Welcome to my new blog! On this site I’ll be reflecting on teaching business and the humanities as I used to do for The Huffington Post until they ended their blog platform.
MARCH 30, 2020
Dear Faculty and Staff,
I recently reached out to David, a former student who is now an emergency room physician at a hospital in New York City. I wanted to thank him for all he was doing during the pandemic to care for our vulnerable neighbors. He was exhausted but grateful. When I asked him what I could do for him from sheltered-in-place San Francisco, he replied, “Please send dog or child or nature pictures frequently…It helps me remember what we’re fighting for.”
I happily obliged with pictures of my joyful and affectionate dog, Harriet. David asked how Harriet got her name so I described the heroines who inspired me to choose this name. As silly as it sounds, every time I call to Harriet, I think of these women. Reflecting on these role models again with David, I discerned some wisdom provided by their examples that might help us now.
Harriet Jacobs wrote the first female-authored slave narrative. Her remarkable story of hiding and escape to freedom, followed by an active life in service to the Union cause, teaches me patience. To elude her slaveholder and protect her children, Harriet hid for seven years in a small attic. Her patience in enduring the physical and emotional hardships of confinement, of persisting despite the dangers of discovery and the uncertainty of the outcome demonstrate that she did what she had to do to survive the circumstances and prepare for a new life for herself and her children.
Harriet Tubman, the better-known abolitionist who, like Frederick Douglass was from my home state of Maryland, demonstrated a fearless ability to lead, inspire, and support others in the face of seemingly intractable and dangerous circumstances. She resisted the idea that confinement was a permanent condition; she kept her eyes on the prize. However long it took, freedom was where she was always going and she seldom walked alone.
Harriet Powers was a formerly enslaved Georgia folk artist who lived a hard life in the South while farming and raising nine children. But she made time to quilt, to use whatever scraps she could muster to bring beauty to her world and peace to her life. Of the few quilts that survive, one is in the Smithsonian collections. Combining biblical, African, and southern folkways in a visual representation of her inspired view of creation, Harriet always knew where she stood, no matter what was happening in the world around her.
Harriet the Spy gave me hope, as an awkward young girl who wasn’t sure what the future held, that maybe one day my strange ways would make a good story, too. Harriet is called a spy, but what she really does is pay attention to the world around her that doesn’t pay attention to her. And she writes about it all and that gets her in to trouble but it also helps her find her voice and her way and find her friends, all while hanging on to her truth of life as she sees it.
If we can be like the Harriets, all shall be well.
Taking a Long View: A Reflection on the El Salvador Immersion Experience
Originally written August, 2012
Fidel Castro once remarked: “A revolution is not a bed of roses.” While in El Salvador I observed the crushing reality of this statement as the country continues to recover from years of civil war and corruption. But I also saw its opposite—a country where roses flourished in the midst of depravation, just as they had for the peasant Juan Diego, on the dry and barren Tepeyac Hill. It was December when the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to reassure Juan Diego by blessing him with roses as proof of God’s everlasting and ever-present love.
December is also the month when Jean Donovan, a lay minister, and 3 colleagues who were nuns, were raped and murdered for supporting the Salvadorian campesino’s revolution. As we learned from Father Schindler and the documentary, Roses in December, the women’s murders came not long after Jean wrote home to explain her recommitment to staying in El Salvador, despite its growing danger. Her love for El Salvador was expressed in her astonished appreciation: “Where else do roses bloom in December?”
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and her roses and their combined symbolic potency of restoring hope in the midst of despair continued to appear throughout our journey in El Salvador—in the rose garden at the UCA, planted to commemorate the martyred Jesuits; in the silk rose-draped image of Guadalupe hanging on the wall of the Ramos’ residence where mother and daughter were murdered by the Salvadoran military; in Archbishop Romero’s lyrical homilies that opened up hearts likes rosebuds and in the actual roses countless pilgrims strew across his crypt; in the serene bravery of Guadalupe who bloomed despite her desolate harassment by the state and the FMLN, persevering to eventually fulfill her dream to teach, finally, after she surrendered years of labor in sweat shops so her sisters and brothers could reach their goals; in the expensive floral tributes women sacrificed to buy and bring to the altar at Father Luis’s vibrant parish amidst the slums; in the rosy red soil that Vladimir, the FMLN veteran, shaped into adobe bricks to provide a home for his family; in the rosy cheeks of an ever radiant Maria, Minister of the Interior, whose FMLN origins were preserved in her utilitarian cropped hair; in the thorny persistence of Jenna and Maggie who won’t give up the struggle to create a country where young people can root and thrive.
All I encountered became a recurring reminder of the Lady of Guadalupe’s promise, symbolized in her roses that bloomed in December—“ Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more? Let nothing else worry you, disturb you.”
This sense of protection in the midst of danger, of welcome among strangers, and of companionship among colleagues characterized a relationship that was building among those of us who had made the journey from USF to San Salvador. We began to see each other across the roles we played in our academic setting and to view each other with familiarity. Gently escorted around razor wire and armed guards by locals who knew us by name, we began to understand accompany as a theological concept. In coming to know each other and know El Salvador and its people, our familiarity was returning to its linguistic root: we were becoming family.
Taking a cue from this growing feeling of attachment, I made a point to make sure one of us had asked about the family of each generous soul we encountered. Whether cabinet minister or peasant, priest or infidel, male or female, young or old—what they all had in common was a joyful and grateful response to a question about their family: “How did your children grow up?” Did they go to school?” “How is your husband’s health?” “Where is your wife buried?” Whenever one of asked about someone’s family, the polite reserve dropped, the smile spread, the soul rested, and the essence emerged. We encountered humanity in its fundamental aspect in spite of the circumstances that that challenged the very existence of families. What we lived and what we learned was familia—from the intimacy of our community and those who opened it and entered in, to the intimacy we now felt as witnesses with a responsibility.
I initially avoided any thought of how to act on that responsibility when I returned home. I mindlessly resumed my routine, like walking my dogs on our regular route through a county park at the site of an abandoned quarry. But El Salvador continued to creep back into my world as I discovered on that first walk after returning home. Quite unexpectedly, while I had been gone, some earnest beings had built a labyrinth on the quarry floor. There is only one way in and out of a labyrinth; to walk it is to take an intentional journey of surrendering one’s own plans to take steps on a journey towards enlightenment and communion with magis. One walks a labyrinth as one reads a poem. Billy Collins advised that when reading a poem, it is a mistake to ask what the poem means. That question shuts down our imagination and limits what the poetic experience can accomplish. But when we ask, “Where is it going?” “How does it get there?” we open up a world of possibility and set out on an adventure that just might bring us to a moment of meaning.
When the universe presented in my own neighborhood a ritual reminder of Collins’ prescription, what I had learned in El Salvador came back to me as a journey I would continually repeat. Now every time I walk the labyrinth, another image from our trip returns, another sign appears. Moreover, even the received knowledge about which I had presumed expertise has begun to take on a new depth of meaning explicitly shaped by the encounter. For example, I went to El Salvador with academic proficiency in nineteenth century African American slavery, particularly the slave narratives composed by ex and fugitive slaves. But when I listened to the testimonies of those who had suffered or witnessed the oppression of others, I heard through my own ears and subsequently felt in my gut the sad reality that these narratives of slavery continue to be told by oppressed peoples around the world.
Maria, the rebel turned cabinet minister reminded us that “the biggest slavery is to be ignorant,” and everywhere we saw the effects of this maxim. But we also came to understand that ignorance extends well beyond those denied formal education. Even those of us fortunate to enjoy the privileges of earning advanced degrees were still, in some respects, slave to our ignorance of how much of the world lives. Fredrick Douglass’s claim about slavery, that “to understand it one must needs experience it; or imagine himself in similar circumstances,” came alive for me as I made the journey through my imagination by listening to the Salvadoran stories. I experienced what I thought I already knew. What I heard returned to me the same message communicated by countless iterations of the slave narrative tradition: Write because you believe in and want to inspire change; but do so knowing its only effect may be to reaffirm your own humanity.
How I heard music also changed. The Ballad of the Fallen is the title track of an album by Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra that I have written about and long appreciated. It is a song from El Salvador, based on a poem found on the body of a student who was killed when the U.S. backed National Guard of El Salvador massacred people at a sit-in at the university in San Salvador. This song tells two stories: one the story of the martyred student who composed the words and also the story he tells in his poem. I had heard the song countless times before, had analyzed the diction and remarked on its historical context. But after being in El Salvador I heard more than I ever heard before.
“The Ballad of the Fallen” is a significant liberation anthem because, characteristic of the slave narrative tradition, the character of the protagonist is established in his humility; he wishes to be remembered as one of the people. He writes, “Don’t ask me who I am/Or if you knew me/The dreams that I had/Will grow even thought I’m no longer here. /I’m not alive, but my life continues/In that which goes on dreaming/Others who will continue the fight/Will grow new roses/In the name of all these things/You’ll find my name…” The poet directly links his own identity to the dream for which he fought and sees his immortality embodied in a future of liberation as symbolized, of course, by roses.
As happened in El Salvador, we are invited by the song to adopt his transformative imagination: “Cry with us all those who feel it/Suffer with us all those who loved them/Fall to the earth on your knees/tremble with fear/All those who on that fateful day…assisted in the murder.” The poet establishes a clear sense of justice for the righteous and the unrighteous and links his identity with the future: “My true age is the age/Of the child I have liberated…”I only die/If you give up/For those who die in combat/Live on in every companero...”
The urgency of the poet is expressed as strong horns that bellow out a sweet and floral melody while maracas keep a gentle rhythm accompanied by the sensitive strumming of a guitar. Humming The Ballad of the Fallenagain while walking the labyrinth after our journey in El Salvador, I let the mystery of the poem happen beneath the surface and kept walking. I understood better where the poet was going and how he got there. And this time I went with him as his sister. As family.
These experiential moments cast into sharp relief the more typical academic adventure I had immediately preceding our trip to El Salvador. I had come from Atlanta, Georgia, where the heat was similar but not much else. There I spent a week with 24 other academics, in a hotel conference room, discussing fine points of comparative theologies and theories of religious pluralism. While ostensibly the seminar was designed to promote dialogue across religious, cultural, and ethnic boundaries, this seminar was all in my head; it made few demands of my soul to wake up as El Salvador would do a week later. Mostly the seminar challenged everyone to compete for the title of who knows the most or says it best. The memory of this recent encounter came back to me as an extreme juxtaposition when Marco, our gentle and thoughtful and ever practical spirit guide, asked us to reflect on our El Salvador experience for a USF documentary video.
Language left me and all my academic Jedi mind tricks were useless in trying to conjure up a response for Marco. I realized that all I learned could be summed up in a word: surrender. There is no appropriate academic answer to a question about our El Salvador immersion experience. So I surrendered to the example of the people we met, described aptly by Sister Eva as “swimming in grace”: live life with alert deliberation, sincere gratitude, and enduring patience.
When Harriet Jacobs wrote of her experience in slavery and freedom, she traced the movement from one to the other as the result of a God who “raised me up a friend among strangers.” Those of us who went to El Salvador experienced a similar transition, an alteration that is particular to each of us depending on where we started but shared in our journey from strangers to friends to family.
Given the symbolic trajectory of my experience, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when my subsequent research into Romero unearthed a poem that said it all and said it best. “Rose Garden” has an evocative power that is the poetic equivalent of the experience we shared in El Salvador. Like the labyrinth it takes us in to God and sends us back out to the world believing that we can do something and do it well.
It helps, now and then,
to step back and take the long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts;
it is beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime
only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise
that is the Lord’s work.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted
knowing they hold future promise.
We lay foundations
that will need further development.
We provide yeast
that affects far beyond our capabilities…
We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very, very well.
USF asks its students to “change the world from here.” In 19th century America, Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), gave students similar advice. “Cast down your bucket where you are,” he encouraged newly emancipated and educated citizens in his classic work Up From Slavery (1901). The autobiography describes Washington’s enslaved childhood on a Virginia plantation, his struggle for education and his schooling at Hampton Institute, and his ascendancy to the founding and presidency of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Washington never leaves the rural South. He represents himself as an ordinary African American whose success can be shared by all.
The ideas Washington sets forth were controversial in their time and remain so today. Washington emphasized black achievement in terms of vocational training and is often contrasted with his contemporary in the urban North, W.E. B. DuBois. Both men promoted education as the primary way to lift the race, but they disagreed on the type of education, DuBois insisting on African Americans’ full entitlement to a liberal education, while Washington believed the best opportunities for African Americans so recently removed from slavery were to be found in an education that prepared them to offer a service to society. Both promoted racial pride but in distinctly different ways and for different ends. Yet despite the ways in which Washington is often criticized for limiting the vision of black achievement, universal strains in his text resonated with most Americans. His promotion of and demonstration in his own life of the virtues of honesty, industry, frugality, self-reliance and self-discipline, make Up From Slavery a classic American success story that has never been out of print since it was first published. In the text are many episodes where Washington displays an extraordinary talent for achievement and many passages where he distills his experience into memorable aphorisms. Here are a few:
- Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him.
- If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.
- There are two ways of exerting one’s strength: one is pushing down, the other is pulling up.
- Most leaders spend time trying to get others to think highly of them, when instead they should try to get their people to think more highly of themselves. It’s wonderful when the people believe in their leader. It’s more wonderful when the leader believes in their people! You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him.
- One man cannot hold another man down in the ditch without remaining down in the ditch with him.
- To hold a man down, you have to stay down with him.
- I will permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.
- I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.
- Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.
- Cast down your bucket where you are.
- Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.
- We must reinforce argument with results.
- Associate yourself with people of good quality, for it is better to be alone than in bad company.
- My whole life has largely been one of surprises. I believe that any man’s life will be filled with constant, unexpected encouragements of this kind if he makes up his mind to do his level best each day of his life—that is, tries to make each day reach as nearly as possible the high-water mark of pure, unselfish, useful living. I pity the man, black or white, who has never experienced the joy and satisfaction that come to one by reason of an effort to assist in making some one else more useful and more happy
- The longer I live and the more experience I have of the world, the more I am convinced that, after all, the one thing that is most worth living for—and dying for, if need be—is the opportunity of making someone else happier and more useful.
- Success always leaves footprints.
- I have begun everything with the idea that I could succeed, and I never had much patience with the multitudes of people who are always ready to explain why one cannot succeed.
In some classes, I’ve asked graduate students in management ethics courses to read Up From Slavery for their final exam and then to demonstrate their understanding of theoretical concepts of ethical decision making by using them to analyze, assess, and apply Up From Slavery as an effective source for ideas about ethical leadership.
Students begin by describing the event in Washington’s life that each found most compelling and explain why they chose the event and what they learned from the episode as it applies to moral conduct. Using the ethical and leadership theories from our readings and observations from class activities and discussions, they then craft an essay that suggests how the lessons from Washington’s life and writings could make a difference in their organizational settings as well as commenting on what lessons can be applied more generally to leadership roles in society. Then they are asked to apply their theoretical position to an actual or hypothetical case study—a moral dilemma from their work life.
The responses to the assignment have been overwhelmingly positive as students appreciate the opportunity to become deeply knowledgeable about Washington. Although initially skeptical of reading a work of literature, they come to recognize the value of wisdom from the past as it applies to contemporary challenges facing the for-profit, public, non-profit, and philanthropic sectors. Washington was skilled in collaborating with each sector to promote his vision of a just society. Indeed, what was most surprising to me as the instructor was how quickly the students translated Washington’s advice in to action.
Many students cited Washington’s emphasis on etiquette, hygiene, and courtesy as models for how to deal with the public they serve and made actual changes in their attitude and appearance. Two students stood out for how they cited Washington as the inspiration for changes they made in how they performed their public administration roles in practical and philosophical ways.
One student, whose final paper coincided with a rare freeze in northern California, wrote, “When I read through portions of his speeches, it was so evident to me how clear Washington was with his own personal mission, and that he was there to advocate for the disadvantaged.” While working on her assignment, she thought of a dilemma she faced with the homeless population she served in Sonoma County. “I thought of all of the red tape that people have to go through in order to try and do something. During this sleepless night I thought of several things, but one of the things that came to me was the reading I had done about Washington. I was so inspired by Washington’s example of the ethical theory of virtue that I decided I had to do something. I couldn’t sit around and wait for red tape to clear while people were suffering.” Within twenty-four hours she had organized a variety of stakeholders to create “warming shelters” for the duration of the cold, a successful effort that established a model for communities county-wide.
Another student’s relationship with Washington’s text was more personal. He titled his final essay “A Love Letter to Booker T. Washington,” and described all the ways Washington served as a model for black men like him who were planning a career in public service. He was inspired to develop an organization for at-risk young black men in Oakland. The student concludes his essay, reflecting on a piece of Tuskegee brick I had given him. I acquired it while on a Civil Rights trip of the South, led by the revered public servant Julian Bond. While touring Tuskegee University, I noticed a building being demolished and asked the construction workers for a brick, remembering a chapter in Up From Slaverywhen Washington describes in exhausting detail the trial-and error process students experienced learning to make bricks to build their own school.
I gave this student a piece of that brick, a little bit of inspiration for what he intended to build. He concluded his paper with a personal manifesto motivated by Washington’s enduring influence: “This work has inspired me to work on myself. Because, how can I get others to connect with their heart if I struggle to connect with my own? This is a campaign of love and understanding. Though they may walk in with heavy hearts, my team’s ambition is to make sure that all parties leave knowing that they are supported and encouraged to play a part in building a healthier and safer Oakland. It is going to take a wealth of resolve to push during those hard times. It is those times that I remember Washington. In my lowest moments, I hold a piece of brick from Tuskegee. I found purpose and strength from it.”
As our faculty collective bargaining community initiated negations with the administration to find ways to address the financial challenges brought on by the pandemic, we began our discernment by reading the following blessing. I hope you may share and widely use this blessings in other settings where we take time to honor the dignity of labor and those who labor.
A Workers’ Blessing
We gather today seeking opportunities of beautitude. Together let us bless:
- All who have been left behind by the economy, who are unemployed or underemployed, or who are unjustly employed, working hard and yet living in poverty;
- All who work in the shadow of a broken and unjust immigration system;
- All who fear losing their jobs, their homes, and their communities;
- All who struggle to feed their families, pay their bills and weep over the loss of their children’s opportunities;
- All who feel disillusioned by their vocations and frustrated in their callings;
- All staff who are furloughed, fearful of losing their jobs, or struggling to meet the expectations of their jobs under unfamiliar and challenging conditions;
- All Contingent, Probationary, Term Faculty and Librarians, persons core to our academic and intellectual community, and to the quality of education we provide our students;
- All Senior Faculty who recognize their privilege and seek equity for their colleagues who do not benefit from the same privilege;
- All collective bargaining representatives and leadership for their work and commitment to the common good;
- All who dignify labor, either for pay or as volunteers, in jobs or at school, in the workplace or at home, in government or on the streets, in churches or bars, in the U.S. and around the world.
May we as a collective work to build a new world in the midst of the old:
- A world where all workers and their labor are valued.
- A world where those who clean houses are also able to buy houses to live in.
- A world where those who grow food can also afford to eat their fill.
- A world where those who serve are also served;
- A world where those who care for others are also cared for;
- A world where workers everywhere share in the abundance of creation, supported by an economy that honors the dignity of all who labor.
Together may we find the courage and strength to live out our love in deeds more than words, in the workplace and the marketplace, sheltered at home and among each other. May we continue to seek opportunities for beatitude in these troubling times and always.
Shalom. Salaam. Amen. Namaste. Ashe. Let it be.
After greeting the former student, I described how Ron regularly came into my office to graze my books, ask about topics on which he was uninformed, and often would walk away with a book to read which, at a later date he would return, expecting a full conversation on the book’s contents. Ron’s choices often surprised me, I explained to the student since he was a hardcore empiricist and social scientist, and I was a lyrically inclined professor of humanities. Intrigued by my comments, the former student asked permission to take photos of my bookshelves and after he had done so, went into Ron’s office and methodically took photos of all the books his revered former professor had on his shelves.
I can think of no greater tribute to a mentor than to explore his mind through what he had read or might read. This former student’s reverence for Ron’s library and Ron’s reverence for mine illustrates an important feature of how we approach management education—in for-profit, non-profit, and public sectors—at the University of San Francisco. We recognize that reading widely, especially outside of one’s field and in literary modes that stimulate creativity, benefits the practice of management and life, even to the highest levels of practice, as demonstrated by Barack Obama’s conversation about literature with Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times.
The value of coming to the practice or study of management with a liberal arts education has been enthusiastically endorsed as preparation for leadership by recognized sources in the field, academic and popular. From the Harvard Business Review to Forbes, the Wall Street Journal to The Atlantic, educators are appreciating that exposure to the humanities provides students the skills necessary to succeed in managerial settings:
- How to hone powers of observation and to reflect—to study and analyze events, objects, and people;
- How to explore and manipulate big concepts and complex contexts but not get lost in the abstract;
- How to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways;
- How to communicate with diverse constituencies with persuasive and cogent arguments.
Skilled cultural interpreters who are well-read across the humanities can also recognize traits necessary for a successful managerial point of view, including an ability to tolerate ambiguity, recognize multiple perspectives, and proceed with an open-ended vision; an interpretive posture that is crucial for facing a murky future or tricky problems in a managerial setting.
For example, when teaching a case study in ethics courses for both MBA and MPA students, I ask students to follow the same steps a reader would follow analyzing a narrative or lyric:
- Where and when did the event occur? How is the stage set and the action determined? (business environment, and other details/setting)
- What happened? (outline of the action/plot)
- Who was involved? How do their points of view differ? (roles/positions and attributes of those involved/character)
- Why were the key decisions made and what were those decisions? (problem-solving methods/plot development)
- Which ethical considerations were taken into account? What recurrent themes or values surface in dialogue or behavior? (interests of people affected by the decision, relevant professional standards, theories, principles/themes)
- What course of action was decided on, and why? (including any ethical justification that was given/resolution of conflict)
I would then ask students to provide a summary of their experience and to reflect on what they and/or others (including multiple stakeholders) learned from these events. Was the decision taken virtuous? Would different actions lead to different outcomes? Might the characters have acted differently if they had known what the outcome would be? Did the events lead to any changes in duties, policies, or procedures?
In a September 2016 issue of Academy of Management Learning and Education, Christopher Michaelson supports the approach I take when he argues that those teaching ethics in business schools should consider using novels as required, indeed core reading for their students. He bases his recommendation on the premise that narrative pedagogy cultivates better businesspeople who have not only better skills but better characters and are employees who operate with more “enduring ethical effectiveness.” Michaelson characterizes the narrative approach to teaching ethics as shifting the primary question asked from “What should I do?” to “How should one live?” The question changes not just in direction but scope, from the immediate and individualistic request for a specific answer to a more general human consideration of moral conduct.
Thus, changing along with curricula supported by emerging research is the growing recognition that reading great works in the humanities can promote one’s ability to imagine and understand things from someone else’s perspective and, in turn, to grow in one’s career and personal life. Several Wall Street Journal items highlight the benefits of reading literature for managers. In “Why Good Storytellers are Happier in Life and Love,” a contributor writes that, “research shows that the way people construct their individual stories has a large impact on their physical and mental health. People who frame their personal narratives in a positive way have more life satisfaction.” Another item focuses on how one acquires those storytelling techniques, building basic social skills that reading fiction develops as outlined in a study published online in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Beyond the benefit in terms of enhanced “social skills,” however, reading creative writing can lead to deeper, more empathetic engagement with others that do not simply avoid the awkward (in the way that obeying the external control of the law is the mere minimum for moral conduct), but actively seeks to understand people, to develop empathy. As explained by David Brendel, in a survey where business executives rated empathy and intellectual curiosity as among the five most important skills for success in a digitized and global economy, in which many of our business partners are never in our physical presence. “In order to serve the needs of clients and colleagues around the world,” Brendel writes, “we must be adept at understanding their feelings, thoughts, and points of view” that is promoted by “reading the humanities.”
Taking a cue from the poet Mary Oliver who observed, “Attention without feeling is only a report,” let me walk you through some of the virtues of reading Gabriel Marquez’s story, “The Most Handsome Drowned Man in the World,” as part of a management curriculum. This simple but potent tale illustrates how a community uses imagination to resolve a potentially fearful mystery and the multiple ways those imaginative responses manifest in their lives. What is undeniable in the plot trajectory is how the characters’ capacity for moral conduct grows as they exercise the ability to tolerate mystery, to choose the good, and to create beauty while explaining an actual event and imagining a better life.
“The Most Handsome Drowned Man in the World,” tells the tale of a small, coastal fishing village interrupted by the arrival of a dead body washed up by the waves. This drowned man has a huge impact on the village, which is changed forever by his arrival. Characters move from a resigned complacency to an irritated curiosity and eventually to a creative vision inspired by an over-sized, exotic, washed-up corpse. As we watch the transformation in the townspeople, we are led to consider our own communities and how we lead our life, who inspires us, and how we handle the challenges of forces society and nature.
“The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” opens with a group of children playing on the beach of a small fishing village. In the waves, a “dark and slinky” bulge is approaching and creating a tone of doom. It turns out to be a drowned man, covered in seaweed, stones, and dead marine creatures. The men head to neighboring villages to see if the dead man belongs to one of them, while the women clean off the body and prepare it for a funeral. “They didn’t have to clean his face to know that he was from elsewhere,” they live so remotely. The coastal, cliff-side town was a “desert-like cape” “with no flowers,” and so little land that the inhabitants have to throw their dead over the cliffs and into the sea rather than bury them in the ground, thus the curiosity arises more out of the identity of the body than its presence. While the women work on the drowned man’s body, as they imagine the “far-off seas and deep waters,” from which he came, they quickly assert, breathlessly, that he is the biggest, strongest-looking, most virile, and handsomest man they have ever seen in their lives, so remarkable “he didn’t even fit in their imaginations.” But his arrival triggers their imaginative capacity and they conclude that he died a “death with dignity,” is named Esteban, and when the men return with the news that no neighboring towns can claim him, the women weep with joy that he is now “theirs.”
The men don’t understand what all the fuss is about until the women show them the drowned man’s face. Then they, too, are in awe at his handsomeness, his masculinity, and his size. While they admire the drowned man, they think that he must have been ashamed of his size in life and must have felt awkward on account of it. “Fascinated by his disproportion and beauty,” the men respect him; but more than that, they become empathetic to his challenges and join the women and care for Esteban, attention that triggers care for each other as “the first cracks of tears opened in their hearts.” As Esteban comes alive to the villagers, so do they come alive to each other.
Together, the villagers prepare a splendid funeral for the drowned man. When they finally let his body go over the cliff and back to the waves below, they all know that their lives have been permanently changed and that they “were not complete, nor would they ever be again,” with Esteban gone. As they “shuddered to the marrow with the sincerity of Esteban,” his spirit remains an inspiration to expand their vision and improve their lives. The villagers know that they will build their houses stronger and bigger, to be big enough for a man like Esteban. They will paint their walls brighter and plant flowers, so that someday, when the ships pass by their town, they will look at the bright, beautiful, fragrant town and say, “yes, there, is the village of Esteban.”
When the villagers set their vision on a higher purpose and start creating a conscious culture of values supported by a mission; when they change their orientation away from their smallness and dreariness and embrace possibility, recognizing multiple stakeholders and responding to the unavoidable contingencies of the external world, they enact a preparation for embodied citizenship that changes the community. These are also traits that describe a successfully managed organization, or maybe what we might call not Esteban’s village but “Ron Harris’s” village.
In a column by David Brooks in the New York Times, he observed a trend in higher education that is heartening to a professor like me who has publicly advocated in Huffington Post and elsewhere for applying the humanities in professional education. Hoping to encourage a trend that resists a narrowed down focus on producing professionals rather than people, Brooks argues in “The Big University,” that a college education should “leave a mark on the full human being” by promoting conversations that educate the soul.
Yet academics trained in the humanities are often tentative about bringing their ideas to programs that train professionals; likewise, professional degree programs, like the MBA and MPA programs I teach in, can be equally reluctant to expand their offerings to include knowledge and skills acquired by a study in the humanities. My role as a professor trained in religious and literary studies, occupying a position in a school of management, was not a curricular choice but an administrative maneuver. Taking advantage of the circumstances, however, has become my chance to demonstrate what Brooks and others across the educational, policy, and professional spectrum are recognizing more and more: that turning to the fundamentals of education in the humanities is not merely an anachronistic act of desperation but a means of squarely addressing modern anxieties in a rapidly changing material and professional landscape.
While opinion writers across the media have begun supporting and expanding humanities offerings as preparation for work and life, most have neglected to consider those who seldom get past the academic threshold in the first place but whose journeys have taken them to the workplace. Books@Work (booksattwork.org) corrects that oversight. They recognize that only 60% of workers in the U.S. have access to higher education. Many front lines, blue-collar, and even middle management workers lack structured opportunities to engage in intellectual adventures by way of formal education and to benefit from the kinds of skill, knowledge, confidence, and empathy-building experiences that can be elicited from reading and discussing literature.
After talking to the founder and executive director, Ann Smith, about the goals and methods of Books@Work, I was reminded of the work of the Free Southern Theatre, established in 1963 to support the Civil Rights Movement. Although the Free Southern Theatre no longer exists, it established a model for how an organization can recognize the transformative potential of the arts and use literature to stimulate creative and reflective thought around community-based involvement. The program helped create more informed and engaged citizens and broke down social divisions just as Books@Work disrupts the hierarchical structure at many workplaces and promotes the development of skills that directly benefit both the employee and the employer.
While Books@Work may not be attached to a particular social movement, its modest goals to encourage employees to reflect on how they do their jobs and live daily has the potential for a wide-reaching effect. In addition to breaking down workplace divisions, the program also creates town-gown connections as faculty, especially adjuncts struggling to stay employed in their fields, find new inspiration to make connections between their scholarship and their communities. Teaching outside of a university setting challenges academics to demonstrate the relevance of their fields and to amplify the connections between literature and life. Rather than suggesting a displacement of higher education, programs like Books@Work creates not just better employees but prospective students.
Begun in 2010 by Smith, an art historian lawyer with a doctorate in organizational management, Books@Workis now active in 10 states and hopes to go national. Participating companies and community groups reflect a broad spectrum of society. Companies pay the modest costs of the program, including materials and a stipend for the educator who leads three months of seminars. Employees read a book a month and participate with the instructor in selecting the texts to read and discuss in settings deliberately designed for the convenience of the employee. Selections include a wide variety of readings, from classics by Hemingway to short fiction by Dave Eggers, from non-fiction studies like Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns to YA novels.
Whatever the text, the outcomes are remarkably consistent across all settings where Books@Work has operated. Employees who participate, register greater interest in continuing education with corresponding confidence that they can be successful as students. Soft skills like collaboration, communication, decision-making, and critical thinking all improve and improve employee performance, no matter their task. The workplace becomes more trusting as hierarchies relax and more ethical as literature discussions help people to identify and respond thoughtfully to moral challenges both in and outside of the workplace. As Ann observed, they recognize in literary characters “that could be me” and are open to a reality that they “never knew,” encouraging them to extend their empathetic range and sensitivity to diversity and difference. These outcomes are supported by evidence gathered from three extensive surveys conducted at the beginning, middle, and end of the program.
Books@Work can be read two ways: as a description of what the program carries to the workplace—books—and as an articulation of what happens wherever one reads: books work!
As I continue in these blogs to reflect on the role the humanities can play in settings not traditionally seen as sites for creativity and reflection, I recalled an experience from a trip I took to El Salvador in 2012. Joining a delegation from the University of San Francisco, our trip was in part homage to the Jesuit martyrs from the University of Central America who were murdered by the Salvadoran military in 1989. Part of our mission was to immerse ourselves in the setting and to explore the ongoing healing and reconciliation after the civil wars. We toured the country and learned from its citizens about the conditions that led to the murders and the subsequent problems with violence and corruption that continue to plague the country and make it among the most dangerous places in the world. (http://www.vox.com/2015/11/2/9646848/el-salvador-violence)
Yet despite all the fear and violence in the country, there are movements for change. Among the voices struggling to be heard are those of youth incarcerated in the El Espino Reinsertion Center in Ahuachapan, El Salvador. We were introduced to these voices by a young American volunteer, Jenna Knapp, who understands the transformative power of language and who has used her creative and discursive writing skills to help Salvadoran youth imagine another kind of life. Their writing has also left us a testimony of a witness and, with Jenna’s persistent efforts, will soon result in a body of literature published in a volume that she can use to reach out to colleges, high schools, and other venues to use in curriculums aimed at introducing students to issues of social injustice.
As Jenna explained to us, the youth survive in deplorable conditions, having arrived at the detention center because of their ties to gang life, a relationship almost impossible to avoid or ignore in a country with few choices and many pressures on young people. Due to extreme poverty, structural violence, and broken family units, most of the young writers had been excluded from society long before they became gang members. Yet these energetic youths have “complex and painful stories” to tell and long to “be somebody in this life,” Jenna observed. “They hunger for society’s acceptance.”
Jenna’s way of helping these young people move from despair to hope and from rejection to acceptance was to facilitate a creative writing process that encouraged them to share their stories. She collected, transcribed, and returned to them in an ongoing process of editing and collaboration. Eventually, each author narrowed down to a theme and meticulously attended to their creative process, illustrating “their worlds and past experiences with shocking sincerity.” The program provides a safe space and an empathetic listener in an environment free of judgment and demonstrates how providing an intentional space and creative writing exercise, young people can begin the process of healing and transformation.
The transformation, however, is not felt by the authors alone. Readers, too, are encouraged by the writings to show the same creative courage the youth showed in writing that necessitated their taking off the masks they adopted for protection and survival. As readers encounter the writings—primarily narratives distilled into poetry—they are moved to take off their masks of judgment, bitterness, and fear and to read the stories with the openness and compassion that all humans, especially these incarcerated youth, deserve.
Currently, Jenna is compiling a volume of works by both male and female youth and hopes to publish them in Spanish and English. Beneath a Gangster’s Mask or Trás la máscara de un pandillero, she hopes, will prove the truth of the Salvadoran proverb: “por algo pasan las cosas,” everything happens for a reason. The authors, as one writes, invite us into their lives, and through language, we can make the same journey Frederick Douglass invited his readers to take when reading his narrative of enslavement: “to understand it one must need to experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances.”
It is such an exercise in imaginative empathy that Jenna’s work invites us all to experience, as one writer expressed “such a cruel life…living like an animal in the dark/disconnect from the world…”; but also, as another writer offered, “dreaming of one day getting away from this bitter pain,” and seizing on “a light of hope/to continue onward/the fight/ to one day be free,” to “see the glimmer of the stars/ to feel that gentle breeze/to feel the warmth of the people/I most love in this life.”
Over the last several years, parents, educators and policy makers have placed a heavy influence on STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), citing that the United States is falling behind in global competitiveness. While placing emphasis on STEM education will help meet the lack of advanced degrees to fill technology-related jobs, it has overshadowed the importance of degrees within the humanities. In a world where there is more emphasis placed on technology-related education, how do educators illustrate the value of the humanities?
As a resident of San Francisco, I experience the necessity of the humanities firsthand on a weekly basis. For instance, on Mondays, I lead field trips for public school students to 826 Valencia, a learning center in the Mission District of San Francisco, where volunteers support under-resourced students with their creative and expository writing skills. While the Mission was once known for its vibrant community, it’s visibly and rapidly gentrifying, losing the heart of its neighborhood. Our students appear increasingly out of place amid high-priced boutiques and bars catering to Silicon Valley’s wealthiest.
Providing a strong contrast to 826 Valencia in the Mission District, my Thursdays end late at 101 Howard, where I teach ethics to working MBA and Master of Public Administration students in the historic Folger building in San Francisco’s financial district, home to management courses offered by the University of San Francisco. The building is wedged in the financial district that symbolizes wealth and the gears of economics, and while it’s also shaped by Silicon Valley affluence, this neighborhood is where many of the city’s homeless congregate, seen as a nuisance to the nominally tolerant citizens who move past them.
But within these vastly different parts of San Francisco, where tech entrepreneurs and struggling students commingle with little interaction, exists the very need for the humanities: the ability to share and understand stories and build community. As San Francisco takes on a larger dichotomy between wealth and social status, a humanities education is more essential than ever. Students need to learn to share stories to create empathy in order to shape future business and society leaders who will sustain our community values.
To promote the development of empathy, I teach literature to MBA and MPA students. Demonstrating empathy is an essential part of their job if they are to succeed, as managers and public administrators have to understand people from all different backgrounds in order to create a diverse office space and address pluralistic needs. The literary texts prompt my students to think about moral conduct and find creative ways to solve problems. Engaging with these texts promotes careful observation, thoughtful reflection and generous sharing.
The texts I use range widely in form and content and change periodically to reflect current concerns relevant to their professions. Sometimes we will read an intimate poem like Yeats’ “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,” to explore the emotional dimensions of unrewarded effort and how a thoughtful leader will respond – “be secret and exult.” Or we will parse Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to observe how a carefully crafted argument grounded in history, philosophy and experience can influence meaningful personal and political change. We’ve read Arthur Miller’s “Death of A Salesman” and considered what it means to have “the wrong dreams”.
Students, whether in grammar or grad school, are successful when their education has prepared them to see and respond to what they witness in their communities. When their empathy transfers from the characters in a story to their neighbors on the streets, they develop skills to observe, reflect and share. If education continually reinforces these skills, moments of empathy can become habits of being.
Humanities educators agree that proficiency in these liberal arts-based standards is essential for success. Reading deeply into great narratives, students develop the ability to transcend local loyalties and to imagine the situations of others. Through narrative analysis and reflection:
We recognize that we arrive at our lives in the middle of the story and spend the rest of our lives understanding the narratives that came before us, imagining the stories that lie ahead.
Our human task is to build on others’ stories until we are ready to tell our own complex narrative derived from experience, supported by intelligent evidence and articulated with clarity that has, at its core, what is common to us all.
At 826 Valencia and 101 Howard, students are learning to observe with passion and scrutiny the settings in which their stories are imagined and all the many ways they can twist their plots toward empathy. This is an essential skill as office places and government institutions are embracing change and diversity because, in order to run a successful meeting or even talk with an employee or client, students need to know how to empathize and relate. While STEM subjects are an important part of education, it shouldn’t come at the expense of the humanities and the growth of our communities.
In an entry I previously wrote for HuffPost blog, I described how scientifically based mindfulness training can help improve employee performance by building the capacity to sustain compassion and promote happiness. The New York Times’ article, “The Happiness Code,” (http://nyti.ms/1SPQDz3) also explored the topic as a management principle and how a company offers to generate happiness for its employees by using evidence-based research to produce the outcome. The Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR) in Silicon Valley relies on its founders’ expertise in behavioral economics to promote employee satisfaction. The premise of the workshop is simple: to rid ourselves of bad mental habits like procrastination, avoiding problems, making poor choices, and wasting time to rationalize our unproductive behaviors. These ”cognitive errors”, CFAR argues, persist in our patterned conduct and keep us in a loop of feeling either harried or frustrated. Some of these problems are byproducts of our brain’s chemical reward systems—it’s more pleasurable to cash a check than pay a bill—but some of it is lazy and solipsistic thinking, like avoiding bad news as if that would keep it from being true. These kinds of logical errors, however, can be corrected by applying various tools derived from evidence-based research that can enable users to be more intellectually dynamic, nimble and, of course, happier.
Evidence-Based Management (EBMgt or EBM) is an emerging movement to explicitly use the current, best available evidence in management and decision-making to improve outcomes for the employer, employee, and customer. My colleague in the School of Management at the University of San Francisco, Neil Walshe, is a researcher committed to evidence-based practice, specifically in the realm of management. Neil, an academic council member at the Center for Evidence-Based Management (https://www.cebma.org) notes, “there is nothing new about evidence-based practice. Medicine, policing, education have all been advocates and practitioners of using the best available evidence in the course of their decision-making for several decades. However, it is only recently that management has started to recognize the need to change how management is studied and indeed, how it is practiced.”
Evidence-Based Management promotes a relatively simple idea; that management decisions should be based upon a combination of critical thinking and the best available evidence.
“Evidence” can come from scientific research, professional experience, and internally sourced organizational data. With this in mind, it can be said that all managers use some form of evidence in their decision-making but there is a clear bias towards the value of experience and the opinions of external experts over all else – even when it contradicts organizational data and scientific findings.
Evidence-Based Management, therefore, tries to place a value on the quality of evidence and encourages managers to look not only at what the research says about a given topic but also what their own organizational data suggests. “It is common for managers to assume a problem exists (e.g. absenteeism, low morale, limited employee-engagement, etc.) when they have absolutely no internal evidence to support this. When challenged on this, the rationalization often centers on their own experience of a given phenomenon and little else.”
For many managers, evidence is perceived as a threat to the credibility of their own decision making, a sentiment perpetuated by the industry of management gurus and experts all of whom extol the importance of using a mix of “gut feeling” and “best practices” in the course of managerial decision making. Data, especially that derived from within the organization, rarely gets a voice. “It can be hard for managers to understand that their own employees are a potential source of quality evidence”.
One company practicing and promoting as its product its version of EBM is TINYpulse, a company founded by entrepreneur David Niu in 2012 after returning from a long, global trip where he took the opportunity to interview entrepreneurs from various industries and companies. Focusing on one thing they all had in common — the challenges of managing and retaining employees — he created TINYpulse to give leaders a method to take the “pulse” on how happy, burnt out, and frustrated their employees are. Using anonymous surveys to take these tiny pulses, Niu and his team created TINYpulse Engage. The goal is not just to achieve individual employee satisfaction but also to build strong cultures. The company’s mission is to “make employees happier” because the evidence supports that when employees are happy, retention, customer service, and engagement all improve. In early 2016, TINYpulse expanded into the performance management space with Perform, a mobile-first app that helps managers and employees work together to meet performance goals.
I spoke with Ketti Salemme, Senior Communications Manager of TINYpulse who also shared some of the founder’s principles and comments about my inquiry. As Ketti explained the company’s mission and processes, she kept returning to the concept of culture and how keeping track of employee satisfaction through small and frequent performance reviews contributed to the communal good of the company as well as the individual employee’s sense of self-worth and satisfaction. Although their methods vary depending on the company, essentially TINYpulse assists managers by developing weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly surveys that become part of a company’s ongoing activities. Some questions may be light or even open-ended, on topics as diverse as how clean everyone keeps the staff kitchen to opinions on leadership and product lines. What all the surveys include is the question, to be rated on a 1-10 scale: “How happy are you at work?.” All the tiny surveys share the guarantee of anonymity, a feature that is essential to the success of the process because of the trust it builds and the candor it fosters. Their clients come from the for-profit, non-profit and public sectors.
When I asked Ketti whether or not the company worried about “the illusion of technique,” as philosopher William Barrett so memorably described the encroaching effects of a technological mind, she agreed that metric-based approaches could be perceived as instruments of exercising control rather than releasing happiness. To my question “is there ever such a thing as too much information?” the founder Nui provided this helpful reply: “There definitely can be the case of too much information at one time. For example, when organizations first start TINYpulsing, they will often get a groundswell of feedback. If the organization is really large, the initial set of feedback can feel overwhelming. Thus it’s really important that the leaders and managers of the organization are ready to address the feedback.”
Given this experience, the TINYpulse team has developed a set of best practices that are useful for any companies collecting and manipulating data. These practices include:
- Acknowledge to the employees that management received the feedback and are reading through each one carefully (because everyone has participated in a survey without getting a response).
- Categorize the feedback into themes to share with the whole company.
- Schedule town hall or all-company meetings ahead of time to set expectations for respondents and administrators so they have a date to target to share the survey results.
- Address the themes even if there is an issue that cannot be dealt with immediately. If there is something that the company can take positive action on, then set up the action plan and owner.
- Remind respondents of the positive impact of their feedback so they will be encouraged to trust the process and continue to participate.
- Empower functional heads or department leaders to use the surveys effectively and for the greatest impact.
Ketti also acknowledged that the companies that benefit the most from the surveys are those who are seeking to be proactive in building or preserving a company culture and to develop sustainable problem-solving practices. Like with any therapy or treatment, trying to assess employee satisfaction amid a crisis isn’t as effective in addressing problems. The data that companies collect is only useful when it is applied and that process takes time. But for emerging businesses, evidence-based support and even their own way of doing business at TINYpulse can be an inspiration. As Ketti proclaimed, “our mission is to delight,” a word that also serves as an acronym for their company’s core values which read like a standard guide to management but as if communicated by a cheerleader: to Delight customers; Elect to spread positivity; Lead with solutions and embrace change; Increase communication with transparency; Go the extra mile with passion; Hold oneself accountable, and finally Treasure culture and freedom.
TINYpulse, therefore, tries to walk its own talk. In addition to building a harmonious culture, the company gives away 1% of its product to deserving non-profits, and provides an additional 1% of its profit to the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a global non-profit organization whose stated mission is to “engage leading entrepreneurs to learn and grow.” And its employees volunteer 1% of their time to community-based and service organizations. Finally, TINYpulse shares its evidence-based practices and information gathered from surveys through the TINYpulse Institute and its open-source white papers and special reports.
Where the data, the technique and the happy talk all come together are in a concept of culture the founder described for me in the following way:
“Culture is the vibe you get from a company within 10 seconds of walking through the door. It’s the energy level one senses and the beliefs and values that we all share. So hopefully if you divided us into separate rooms, you’ll still get a common sense of how we act, treat others, and go about our day.”
As the holiday season was approaching, I received a surprise gift in my email that supported my ongoing activity blogging about how the humanities can support education in management. Two enterprising recent graduates of Wheaton College, Julia Wittrock, and Grant Hensel, had sent me a copy of a book they had written together and distributed to faculty in schools of business and management whom they matched with their interest in leadership studies. What the Fortune 500 Read, was the collation and redaction of advice Julia and Grant solicited by writing to every Fortune 500 CEO: (http://fortune500booklist.com/). 150 CEOs responded and over several months the pair read and summarized the top 50 titles they deemed most useful. Their motive was to extend their learning beyond the completion of their formal education and to create a repository of wisdom that could be valuable to maturing managers.
As I read through the book Julia and Grant assembled with such care, my literary-critical instincts kicked in and my mind turned to a New Yorker essay from earlier in 2015, an adaptation of the speech Andrew Solomon gave at the Whiting Writer’s Awards. Solomon’s essay, The Middle of Things: Advice for Young Writers, offers sound suggestions, many derived from Rilke’s classic Letters to a Young Poet, that are as helpful to managers as they are to writers. (http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-middle-of-things-advice-for-young-writers).
With this in mind, I came to appreciate much of the value of Julia’s and Grant’s effort lay not in the evidentiary outcome—what knowledge each CEO-chosen book imparted—but in the process, they engaged in and the approach that motivated their project. In this sense, the skills they most articulately engaged were not those conventionally assigned to managers but to writers.
For example, for Solomon, the first caveat and most important position a writer can take is to be humble. “The worst mistake anyone can make is to perceive anyone else lesser. The deeper you look into other souls—and writing is primarily an exercise in doing just that—the clearer people’s inherent dignity becomes.” The approach that Julia and Grant took to their project was as Solomon describes. They positioned themselves in humility but risked asking others to not only look deep into their souls—a product of reading, not just a product of writing—to identify their core values. By beginning from a humble position of listening, they heard the wisdom of their elders, also a point important to Solomon in the development of writers. “Age and experience,” Solomon reminds us, matter in the advancement of business ideas and the development of our character but the young don’t always appreciate them.
“While all old people have been young, no young people have been old, and this troubling fact engenders the frustration of all parents and elders, which is that while you can describe your experience, you cannot confer it.”
Understanding that experience can only be described not conferred, Julia and Grant applied the faculty Solomon that advises for writers but that is available to everyone: imagination. “To exploit the imagination’s curiosities,” to understand one’s world is the task of the writer and the challenge these young authors took up. They imagined a way to acquire the wisdom they sought; they dived into the suggested readings and applied their best analytical skills to interpret the texts; and they produced a text of their own that advanced their belief that “we have a responsibility to guide and mentor the next generation,” underscoring a responsibility Solomon is adamant is shared by writers: “Writing has a moral purpose…you can make the world a better place.”
Grant and Julia accepted upon graduation their responsibility as they entered the business world and approached their professional development with humility, seeking to learn from others how they could develop their leadership and managerial skills in conscious and ethical ways. But they also applied standard tools of research, critical thinking, and effective communication in achieving their goal. While they seldom filter or question the knowledge received from the books they read, their “appreciative inquiry” approach recognizes their position in life as young but eager to aspire to maturity in thoughtful and principled ways. Moreover, they did so not motivated by their own aggrandizement but out of a practical curiosity and moral sense of how best to have an impact in actual, not theoretical, settings. Indeed, the young authors have taken the time to organize their book in a thematic arrangement that lends itself to easy reference and also chose to include action steps readers can take to apply what they learned. With 52 entries or chapters, this means a book a week, a task a week for a year, a measured and productive approach to career development.
Julia and Grant expressed these and more observations when we shared about an hour-long conversation. They concluded with a note of gratitude not only for the content and tools they acquired along the way but also for how the encouragement they experienced gave them confidence in current leaders who took the time to answer questions posed by those who will follow them. The process of redaction and synthesis engaged Julia and Grant more deeply in the material than they might have achieved without the goal of the book in mind, illustrating a good example for any reader or problem-solver. As they mature in their professional lives, Julia and Grant will develop as writers develop by Solomon’s standards. They will learn to “trust what is difficult”—like recognizing the absence of women and people of color from their list of CEOs asked for advice and the books they recommended—but understand encountering difficulty as part of the goal not just for writers and managers but for all humans. What these encounters teach is necessary for writers and managers and is better understood by those of us who have enjoyed more decades on the planet. Of the many differences “between having lived more and done more and being newly energized and fresh to the race,” is “patience.” Patience is the skill that supports the condition of humility, where we all begin as writers or as CEOs who recognize, as Rilke did, that “eternity lay before us,” as we read, write, and manage our way through the world.