“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do…”
John Lennon’s ballad was playing in my ears as I read the welcome letter from my professor at the Darden School at University of Virginia, urging me and the other 49 legislators from around the country to “take off the (D) or (R) off your persona and dig into the ideas.” We were all about to participate in a scholarship program run by the State Legislative Leadership Foundation and held on the campus designed by Thomas Jefferson, someone who helped transform America through his Declaration of Independence, so there was a nice congruity to it all. And Lennon’s “Imagine” came to mind based on the recent revelation that he might actually have been a Reagan Democrat at the end of his life, giving me renewed hope that “aisle crossing” was possible, after all.
So that’s what we did – State Representatives and Senators from all corners of the country resolved to discuss all issues covered during the week without prejudice of party and to speak only on the merits of ideas, unhindered by political posturing that often occurs at our respective state houses. Having received bi-partisan support from Massachusetts leaders who wrote me letters of recommendation, including Senator Scott Brown and Congressman Stephen Lynch, I found it an easy request to follow.
Prior to arrival, we’d also been tasked to read five books sent to us a month out from the program;
I groaned a little at the titles, especially Friedman’s book, thinking that there might be an educational agenda going on and I employed Google to check out articles and interviews to get more background on each. Friedman’s overt partisanship was confirmed after I read a Salon interview (scathing rebuke, though, by the New York Press), but I had an even bigger groan when I saw who the lead instructor was; Professor Edward Freeman. Admittedly, I hadn’t met the man but he looked like a cross between Jerry Garcia and Rubeus Hagrid! Was I about to be indoctrinated with green energy initiatives plus learn how a Petronus spell might reverse global warming?!?
My fears were unfounded, however, as I quickly realized that that there was a terrific balance in our material, likely borne of the fact that we were on the campus of a highly rated business school where the influence of hundreds of MBA candidates may have left their mark on the staff. Professor Freeman proved to be more of a libertarian and his educational focus on ethics and engaging stakeholders provided a good core philosophy for both business management and effective governance. He also has a great sense of humor and hosted our group at a dinner at his home with his wife and kids.
In was in this atmosphere that all participants found it very easy to shed their various affiliations and engage in meaningful discussions. In fact, on day three, someone noted that she was still having a hard time determining the party affiliation of the people with whom she was talking, to which most of us agreed. What seemed to be a common thread was that those selected to participate in the program must have demonstrated results-oriented activity in their respective legislatures, knowing that partisanship is never the solution to achieving rational consensus.
Mixed into the educational program, which I’ll elaborate on more below, were some treats for those of us with a passion for history and politics. We toured Jefferson’s Monticello, had a dinner in the Dome Room of the Rotunda at his University of Virginia, and were able to hear guest speaker Charlie Cook rattle off American political data in the same way that someone like Buster Olney fires off MLB statistics. Cook is a self-described “political junkie” and writes for the National Journal.
A couple of side-notes; Nick Collins, State Representative from Boston, was also selected and we enjoyed the chance to get better acquainted during the week. We also submitted a photo for the Improper Bostonian, so we’ll see if it makes their “Sightings” section. One week after returning from UVa, South Carolina State Representative Todd Atwater, along with his wife, kids and friends, stopped into the State House and I was able to get them introduced to the membership by the Speaker.
The general purpose of the program, in my opinion, was to provide greater knowledge and tools to facilitate dialogue and positive results in the governing process. An emphasis on communication and ethics ran through the specific reviews of each book, so I’ll try to provide a synopsis of what we took out of each;
“Hot, Flat and Crowded,” by Thomas L. Friedman
To give away the punch line, Friedman comes to two conclusions;
1) Cap & Trade and any other government regulation and/or incentive is the best way to force countries to develop green energy initiatives.
2) Even if pushing a green revolution creates a market “bubble” (and subsequent burst), akin to the Dot-com “bubble” (200 – 2002), it is worth it if it points us towards long-term clean energy initiatives.
The book goes into great detail about increasing global energy demand, petro-dictatorships and, because he believes America is still the example the rest of the world follows, what we need to do to insure that we create a sustainable future for other countries to emulate.
Overall, I find that a good percentage of the book is hard to disagree with and I’m as concerned as anyone about our ability to take control of our energy future. I think Friedman treads dangerously close to socialism, if not totally over the edge, when he offers solutions like family planning initiatives and car banning. He also defeats the purpose of his book by not recognizing that the 34.4% of Americans who identify themselves as Republicans (34.7% for Democrats, Rasmussen, July ‘11) will not like the partisan shots taken throughout the book, nor appreciate the water-carrying for the left. If you’re going to get majority buy-in of something so major as a “green revolution” (as he states it), you need to do a better job of increasing the stakeholder and political demagoguery is not the path I’d choose to go down – one of the main points the “Emerging Leaders” program, in fact.
“The Republic,” by Plato
Rather than write a review of Plato’s’ dream for a “Philosopher Ruler” like a few hundred thousand people have done by now, I’ll just mention the relevant points;
1) Plato wrote this at a time when the military might of Athens had allowed a period of great advancement in arts, science, mathematics and philosophy.
2) The “democracy” that Athens enjoyed was “direct democracy” – any citizen could vote on anything, rather than having regionally elected representatives to vote. In reality, though, the public voted as infrequently as we do. Also, votes could be purchased (arguments can be made that this sometimes still happens!).
3) Slaves outnumbered citizens 4-1, plus immigrants and women had no vote or power.
4) Plato’s “hero,” Socrates, was sentenced to death for refusing to stop philosophizing, leading Plato to reject the “civilization” that Athens had become and leading to his writing of the book. Later in life, he founded the “Academy,” which became the training ground for future city planners.
This was my second chance to read/review the book – I’d studied it in college – so I enjoyed a 20+ year removed perspective. The allegory of The Cave was discussed (for a modern take, watch the move The Matrix), but what I found new and refreshing was talking about Gyges’ Ring. The concept is, if you had a magic ring that made you invisible, would you act in an ethical way if there were no consequences.
Of course, all participants felt they would act ethically whenever given the choice. Yet, for two hours, we broke into teams and played a game simulation called the Pepulator Pricing Exercise, developed at Harvard, which tests whether parties are willing to break trust for short term gains. All teams succumbed to taking advantage of the other party; it was just a matter of what level of remuneration caused the breach.
Another argument made against people’s nature to act ethically under the “Gyges’ Ring” theory is what occurs via e-mail or, more glaringly, in online comments made on media websites. You’ve all probably seen them, especially if you’re reading this blog and are comfortable with the use of online news. In the sections after an article, people are allowed to post anonymously comments related to the story. In my opinion, these have become cesspools for negativity, yet they illustrate that a certain sense of “invisibility” brings out the true nature of humanity.
Finally, we discussed ethics vs. “cosmethics” – the idea of how you want your behavior to appear, rather than how you may really act. The story of Arthur Nobel is truly fascinating, in this regard. Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, had a brother who died and, when the newspaper erroneously reported that it was Arthur who died, he was able to read his own obituary. “The merchant of death is dead…” was not how he wanted to be remembered so he made a decision to change his reputation by establishing the peace prizes he is now famous for. The story certainly left our group thinking of what we want to do and be remembered for while in office.
“The Global Achievement Gap,” by Tony Wagner
By far, my favorite book from the program and I’m excited to report that the author and I have a lunch meeting set in August to talk more about the concepts and solutions. I think this book is so important that I don’t really want to go too in depth because I think everyone should read it.
Suffice to say that it takes a “no holds barred” approach to identifying the problems with the education system in America and offers a comparative view of what is being done internationally. The author doesn’t make the typical clarion call for changes to the curriculum or organizations responsible for the delivery of education, but rather, suggests that the changes need to come from within in much the same way that Toyota moved the corporate world into the 21st century via “kaizen” (continuous improvement).
Having taken part in a “Lean Manufacturing” program (based on the kaizen model) at the company I worked for prior to being elected, I can confidently say that it creates a huge improvement in determining the best practices as developed by the stakeholders themselves. This would be a great improvement over having the national and state education departments constantly rearranged every 2 to 4 years, whenever new administrations take office. The best step for the future of our children and our nation is to depoliticize the education “industry” and focus on the skills and knowledge base needed to compete with the global economy that now challenges our graduates.
One interesting perspective presented during the program was by one of the sponsor-representatives from IBM. His company has created a mandatory “Twitter 101” course for all employees so that they can learn the do’s and don’ts of this specific social media tool, plus how it can be used to market the company – and that ALL employees of IBM can be “marketers” for their company if they so choose. This illustrated the fact that companies still end up training their workforce on a regular basis so we need to make sure our educational system is developing “life-long” learners. The key, according to Tony Wagner, is to make sure they all have critical thinking skills, too.
“Drive,” by Daniel Pink
A fantastic take on what motivates people and how the corporate culture of America needs to adapt to new technologies and an inherent altruism that runs deeply though us. The main argument is that the “carrot and stick” philosophy to achieve goals is outdated and runs counter to what actually brings out the best results in employees. In the July “Governing” magazine, Ken Miller writes an article exactly about how the culture of awards and accountability has a “dark side.”
Some of the more forward thinking companies of our time (Google & 3M are just two examples) have created ROWE – Results Only Work Environment(s). Rather than dictate a work schedule, employees are trusted to accomplish goals based on the environment and timetable that works best for them. Some of these companies also allow a percentage of work time (15 – 30%) to be used for side projects – ideas that the employee has that would be a better product or service for that company. The freedom breeds creativity unfettered by either risk or reward, making for the optimal environment for innovation.
In our classroom, Professor Freeman even went so far as to say that the purpose of any business should NOT be about making money… I’m sure that goes over well with his MBA students! But his analogy is this… His body makes red blood cells and they serve to provide all organs with what the body needs to survive. Dollars are the red blood cells of a healthy business – a means to an end. The end result, insists Prof. Freeman, should be the best product or service your company can provide. The income will materialize from those efforts. Relating it to the audience, he pointed out that votes are the outcome of doing a good job in elected office, not what you should be working to obtain. If a business or an elected official can create value, in association with creativity and innovation, to their function, success will naturally follow.
On paper, it all seems quite simple, but it’s the fact that we like to hold to “tradition” and established paths to completion that hold us back from potential greatness. But the great reward is that, so long as we’re doing what we feel passionate about, we will be much happier in our occupations and will likely see increased fruit from that labor.
“What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” by Marshall Goldsmith
Cognitive dissonance, the disconnect between what we believe in our minds and what we see or experience in reality, is the focus for the author in this book. A list of 20 leadership/interpersonal challenges are given and the goal we should have is to identify and correct those that affect us the most.
It is, primarily, a self-help book for those who probably think they may not need any help. The key to success in combating most of the flaws identified is better listening. But not just listening to what was said… also listening for what wasn’t said. And to go along with that, we were asked to think about whether, when we talk to people, are we seeking “feedback” or are we seeking “applause.”
I think the main point of that book is that anyone who has achieved some level of success in life needs to remain humble and to appreciate all that is said and done by those around us who help contribute to that success.
On page 84, I found what I think is the most powerful statement in the book; “If you put your fate in their hands – i.e., cede power to them – they will reward you.” It’s a Buddhist principle that I fully agree with and, let’s face it, if I didn’t put my fate in the hands of my district, I wouldn’t be working for them at the State House today!
In all, I found the program to be extremely eye-opening and I was given a fresh perspective on the major issues facing our country’s leaders today. While we deal with state and federal budgets just beginning to recover from the collapse of ’08, there are new concepts and technologies racing to the forefront for which we may or may not be ready. In 1975, there were five (5) “megacities” in the world. Today, there are twenty-five (25). The demands to support that growth and the innovation we’ll need to match that arise from those urban environments is a major undertaking and the United States needs to play a pivotal role to remain a world leader.
We need to work in harmony at the state and federal level to insure that our people, corporations, laws and resources are part of the continued global growth. And the best way to do that is to create more dialogue with less toxicity between the various stakeholders that shape our national and regional discourse. It all starts at the local level, though, so I encourage everyone to look for ways we can work together, rather than against each other. As Professor Freeman told us, “Leadership is about how we have better conversations, not about telling people what to do.”
There was quite a bit more to the program that what is noted here in the blog, but I wanted to boil it down to a brief overview and the key notes for each book. If you’d like to discuss the program or any aspect therein, you can always reach me at my State House e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for taking the time to read this post and I thank you, again, for letting me be your voice on Beacon Hill!