Archive for October, 2018

The unexamined life is not worth living. –Socrates

Recently a number of experiences have come together and have invited me to once again put finger to key and offer you, Gentle Reader, some considerations with a focus on Thinking Critically.  To provide you with a bit of context here are a few of the experiences: The lack of critical thinking that ran amok during the recent confirmation hearings for our next Supreme Court judge; the lack of critical thinking that is blatantly lacking from almost all of the attack ads now running amok on television; the lack of critical thinking demonstrated by our President during his rallies and during his off-the-cuff responses to crucial questions.

I am, however, not without hope.  Last week I had the privilege to spend three hours with 19 undergraduate students; I was a guest in their case studies and ethics class.  The students were juniors and seniors and the course is a required course for their major (actually, at least13 of them have double-majors).  With minimum guidance these students embraced the challenge of thinking critically.

I presented them with an ethics dilemma; I was a thought-partner to the person who held the dilemma (in this case it was both a right-right and a harm-harm dilemma; talk about upping the dilemma ante).  The students embraced and engaged the dilemma; helped each other; challenged each other; were open to listening to understand one another.  Their questions to me were thought-provoking as were the questions they offered one another.  I left the room hope-full.

As I have noted in previous postings, as a nation/culture/society our need to develop critical thinkers is, today more than ever before, crucial and imperative.  For me, the development of critical thinkers is a national/cultural/societal priority.  This development is crucial and imperative for both civic and economic reasons.

Civically, a critically informed society/populace is required for democracy to function effectively, efficiently and faithfully (think: being faithful to our constitution).  Economically, it is crucial that all of us learn to think critically so that we can both counter the greed that continues to run amok amongst us and to engage a global community that is both collaborating and competing with us economically.

Sadly, it seems to me, and to others, that there continues to be a lack of correspondence between what is required of an educated citizenry and what is ‘taught’ in our schools – beginning with our elementary schools.  Recorded history taught us – continues to teach us – that although individuals can develop critical thinking skills and capacities (and use them effectively), as a collective the ‘emotional mob/tribe’ continues to win out.  The insightful Reinhold Niebuhr captured this in his 1934 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society.   A must-read for We the People (my view, at least).

Consider that as adults we are on the verge of thinking critically whenever we question why we, or others, behave in certain ways.  Parents are on the verge of thinking crucially when they begin to question why they parent as they do (critical thinking can help us parents discern, for example, why we might choose an encouragement model of parenting or why we might choose a discouragement model of parenting,  As I observe parents today the discouragement model is alive and well).

A populace that asks ‘awkward’ questions of their elected officials and those seeking our ‘vote’ is on the verge of thinking critically.  A populace that calls for our elected officials to account for their choices and actions and who challenge existing policies and political structures (think: gerrymandering) are on the verge of thinking critically.  A populace who is skeptical of all media depictions is on the verge of thinking critically (a democracy requires a major tap root of healthy skepticism if it is going to survive and thrive).

So, Gentle Reader: How do we go about recognizing critical thinking?

To refuse to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral. –Robert K. Greenleaf

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We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims. –R. Buckminster Fuller

As a reminder: The type of practice that is important to the learning-leader consists in experimenting with new action strategies coupled with new values, coupled with a simultaneous reflection upon the action and its consequences (the intended and, perhaps more importantly, the unintended consequences).

The ‘new’ is more effectively learned by learning-leaders who are grappling with current difficult ‘challenges’ (think: problems, polarities, paradoxes & dilemmas – both right-right and harm-harm dilemmas), especially those that have been avoided or covered up.

A most powerful context for learning is one in which individuals identify challenges (again, think: problems, polarities, paradoxes and dilemmas) that they believe are central in their lives, which they also predict are unsolvable-unresolvable and/or undiscussable.

NOTE: There are many more Paradoxes, Polarities, and Dilemmas (Right-Right and Harm-Harm) than Problems to be solved.  Consider, then, that the ‘umbrella’ concept is ‘Challenge’ and that each Challenge will be composed of one or more of these (problems, paradoxes, polarities & dilemmas).

These ‘Challenges’ often include one or more of the following: freedom of choice, truth, the nature of commitment, high achievement-competition, effectiveness-faithfulness, cooperation, collaboration, conflict (e.g. values and needs conflicts), and authority-influence.  There is also a triumvirate that must be attended to: trust-safety-commitment (commitment vs loyalty).

Too often the learning-leader demonstrates resistance to this type of leaning.  Consider, then, that resistance to this type of reflective-learning-in-action is rooted in embarrassment, threat, fear, and shame.  These are the tap roots that feed and nurture resistance and reluctance to engage (and hence to learn).

Not only Learning-Leaders, but all human beings need to become competent in TAKING ACTION and SIMULTANEOUSLY REFLECTING ON THE ACTION taken in order to learn from it.  Experience plus Reflection is the key to learning.

In order to Learn, Leaders must develop, practice and integrate at least three types of theories.  Theories are vehicles for ‘explanation,’ ‘prediction,’ or ‘control.’

An Explanatory Theory explains events by setting forth propositions from which these events may be inferred.

A Predictive Theory sets forth propositions from which inferences about future events may be made.

A Theory of Control describes the conditions under which events of a certain kind may be made to occur.

Learning is a never-ending process and challenge.  The learning that the leader is called to embrace must be intentional and purpose-full.  Gandhi captures the importance of this in five words:

My life is my message.

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Everything is hard before it is easy. –Goethe

The learning-leader is willing to persevere in practicing new behaviors, or embracing new attitudes, or letting go of certain assumptions and replacing them, with the goal of being more response-able, more effective, and perhaps more faithful [For example, think: ‘Being Faithful to always acting from a tap root of moral integrity’ ].

It is also important for the leader to understand that the kind of practice that is essential to learning is NOT routine repetition but is experimentation-focused.  Being experimentation-focused requires some competence in the use of abstractions (think, for example, ‘metaphors’); the leader-learner must develop, or develop more fully, his/her competence when it comes to embracing abstractions.

This, as we know, is more challenging for the leader who is, by his/her nature, a ‘concrete’ thinker.  For example, the ‘operationalizer’ is more likely to be rooted in ‘concrete thinking’ and the ‘conceptualizer’ is more likely to be rooted in ‘abstract thinking.’  It is easier for the conceptualizer to embrace the operationalizer than it is for the operationalizer to embrace – if not value – the conceptualizer.

NOTE: It is crucial that the leader learns that practice does not make perfect; practice makes permanent!  Hence, the leader must choose wisely when it comes to choosing the ‘what’ to practice.

The learning-leader also seeks to embrace Being Vulnerable without feeling weak.  Being Vulnerable involves taking risks, being transparent, being fully human and it also means that the leader will carry the wound with grace [‘Vulnerable’ comes from the Latin vulnus, which means, to carry the wound with grace].  The leader will be ‘wounded’ – intentionally and unintentionally; some of these wounds will be self-inflicted.  Thus, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing are capacities that the leader must also develop or develop more fully.

It is also crucial to note that learning-leaders change values at the level of ‘theory-in-use’ (Think: ‘Values’ that are ‘negotiable’] and are, at the same time, committed to holding onto their ‘core-values’ [‘core values’ are the ones they will, to the best of their ability, never compromise; these ‘core values’ are non-negotiable].

A ‘conflict of values’ emerges when ‘core values’ conflict or when a person is asked to compromise one or more of his/her ‘core values.’  Each of us has integrated two or three ‘core values’ and so it is crucial for the learning-leader to emerge and name them and for the learning-leader to encourage all, especially his/her direct reports to emerge and name them.  The emergence and naming will not diminish a conflict of values; this emergence and naming might help folks engage the conflict more ‘creatively’ however.

[AN ASIDE: In addition to a conflict of ‘core values’ the other powerful conflict that occurs involves a conflict of ‘core needs’.  Again, we have needs that we can compromise and we have ‘core needs’ that to the best of our ability we will never compromise].

Learning is not a one-time event or a periodic luxury.  Great leaders recognize that the ability to constantly learn and improve is vital. –Amy Edmondson



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Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. –John F. Kennedy

Good morning Gentle Reader.  These past four years I have been helping a new leader develop his skills and capacities so he can develop more fully into the leader that he believes he is called to become.  As he reflected to me last week, “I continue to learn so much; much more than I thought I would learn or needed to learn.”

His comment stimulated my own thinking about ‘Leaders & Learning.’  Here is some of the considerations that, thus far, have emerged into my consciousness.

Consider that Leaders who are committed to learn possess two crucial characteristics:

  • They are able to listen to feedback (internal and external) about the errors they make as they strive to learn (learn via a number of experiences);
  • Once they have received valid and constructive feedback, they tend to ‘hang in’ in order to learn.

NOTE: ‘Error’ = the gap between their ‘theories of use’ and their ‘espoused theories.’  As imperfect human beings this ‘gap’ always exists.  In order to discern the gaps one must understand his or her ‘espoused theories’ and one must be aware of his or her ‘theories of use.’

For Example: A leader ‘espouses’ that it is crucial that he/she listen first, in order to understand.  As James Autry used to tell his direct reports: ‘Don’t just do something, sit there.!’  This same leader, however, has integrated a ‘theory of use’ that he/she relies upon when frustrated or stressed.  This ‘theory of use’ does not rely upon listening, first in order to understand; this theory relies upon reactive action first – the ‘shoot first and aim later’ reaction.

On the other hand, when a leader is committed to learning then he/she will seek to embrace something like the following:  When it happens that a new action he/she tries out seems wrong/ineffective and the result is the leader feels stuck then the leader realizes that recognizing and embracing the stuck-ness is necessary for learning to occur.

NOTE: The leader realizes that the old guideline, ‘The leader must walk-the-talk’ is a trap.  The reality is that the leader who is learning will, more often than not, ‘Stumble the Mumble!’  The leader will, indeed, fall down many times and many times will not know the ‘right words’.  Consistency is the goal; not perfection.

Tell me and I forget.  Teach me and I remember.  Involve me and I learn. –Benjamin Franklin

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To refuse to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral. –Robert K. Greenleaf

What can a religious-philosophic-humanistic perspective contribute?  I do not believe that their contribution lies at the level of detail.  The ‘Axial Age’ birthed great faith, philosophic and humanistic traditions – long before the birth of modernity.  There was and continues to be much that diverse religious, philosophic and humanistic voices contributed and can add to the collective conversation.  These collective voices can remind us of where we have come from; they can help us become aware of where we are today; they can help us discern and begin to live into a vision of the future that embraces and honors all human beings.

Today, more than ever before we humans are faced with fate-full choices and decisions.  Today more than ever before we humans need to be awake, aware, intentional and purpose-full.  We need to become wise beyond our years.  Our religious, philosophic and humanistic traditions still remain our greatest resource for our becoming wise beyond our years.

These three traditions can provide us with sustained reflections on humanity’s place in nature and can help us discern what constitutes a just, caring, and loving society – a society that honors both the individual and the community.

At their best, these traditions help us develop caring communities; they help us literally shape our individual and collective lives.  They remind us of our dignity by telling us stories that explain who we are and what we are truly stewards of.  They remind us that we have been entrusted with our world; we are the care-takers not the controllers.

Because of science and technology we are, once again, as those in the Axial Age were, wandering about in uncharted territory.  These three traditions can – as they always have – provide us with a compass.  They can – as they always have – help us discern, survey, and take the paths we need to take in order to nurture and not deplete ourselves and our world.

We live in an age of uncertainty [AN ASIDE: Our hubris blinds us to this reality; for we also live in an age of illusion – that we are truly in control].  We live in an age of complexity.  Uncertainty and complexity are anxiety generators.  Rather than embrace both we spend time and energy devolving things into the ‘simple’.  In our country we even elect folks who support our illusion of simple; we reject the officer seeker who reminds us of the uncertainty and complexity.

These three traditions, however, seek to remind us that we are not alone, nor are we without guidance.  The sheer tenacity of these three traditions – so much longer-lived than political systems and rigid ideologies – reminds us (‘Let those who have ears hear!’) that there is something enduring in our human character.

These three traditions taught us, and continue to remind us, to look beyond the city-state, the tribe, and the nation.  They taught us, and continue to teach us, to look at humanity as a whole.  We are truly in this together.  We are truly interdependent.  We are bound together – for good or for ill.  We have choice.  Deep conversations among-between all three traditions is still possible; actually, today, more than ever before thanks to technology deep conversations are truly possible.  We have choice!

In dialogue all are willing to change. –T.N. Hanh  

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