Archive for May, 2017


As I was settling in at my favorite coffee-bakery shop this morning I overheard the following exchange: ‘Do you have any good ideas that can help us?’  There was a pause, followed by: ‘I’ve given you all of my good ideas; I am stuck.’ 

I held onto this brief exchange as I ordered my coffee and bagel (today: Hazelnut Coffee and a Cinnamon Bagel with Honey-Walnut Cream Cheese).  As I ate, drank and savored my fare I found myself reflecting upon the exchange.

As an educator and thought-partner I cannot begin to count the number of times I heard this: ‘I don’t have any good ideas’ or this, ‘I am not very creative; I can’t seem to generate any good ideas.’ 

Given the person and the context I have replied with a question: ‘Do you have any bad ideas?’

More than 55 years ago I learned the value of generating ‘Bad Ideas.’  My English Teacher, Mr. Schneider, had assigned a ‘creative writing’ challenge.  I was stuck; I had no ‘good ideas.’  I communicated this to Mr. Schneider.  He then gave me a gift when he asked: ‘Richard, do you have any bad ideas?’

With his guidance I learned the value of generating a plethora of ‘Bad Ideas.’  In 1988 I listened to a Buckminster Fuller interview that was recorded a year before he died (he died in 1983).  During the interview he was asked how he was able to generate so many great ideas.  He said that it was quite easy to do.  First of all, he noted, one must generate 100 bad ideas each day and then once in a while a good idea would emerge.

After I listened to this interview I decided to practice generating ‘Bad Ideas.’  At the time I was blessed with two people in my life that would take the time to listen to all of the ideas I was generating.  Each of these people ‘rated’ each of my ideas on a scale from: ‘That’s an Idea!’ (the adjective ‘Bad’ was not used) to ‘That’s a Brilliant Idea!’  We would laugh a lot as I shared my ideas and as they rated them.  I was then able to spend time with the ‘Good,’ ‘Great’ and ‘Brilliant’ ideas.

Discerning ‘Good Ideas’ is surprisingly easy once one develops the capacity to emerge ‘Bad Ideas.’  I still believe that all of the ‘creative-self-help’ books are not going to help if one is not willing to generate ‘Bad’ (lousy, lame, stupid) ideas.  I have yet to meet a creative person that does not generate hundreds, if not thousands, of ‘Bad Ideas’ prior to discerning and embracing the ‘Good Idea’ that finally reveals itself.

Gentle reader, if you want to develop your capacity for creativity I invite you to consider taking the time each day to generate a few dozen ‘Bad Ideas.’  Engage in this process over time and I believe you will discover that a few ‘Good Ideas’ will emerge into your consciousness.

I am now thinking of the Doorman at the Marriott in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Phil Adleman, who – many years ago – would, each day, generate and offer to Senior Management seven ideas.  More often than not one of the seven would be developed and many of those would be implemented.

I leave us, this morning, with the words of a Canadian businessman, Craig Bruce: ‘Nothing surpasses the beauty and elegance of a bad idea.’

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Each of us integrates what I call ‘Guiding Life Principles.’  We also integrate ‘Rules of Life.’  We also know that we don’t always follow a given ‘Principle’ or a given ‘Rule.’  Some folks call ‘Rules of Life’ by another name: ‘Rules of Thumb.’  For many years I also spoke of ‘Rules of Thumb.’  I stopped many years ago, once I learned what the original ‘Rule of Thumb’ referred to.

Once upon a time, there was a law in Great Britain.   A man could beat his wife with a stick as long as the stick was no thicker than his thumb.  I don’t believe this law is still part of British common law.  I replaced ‘Rules of Thumb’ with ‘Guiding Life Principles’ and ‘Rules of Life.’

During the past 50 years or so I have come across and written down a number of ‘Principles’ and ‘Rules;’ I have also emerged a number of my own.  This morning, gentle reader, I will share some of these with you.  You might find one or two that resonate with you and you might, then, choose to integrate them in your own life either as a ‘Principle’ or as a ‘Rule.’  I also invite you to add to my list.


  • If I am in love, I am no judge of my partner’s beauty.
  • If you are in the frame you cannot see the picture.
  • I meet my destiny on the road I have taken to avoid it.
  • Some people stop at nothing to help you.
  • Learning the tricks of the trade does not mean that I have learned the trade.
  • ‘One of these days’ turns out to be ‘none of these days.’
  • Generally, I hear and understand only what I already know.
  • The dog that sniffs about usually finds the bone.
  • The dog that sniffs about learns what to avoid.
  • If I hit the mark each time…the mark is too close.
  • Do not let details influence your deciding on a first approach.
  • Never state a challenge to yourself using the same terms that it was presented to you.
  • The second approach to the same challenge should come from another direction.
  • If you don’t understand a challenge try explaining it to two or three others and listen to yourself as you do so.
  • Embrace approaches that reframe or transform one challenge into another; there is a much to learn as a result.
  • If you are caught off guard by something consider it to be use-full.
  • As you work, take time to reflect-in-the-moment as to your mood and as to how you work.
  • It is in the Chicken’s nature to cross the road; what does your nature demand that you cross?
  • We choose via emotions and justify via rationales.
  • Knowing how to swim enables one to navigate the cesspools of life.
  • If you had the ‘last straw’ what would you do with it?
  • Don’t think ‘outside of the box’. . .sit on the edge and your thinking will expand dramatically.

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Last week, I had a long conversation with a leader.  He was frustrated because he was not able to raise the salaries of many of those who work in the organization.  This leader was frustrated because he was recently ‘rewarded’ with a healthy raise and he could not reward the majority of the employees with a raise.  There are a number of reasons as to why this leader was not able to do this.  He is one of many leaders who, too often, find themselves in this ‘money bind.’

One question we explored together was: Why do good folks continue to work in an organization even though they are economically blocked?

Researchers have been asking people this question for many years.  Here is a recent top five list.  The respondents came from for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.  The list provides us an insight as to what a leader might do if he or she is not able to ‘reward’ folks with ‘money.’


  • Caring People
  • Meaningful Mission
  • Trustful and Respectful Environment
  • Rooted in Integrity
  • ‘I Make a Difference’

I did a brief search on the internet and found that ‘compensation’ never, not once, made the top five in any list and it seldom made the top ten.  Given this, let us return to our question: ‘What can leaders do?’

Max De Pree, in his seminal classic, ‘Leadership is an Art’ keeps it simple: ‘Thank You.’  There is power in these words; they are simple and impact-full.  They also challenge the leader to be awake, aware, intentional and purpose-full if the leader is going to avoid being seduced by the ‘ritual: thank you.’  As most of us know, the ‘ritual thank you’ too often nurtures cynicism for it is experienced, at minimum, as a ‘meaningless gesture.’

In order to be impact-full, a leader’s ‘Thank You’ must be specific and timely.  ‘Frequency’ is not the goal.  Sometimes a verbal ‘Thank You’ will be the most impactful and sometimes a written ‘Thank You’ will.  Sometimes a public ‘Thank You’ will be the most impactful and sometimes a private ‘Thank You’ will be.  Discerning ‘which’ is part of the art of being a leader; for most leaders this is one of the ‘arts of being a leader’ that is learned and integrated over time.

The ‘Thank You’ must be specific.  The more specific and the more concrete the greater the positive impact.  The specific ‘Thank You’ directly communicates to the recipient that you, the leader, are paying attention; that you recognize the meaningful contribution made; that you believe that individuals are important; and that caring is crucial.

James Autry was another leader noted for his employee recognition (see his book: ‘Love and Profit’).  When he was the CEO of a large corporation he would, each morning, take an hour and write a number of notes and have them hand-delivered to the employees.  When he retired there were a number of ‘retirement celebrations’ given in his honor (the number of events was partly driven by the fact that the corporation was large).

There was always a ‘reception line’ – employees would, literally, line up in order to thank him.  One of the most moving experiences, he reported, was when an employee would produce one of his hand-written ‘Thank You’ notes; often these notes were 5-10-20 years old.  Talk about a ‘Thank You’ having staying power.

 The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant. –Max De Pree



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Today, gentle reader, we will conclude our brief exploration of ‘Fairness-Principle & Parameters.’

In our culture (the United States) we have emerged a general ‘Principle of Fairness’ (in our Cooking metaphor/analogy this is the ‘Recipe’).  Our general principle contains a number of ‘Parameters’ (in our Cooking metaphor/analogy they are the ‘Ingredients’).  In our culture – as in all cultures – it is the ‘Parameters’ that determine what we truly mean by ‘Fairness.’

All cultures have a ‘Principle’ of ‘Fairness’ AND many cultures have one or more ‘Parameters’ that are different from our culture’s ‘Parameters.’  To complicate this even more, even in our culture we have sub-cultures that have included or excluded certain ‘Parameters’ and so their concept of ‘Fairness’ is not the same as the ‘Culture’s Concept of Fairness.’  A gang, the Mafia and a faith-tradition are examples of this.   Ethnic sub-cultures also have ‘Parameters’ that are different from the ‘Culture’s’ and hence the concept of ‘Fairness’ for them is not the same as it is for the ‘Culture.’

For example, my mother’s sub-culture was ‘Polish Catholic’ and my father’s was ‘English Presbyterian.’  A major sub-culture ‘Parameter’ for my mother – rooted in her Polish sub-culture – was: ‘Never Betray the Family!’  A major sub-culture ‘Parameter’ for my father – rooted in his English Presbyterian sub-culture – was: ‘Always Tell the Truth!’  In a previous blog positing I shared with you how these two powerful ‘Parameters’ trapped me, when I was six years old, in a seemingly no-win dilemma.

In our Culture (think: the United States) we have a ‘Principle of Fairness’ that goes like this: ‘Each person is free to choose what is best for him or her.’  What makes this difficult are the ‘Parameters’ that are included or excluded by all ‘organized groups of two or more’ (think: families, churches, philosophies, schools, governmental entities, etc.).

Thus, a woman might believe that it is ‘Fair’ for her to decide what to do with her body.  Yet, when she attempts to exercise the ‘Principle’ she encounters others who hold a different ‘Principle’ as a result of holding/embracing different ‘Parameters.’  Both claim that their position is ‘Fair.’  It is not the ‘Principle’ that is at odds with another ‘Principle.’  It is the ‘Parameters’ that determine one’s position when it comes to the ‘Principle.’

George Lakoff in his book ‘Moral Politics’ provides us ten examples of a ‘Principle of Fairness’ and then provides us one example of a ‘Parameter’ for each of the ten.  I invite you, gentle reader, to either affirm his ‘Parameter’ or to add one of your own; a ‘Parameter’ that is counter to Lakoff’s parameter.

  • Equality of Distribution – Every person gets one meal
  • Equality of Opportunity Everyone is eligible to apply for the job
  • Procedural Distribution Benefits are established by the ‘rule of the game’
  • Rights-based Fairness You get what you are entitled to
  • Needs-based FairnessThose who need more, get more
  • Scalar Distribution Those who work harder get more
  • Contractual DistributionYou give based upon what you promised
  • Equal Distribution ResponsibilityEffort is equitably shared
  • Equal Distribution of Power Everyone can vote
  • Scalar Distribution of ResponsibilitiesThose who can do more have greater responsibility

Given all of this, our challenge is a daunting one (an understatement to be sure): To seek to understand the ‘Parameters’ that enable the ‘Other’ to define ‘Fairness’ as he/she/they do.  And to help the ‘Other’ understand the ‘Parameters’ that enable us to define ‘Fairness’ as we do. 

The first step to finding the ‘common ground’ where we can stand together is, first, to seek to understand and then to seek to be understood.




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Gentle reader, as I noted in PART I, today I will use a metaphor/analogy of ‘Cooking’ in order to help us understand ‘Fairness’ as rooted in ‘Principle’ and ‘Parameters.’

Think of ‘Principles’ as cooking recipes.  ‘Parameters’ are the ingredients.  Some ‘Parameters’ are necessary and other ‘Parameters’ are optional.  Once a ‘Parameter’ has been added, it interacts in crucial ways with the other ‘Parameters’.

For example, when my mother made a cake ‘from scratch’ she had a recipe in mind.  The recipe required certain ingredients and these ingredients had to be put together in a certain way – for example, the oven had to be turned on before she was ready to put the batter in; she had to set the temperature to the right level in order to avoid burning the batter.  She had to mix the ingredients thoroughly and she had to put the right amount of batter in the mold or the cake would not be able to expand as needed.

For each recipe there were specific ingredients needed AND for each recipe my mother could, if she chose, add additional ingredients.  The additional ingredients would ‘add to the cake’ – if they did not, then the cake would, more likely than not, be ruined.  When it came to adding additional ingredients, a great cook would have fewer ‘failures’ than a novice would.

Looking at cooking in this way shifts the continuous process of ingredients unfolding and mixing over time to a discrete process whereby particular decisions are made at each step in the recipe.

A good cook can also, in a sense, reverse the process.  For example, a good cook can taste a piece of cake and identify some of the ingredients that went into the recipe (some of the parameters that made up the principle).  A good cook will taste, smell, and touch in order to identify some of the ingredients.

However, even the greatest cook will have difficulty pinpointing the exact proportions of each ingredient (Parameter) and the order in which they were put together.  A good cook could write all of this down and then bake an acceptable cake AND the cake would not turn out as the cake the cook had tasted for all of the ingredients and the process itself would not be the same for each cake (the original and the one the good cook baked).

If ten good cooks followed the same recipe odds are high that each will bake a cake that is different from the others.  One might be lighter, another might be a bit sweeter, and another might be a bit drier.  The ‘influence’ of each cook would be revealed in the cake baked.

Prior to putting anything in the oven, my mother would pause, hold her thumb and index finger over the cake batter and then gently rub her thumb and index finger together.  When I was ten years old I asked her what she was doing.  Her response was: ‘This is a little love that will make all of the difference.’  For my mother this was a key, extra and essential, ingredient.

For our ten good cooks, differences in the output will be influenced by the quality of each cook’s ingredients, by their oven, by the attention they give to the process, by their experience and by their patience.  These make up the ‘performance’ and they are also indicators of what they know consciously and unconsciously.

Next time, we will connect our cooking metaphor/analogy to ‘Fairness, Principle, and Parameters.’


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As I was sitting in my favorite coffee & bakery shop this morning savoring my coffee I was holding two or three potential topics for my posting today; which one would I write about? As I was savoring and pondering a family of four entered the bakery.  The pre-teen son and daughter were arguing (ah…pre-teens, what a blessing).  The son, rooted in great frustration, blurted out: ‘That’s not fair!!!’ 

 A question emerged into my consciousness: What does it mean ‘to be Fair’?  What is Fairness anyway?  In our culture Being Fair/Fairness is a big deal (or if you are a pickle, it is a Big Dill).  Let’s explore this a bit.  Here are two definitions of each (among many, I might add). 

 Fair = just, equitable, impartial, unbiased, dispassionate, objective mean free from favor toward either or any side. Fair implies a proper balance of conflicting interests. a fair decision; Just implies an exact following of a standard of what is right and proper.

 Fairness = impartial and just treatment or behavior without favoritism or discrimination.

They seem pretty clear to me.  And, I think, they would be acceptable to the vast majority of adults in our culture.  In a sense, these definitions are ‘universal’ in nature; cultures who have a concept of ‘Fair’ and ‘Fairness’ would also agree to these definitions.  Yet, as any adult knows, when we strive to apply these definitions to ‘real life,’ things quickly become messy.  Why is this so?

Well, one response lies in how we engage two concepts: Principle & Parameters.  We humans tend to agree on the Principle.  For example, in our culture, there is agreement that our nation is rooted in a principle of Freedom.  We also support a principle of Fairness.  Even though ‘we’ agree on the principles we, more often than not, end up in heated conflict with one another (think: Progressives and Conservatives); each side claims that they support the Principle of Fairness [at their worst, each side also states that ‘the other side’ has no concept of what Fairness really means].

What sets each side apart is not the Principle of Fairness.  What sets each side apart are the Parameters.  What?  What are Parameters?  Each Principle requires Parameters in order to move from the ‘abstract’ to the ‘concrete’ [think: moving from theory to action].  Once the parameters are set, judgments of fairness will, too often, become incomprehensible to the other side.  For example, Conservatives do not understand Fair & Fairness the same way that Progressives do even though both claim the same definitions for Fair & Fairness.

It is not the Principle that engenders the misunderstandings and the conflicts.  The Parameters engender and support them.  Thus, Conservatives and Progressives can – and do – hold the same Principle AND at the same time misunderstand, disagree with, engage in conflict with ‘the other.’  The Parameters also enable each side to ‘judge’ the other side as ‘Un-American’ or, at worst, as ‘The Enemy’ of the Principle.

In order to help us understand the concept of Parameters I will, next time, employ a metaphor or analogy: ‘Cooking.’  [An Aside: I chose ‘Cooking’ because I am sitting in a bakery, because my mother was a superb cook and because I like to eat.]

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Gentle reader, please see PART I for the context and the two scenarios.

Consider that in the hospital scenario, if there is no tissue compatibility there is no way to save even one of the five.  In the train scenario, if the side track is empty, the engineer must switch tracks – the switching becomes an obligatory act.

There is a Guiding Principle that can help us: It is permissible to cause harm as a by-product of achieving a greater good AND it is impermissible to use harm as a means to a greater good.  In the train scenario, killing one person is a by-product – an indirect though foreseen consequence.  The key act – switching the switch to turn the train – is, in and of itself, neither positive nor negative, neither good nor bad.  In the hospital example, the surgeon intentionally harms one person in order to strive to save five people.

The distinctions between the two are crucial and they combine to provide a rationale known as the principle of double effect.  In the moment, most of us humans don’t pause and think about this principle.  Research – and my experience with my students – affirms that folks who are given these two scenarios respond and judge them immediately.  Few take even a brief time to think through the scenarios and even fewer take even a cursory look at the underlying principles that might help guide them prior to responding.

On the other hand, the participants’ responses seem reasoned and rational even though there is little sense that deep reasoning has occurred.  Researchers report that few participants are able to generate this principle [think: the principle of double effect] as an explanation or rationale for their judgments [so it was with my students – I only recall one student, a philosophy major, who was able to provide the guiding principle for her judgments].

Such dilemmas [think: dilemma = a forced choice where BOTH a positive and a negative outcome will likely occur] do occur in ‘real life.’  In 2005, after Katrina ran amok, a member of the Texas Army National Guard talked about his dilemma: ‘I would be looking at a family of two on one roof and maybe a family of six on another roof, and I would have to make a decision who to rescue.’

With these dilemmas, a decision to take one path over another isn’t immediately obvious.  We can ask, for example, whether our two scenarios depend upon absolute numbers (kill one to save five; or kill a hundred to save a thousand).  The dilemmas is maintained – the agent must choose and what ought to be done is not obvious (for the engineer or the soldier – it appears to be clear when it comes to the surgeon).

If all participants respond in the same way – so far all who responded to the two scenarios have done so – and if all are unable to coherently explain ‘why’ (think: to explain the underlying principle(s) that guided them) then what?

My current thinking is that we humans have been endowed with a moral faculty – a capacity, if you will, that enables us to unconsciously and automatically evaluate a limitless variety of actions in terms of principles that dictate what is permissible, obligatory and/or forbidden.

We know at an emotive level, for example, that to kill another human being is wrong and as we ‘mature’ and develop our rational capacities we add the ‘reasonable’ and ‘rational’ to the emotive.  When it comes to what is Morally Permissible then, we come into the world endowed with a moral faculty and as we develop our intellectual capacities we then develop the guiding principles that support our endowment.

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