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Rather a lot of updates

I’ve been neglecting my blog lately, mostly because I don’t know where to start. Life has been, well, crazy.

My Nana (paternal grandmother) passed away a couple of weeks ago, and that has been really hard. She was a really important part of my childhood and early adulthood. She suffered from dementia in her final several years, and was at a rest home in Santa Barbara near my parents and one of my aunts. I didn’t spend very much time with her over the last few years, and when I did it was hard to relate her to the woman I knew during most of my life. So I have regrets, and sadness, and the usual anger and confusion and stress that comes with grieving. I like to think that her always free spirit is really free now and that she’s in a joyful place.

It’s impossible to encapsulate the things that she shared with me, and I’m not ready to go public with all those memories. I’m finding it strange to be grieving again at the same time of year last year I was grieving my dog Simon. Then last night I found out a friend from my early days in Austin passed away unexpectedly a year ago. She was 50. Her name was Breeze, and she taught me how to read tarot cards when I first moved back to Austin in 2001. She was quite a mystic, so I hope she’s enjoying the next part of her journey.

Meanwhile, on the career front things are coming together. My company, DiamondMind Consulting is going to be officially incorporated in the next couple of weeks. We’re making connections in the community and working on a case study. I’m also writing articles and developing presentations and workshops. I’m starting to get the hang of this entrepreneur/consultant thing:

  1. Try Stuff
  2. Make Mistakes
  3. Try More Stuff.

Maybe I can expand that into a workshop…

Most of my ethics/business/OD blogging is going to be moving to my company blog. Please do check it out if you’re interested in that sort of thing. My partners will be contributing their considerable wisdom as well.

Also on the happy front, David and I celebrate our Halfiversary on Monday. Six months of matrimony, and we haven’t killed each other yet. And I think I’ve managed to actually send all my thank you letters for wedding presents. Please let me know if I missed you…

I’m going to try to be a better updater. Stay posted for more dog and food pictures.

s'more thoughts

I’ve been reading a book called Healing Through the Dark Emotions, by Miriam Greenspan. It’s pretty cool, because it validates a lot of my own synthesis of the things I’ve learned from experience and study. Humans, especially modern American humans, have a tendency to run away from emotional pain. Back in the day, when our culture was less secular, we rationalized pain by saying that God was punishing us for our sins. Nowadays, we pathologize it and claim that not only are we suffering because we’ve done something wrong (not eaten right, not exercised enough, not prayed to the right God), but that suffering itself is dangerous to our health and should be eradicated. Newsflash, people, suffering is unavoidable. Also, life is terminal. Not happy facts, but facts nonetheless.

Greenspan (and the Buddah) believe that accepting suffering is the path to greater awareness, and a more fulfilling, awake, meaningful life. Greenspan thinks we’re medicating ourselves into numbness and through avoiding our own pain, we blind ourselves to that of others resulting in things like emotional and physical violence.

I tend to concur. When I’m feeling scared or upset, I want to fix or eradicate it somehow. I often blame myself for suffering and try to find some way I caused it. This means that I’ve absorbed the idea that I can somehow prevent myself from suffering (that there was something I should have done differently), and I hurt because I’ve made a mistake. This seems pretty pointless, as a good portion of the time we don’t cause our own suffering. Lots and lots of things that cause us to suffer that are unavoidable. I think that the idea of personal responsibility and personal power is great for helping you focus on your goals, but it’s fairly shit for dealing with suffering. Suffering is a fact, and it doesn’t matter if you brought it on yourself, your neighbor brought it on you, or it was an earthquake. All suffering deserves compassion, and I think that at least some of the people who espouse personal responsibility in this way (Stephen Covey, I’m talking to you) do so to not only avoid their own pain, but to inure themselves from the pain of others.

It’s not that we shouldn’t reflect and learn from our mistakes. I just think that in the moment that we experience emotional pain who or what is to blame is not so relevant, and the search for the source is a way we avoid the experience. After the storm has passed, reflection is a good idea and helps give meaning to our suffering and allows us to feel compassion for others. But in that moment, I think the best thing to do is actually check out that storm – is it rainy with sorrow, or full of jarring, bright, scary lightening? Not all pain feels the same, I feel fear in my stomach sometimes, and grief more in my back. Greenspan talks about the value of checking in with the body when we feel emotional pain and letting ourselves experience it rather than fight it. It’s tricky, but when I have managed to do so, I’ve generally come out the other end a little wiser and much calmer.

While this may seem a bit of a jump, I think the topic actually relates closely to leadership and ethics. Leaders have responsibility to those who follow them, whether it’s a transactional relationship (like a job), or a transformational relationship (like a priest or teacher). If a leader has no relationship to their own suffering, then the organization they lead can become a reflection of that inner disconnect.

In modern companies, fear is often viewed as an undiscussable and taboo emotion. To show fear is to admit weakness, and in our patriarchal organizations weakness is not tolerated. So the leader who not only hides their fear from others, but also from themselves, has no little incentive to experience compassion for the followers who feel fear, trepidation, or insecurity when facing a challenge. A culture then emerges where fear is banished from what is espoused, creating a powerful undertow that erodes at the morale, relatedness, and development of employees, and damages the organization as a whole. I believe that in this way unsurfaced and undiscussable emotions create entropy that organizations have tremendous difficulty diagnosing, let alone overcoming.

Wherin the old and the new intersect

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my previous life as an opera singer, and trying to figure out how all that history integrates with the path I’m on now. For a while I’ve been feeling as if the “new” career is totally independent of the old one, and nothing that I learned in the music world applies to what I do now.

But really, that’s not true. I’ve been part of many different types of organizations. Musical theater productions, operas, conservatory, orchestras, agencies, start-ups, corporations, and now grad school. Each shared some characteristics with some of the others. What I find especially interesting about reflecting on some of those less corporate environments is this: in some ways, they were the most functional and effective teams I’ve ever worked on. Now don’t get me wrong. Performers, directors, conductors, the whole lot of them are notoriously narcissistic nutbags. There are very few exceptions. Impulse control, self-reflection, and other emotionally intelligent traits are not much in evidence. Verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and other misbehavior abounds. But somehow, maybe due to the nature of the endeavor, the show goes on. And it usually goes on alarmingly well. Everyone remembers their lines, makes their entrances, gets the lighting cues right, plays the right notes. When someone flubs, everyone helps to get the ball rolling again. The most assinine, self-centered conductor will help a singer out of a jam – mouthing the words or catching up if they rush. Sopranos who are snitty, petty competitors off the stage work beautifully together during a duet.

So what is the source of all this heroism? How do people who are generally less mature and self-realized somehow transcend the ethical and interpersonal quagmire that is corporate existence? Well, they don’t, exactly. Misconduct is pretty common, but the funny thing is it rarely jeopardizes the final product. I think that something about the nature of the organization pre-disposes it to function properly and well, despite all the machinations of the individuals.

Conversely, lots of corporations are filled with people with good intentions, much clearer ethical rules, and subject to far more public and legal scrutiny. And yet, huge ethical lapses are becoming more and more obvious. If you’ve heard me talk about this before, you know the saw. The structure of the publicly held corporation – the fact that shareholders are not ethically or legally responsible for the actions of the employees – seems to predispose it to violating established ethical and legal norms.

I think this provides a pretty good argument for the foundation of our thesis. The organization has it’s own personality, tendencies, and pre-dispositions that are a complicated blend of the collective culture, the values and goals of the founders and execs, and the market pressures. So much of the literature we’ve read for this program talks about personal responsibility. “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Covey, Titchy, many of the others say that if you don’t change it yourself, quit your bitching. But there are much stronger forces at play, and while I’m all in favor of setting a good example, there’s another saying I tend to believe more: “Culture eats change for breakfast.” And I’d like to add to this to the mix: the personality of the organization far supersedes the personalities of the individuals. And the legalistic or even conventional structure of the organization has a huge effect on that personality. Perhaps even an insurmountable effect.

Another thing that occurs to me is that concept of heroism. To be heroic (or to fit the hero archetype) one has to have something at stake – risk of loss, and some kind of transformational process. So a lot of the literature on teams and heroism often have a foundation or at the least a lot of case studies on the military. But in the military, there’s a very immediate danger of death or dismemberment. So people have a lot to lose if they don’t work together effectively, and the consequences of poor leadership and poor teamwork are dire.

While performing is not life-threatening, it can feel that way. Anyone who’s ever had stage fright can attest that your body does not know the difference between that fear and a tiger running towards you. Your brain may say, “no reason to be afraid, just singing for some industry big shots.” but your body says, “Tiger!” So again, the stakes are high, immediate, and the consequences of screwing up are psychological death and dismemberment of not only yourself, but your peers (and probably your reputation and career).

In the corporate world, obviously some survival instinct also comes into play, but not with the immediacy of a more time-restricted scenario like a battle or a performance. Maybe that’s why dysfunction can creep in unnoticed, fester and grow, and then surprise the shit out of everyone when suddenly they realize that, oh, growth is at -30% and the CEO has been diverting money into his Swiss bank account. I also have a really hard time buying the CEO as Hero myth. No babies are being rescued from burning buildings, and the idea of a CEO making a major sacrifice for someone else (what with those compensation packages) is pretty laughable. So for me, that idea just does not resonate. Maybe we need to look at organizations through a different lens, and stop trying to find our heroes in those with positional power. Maybe the organization will be heroic when it re-defines itself into something more ethical, responsible, and connected to all the people that comprise it.

Just a thought.

General update and further thoughts

General update:
I have a total of 28 weeks of class left before I (theoretically) graduate. How I do thesis research and coursework at the same time is a bit of a puzzle. I’m unrealistically proud of my 4.0 average, but prioritization may come into play during my last two classes and necessitate a B. Which is really counter to my uber-perfectionist-secretly-afraid-I’m-really-a-slacker personality. Hopefully I can pull it all off and also not drive David completely insane. Come December, I will have three, count them, three degrees to my name. Woo! Anyone know where I can get a business ethics related PhD? I keed, I keed. I think.

Further thoughts on the nature of leadership, ethics, and organizational culture:
Most organizations really don’t know what they’re doing. The things that the founders/leaders are comfortable with or uncomfortable with become conventions, and then they become unsurfaced cultural artifacts – rules of conduct that we generally pick up intuitively and then promptly forget. The problem is most people don’t give a lot of thought to the fact that when they form an organization they’re creating a mini-society in their own image. And all of our personalities are limited and flawed. So unless our founders and leaders are introspective enough to recognize this fact, some really strange, counterintuitive, and bizarre behaviors can become codified.

I recently finished what I hope proves to be my FINAL paper on my Former Place of Employment, and the most interesting thing I learned was how a really self-referential, self-reinforcing culture can blind people to physical, obvious truths. It’s not just about how the culture effects the way you see things, it’s about whether or not the cultural constraints allow you to see it at all. And in the case of my former place of work, the espoused (projected) internal culture was so strong, and so embedded, that as long as you can speak the jargon, wear the tee-shirt, and shake the super secret handshake, you can get away with pretty much anything. As you might imagine, this leaves room for some teensy little ethical problems. It means that crafty and unscrupulous people figure out how to work the system, and work it they do. Meanwhile the execs continue to comment on the openness and beauty that is their organization, even when evidence to the contrary has been formally presented to them by people they pay to do just that.

What is it in our makeup that allows us to put our faith in human systems that are by their nature flawed? Seriously. We’re human, we’re flawed. But we’re always holding out for that nirvana-like place where we no longer have to think critically, question, or suspend judgment either way. I’m highly inquisitive by nature, but I do it, too. What gives?

Anyway, those are my Deep Thoughts of the Day. Enjoy.