Giving up Control Has Moved

January 12, 2012

The new blog site is

As I begin to post at my new blog site, I thought it would be interesting to look back at over 4 years of posts at WordPress.

There were over 200,000 visitors for my over 250 posts. I’m grateful for the over 1500 thoughtful comments that readers made at this blog. After a few months away from blogging, I’m looking forward to a renewed dialogue with my readers at the new site. I hope you can join the conversation.


Flags Over the 48

September 11, 2011

Every 9/11, on each the 48 peaks above 4,000 ft. in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, bands of hikers carry up an American flag to plant at each summit. Every hiker has his or her own reasons for carrying the flag or for making the commemorative hike. Today, I hiked to remember the ordinary men and women who lost their lives and to celebrate the transcendent American values that will never die.

Looking at the flag over Mt. Garfield on 9/11/2011

At the heart of American values is the idea that human beings are free and they should not be controlled by someone other than themselves.

Over and over, for thousands of years, the idea that human beings should be controlled has been proven false. When human beings are controlled, a special few determine the production and distribution of goods and these decisions are enforced by the judicial and police powers of government.

The more controls, the more poverty, and the more suffering a society endures. The more controls, the less innovative and the less successful an organization is. Many American do not understand that these are the consequences when freedom wanes.

Wishing for freedom is not the same as taking the responsibility for creating the conditions under which freedom flourishes and thrives. In his book Wow I’m an American, the great psychiatrist Peter Breggin writes, “In economics, as in everything else, human beings need to live by the values of liberty, responsibility, gratitude and love.”

Breggin offers his idea of the principles that make it possible for free markets to flourish and for people to live productive, meaningful lives. Those principles are “protect freedom, take responsibility at all times, express gratitude for every gift and opportunity and become a source of love.”

I would put it a little bit differently than Breggin. We are not a source of love; instead we allow love to be expressed through us, every time we get our ego out of the way.

Love is the basic energy of the universe, and we block the flow of energy every time we try to control others, every time we cower from our responsibilities, and every time we shrink from expressing our gifts. Freedom erodes each time we behave expediently to protect imagined comforts that we think will be threatened if we don’t go along with the status quo.

We insulate ourselves; thinking our circumstances special, we are relieved when the responsibility for renewing a free society falls heavily on the shoulders of someone else. When we think we can avoid responsibility, we are wrong. Without each of us taking responsibility to renew freedom, the American experiment will die.

If freedom does die here in America, it will be renewed in some other place at some time to come; for freedom is a transcendent ideal. But, why not renew our commitment to freedom today? Why not in America?

Home Depot, Amazon, Walmart and UPS or FEMA: Who Is the Real Cavalry?

August 31, 2011

On Tuesday morning, Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel was reporting on the devastation to Vermont from Hurricane Irene. He ended his report by saying the cavalry is finally on its way in the form of thirty large FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trucks with food, water, and generators.

Indeed, parts of New England have suffered from devastating floods, and some families have lost their homes. But who is the real cavalry? Are Vermonters really dependent on FEMA for food and water? (Notice, that not FEMA but the Vermont National Guard is flying helicopters into towns stranded by washed-out roads.)

Last Wednesday the news reports about Hurricane Irene became very alarming. The potential devastation from the storm over a wide area was terrifying. Living in a sparsely populated rural area as I do, I understood that if our power went out, along with millions of others, we would likely be at the end of the queue for power restoration. My family was simply not prepared for a power outage that had the potential to last for a week or two.

So, on Wednesday, the first thing I did was shop at Amazon. I’m an Amazon Prime customer and anything I ordered would arrive by Friday at no shipping charge. I ordered LED lanterns, a portable battery powered phone charger, cases of canned, natural foods, and five gallon water containers. (We are on well water; if the power goes out we have no water pump.)  This bounty was available at prices equal to or less than the prices in retail stores.

On Thursday, I shopped at Walmart, loading our van with ten cases of water and an ample supply of batteries. No one had to tell the Walmart team that batteries and water were going to be in demand. I could hear the walkie-talkies of Walmart associates crackle as they diligently worked to place supplies strategically all over the store.

On Friday, UPS arrived and unloaded all of my Amazon merchandise. My wife and I then turned our attention to securing our property. Fortunately, we suffered nothing more than a 24-hour power outage, tree damage, and erosion as fast flowing water washed over the road and found its channel in our yard.

It was not just Walmart, Amazon, and UPS that worked heroically to prepare Americans for Irene. Watch this short video about Home Depot’s command center as they stocked their stores in preparation. Indeed, all through New England, Walmart and Home Depot stores were fully stocked and ready sources of needed supplies. Admittedly, this is small comfort to those who suffered the biggest losses; but FEMA has already announced that it has no available funds for rebuilding flooded roads, damaged schools, etc.

To those who believe that government is the entity that will solve their problems, it is counterintuitive that, compared to FEMA,  Walmart, Home Depot, Amazon and UPS do a better job in preparing for a disaster as well as the aftermath of a disaster. Walmart, Home Depot, Amazon, and UPS are driven by profits, while it is said that FEMA employees are motivated by public service. Some might reason that those motivated by public service must be more caring and responsive than those motivated by profits.

Indeed, many FEMA employees may be motivated to serve their fellow Americans; but clearly, others among FEMA’s ranks are not. They are motivated by career advancement, power, and money. The image of the incompetent and shallow Michael Brown, director of FEMA, bumbling during Hurricane Katrina is a lasting one.

But can any director of FEMA be competent? Of course, a person in that position may be competent and caring. But, even then, would he or she be have the motivation, knowledge, or capacity to balance all of the competing human needs that arise in face of a disaster?

During the Nazi siege of Leningrad, the population of the city endured hell on earth. In 1941, as the Nazi’s closed their circle around the city, what did Communist Party chief of the city, Andrei Zhdanov, do? Did he work tirelessly around the clock to bring in needed food supplies before the circle closed? No. He worked tirelessly around the clock to arrest “spys.” A spy was defined as anyone who spoke a foreign language or had a foreign connection. Spies were often harmless senior citizens, but Zhdanov was doing the job that seemed important to him, rather than the job that was needed. And, he was very efficient at performing this terrible deed.

Admittedly, this is an extreme example; but it illustrates a point. What a bureaucracy thinks is needed and what is really needed can be two different things. In contrast, the goal of earning profits in a competitive market is what compels Walmart, Home Depot, Amazon, and UPS to deploy the energy of their employees towards what is really needed. Walmart, Home Depot, Amazon, and UPS earn money only when customers voluntarily purchase goods and services from them. Thus, their employees are benevolent towards people they have never met because it is in the self-interest of their organizations. And, it is also true that self-interest is joined by genuine feelings of goodwill as two parties interact in non-coercive trades.

In contrast, FEMA exists in a coercive relationship with American citizens. They earn their revenue in a political way; and FEMA’s success does not depend on pleasing American citizens. Indeed, like the public school system, the more their efforts fall short or outright fail, the more FEMA can argue it needs more tax revenue.

In short, no matter how efficiently FEMA uses tax money, no matter how caring FEMA employees are as a hand out water off the back of a truck to long lines of people, because FEMA is not subject to the discipline of the market, they will never match the operational efficiency and genuine caring of the employees of Home Depot, Amazon, Walmart and UPS.

To Mr. Cantore, I say, if New Englanders were truly dependent on FEMA, the cavalry would have been too little and too late.

Showing Up

August 24, 2011

My children are about to start their junior year in high school. Yesterday my daughter came to me; she was troubled by thoughts that she would not be academically successful this year. She is taking three advanced placement classes and the rest are honors courses. In addition, she feels the pressure of achieving high scores on her upcoming standardized tests such as the PSAT and SAT.

I asked her if she’d ever heard the saying “that 90% of life is showing up.” She said she had, but added, she didn’t understand what it meant.

Reflecting on the transition from freshman year to sophomore year, she had been surprised by the increase in workload and by the number of her friends whose class standing dropped precipitously. “What characteristic,” I asked, “did these free-falling students share?” She smiled. She understood that those who were high-honors freshmen but fell below the honor’s bar as sophomores had ability. They simply did not value doing the extra work required of them to maintain their high academic standing as sophomores.

My daughter began to relax; she saw her fate was in her hands. Almost certainly, I explained, she would have to do more work than in her sophomore year. But the good news was that if she did that work she would almost certainly succeed. I encouraged her to fully surrender to the process and enjoy the peace of mind that comes from that.

At the legendary Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, each student must sign a statement that reads in part: “Every endeavor pursued with passion produces a successful outcome regardless of the result. For it is not about winning or losing — rather, the asset put forth in producing the outcome.” Yet, practice “pursued with passion” often produces results; and graduates of Bollettieri’s academy include a virtual who’s who of tennis champions.

The irony is that often those who believe winning is everything are not prepared to expend the effort it takes to win. They believe that those who win do so because they are lucky or because they have prodigious talent. Fear of failure is the opposite side of the same coin as believing winning is everything. And often, those who fear failure do not show up and make an effort.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson is considered the world’s foremost expert on the causes of outstanding performances. Ericsson’s research shows that in all fields of endeavor, it takes at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in order to be a world-class performer. For example, he found that by the age of 20, the best violinist in the world had practiced at least 10,000 hours; while those aiming for careers as music teachers had practiced, on average, 4000 hours.

Ericsson’s findings were without exception: He found no world-class performers who had practiced less than 10,000 hours. And, everyone who had practiced 10,000 hours had reached elite status. Ericsson wrote, “We deny that these differences [in outcome and skill level]…are due to innate talent.”

Ericsson’s extensive research has been popularized in many fine books including Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and Bounce by Matthew Syed; yet, many are skeptical. It seems that the mindset that some of us are more special than others is a hard one to overcome. That mindset results in celebrity worship and in living one’s own life without activating the potential within.

Why would anyone make such a choice? Human beings want to believe in their own specialness—even if their own specialness is a story of lack and victimization. We don’t want to hear that we are fundamentally all the same; we don’t want to hear that the only thing standing between us and mastery is long hours of practice.

Once Again, Walmart Shows the Way

August 3, 2011

From June to October, the fruits and vegetables my family eats are supplied almost exclusively by a local organic farmer. His bounty is enormous; we enjoy everything from kale to blueberries, all picked the same day.

Given the climatic zone we live in, I’m under no illusions that local farming could sustain us all year round. For much of the year, our choices would be limited to stored cabbage, carrots, onions, turnips potatoes, and apples. If that sounds like the produce choices our ancestors faced a century ago, you’re right. I’m very grateful for our modern agricultural system that supplies reasonably high quality produce all year round.

At the same time, I occasionally worry about disruptions to the food supply chain as it has become far too centralized.  This centralization is due, in large part, to Federal government agricultural and water subsidies.

In recent years, consumers have become interested in locally grown food and most are not fortunate enough to live nearby an organic famer. Walmart is ready to help fill the void.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “the largest grocer in United States [Walmart] encourages its managers to buy produce grown within 450 miles of its distribution centers,” even if the locally grown produce costs more than California produce. True, Walmart is responding to shifting consumer preferences, but also, the big box giant has determined that locally grown produce reduces spoilage and saves on transportation costs.

Notice there was no government commission necessary to encourage Walmart to switch to locally grown produce. Congress is not subsidizing Walmart to switch to a locally grown produce. Walmart, motivated to serve the best interests of its consumers, has begun to switch quietly and efficiently.

Of course, in the eyes of many, Walmart can do nothing right; critics insist that Walmart is simply recognizing a marketing opportunity rather than doing anything different.  If you are a Walmart cynic or a Walmart basher, you might find Corby Kummer’s piece in The Atlantic to be an eye-opener: The Great Grocery Smackdown: Will Walmart, not Whole Foods, Save Small Farms and Make U.S. Healthy? Here is an excerpt:

Buy my food at Walmart? No thanks. Until recently, I had been to exactly one Walmart in my life, at the insistence of a friend I was visiting in Natchez, Mississippi, about 10 years ago. It was one of the sights, she said. Up and down the aisles we went, properly impressed by the endless rows and endless abundance. Not the produce section. I saw rows of prepackaged, plastic-trapped fruits and vegetables. I would never think of shopping there.

Not even if I could get environmentally correct food. Walmart’s move into organics was then getting under way, but it just seemed cynical — a way to grab market share while driving small stores and farmers out of business. Then, last year, the market for organic milk started to go down along with the economy, and dairy farmers in Vermont and other states, who had made big investments in organic certification, began losing contracts and selling their farms. A guaranteed large buyer of organic milk began to look more attractive. And friends started telling me I needed to look seriously at Walmart’s efforts to sell sustainably raised food.

Really? Wasn’t this greenwashing? I called Charles Fishman, the author of The Wal-Mart Effect, which entertainingly documents the market-changing (and company-destroying) effects of Walmart’s decisions. He reiterated that whatever Walmart decides to do has large repercussions — and told me that what it had decided to do since my Natchez foray was to compete with high-end supermarkets. “You won’t recognize the grocery section of a supercenter,” he said. He ordered me to get in my car and find one.

Indeed, if locally grown and organic food is to reach those struggling on a tight budget, it will be Walmart, not Whole Foods, that shows the way.

Consider, too, Walmart’s low prices on clothing. All over the country this fall, children of families who are financially strapped will go off to school with clean, new, inexpensive clothes purchased from Walmart. And if you think this is trivial, put yourself in the place of parents working hard to feed and clothe their children. The savings Walmart provides over department store clothes is enormous; and for some children, it’s the difference between being adequately clothed and being teased or bullied for being shabbily dressed. It is Walmart, not its critics, who is clothing these children at risk.

Next, consider Walmart’s employment practices. Contrary to popular belief, Walmart raises the wages of low skilled workers. Why?  When Walmart comes to town, it is an instant source of demand for workers who have minimal skills. Far more jobs are created then are lost for these workers; and since Walmart increases demand for these workers, wages go up too. Again, it is Walmart, not its critics, who employs those workers who have few other employment opportunities.

If that was all Walmart did, well, we would have much for which to be grateful. But perhaps the most important thing that Walmart does well is to be one of the biggest instruments of peace in the world. While governments build armaments and start wars, Walmart trades and buys goods from all over the world. In the process of buying goods from all over the world, Walmart creates employment opportunities and helps grow wealth in previously impoverished countries. Nations with fast growing economies have little incentive to wage war, especially with their trading partners.

This blog piece may be ludicrous to many who claim to fight for the social good and whose heroes are in Congress and in academia. To them, Walmart is a terrible scourge. Reality points us in another direction—but the reality of the marketplace means little to those who think our salvation lies in centrally-planned solutions to our very real economic problems.

The Inner-Work of Leadership is Now Available for Kindle

July 26, 2011

It has been a little over a year since my book The Inner-Work of Leadership was published. In that time the market’s shift to ebooks has been noteworthy.  And now with the closing of Borders Books, that trend is likely to accelerate.

Today, I’m happy to announce that The Inner-Work of Leadership is now available in both a Kindle edition and a Nook edition. For a limited time, the introductory price is only $4.95.

The book has attracted enthusiastic reviews from readers at Amazon. I would like to share just two of them.  John Wood, Founder and former CEO and Chairman, Fleetwood Corporation Ltd, Australia wrote:

The Inner Work of Leadership is an outstanding contribution! One of the most important books I have read. As each page turned the narrative took me gently, deeper and deeper into the world of conscious leadership. Its words inspire the open hearted and open minded to make their inner work their primary responsibility in life. Powerful possibilities tumbled out of my mind as I was drawn to reconsider the world of authentic collaboration, cooperation, creativity and productivity. The prize, a more loving, sustainable workplace and world, became clear as the critical nature of shared purpose unfolded. A world of abundance beckoned as you read in example after example the convergence of doing what works with what matters in a context of love, understanding, wisdom and common sense.

Jim Vinoski, operations business manager for a Fortune 500 company, wrote:

When a brilliant old friend of mine recommended this book to me, I knew it had to be good.

I just finished, and now I know: “good” is an understatement. This is one of the three top leadership books I’ve ever read, and it surpasses the other two because its lessons will help me be not only a much better leader, but a much better person as well (though I guess I have those two backwards in order of importance!) First there was the shock of realizing the true meaning of the notion of distributed knowledge (which I thought I’d long ago embraced and internalized, having read Hayek, Read and others on the subject): No, I can’t and don’t know everything, or anything close to everything, and nor do I have to! In fact, it’s best if I don’t even try! Then came the amazing lessons about letting go of the ego and truly focusing on the people around me. The Inner-Work of Leadership proved to be a grab-bag of phenomenal ideas.

Professor Brownstein has inspired me to apply his techniques not only with the people I “lead” from an org chart standpoint, but up the ladder as well, with the leaders above me. Along the way I can recommend they read an inspiring book…

As an aside, I found it intriguing how many of Brownstein’s sources and recommended readings were from authors I’d already discovered – not only in the leadership realm, such as Charles Koch (who wrote one of the other two of my favorite leadership books), but much farther afield, including Viktor Frankl, Christopher Alexander, and even Dr. John Sarno! But even with all that previous common discovery, his book tied it all together and gave me one of those rare and valuable moments of, “Of course – it should’ve been so obvious!” that so often mark the truly groundbreaking.

Thanks so much, Professor Brownstein. You’ve made my life better. How many authors can ever claim such a thing?

Purchase your own copy—paperback or for Kindle at Amazon. At Barnes and Noble the book is available as a paperback or for Nook.

Insanity, Einstein advised, is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The Inner-Work of Leadership offers another way. You will be guided to do your inner-work to discover hidden beliefs that stand in the way of your genuine personal and professional transformation—and the transformation of the organization you lead.

Professor Jim Glasgow found The Inner-Work of Leadership “rich in insights that will have you asking why haven’t I noticed that before?” “Read seriously,” he writes, “this book will help leaders better know themselves, reduce stress, improve relationships and live more satisfying lives, all while becoming more effective at directing and listening to their organizations.”

If you haven’t read the book already, take advantage of this opportunity to own your own copy.

If you know others who are ready to do the inner-work of leadership, this is a great time to recommend the Kindle edition at the introductory price of $4.95.

I appreciate your support in getting out the word.

Robert Herbold’s Shared Delusions

July 19, 2011

In a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal Robert Herbold, former chief operating officer at Microsoft, uses a recent trip to China to offer his opinion on what ails the United States. First, Herbold gushes about the success of China’s “five-year plans:”

In every meeting we attended, with four different customers of our company as well as representatives from four different arms of the Chinese government, our hosts began their presentation with a brief discussion of China’s new five-year-plan. This is the 12th five-year plan and it was announced in March 2011.

Of course, central planning is not compatible with the decentralized decision-making that goes with free markets. Yet, Herbold writes, “The autocratic Chinese leadership gets things done fast (currently the autocrats seem to be highly effective).”

And so, how to dig the U.S. out of its hole? Among other things, you guessed it, Herbold advises “start approving some winning plans.”

Herbold seems to be completely ignorant as to how “winning plans” really evolve. Are they really accomplished through central-planning and autocratic leadership?  Would I be rude to wonder if Herbold is a student of economics or history? Could he be unaware of what centralized “winning plans” have wrought in North Korea?

If Herbold is as deluded as he appears, many Chinese are not. Just a few days before Herbold’s essay appeared, Liu Junning wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Westerners who think that authoritarian rule is China’s natural state misunderstand its culture.” Junning adds that China’s prosperity is not due to a mixture of central planning and markets.  Instead, “the most significant transformations from the perspective of boosting prosperity,” according to Junning, “have involved loosening of control over the people, not some alchemy of power and Marxism.”

Why is the Wall Street Journal allocating space for Herbold to share his delusions? Presumably because, as Junning points out, many others share the belief that Chinese success is due to central planning. Further, Herbold has credibility because presumably he had a successful tenure at Microsoft. But did he really?

In his 2002 Harvard Business Review article “Inside Microsoft: Balancing Creativity and Discipline,” Herbold describes the cultural differences between Microsoft and his former employer Proctor and Gamble:

It was exhilarating to experience this degree of informality and delegation of responsibility to individuals throughout the organization, which clearly fostered both creativity and speedy decision making. But the experience was also disorienting. At Procter & Gamble, where there was a procedure for almost everything, board meetings were tightly scripted affairs.

Herbold then explains his job which he held from 1994-2001:

My job was to bring some discipline to Microsoft without undermining the very characteristics that had made it successful. I hoped to do this by creating central systems that would standardize certain business practices and give managers instant access to standardized data on each business and geographical unit.

Herbold goes on to claim that his central-planning reforms were responsible for rising profit margins at Microsoft during his tenure. Then he “charitably” adds, “I don’t take sole credit for this.”  Nowhere in the essay is there any hint that Microsoft’s success had anything to do with an unprecedented mania for technology stocks, strongly rising demand for personal computers, and most importantly, Microsoft’s game-changing smash hit, Windows 95, which Herbold had absolutely nothing to do with.

Yes, like most of us, Herbold has legendary status in his own mind. But Herbold has not matured to the point that he can recognize that his legendary status is delusional. In other words, Herbold is as deluded about Microsoft as he is about China and, importantly, he is deluded about the way to cure the American malaise.

No doubt in the coming years the snake oil that Herbold peddles will be increasingly welcomed by a segment of the American population—those who almost every day ask, “Why don’t they do something?”

Every day, many entrepreneurs are doing more than “something;” they are inventing the future Microsofts of the world. They don’t need Herbold to tell them the “winning plan.” They need those who are ignorant and delusional to stay out of their way. As Herbold’s delusions are increasingly shared by others in the United States, future Microsofts will find their homes in other parts of the world.

Driving Lessons

July 10, 2011

My twins turned 16 this spring, and this summer is time to begin their driving lessons. I had anticipated that their driver’s education class would do the heavy lifting, but little did I know. A student must complete 40 hours of parental supervised driving before graduating from driver’s education. In others words, at least where we live, if you are expecting driver’s education to teach the awkward first hours behind the wheel, guess again.

Thankfully my wife took charge of the first outing. This morning was my turn; and little did I know, my twins were to provide me life lessons as they each took their turn behind the wheel.

First, my son was about to drive off before fastening his seat belt. I reflected—how often do I begin an activity before fastening my own metaphorical seatbelt? How often do I transition to a new activity without setting my purpose and centering myself? It only takes a moment to buckle a “seatbelt.”

Continuing with my son, he next went through a stop sign without stopping. We were driving on Sunday, in an empty parking lot of a medical center, so no harm was possible. I don’t know where his mind was, but he was ignoring a warning from his environment. But what about me? I often joke with my wife that some days I feel like I’m working with a metaphorical check engine light on. I need to slow down, but I’m determined to plow through doing what I think needs to get done.

My son also needs to work on actually looking when he stops as opposed to just stopping and then going on his way. Ok, I’m guilty again. I often engage in a spiritual practice while not paying full attention to the practice. I may be listening to an mp3 file of a spiritual talk, for example, while pausing to check my email. Is not listening with my full attention the wiser course of action?

Both my son and daughter are at the stage of driving where they tend to over steer. It is not yet grooved into their muscles or into their minds that a car needs small turns of the wheel to stay on course. No need to constantly steer from right to left and back again.  Yes, I can drive a car without over steering, but I often over steer my life. If I react to each new bit of information with a sweeping gesture, I find myself driving off the smoothly paved road that is my life and onto the shoulder and into a ditch. My life does not depend on my steering.

And leave it to my daughter to provide the lesson of the day. Once she thought her foot was on the accelerator when it was on the brake. Once she thought she was steering right when she was turning the wheel left. Ok, rookie mistakes; but each time, her initial reaction was the same—she was doing the right thing and the car was reacting in the wrong way.

I explained to my children about sudden acceleration syndrome which occurs when a driver intends to press on the brake and instead puts their foot on the accelerator. When the car reacts as it should, the driver redoubles their efforts often with deadly consequences. Their mind does not accept the feedback that their foot is on the accelerator, and they simply press harder on the accelerator when the car does not stop.

There lies a life lesson—often when something is going “wrong,” I am doing or thinking something “wrong.” Far better for me to stop what I am doing and reflect, than to redouble my efforts in a futile attempt to prove that I am right.

Indeed, I freely admit to suffering from sudden acceleration syndrome of the mind. I have a thought, an undesirable consequence occurs as a result of my thought, and I use the undesirable consequence as evidence that I need to bear down and speed up my thinking.

After all, my ego reasons, I arrived at my thought after careful analysis. Are not my thought and the feeling that goes with the thought “correct”? Often in exact measure to the intensity of my thinking and feeling, the answer is “no.” The reality of the event and how the event is occurring to me is entirely different.

The cure for sudden acceleration syndrome of the mind is simple, and as in driving, easily deployed if we value doing so: We must consider the possibility that we are wrong, take our foot off our mind’s accelerator, and apply the brake. In our practice we must be willing see how addicted we are to defining ourselves, in part, by our misery and insisting it is someone else’s fault. In other words, the “brake” is becoming more aware of our thinking without identifying with our thinking.

I’m already looking forward to the next driving lesson with my children. In the meantime, I’ll practice taking my foot of my mind’s accelerator and applying the brake.

We Think We Are Free

June 30, 2011

Would you feel comfortable going to a doctor or a dentist whose training consisted of “120 hours [three weeks] of classroom and on-the-job training.” Would you hire an accountant or engineer whose training was similar? Would you consider anyone a professional if they had only three weeks of training?

Have you noticed that after every TSA outrage, government spokespeople and their media apologists maintain that the TSA agents involved were just doing their job in a professional manner? Consider this recent incident—after subjecting a frail 95 year old woman suffering from leukemia to an hour long search in which she had to remove her adult diaper a TSA spokesperson insisted TSA officers work “with passengers to resolve security alarms in a respectful and sensitive manner.” The spokeswomen concluded “We have reviewed the circumstances involving this screening and determined that our officers acted professionally.…”

Not only were they acting professionally but the TSA spokesperson maintained that their common-sense defying actions were necessary “because we know from intelligence that there are terrorists out there that would then exploit that vulnerability.” Presumably, on the grounds of “national security,” the “intelligence” that al-Qaeda is recruiting 95 year old American women to hide explosives in the diapers was not produced.

In no sense of the word are TSA officers professionals. The use of the word professional when describing them is deliberate propaganda designed to get the public to submit to coercion.  A professional is a term reserved forhighly educated, mostly salaried workers, who enjoy considerable work autonomy, a comfortable salary, and are commonly engaged in creative and intellectually challenging work.”

OK, it is clear that the minimally trained TSA officers have little or no autonomy to use common sense in doing their job. However, it is equally true that those calling TSA security personnel perverts and criminals are also missing the point. As you walk through TSA security, the ordinariness of TSA personnel is palpable. By and by, they are simply our fellow human beings trying to make their way in the world and earning a living in the best way they know how. They are a modern example of what social philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil.”

In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Arendt reports on the lack of anti-Semitism or psychological damage in Eichmann. Then you may ask, “How could he have committed such heinous crimes?” Arendt reports that Eichmann had limited intelligence, was unable to complete high school, was unable to think for himself, and had a strong desire to get ahead. Having been a witness to the rank-and-file of German civil service endorsing the “final solution,” he believed his moral responsibility was absolved.

In his book They Thought They Were Free, Milton Mayer tells the story of how decent Germans became Nazis. Consider policemen Willy Hofmeister. Mayer relates the story of how in 1938, Hofmeister was assigned the job of rounding up Jewish males in Kronenberg “for their own protection.” Hofmeister was no Nazi thug; he was polite and respectful as he did his dastardly deeds.

During one of his stops, Hofmeister explained to a Jewish man that he was taking into custody why the town synagogue was blown up that day: “They blew it up as a safety measure.”

No, American totalitarianism is unlikely to look like German fascism. Yet, if you read Arendt and Mayer, the parallels will chill you. No, most TSA personnel are not Eichmann’s in training; but then again, nor were most Germans. Most Germans who enabled the Nazi machine and most TSA personnel are more like Willy Hofmeister—just doing their jobs.

Many Americans support and defend unconstitutional and useless searches on the grounds that they are “respectfully” done and necessary for our safety. The media acts as propaganda outlets to promote these unconstitutional acts; judges rubber stamp unconstitutional laws. Many Germans thought they were free and that their behavior was normal. The spirit of Willy Hofmeister is alive and well in America. We think we are free. Are we?

This is Not the Southwest Airlines Way

June 24, 2011

On a recent Southwest Airlines flight I found the “40th Anniversary Special” of Southwest’s magazine Spirit. In the magazine, Southwest founder Herb Kelleher interviewed current Southwest CEO Gary Kelly. Kelly gives an example of an employee acting from Southwest’s core values; then he adds, “All of our people do know what is right, and they feel empowered to act on it. That hasn’t changed.” Until my recent flight, based upon my own experience, Kelly provided an accurate assessment of the Southwest corporate culture. Indeed, in my book The Inner-Work of Leadership I held up Southwest as a model for others to follow:

In spite of their no frills service, Southwest Airlines is always at, or near, the top in customer satisfaction among airline passengers. Once we understand the power of values and principles, it is easy to understand why.

Southwest has few rules (principles) for their employees to follow. “Always practice the Golden Rule” is one of their core principles. A story is told of an applicant for pilot: He was rude to a Southwest gate agent and found his interview cancelled. Southwest doesn’t believe in the ego’s philosophy of shunning responsibility by blaming others. All Southwest flight crew members, even the captain at times, pitch-in to clean the cabin and get their plane turned around quickly. As a result, Southwest Airlines has the fastest turnaround from the gate in the industry.

In other words, to work successfully at Southwest, one has to surrender an ego’s sense of self-importance. One can scarcely imagine a captain on most airlines cleaning the cabin. Doing so may actually violate rigid job classification rules of some airlines. More than that, the captain’s ego may justify his choice not to help: “It is not my fault the plane is late.” Or, “If I help out today, pretty soon they will expect me to help on all flights.” Or, “My job requires me to stay in the cockpit.”

In her instructive book, The Southwest Airlines Way, Jody Gittell explains the factors responsible for the success of Southwest Airlines. One value honored at Southwest is mutual respect among employees. The easiest way to get in trouble is to offend another employee. Gittell contrasts Southwest with American Airlines where a virtual caste system exists. Mechanics look down on gate agents. Gate and ticket agents look down on ramp employees. Ramp workers looks down on cabin cleaners. Cabin cleaners look down on building cleaners…

If my recent trip is an indication, something has begun to erode the cherished corporate culture at Southwest Airlines. Apparently many Southwest employees no longer know and do “what is right.” Employees must use values and principles in daily decision making; if they don’t, an organizational culture laboriously built over many years by the hard work of many can be destroyed.

Consider this sequence of events my family and I recently encountered. From Minneapolis we were to fly into Chicago to catch the flight that would bring us home. It was a stormy day in Chicago and flights were being delayed. Finally, Southwest canceled all flights into and out of Chicago. Stranding passengers is bad for business, and the decision-makers at Southwest have every incentive to avoid doing so; but on this day, it was the right choice. We joined the line of stranded passengers who would have to find alternate routes to their destinations.

There were literally two Southwest agents working to reschedule hundreds of stranded travelers. Does that sound like all hands on deck for Southwest employees at Minneapolis? Not so much. Chaos ensued as edgy travelers tried to push to the front of the line thinking their circumstances were more urgent than those of others. While the two agents worked as hard as they could to reroute travelers, did any other Southwest employees think it worthwhile to help keep order? Not so much. Was any Southwest supervisor on hand to pitch in? Not so much. Apparently, they had better things to do than deal with distraught travelers.

About thirty minutes after the line formed, an announcement was made: We were encouraged to call the Southwest reservation center as they would be able to assist with rerouting itineraries. On her second attempt, my wife got into the phone cue at Southwest. It was another half hour on hold before she spoke with an agent. Although she clearly explained that our flights into and out of Chicago were cancelled, she was told we could get a refund for the cancelled flights and reschedule; but we’d have to pay the difference in fares for any new flights we booked. My wife again explained that our flights were canceled. “Sorry,” the reservation clerk insisted, “you’ll have to pay the difference.” The clerk was ignorant of a basic Southwest policy shared by all airlines—if your flight is cancelled the airline has an obligation to get you to your destination at no additional charge. How could any airline employee not know this?  My wife asked to speak with the clerk’s supervisor; the supervisor got on the phone just as it was our turn to be assisted by an agent in Minneapolis.

We were among the fortunate; having been close to the front of the line, we ended our call with the reservation center. It was now an hour since we got on line.  I can’t even imagine how long those passengers who were in the back of the line waited before they were helped.

Along with perhaps 20 other rerouted passengers, we got out of Minneapolis that night on an almost empty nonstop flight to Raleigh-Durham. The forecast was for more storms in Chicago the next day; we were grateful to get to the East Coast.  There may have been other stranded travelers standing in line who were not processed in time but could have benefited by this flight.

Like us, most of the passengers on the plane to Raleigh-Durham had not originally intended to fly there. On board was at least one stranded family with young children.  Did any member of the Southwest crew on the flight ask if anyone needed assistance? No. Did the crew or ground personnel from Minneapolis notify the folks at Raleigh-Durham that stranded passengers were on the flight? No. The plane arrived at 12:40 am. Were there any Southwest personnel to greet the stranded travelers? No. Were they any visible Southwest employees at the gates or ticket counters? No. Were any shuttles still running to any local hotels? No.

It was 1:00 AM when we found a concerned Southwest supervisor who was in charge of baggage. He quickly made several phone calls in order to locate a hotel room for us. He didn’t understand why no one from Minneapolis had called ahead; if they had, he would have been ready to assist all the passengers who needed hotels. Referring to those Southwest employees who missed opportunities to be of service, he added, “It only takes a minute. This is not the Southwest Way.” His belief in the Southwest Way was palpable and touching. Now, remember, his job was in baggage; but in the spirit of the Southwest Way, he was doing what needed to be done. Having found a room, he directed us to the taxi stand. Since shuttle services had stopped, he offered that Southwest would pay for the taxi fee if we brought back a receipt.

We were still to get more of an education in the erosion of the cherished Southwest Way. Within minutes we were on the curb, confused about where to find the taxi stand; the crew from our flight walked out as a group. We asked if they could direct us to the taxi stand. Without pausing, they shrugged their shoulders and kept walking to the transportation waiting for them. From the indifferent look on their faces, it seemed that an impulse to assist us did not cross their minds.

The next morning when returning to the airport, we stopped at the ticket counter to get our boarding passes. After receiving our passes, I asked the clerk to refund the $40 “early boarding” fee that we had paid for our canceled flights. She said I would have to write a letter to customer service. I was incredulous. The agent’s supervisor was standing there and chimed in that the early boarding fee was not refundable when flights are cancelled due to weather. I said, “You canceled our flights; surely you can’t keep our money for a service that you didn’t provide.”

“That’s the policy,” she answered curtly and turned her back and walked away. My wife wisely grabbed my arm, as she sensed that I was going to react in a way not keeping with my own values.

As it turned out, when we arrived home, there was a computer-generated email from Southwest that had been sent automatically shortly after our flights were canceled. The email refunded our early boarding fee. I wondered, how could a ticket agent and her supervisor not know a basic Southwest policy? How could the manager argue with a customer that Southwest would keep money for services that they did not provide?

On this one trip, there were too many Southwest employees, in different locations, who behaved badly for my experience to be an anomaly. It seems that the Southwest Airlines Way is no longer valued by a critical mass of Southwest employees. Not only that, but some employees we encountered, such as the telephone reservation clerk and the tickets agents at Raleigh, are either incompetent and/or badly trained.

Why is the Southwest Way no longer valued?  I suspect that Southwest employees are no longer hired and evaluated based on their adherence to Southwest’s values. Of course, as an outsider I can’t be sure; but of this I can be certain: It takes years to build a cherished culture such as the one that defined Southwest but it takes much less time to tear it down. The Southwest Airlines Way is harder to achieve than Not the Southwest Airlines Way. Here lies a cautionary tale for all organizations.

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