a conflict situation is to at least recognize the narrative of the other.

3. Don’t always lead by talking about what has been talked about. Talk about what could be.

4. The high ground never hurts.

Maybe these three speeches at the UN were effective. Maybe I missed the point. Maybe by giving these speeches these leaders gained enough legitimacy with their base so they’ll have time to participate in the talks suggested by the Quartet. Maybe they’ll really want to push towards a visionary peace.

I’m not sure. But all I heard were three micro-politicians with little vision. I saw three blind mice. See how they run, see how they run for office.

Labor Day

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Through a sea of glistening blue (jeans), you spot a current of croissants and crullers rippling through the break room. Confetti streams the walls in tribute to Ralph from HR’s birthday and hints of nutmeg and cinnamon perfume the room. The mailboxes, disguised as Christmas stockings, contain beckoning paychecks and invitations to a weekend cocktail party celebrating the impressive numbers released from finance earlier in the week. A rare laughter swells out of Ethan Marcus’s office where a group is gathered watching viral YouTube gems. It must be Friday.

This phantasmagorical scene may be deep-fried in hyperbole but it still conveys an essential point of organizational culture: Fridays are different. Office norms loosen and a euphoric air envelops a once stale workplace. As a proactive, engaged leader, the challenge then becomes how to accommodate and engage in this culture shock, while simultaneously advancing an agenda that can’t break for Falafel Friday.

So how do you remain chill without exhausting air conditioning resources and freezing your agenda? A politically savvy leader knows how to infuse some productivity into the celebratory croissants. With your coalition partners congregated and their guards down, you have a unique opportunity to solidify the relationships that will ultimately mobilize your agenda. While your colleagues may burrow into their silos on Monday through Thursday, Friday pops these bubbles and allows information to waft around with the nutmeg already saturating the air.

Today is the shooting star of organizational phenomena; it’s a casual Friday preceding a long Labor Day weekend. My office is a ghost town and I think I saw a lonely hay bale blow by my desk 15 minutes ago. I have a creeping suspicion that my calendar is off and I’ve accidentally come into work on a Saturday or, more troubling, that I missed the meteorologists warnings to evacuate the area.

Nevertheless, I’m not squandering a perfectly fertile labor day. While I munch on abandoned pastries, I chat with coworkers and gain casual background on this office and my current campaigns. Without the pressured angst that pervades other labor days, I gain privileged insight into my organization. Meanwhile, I break to blog about this to the anonymous masses quietly celebrating their Labor Day Fridays in other office nooks and crannies. I hope this message reaches you in time before your day dissolves into a haze of lazy celebrations. If not, no worries. There’s always Monday.

Pic Credit: amirjina


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It goes by many names. Nodder, wobbler, bobbler, bobbing doll, or, more commonly, bobblehead doll. The one name, though, that is rarely applied to these amusing spring-connected collectible toys is “leader”. While popular culture and The Office, specifically, advance the bobblehead industry by creating toys bearing the likeness of organizational leaders, many leaders would resist this association. The representation of a proactive leader with a flimsy and inflated head that nods ad nauseam with mechanical approval is not what most managers want sitting on their desk. Yet, as much as much as the politically competent leader may cringe at this symbol of reflexive apathy, it unfortunately hits too close to home for many pinheaded executives.

Often on this blog, we touch upon this notion of leadership styles and the distinction between facilitative and directive management. As we argue, facilitative leaders adopt an empowering laissez-faire approach that allows coalition partners to autonomously advance a shared agenda. These leaders are not (usually) negligent but instead favor a more hands off approach. Arianna Huffington is likely a facilitative leader as she creates an empire but then empowers writers and contributors to mobilize the organization and advance a common agenda.

Directive leaders are then the foil for their facilitative colleagues. They favor a very hands-on approach and carefully prescribe and choreograph assignments for coalition partners. Just as facilitative leaders are not necessarily lazy, directive leaders are not automatically paranoid or dominating. They simply favor a stricter management scheme and design campaigns that accommodate or necessitate such an approach. Sarah Palin’s current SarahPAC is more directively managed as Palin carefully choreographs her staff actions and maintains strict regulation of her public and private campaign elements.

Both facilitative and directive approaches are valid and effective depending on the organization, agenda, and coalition players.

So back to the bobblehead and the emergence of a third, detrimental leadership approach. The bobblehead leadership approach is a poisonous fusion of facilitative and directive styles. The bobbler leader may dictate specific elements of the agenda or may empower colleagues to define these elements themselves but, in both contexts, this leader quickly succumbs to a yes-(wo)man approach.

The wobbler evades difficult choices by simply offering his weak but dependable approval for all campaign elements. The nodder remains silent in meetings, but she always defaults into consent when an opinion is solicited. Ultimately, the bobbing approach is one of apathy and fear that produces a vacuous, feeble campaign.

So sit at your desk and chuckle as your bobblehead offers its unconditional, detached support for all your ideas. But eventually you need to spring into action and get your head in the game.

Pic Credit: brianjmatis

Earthquake from the (Apple)Core

By | BLG Leadership Insights, Features, Proactive Leaders | One Comment

This week a massive earthquake rocked the country and left people buzzing from coast to coast. While it may be too early to determine the exact damages from the quake, it produced instant market swings and potentially affected nuclear sites in the D.C./Virginia metro area. Luckily finely tuned preparation plans created in anticipation of such an event generally surged into action and thwarted any immediate, major repercussions. Now the world steps back and anxiously watches the news on their iPads while walking their iPoodles; everyone is waiting to see how the dust will settle following this unprecedented upheaval.

My sources tell me that before the seismic activity surrounding Steve Jobs resignation from Apple, there was seismic activity of the plate tectonic persuasion across the eastern seaboard. Maybe we’ll report on that later but the Jobs quake buried all natural disaster news within minutes while the Virginia tremors barely shifted ground.

There will be immeasurable commentary and analysis on Steve Jobs’ resignation and his career in general. His legacy will be immortalized in the forthcoming (and still unfinished) biography Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson in addition to other inevitable volumes devoted to the Apple mogul. Jobs elevated Apple to the summit of the business world as the company, “flirted with displacing ExxonMobil as the world’s most valuable company by market cap, and…[at one point] had more cash on hand than Uncle Sam himself” (Matlin, 8/25/11). The list of his accomplishments reads like a greedy (and enterprising) child’s Christmas list to Santa.

I know from experience taking Professor Bacharach’s classes that Jobs continually emerges as the model leader in leadership studies contexts. He is one of the most recognizable faces in corporate leadership and his name is synonymous with management success. When Professor Bacharach solicits examples of leaders, he will likely hear a student offer Steve Jobs long before receiving the names of, say, Winston Churchill, Mother Theresa, or Gandhi. There is no argument; the man is a leader guru.

So let’s take a pause from our leadership exploits today and just marvel at the force that is Steve Jobs. We know that Tim Cook will almost certainly succeed Jobs and will likely succeed in his new role. We know, or at least argue, that leadership is not an innate, trait-based phenomenon but something that can be pragmatically and systematically learned and replicated. Jobs was no god and certainly had his faults and fumbles. Nevertheless, the man was a titan and the world shakes today in response to his resignation.

Pic Credits: tsevis

Deanna Lowe @ Fortune magazine and the photographer (Corbis) of the original photo in which this mosaic is based.

Three Blind Mice

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This post is the first in a series that dissects classic nursery rhymes in search of helpful leadership lessons for the proactive, politically savvy manager. Enjoy.

Blank space

Blank space

Three blind mice. Three blind mice.

See how they run. See how they run.

They all ran after the farmer’s wife,

Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,

Did you ever see such a sight in your life,

As three blind mice?

Organizations are laboratories of two conflicting, oscillating elements: competition and uncertainty. This is not to say that a leader perpetually operates in a competitive paradigm or that every detail ranging from an annual budget to a lunch special is uncertain, but nevertheless competition and uncertainty are omnipresent in organizations. When we then add the economic reality of scarcity into the equation, leaders are effectively transformed into blind mice.

Like the eponymous mice in this nursery rhyme, leaders rapidly mobilize agendas while understanding that their agenda is likely at odds with someone else’s campaign.

If a startup is attempting to corner the online cheese industry, it understands that other startups are pursuing the same consumer wheel and slices are limited. There are a finite number of farmers’ wives, seeking only so many discounts on aged Gouda spreads, and only the first mouse will reap the rewards.  Leaders at each startup then run alongside each other as they attempt to innovate and outperform their competitors on the road to execution.

Compounding their challenge is the reality that each manager is blind as she mobilizes her agenda. In an uncertain world, no one knows exactly where the expressway ends. Even if one knows her destination and scurries ahead of her competitors, there is no guarantee that a plate of cheese awaits the victor.

One startup could successfully monetize their cheese service only to discover that the dairy craze has ended and the market has shifted to a new sector. Or the farmer’s wife consumers may have changed their preferences and no longer want your gorgonzola. Here, executing the agenda can unfortunately mean executing yourself as you discover all your time and invested resources only lead you to the chopping block.

So the next time someone asks if you’ve ever seen such a sight in your life as three blind mice, open your eyes and find a mirror. You work in a challenging environment and it helps to pause occasionally and confirm that you’re not trapped in a fruitless (or cheeseless) rat race.

Pic credit: snacktime2007

Hockey, Square Dancing & Strauss-Kahn

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The other day I foraged up another suppressed memory from the vaults that house my traumatizing middle school experiences. The experience affords me an unlikely empathy with Dominique Strauss-Kahn this week but more on that later.

Unlike my other buried gems such as the Tator Tot Incident or the Ketchup Burp, this adolescent episode occurred outside of the dreaded cafeteria social swamp. In seventh grade physical education—the only education where my graphing calculator was rendered useless—my teacher made the fatal mistake of handing me a floor hockey stick.

While I carefully choreographed most gym periods to spend the 40 minutes completing MadLibs in the bathroom, on this unfortunate day I was fully dressed for the gym part. Outfitted in pink-eye stained goggles and clutching a stick twice my size, I rumbled onto the floor where social reputations were born and reared. While I’d like to report that this chapter ended with me simply scurrying around the room like a startled chinchilla, fortune had it that stormy suburban afternoon that I would end up with the puck.

After ricocheting off the ample dome of a fellow gym outcast, the puck came to rest in front of me. Like an arachnophobe meeting Spiderman I spun around, scrunched my perspiring brow, and struck the puck, sending it careening across the unforgiving floor.

In pink eye hindsight, two elements of that shot were extraordinary. First, despite my feral assault, the puck went airborne rather than sinking into a dented floor. Second, the puck, as if synced into a finely calibrated GPS unit, cleanly bypassed a befuddled goalie and infiltrated his netted ward. In a haze of blinding euphoria, I reacted by triumphantly putting my square dancing skills to work.

I think I completed two solo do-si-dos before I absorbed the news. In place of a celebratory Gatorade shower, my peeved peers rained down their disapproval on me for accidentally shooting on my own goal. I scored for the opponents. If MadLibs asked for an adjective to describe my reputation, pathetic or mutilated would probably suffice. It took a lot of chocolate milk and shrimp poppers to smother my shame and repair the damage done that day.

So where does this story intersect with former Director of the IMF and accused sexual predator Dominique Strauss Kahn? Yesterday prosecutors surrendered their case against the disgraced politician. Legally, he is innocent of fault in the case even if he did likely shoot his puck into the wrong goal so to speak. Yet despite his official vindication, his personal and professional reputations are beyond tainted. If you could liquefy his reputation, it would be less quenching than the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill. And tater tots offer little respite to an aspiring president of France.

Proactive leaders must cautiously approach their reputation as they would a porcelain cricket in a Tiffany’s. Appreciate its value and fiercely protect it from clumsy intrusions. Yet understand that your organization is bound by the law of uncertainty and even the most politically savvy leader can’t prevent the ground from shaking occasionally. You need to prepare for the inevitable earthquake by cultivating strong coalitions and robust support networks. These supporters will be your insurance policy when the first tremors arrive.

Finally, avoid the ego trap like you avoided your middle school cafeteria’s vintage pizza nuggets. Swaggering around your office with an air of invincibility will neither advance your agenda nor secure you water wings when your reputation sinks. Soliciting coalitional support is not the same as aggressive seduction and Strauss-Kahn abandoned modesty when he inherited the nickname “The Great Seducer”. He fell into the ego trap and continued to fall until he landed in the U.S. criminal justice system. It was a textbook error akin to driving a Zamboni through the Tiffany’s storeroom.

So, to simplify, politically savvy leaders shoot straight while preserving their reputation and know not to do-si-do when their puck flies astray.

Photo Credit: mannpollon

Vacation Vocation

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Humor me for a small exercise in meditational zen. As you find your center and begin deep, controlled breaths, your office surrounding dissolve away. You’re transported to a rocky Andorran precipice where a sharp breeze bites at your exposed neck. Surveying the rugged landscape, you glimpse a wild horse commuting between France and Spain across the liberated terrain. As you watch the horse lightly gallop across the horizon, you can almost feel the hypnotic rumbling in the ground as hoof contacts firm ground. The rumbling swells into a vibration that seems to spring from your core. Glancing down to your pocket you discover your implacable cell phone hissing at you like a clammy kitten. Work is calling and they need your help.

This situation may be mildly hyperbolic but unfortunately it strikes too close to home for many leaders. A vacation is for a leader what a tub of ice cream is for a South Beach Diet devotee. Vacations are agonizingly tempting escapes from the intensity of advancing an agenda, but they’re escapes that can potentially weigh down an agenda. Particularly in organizational environments constrained by uncertainty, your campaign is unlikely to take a siesta while you’re lying on a beach on Ibiza. Without your steady guidance, your coalition will crumble like last week’s coffee cake and you’ll find yourself in an uncomfortably sandy position.

So how do you combine relaxed disengagement with manic dedication to your leadership cause? I discovered one solution in the backseat of my Chevy Cobalt last month as I toured the country for a month-long road trip. With four drivers splitting driving shifts from New York to San Francisco (via Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Colorado Springs, Denver, Boulder, Wasatch Mountains, and Lake Tahoe) I found myself often twiddling my digits in a compressed corner of the car. Unfortunately, though, invading my day dreams was the realization that I had to submit 25 hours a week of research and editing to this blog’s namesake Professor Bacharach.

My epiphany arrived as I whacked my laptop keyboard somewhere between Salt Lake City and Reno on I-80 W: Vacations are inspiring. Tourists absorb constant stimuli as they travel through mountains, deserts, strip malls, and Taco Bells by train, plane, car, or Segway. While you may want to throw your Blackberry into the Grand Canyon, consider instead how you can use your Grand Canyon trip to motivate your coalition and mobilize your agenda. Ultimately, your trip to the Pacific Ocean may prove much valuable to your agenda than your trip to the water cooler.

My road trip ultimately produced pages of leadership fodder and potentially some slight carpal tunnel syndrome. It was extraordinarily productive relaxation.