BLG Leadership Insights Features

Sister Act & Barack Obama

When you live in New York you get these last minute opportunities which you often grab and sometimes quickly regret.

When my wife told me two days ago that she bought three tickets to the Barack Obama fundraiser production of Whoopi Goldberg’s Sister Act all I could think about was standing on line, going through security, and the nuisance of it all.

Plus, to tell you the truth, Whoopi had been great in the movie not leave well enough alone. I also wasn’t crazy about seeing and listening to President Obama who I could hear anytime on TV.

But since I have a 15 year old you look for important moments to share, spiritually, politically, and in every other way.

So there I was standing on the 53rd street line for two hours waiting to get into the theater.

Well, a funny thing happened. The New York community that was waiting on line, was the exact community I wanted my son to be part of. It’s the community I remember growing up with in Brooklyn. It was the community that I remember from my father’s days in the labor movement. It consisted of the people that, when I was a kid, played stick ball and the ones I wouldn’t mind aging with. It was the people you enjoy ad libbing life with.

And when my son took off to get a slice of pizza and when someone finished the last of my LifeSavers, I realized two things—politics is still grounded and people are still involved. And once in a while, waiting on line is the best thing a Cornell professor can do for himself.

The show was much better than I anticipated, but that’s because by the time I got into the theater, I was with 1,400 friends, and everyone was intent on having a good time. At the end of the show, we waited for a few minutes, and, flags and all, the President got on the stage and addressed the crowd.

At one point he talked about the fact that even though he was preaching to the choir he realized that he let some of the people in the audience down. He admitted he didn’t get everything he or they wanted.

Someone screamed out, “No, that’s not true.”

And the President responded by making it clear that it was true. But he pointed out democracy, as he always says, is messy.

This may all seem trivial, but what wasn’t trivial was his mastery of intimacy. But it’s not intimacy hidden beneath charisma, it’s intimacy with a sense of empathy. A sense he understood who was in the audience and where they came from because, like everyone on line, they shared some sort of common, nuanced, history.

Anyone who thinks that Barack Obama is aloof hasn’t heard him speak after Whoopi Goldberg’s production of Sister Act. The man understands quite will where he is, where he’s from, and who he’s speaking to.

By the way, none of this guarantees his greatness or his competence. However, it does guarantee his capacity to get people on his side.

P.S. It was the best place for my son to have been last night.

Picture by: Video4Net


You Don’t Speak The Way You Should

When I was an undergraduate at NYU, commuting by subway to the Washington Square campus, the path was laid out for me:  economics or medical school.  In my last year I stumbled into a passion for art history when I completed a course on the French impressionists.  The course made me entertain the possibility of diverting from my path and getting a Ph.D. in art history.  I approached my instructor with this somewhat fleeting thought and he reacted as blunt could be when he said, “You don’t speak like an art historian should.”  I sheepishly crawled back on the subway back to Brooklyn and proceeded to the University of Wisconsin and became a Cornell professor of management.  Several years later I had occasion to speak about a book of mine at another well-established university when a faculty member came up to me and intended to flatter me about my relatively casual speaking style.  Unfortunately for him, he used the same language the art historian did eight years before: “You don’t speak the way I thought you would.” While he meant well, I had a flashback to the art historian and in an extremely exaggerated New York accent said, “But I write real good, don’t I?”

The years have evolved, but I remain cognizant of the fact that language and style become a subtle mode of discrimination.  Recently I’ve been working with some colleagues in Baton Rouge.  And they related to me how often that they, as smart, articulate women, are often dismissed by their Louisiana accent, which lead others to stereotype them in unflattering ways and certainly label them as being incapable of being art historians.

Language and style often trump content.  These two things often exclude many from leadership positions.  I’m struck more and more when selecting leaders we become obsessed with their presentation of self, and we are overly concerned with how they say something rather than what they say.  Do they speak in a thoughtful, reflective manner? Do they use the right language? These are important, but in the final analysis, these are issues of style, and not much more than tassels on a pair of shoes or the shade of  Brooks Brothers tie.  Not irrelevant, but not grounds for dismissal.

Over the last number of years, my time has been spent in the world of leadership training.  In this context, I’ve had to hire trainers and deal with leaders.  The challenge has been to match the trainer to the leader.  But I found out that consistently that people are concerned with the content much more than with style.  In this culture, surrounded by style, people are listening much closer to what you say than your accent.  Globalization is going to demand from each of us to ask a simple question: Does he or she know what they are talking about–and should I pay attention?  Soon there will be more and more art historians who don’t speak the King’s English, and that world, one in which style and language are secondary is one we should welcome.

BLG Leadership Insights

Twitter’s Leadership Promises The Impossible

Twitter’s website doesn’t work in China. It’s been placed outside of China’s great fire wall along with Facebook, Youtube, numerous blogging platforms, and potentially Google.  But, Twitter’s founders, Jack Doresy and Evan Williams, are optimistic. They see a in the near future. In fact, they promised one.

Doresy, in a recent ReadWriteWeb panel discussion in New York, stated that he hopes to start a Chinese Twitter once the company can iron out design and legal questions after being pressured by Chinese artist and social activist, Ai Weiwei. Ai was rightly skeptical throughout the conversation. Ai argued that social media, while akin to “air and water” in the West, is restricted, limited, or banned in China. He hoped that Twitter could get around China’s firewall and also offer a translating service that would allow Chinese users to read tweets from around the world.

Ai stated that 140 characters, Twitters maximum tweet length, might give Chinese officials pause, because it would allow China’s netizens more room to talk and express themselves. 140 Chinese characters can say more than 10 or so English words paired with a shortened link.

Did Twitter’s Leadership Promise the Impossible?

Even when Myspace, Facebook, and the rest were easily accessible in China they weren’t even near competing with China’s own social networks like TenCent, the parents of China’s popular QQ sites. In fact, TenCent is the most valuable social network worldwide, with over a $1 billion dollars in revenue. Compare that with Twitter’s small band of 25 million users.

China’s 384 million netizens don’t need Twitter in the same way you don’t need another social media site to update. They already have their favorite social networking sites bookmarked and backlogged. While Twitter’s worldwide scope and real time news might appeal to social activists like Ai Weiwei it certainly won’t have the same draw to users in China who already use similar platforms.

If Twitter does get its foot in China, it would be pressed to limit search results much like Yahoo and Google do now. Twitter’s international scope would have to be pared down and filtered, giving the platform no real edge over its Chinese competitors. Having a Twitter account in China would be like having a really fast car without having a license.

Earlier this month at SXSW Twitter Co-founder Evan Williams said, “The Internet is a tidal wave that is going to be impossible for anyone to keep out.” He went on to say, “In places like China it is hard to say how long those firewalls will be able to hold up.”

Like his partner Doresy, Williams seems to share the same misconceptions about jumping into China. It’s not just a question of ironing out legal problems  and making a new website. China’s firewall isn’t a joke that will inevitably fall and crumble in the face of web services that can be easily copied. While mainly acting as a large censor, China’s firewall is also a tool that protects Chinese businesses and encourages Chinese web development. It’s not simply a censorship device–it’s a form of protectionism. China is helping its internet businesses and services compete with Silicon Valley. China’s firewall isn’t necessarily viewed as a bad thing or an annoying road block by Chinese netizens.

Promising The Impossible

Twitter’s promise to enter the Chinese market is well intentioned, but it will require a lot of work and a lot of compromises. Not only will they have to juggle legal and governmental negotiations, but they’ll be forced to compete with a huge network of established social media companies. Even if Twitter does launch in China, there’s a chance that it will be severely white-washed or limited. Twitter might have promised the impossible.

Photo Credit: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Witches & Dental Care: 3 Leadership Lessons From Richard Feynman


Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist who is a straight-talker from Queens, New York, has spent his whole life trying to see things from a different point of view.

In the interview below (part 1 of 4) Feynman outlines three strategies to think outside the box. They are:

1. Challenge conventional wisdom: Never be happy with an answer or one explanation. Instead, explore it’s meaning and always search for new, more exciting, questions.

2. What’s in a name? Nothing: Never trick yourself into thinking that simply knowing a title or a name of a theory or piece of information is the same thing as understanding a theory or a piece of information. If you do, as Feynman says, “you are going to confuse yourself.”

3. New methods are always needed: New problems are first attacked using old methods and standard scientific theories with little use. New problems, more often than not, require new, exciting, methods.

Feynman can not only teach us about the physical world but he can illustrate the importance of thinking in new directions. It’s important for leaders to find motivation and influence from multiple realms–it will help keep us searching for new methods to conquer new problems.