The wisdom of adversity and misfortune

“But despite what you may think, good luck is more dangerous than bad luck. Bad luck teaches valuable lessons in patience, timing, and the need to be prepared for the worst; good luck deludes you into the opposite lesson, making you think your brilliance will carry you through. Your fortune will inevitably turn, and when it does you will be completely unprepared.” … Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power

During a recent outing to one of Seattle’s many brewpubs, I swapped stories with my good friend about hospital visits. Most people I know have had them, and a rarefied few have not. In my case, I have been hospitalized at least a half-dozen times, mostly for stitches, but also worse.

I told my friend some of my greatest learning moments came with contemplation lying in a hospital bed. There is nothing like pain one feels in the ugliness of a hospital room to focus the mind and to allow one to make sense of all the things that preceded the unforgettable trigger moments.

South African born psychiatrist and author Norman E. Rosenthal

South African born psychiatrist and author Norman E. Rosenthal

South African born psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal has written a book on this theme called the Gift of Adversity. Thinking back on his own Apartheid-era life, surviving a near fatal stabbing, and his professional experiences, Rosenthal argues that innovation, resilience, and understanding emerge  from our own adverse experiences and by gaining wisdom from those hard times. Writ large, economists will even refer to collective behaviors among entire generations, such as young people who came into adulthood in the Depression era, and whose lifelong buying patterns and decisions to live more austerely can be quantitatively measured.

Using examples of individuals who endured suffering yet who came out stronger, Rosenthal sees opportunity in these struggles for all of us. “Well, when adversity comes, the last word that comes to mind is gift, because it just looks like an unmitigated disaster. But, how many times have you heard a friend or somebody say, ‘You know, at the time, it seemed terrible, but in retrospect, it was for the best.’ … The first step is really to accept that the adversity has happened. … We have to somehow come to terms that it really has happened. Then, we have to analyze the situation, every adversity is different, and respond accordingly.”

My own experiences mirrored these points, almost too perfectly. Both involved small misfortunes with lifelong rewards.

Lesson No. 1: When I was 14 and not fully mature, I did something that was likely one of the dumbest acts of my life. I will not say exactly what it was, but it substantially disrupted life at my often-violent and chaotic junior high school, in University City, Mo. I was soon on my way for an expulsion as the second-to-last-day of classes was ending in June 1979.

Coming back to campus I encountered four guys who I did not know. At least three were students. The other may have been a high school student. He was older, a guy with a cast. They were tough. I was not. They were experienced in the art of violence. I had few such fighting skills. They were skillful manipulators, and I fell for small talk that drew me close. It turns out one of them had been blamed for the incident. That is the story I heard second-hand, and the group was bent on physical vengeance.

I do not remember everything that happened, but I do remember feeling a floating feeling. I was cold-cocked in the face by one of the four wearing a cast. I was bleeding profusely from a cut on my eyelid and could not see out of my left eye. I was lying on the ground not sure what had happened. I felt warm blood on my hand.

I remember the four of them mocking me and telling me if I was happy now about having the heat fall on them. It was a perfect example of the violence I had witnessed many times before at this school, often with the tense black-white racial undertones, and I am sure that tension influenced this assault too. They walked away, never having been arrested, never having been questioned by anyone, ever.

Insult piled upon injury. I had to go back to school, get kicked out by a furious principal who did not express any concern about me having just been assaulted on school grounds, and then have teachers sign my expulsion papers. One thug laughed at me in the hall and yelled, “What happened to you.” I shot back, in my un-masculine voice, “What do you think happened.” He turned cold, came close, and threatened, “Yo, want another one, mother fucker.” Luckily I walked away from that one.

I stayed at this hospital for nearly a week after I was assaulted and nearly blinded in my left eye, which proved to be a great learning moment.

I stayed at this hospital for nearly a week after I was assaulted and nearly blinded in my left eye, which proved to be a great learning moment.

My mom, a new teacher that year in the same district, took me to the emergency room in Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, where I was put into a shared room and monitored. My eye pressure was dangerously high because vessels were ruptured from blunt trauma, and I was at high risk of blindness in my left eye. The doctors prescribed having both eyes covered for more than a week to keep them from moving, lying in a bed, and having no physical activity.

I remember the slow passage of time and mostly the sounds of the ward, the voice of my few visitors, and the stories of a young man next to me going into eye surgery, not sure what would happen.

The school principal came once, talked briefly, and somehow waived my punishment as a result of being a violent crime victim. He never told me or my mom what the school or school district had done to investigate the assault. My mom told me years later she was too afraid as a new teacher to make waves with her new employer. No police officer ever took my story. The whole thing was wiped under the rug.

Lying there, in a flimsy hospital gown, feeling like needles were piercing my eyeball, I came to the realization of how precious my sight really was, and how close I had flirted with genuine disaster.

Lesson Learned: This was the clearest teaching moment ever in my life. Never, ever, do stupid things. Such acts have unforeseen consequences, particularly things that put you in an weak position with uncaring bureaucracies and with men who use violence to settle a score. If you act badly and unwisely without thinking, the sword of blunt justice will be swift, and it will be lasting. Also, without any allies or friends, one can be quickly abandoned by any organization if you are perceived as lacking advocacy skills and are vulnerable. So, do not present yourself as weak or easily exploited. Finally, and most importantly, always know exactly who you are dealing with when you confront strangers in strange circumstances. Trust your instincts, and keep your wits about you, always. Your instincts will always know who is a friend and who is a foe. Worry about bruised feelings later, from a safe distance.

It took me a whole summer to recover, and I could not engage in full physical activities for three months. I wore an eye patch half the summer. Decades later, I still have damage to the back of my eye that my most recent visit to an optometrist confirmed. He could see the damaged areas after my pupil was dilated.

Lesson No. 2: In my last month of my journalism master’s program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in July 1993, I was playing pickup soccer at the UNC-CH campus. It was supposed to be friendly, but of course men are fiercely competitive. A guy who I was marking intentionally head-butted me with the back of his head into my face. He broke my nose instantly, and it began to bleed profusely. I walked myself to the UNC-CH hospital, as it was close by.

This is how I looked shortly after my nose was broken and then reset in July 1993.

This is how I looked shortly after my nose was broken and then reset in July 1993.

I waited about three hours for a resident to attend to my situation. The plastic-surgeon-to-be had been up about 28 hours and was in a terrible mood. After shooting cocaine painkillers into my nasal cavity area, he stuck a metal rod up my nose and proceeded to move things back into place. I recall screaming like a wild animal so loudly that it clearly disrupted patients in the entire wing. The exhausted and overworked resident was furious with my uncooperativeness, as he called it. He stuck the rod back in and went back to work.

A nurse came in and saw the procedure. She simply held my hand. I stopped crying. I instantly calmed down. My level of pain subsided dramatically. The compassionate act of human touch proved more powerful than any medicine. After the resident stuffed both of my nasal passages with some sort of medical gauze, I thanked the nurse. She gave me a caring look that said, everything’s going to be OK.

That night I wrote a poem about the war in Bosnia, then raging at the time, and I put my small problem into a larger perspective of suffering felt more severely by others around the world.

Lesson Learned: Human compassion and human touch are among the most powerful healing agents in the world, often more powerful than medicine and actions of medical specialists. The mind, when it needs to, can calm down and can process a stressful situation. Set the calming effect in motion, and show mindfulness of yourself and others who may be less fortunate.

Comment: Author Rosenthal, who sees the importance of adversity, profiles the late Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. He was the only member of his family to survive the genocide, staying in four different camps, and went on to receive acclaim for his widely read treatise called Man’s Search for Meaning, original published in German in 1946 Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager.

Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author Viktor Frankl

Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author Viktor Frankl

Frankl’s own horrific experience taught fellow psychiatrist Rosenthal critical lessons also, that one can find meaning even in the midst of terrible adversity and that no single group of people is pure good or evil. Both types of people can be found in all groups, everywhere.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us,” wrote Frankl. “Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

In no way did anything I experience come close to the challenges Frankl and other tough and lucky individuals have endured from such crimes.

I do know that in my case, my invaluable teachers came disguised as sterile wards and rooms of hospitals, giving me opportunities to contemplate larger truths. In one case, I created my own folly but could use my intellect to evaluate my mistakes. I also benefitted from being in hospitals, where I seldom felt kindness and felt great stress and also fear. This was clearly a place to avoid at all costs. I was doubly motivated to stay healthy—mind, body, and soul.

The wisdom I gained at those small junctures far exceeded anything I received in any university setting. As Robert Greene’s opening quote aptly notes, our bad luck prepares us for misfortune and gives us the strategies to overcome the roadblocks we build for ourselves or encounter from others. Those who are blessed mostly by good luck will eventually see their luck change, and when they do, they will be overtaken by those who have adapted and learned already.

So be thankful for those learning moments. They are your teachers, and you profit immensely by employing that knowledge wisely in the future.

Robert Greene’s insights into power and mastery

Robert Greene, popular author

Popular author Robert Greene

How is it that a classics major, a guy who reportedly held 80 jobs, and a not-so-successful screenwriter became the big man of big ideas in a span of 15 years, now doing lectures at places like Google? Today, writer Robert Greene is known by everyone from corporate CEOs, to rappers like 50 Cent and Jay Z, and even to retired dictators like Fidel Castro.

Many people are most familiar with Greene’s seminal 1998 work, The 48 Laws of Power. The book is a compendium of principles of success for the modern-day prince and even low-level office worker on how to succeed. Some of those frequently mentioned laws include “Court attention at all costs,” “Crush your enemy totally,” “Learn to keep people dependent on you,” and “Pose as a friend, work as a spy.”

He also wrote other popular books drawing on the same formula of turning to the past and historic examples to shine relevance on the present and also on achieving success.

Greene’s works also include The Art of Seduction (2004), The 33 Strategies of War (2007), The 50th Law (2009) that involved collaboration with rapper 50 Cent, and more recently Mastery (2012). Greene is a man clearly on a mission. I recommend anyone who is interested in organizational behavior or simply how to get along better with a rival or coworker read one of his works.

Rebooting those ‘stale’ classics and lessons of history

The 48 Laws of Power, in essence, reboots the well-read and well-studied writings of Niccolò Machiavelli, historic Chinese military strategists like Sun Tzu, and tactics of leaders such as Prussian leader Otto von Bismarck. These are texts and persons that liberal arts majors by the hundreds of thousands have studied, yet few others have stitched together to have such contemporary modern relevance for everyone’s day-to-day life. As someone who has read many of these classic works and who studied history, nothing here is new to me, and thus not surprising.

Having sold well over a million copies of The 48 Laws of Power alone, Greene is today the subject of professional jealousy from those who have not achieved his notoriety and also praise from those who practice his stratagems that have appeared repeatedly in history. (This is just one of many summaries of those laws found online, and they are worth downloading and reviewing.)

Some professional groups, like the American Public Health Association, even published the laws of power, and quizzically asked public health leaders, “So, now that you’ve read the laws, how appropriate are they for you, as a health care administrator?” Having worked in the field, I can assure you many of these laws most certainly apply to public health bureaucracies and managerial aspirants in them who are more obsessed with power games and personal ambition than with promoting public health. But this is not news to anyone, in any profession.

As Greene told the LA Times in 2011, “These laws … people might say, ‘Oh they’re wicked.’ They’re practiced day in and day out by businesspeople. You’re always trying to get rid of your competition and it can be pretty bloodthirsty, and that’s just the reality.”

48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene

The 48 Laws of Power

The ‘dark side’ or the ‘real side’?

Consider Greene’s dark view in the opening to The 48 Laws of Power. “If the world is like a giant scheming court and we are trapped inside it, there is no use in trying to opt out of the game. That will only render you powerless, and powerlessness will make you miserable. Instead of struggling against the inevitable, instead of arguing and whining and feeling guilty, it is far better to excel at power. In fact, the better you are at dealing with power, the better friend, lover, husband, wife, and person you become.”

For Greene, The 48 Laws of Power was a personal journey that built upon his fascination with Greek and Roman history, and the lessons drawn from that era. In Greene’s case, his failures in Hollywood led him to attempt to duplicate Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon River to launch a civil war against his rival Pompeii (dramatized brilliantly in the HBO miniseries Rome).

A statue of Julius Caesar in Rome (taken in 2006). Like Caesar, Greene also had to cross his Rubicon to achieve mastery and success.

A statue of Julius Caesar in Rome (taken in 2006). Like Caesar, Greene also had to cross his Rubicon to achieve mastery and success.

Greene notes how he arrived at his own Rubicon to reboot the tired, old classics into a modern bible for aspiring climbers and those trying to cope with amoral people and broken organizations: “My situation is much less intense, but I will follow Caesar and not only write the proposal, but take three months to do it right. I would have to borrow the money and cut my ties with the film world. As Caesar revealed to me, the more I had to lose, the harder I would work. The treatment turned into the best-selling The 48 Laws of Power and represents the turning point in my life.”

For those who are not familiar with history or its lessons, they may be missing Greene’s larger and longer long view of human history and behaviors that transcend time and culture. He told Forbes that his secret goal is to make “reading, studying the classics and philosophy something hip, so that young people were inspired to step away from the TV and the Internet and challenge their minds, rethink the world and return to our origins.”

We already knew a lot about the laws of power

When I posted a section of Greene’s writing on my Facebook page, describing people who are psychopathic and display passive aggression to the point of becoming warriors at this art, one of my colleagues responded, “OMG. If this does not describe one of my co-workers, I don’t know what does. Thank you for this.”

For me, many things Greene discusses have been well trodden by writers from William Shakespeare to Mark Twain, and anyone who has worked as a news reporter knows the realities that always lie beneath the surface veneer, particularly among those who exploit others and use power.

This is not to say students of history are cynics. Great students of history also are great leaders, notably Abraham Lincoln, who used his deep knowledge of America’s founding fathers and the actual intent of the U.S. Constitution’s authors to persuade voters that they did not intend slavery to remain a permanent and immoral institution in the country. Lincoln’s passion for history and his knowledge of power and human ambitions in fact made him one of the greatest leaders ever.

Mastery, by Robert Greene

Mastery

Mastery takes a more optimistic tone

I was deeply impressed with Greene’s delightful 2012 book, Mastery. The book uses profiles of contemporary masters and historic “geniuses,” such as Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, John Coltrane, Leonardo di Vinci, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and others. (Many examples, but not all, are white men.) Why did they break down barriers, have astounding creativity, and achieve brilliance that crossed boundaries of thought.

Greene’s answer lies in the deep, thoughtful, apprenticeship type work one does before one becomes a master. He shows that through this applied study, the most innovative work happens in sports, science, research, art, military endeavors, and more. For Greene, through an applied apprenticeship that normally lasts five to 10 years, learning real skills and innovative thinking occur at the neural level, where great insight comes from.

“The goal of an apprenticeship is not money, a good position, a title, or a diploma, but rather the transformation of your mind and character—the first transformation on the way to mastery,” he writes. These involve three modes:

  • Step One: Deep Observation—the passive mode
  • Step Two: Skills Acquisition—the practice mode
  • Step Three: Experimentation—the active mode

During the acquisition mode, an apprentice will log at least 10,000 hours of practice, before charting his or her own course as a master. “This number has an almost magical or mystical resonance to it,” Greene writes. “It means qualitative change in the human brain. The mind has learned to organize and structure large amounts of information. With all of this tacit knowledge, it can now become creative and playful with it.”

For Greene, mastery is more than becoming simply proficient. This is about deep creativity and achieving one’s life purpose, which he suggests is a challenge that will confront most of us. “No good can ever come from deviating from the path that you were destined to follow. You will be assailed by varieties of hidden pain. Most often you deviated because of the lure of money, or more immediate prospects of prosperity. … Not seeing clearly ahead of you, you will end up in a dead-end career. … There is no compromise there, no way of escaping the dynamic. You will recognize how far you have deviated by the depth of your pain and frustration.”

The answer, according to Greene, lies in pursuing the path used by masters time and again, which he acknowledges is full of challenges and pleasures. “Make your return to the path a resolution you set for yourself, and then tell others about it,” writes Greene. “It becomes a matter of shame and embarrassment to deviate from this path. In the end, the money and success that truly last come not to those who focus on such things as goals, but rather to those who focus on mastery and fulfilling their life’s task.”

Franklin’s lesson in power and mastery

According to Robert Greene, Benjamin Franklin was a master who had great social intelligence.

According to Robert Greene, Benjamin Franklin was a master who had great social intelligence.

One the masters cited by Greene is Benjamin Franklin, because he was an innovative inventor, writer, and businessman who possessed great social intelligence. Greene shows that this latter skill is absolutely key to becoming successful and a master. Franklin is also one of my many role models. He excelled at nearly everything he did and had amazing people skills that always left a positive impression, like influential people I have known in my life.

Clearly, Franklin was one who learned about power well, in the most classic sense. Greene notes that as a young man, Franklin was terribly duped by Pennsylvania’s governor when he went to England and found himself practically penniless, without promised letters of introduction.

A copy of the daily schedule of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin thought deeply and then grew. He resolved never to make an error of character judgment again and think about a man’s intentions carefully before making a response. And he always resolved to work at building his networks and turning enemies into allies, if possible. It worked time and again as he kept having success after success, but after great work and careful deep thought. Greene also shows that Franklin, as a master, also always stayed curious, and some say youthful until his 80s. The rest is, as they say, history.

Franklin perhaps is a Machiavellian case study in early American power, by becoming a revolutionary, co-author of the Declaration of Independence, and “founding father.” But by achieving excellence through the path of apprentice to master, he became much more.

On my wall, I have hanging a clip from Franklin’s daily planning calendar. On one side, he wrote the question for the morning: “What good shall I do this day?” For the evening hours, his calendar ended with the evening question, “What good have I done today.”

 

 

A World Cup for the ages, with good old fashioned teamwork

Even four days after the best World Cup final I have ever seen, I am still brimming with the euphoria that only seems to accompany el jogo bonito (the beautiful game) in its finest form. What a spectacle it is. Teams from 32 nations around the planet vie for supremacy of being called the world’s best team. Remember that word, T-E-A-M.

Germany’s relatively small-sized but experienced captain, Philipp Lahm, captured it best after the final game against Argentina. “It’s unbelievable what we have achieved,” said the Bayern Munich defender. “Whether we have the best individual player doesn’t matter at all, you just need to have the best team.”

This Tweet was widely re-Tweeted after Germany crushed Brazil 7-1.

This Tweet was widely re-Tweeted after Germany crushed Brazil 7-1.

A great shot published on game day of the victors.

A great shot published on game day of the victors celebrating their win in the biggest sporting event in the world.

I watched more matches than I planned to, and found myself swept away, as always, in the massive melodrama that captures the world’s attention every four years. This year was no exception.

Uruguayan Luis Suarez bit an Italian opponent like a zombie.

The host team lost in the biggest knockout-round blowout ever in the Cup, 7-1, to winners Germany after its star player, Neymar, had his back broken.

One nation, Cameroon, was alleged to have thrown a game. And of course there were countless displays of sheer athletic brilliance like goals scored by Colombia’s James Rodriguez and would-be goals blocked by U.S. keeper Tim Howard.

More than a game … a social media spectacle of historic proportions

An Internet meme beautifully shows how U.S. keeper Tim Howard blocked the goals.

An Internet meme beautifully shows how U.S. keeper Tim Howard blocked the goals against Belgium.

It is estimated the final match that saw Germany top Argentina in a 1-0 nail-biter decided in the 113th minute drew about 26 million viewers in the United States. In Germany, about 35 million fans watched the game on TV, not to mention public viewing areas. Globally, around the world about 1 billion may have watched, but I suspect the number was higher. I doubt they count small bars in rural China and Africa and other remote spots.

Mario Gotze scores the winning goal against Argentina, as shown in possibly the penultimate game photo of the tournament.

Mario Gotze scores the winning goal against Argentina, as shown in possibly the penultimate game photo of the tournament.

And what a great final game it was, with a brilliant end.  Germany’s André Schürrle darted down the sideline and sent a perfect cross to teammate and fellow late-game sub Mario Götze. Super Mario trapped the volley with his chest and blasted the ball to the side of the net. GOOAAAAALLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!

Where I was watching the game in Seattle at a neighborhood center, half the room went nuts, with orgiastic screaming. Half the room cheering for a great Argentina side fell stunned silent. That is pure World Cup emotion, and there is absolutely nothing else like it in the world. Period.

Some researchers have said events like soccer have a hormonal factor in a brain peptide, oxytocin, that research shows promotes positive intersocial relations. It is called the “love hormone” because it makes people like one another, especially in intimate relationships like mother and child. Research shows that players’ exhibitions of emotions like happiness and confidence, as in after a great play or goal, can be contagious, when a person’s excitement  triggers biochemical reactions in onlookers’ brains.

That is precisely what happened at the same moment around the globe when everyone watching the game on TV and giant screens saw the emotions on the German team members’ faces after the goal.

Bam, oxytocin discharge, followed by social media frenzy.

Social media globally turned into a raging wildfire. Twitter sent more than 600,000 Tweets a minute after the match on July 13 and more than 670 million Tweets by the next day, more than ever before in its short history. On Facebook, there were 280 million interactions such as posts, likes, and comments—the most for a sports event.

It was a sports event and a social media happening of historic proportions at the same time. Small wonder German Chancellor Angela Merkel was at the stadium hugging the sweating German team one by one, and even posed for a selfie with starter Lukas Podolski, and soon that Tweet blasted around the world.

Podolski tweeted this selfie of him and the German leader right after the game, in a Tweet seen 'round the world.

Lukas Podolski tweeted this selfie of him and the German leader right after the game, in a Tweet seen ’round the world.

So it is no boast the singularly most important global event of the past month was the Cup, despite all of the raging conflicts that continued during its course. People the world over adore it, and go crazy over it, and weep and moan over like, like the entire 200-million-person host nation of Brazil did after the German team brutalized the host team 7-1 in the semi-final blowout that was a record-breaker of historic proportions.

Why the game is great, and the Cup is greater

Professionally, the game is easy to grasp. It has simple rules, a 100 meter pitch, three referees, and 22 men making up two teams who are fiercely competing for the title of best national team on the planet during Cup time. I love the Cup because it, more than anything else, is a common denominator that I have with someone in remote Greenland; and Munich, Germany; and Kampala, Uganda; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. No matter where I go, I can always talk about the Cup, and I will have a well of good feelings and excitement to draw upon.

This is one of the best shots after the game: Lionel Messi of Argentina is consoled by Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger.

What I most liked about this year’s final game was the near-perfect match of two really outstanding teams.

On one side, you had the world’s greatest player, forward Lionel Messi of the elite club Barcelona, who was surrounded by a team that got stronger and more cohesive as the tournament progressed. They were matched by Germany, which lacked the flash and brilliance of Messi, but who had perfected what football commentators called a system of teamwork and cohesion. (Granted this system is strongly supported by the nation’s football federation.)

In fact, the two best teams showed up in the Maracana stadium, and both played great team soccer.

Passing was strong, there were not many dirty tackles, and both sides had great scoring chances, only to see them squandered. Argentina actually blew three golden opportunities, including one by Messi inside the box, with no one close enough to shut him down. With the exception of two horrible concussions during the game, one to each side that later forced commentators to blast FIFA’s system and led to many calling the contest the “Concussion Cup,” the game was without flops or debilitating injuries.

Despite the excesses and corruption of the world football governing body known as FIFA, for me, Brazil’s 2014 Cup was a great reinforcing example of the power of teamwork.

Organizational behavior theorists have long championed Naval researcher Bruce Tuckman’s famous four stages of group performance from his seminal 1965 article (Development Sequence in Small Groups): forming, storming, norming, and performing. When groups are clicking as a unit, they can achieve well above their own individual abilities and, if really good, as in high-stakes activity like conflict and sport, achieve greatness and victory.

As someone who played soccer most of my life from youth to middle-age, I can attest to the power of teamwork and how effectively groups with lesser abilities can overcome better opponents who do not have that cohesion.

The ultimate team player, Miroslav Klose of Germany

Germany had the team magic. It was obvious the whole tournament. There were great plays by the German team stars like Thomas Müller, even very great plays like Götze’s winning blast, but all of the German team members contributed to their success. The perfect example was forward Miroslav Klose, 36, and veteran of four World Cups and likely the most underrated player in the world. He scored two in the Cup, both lovely.

In the victory over Brazil, the “poacher” scored his 16th Cup goal (see all here), more than any other player in the history of the Cup. He did it as he always did, getting great service from his teammate, and always following up when his first shot was blocked.

Klose scores his 16th World Cup goal against Ghana, a record and a lasting tribute to a great team player.

This photo captures a perfect moment: forward Miroslav Klose scores his 16th World Cup goal against Brazil, a record and a lasting tribute to a great team player.

Klose is not pretty. He is not charismatic. He does not smile often, and he is a quiet family guy. In fact, his lack of flash allows defenders not to respect his killer instinct as a finisher. Most of all he has succeeded in making history by being part of a great team that worked relentlessly at being the best at what it did, and then did it in the highest possible stakes game there is in the world.

My hat is off to the German, and Argentinean, teams. Thanks for making this Cup memorable and for showing how two great teams play the best game in the world.

The 10th man, zombie apocalypses, and incorporating contrarian views

I recently saw the Brad Pitt zombie action vehicle, World War Z.

Brad Pitt goes toe-to-toe with the zombies and saves humanity in his public health swashbuckler, World War Z. Way to go, Brad!

Brad Pitt goes toe-to-toe with the zombies and saves humanity in his public health swashbuckler, World War Z. Way to go, Brad!

It is actually not a bad zombie apocalypse movie, as zombie apocalypse movies go. Brad saves earth, and a lot chattering, undead humans get shot and blown up. It also is a fairly straightforward public health film, which foretells horrific calamity to humans because of some possible viral outbreak that could kill much of humanity. (If you are not worried about this, then perhaps read up on the recent Ebola virus outbreak this is causing legitimate fear and even panic in West Africa.)

This narrative, of course, is nothing new. Some great cinematic predecessors include Omega Man, I Am Legend, 28 Days Later, Contagion, The 10 Commandments (assuming the angel of death that passed over the Jews in slavery might have been a killer virus), Children of Men (a personal favorite of mine), The Andromeda Strain, and much more.

Though I have no data to back up this claim, I am guessing more people around the world have learned about viruses and the threats they can pose to population and human health from such films than anything ever produced by a national or government health agency.

I also believe that public health advocates need to fully embrace the “Brad Pitt saves the world from zombies” approach and copy it, and also use such storytelling techniques to mobilize public understanding of public health issues, from the importance of vaccinations to the woeful underfunding of public health in the United States.

Can the 10th man save public health and humanity?

What I most liked about WWZ was its exploration of the concept of the 10th man, which is used by Israel’s security apparatus.

In the film, Israel had prepared for a zombie apocalypse because it had institutionalized a non-consensus decision-making safeguard. A Mossad security official character, Jurgen Warmbrunn, explains to Pitt’s hero that because of Israel’s pre-nationhood and post-nationhood catastrophes, including the Holocaust and the Yom Kippur War, one person in a decision-making group has to take the contrarian view if all nine of the others reach consensus. In Israel’s experience, failure to do so could lead to extinction. Then that person, the 10th man, must put the alternative view forward, with the larger goal of promoting the interests of the organization, country, or collective. That is why Israel in the film was ready for the zombie horde. (Click on the video snapshot below to see the clip on YouTube.)

10th Man Clip

In science, this happens all the time. Scientists and statisticians do this by attacking the null hypothesis that seeks to disprove their theory they believe to be true.

But I am more interested these days in how this may work in organizations outside of intelligence circles and defense, where mistakes can cost many lives and national security, and how organizations can incorporate 10th man decision-making. Can the contrarian view be protected and even respected in organizations that do not allow for rigorous debate about choices that have implications for the public’s well-being?

Kill the messenger and avoid demonstrating leadership?

We know the popular legend of the archetypal messenger who loses his head when he brings bad news to the king. I was a newspaper reporter, and I have lived this in a mild way, having been threatened with a lawsuit by a corrupt community leader and vilified by autocratic public officials who wanted to have their malfeasance remain hidden. A new movie called Kill the Messenger, focusing on drug running by the Nicaraguan Contras during the Reagan presidency, explores this issue in-depth.

Italian physicist and mathematician Galileo was deemed a heretic and tried for his promotion of the Copnernican view that the earth orbits the sun and that the earth is not the center of the universe.

Italian physicist and mathematician Galileo was deemed a heretic and tried for his promotion of the Copnernican or heliocentric view that the earth orbits the sun and that the earth is not the center of the universe.

In fact, the phrase “kill the messenger” is known and understood globally, and for good reason. Many people know that organizations and human nature prevent good people from offering alternative views that challenge authority and orthodoxy. Some like Galileo, who offered a view the earth was not the center of the universe, turned human understanding of man and God on its head, and he was ex-communicated and not forgiven for more than four centuries by the Catholic Church.

So how can organizations, like public agencies such as health departments, create safe environments to allow for alternative views to flourish, for the purpose of improving decision-making internally. This is no easy fit, as these are hierarchical by design, and I have yet to hear how alternative decision-making works in them in a real-word basis.

In organizational theory, Peter Senge’s so-called “learning organizations” may be a model, but that is not really the built-in acceptance of a 10th man contrarian. Of course CEOs, companies, and consultants aplenty try to allow contrarian views because the endgame for them is profit maximization and success of the firm. In the world of intelligence gathering and organizational behavior. failure has been dubbed “group think.”

Getting back to our popular public health film trope, the zombies

Personally, I would love to see public health agencies, top to bottom, hire and fund the bright and brilliant artists who are creating manga comics and who are making manga comic-styled videos. And it is no surprise some manga comic artists have been hired and there are positive results. I have seen one video already, produced by the outfit called the Global Health Media Project. The group published a gritty portrayal of how lethal cholera can be, as a means to promote global education against its spread. You can watch the video below by clicking on the image.

The Story of Cholera

What would a campaign that promoted immunizations and targeted the promoters of anti-vaccination deniers look like if it were entrusted to artists who can tell riveting stories linked to movies, like the three clips below that accompany Will Smith’s I Am Legend zombie apocalypse thriller?

Check them out and see what you think–click on each screen snapshot to see clips on YouTube. Would there need to be a 10th man pitching these ideas inside the proverbial boardroom saying this would be a better investment of prevention dollars than methods that may have yielded no measurable results, ever?

 

I Am Legend Manga Extra 1

I Am Legend Manga Extra 2

I Am Legend Manga Extra 3

A few thoughts on management, leadership, and the greatest of ‘em all, Abe Lincoln

About two years ago, I was tasked with doing a summary of the essential differences between management and leadership. This is one of the great topics in all of management and organizational behavior literature. Walls of books line bookshelves by experts from every field, from sports to defense to business.

This difference impacts all of us, because the effects of good or bad leadership filter down to all of us, either as government policy or work environments, or in extreme cases, life and death outcomes as seen in conflicts raging in Syria, South Sudan, and other troubled areas.

As someone working in public health, I am acutely aware how this woefully underfunded field needs inspirational leaders to tackle the challenges posed by public health threats, but also to inspire and steer public thinking and win support for greater public health funding.

Without strong leaders, from small agencies to leading scientists to figureheads like the U.S. Surgeon General (see my post that touches on how Dr. C. Everett Koop set the standard), the profession may continue to be relegated to third-tier funding status in federal budget priorities and not gain greater acceptance by a wider majority of Americans. (Note to my international readers, I am writing this post with an American context.)

With management and leadership issues very much on mind this past week because of some interesting developments I have observed, I have decided to publish a short summary document I did on this topic two years ago focussing on Abraham Lincoln as an example. He continues to inspire me, even when I hit roadblocks and get discouraged. And isn’t that what good leaders do, inspire?

“Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.” Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln is the most written-about American and also considered the greatest citizen this country has ever produced. He exemplified many of the traits that today's theorists consider to be those of a highly inspirational and effective leader.

Abraham Lincoln is the most written-about American and also considered the greatest citizen this country has ever produced. He exemplified many of the traits that today’s theorists consider to be those of a highly inspirational and effective leader.

What Is Management and Who Are Managers:

Management has been defined as “the art of using all available resources to accomplish a given set of tasks in a timely and economical manner.” Management provides the basis for the system of control needed to maintain and operate an organization. It is also about getting things done through others and delegating work. Managers motivate employees to accomplish tasks with a variety of tools (intrinsic or extrinsic awards).

Typical Management Activities:

- Planning, decision-making, organizing, staffing, directing/actuating (the process of leading through teaching), directing, and controlling (determining what the organization does in relation to its mission).

Management Theories:

- “Classic” management theory, dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, suggests managers have to rely less on technical skills and more on conceptual skills the more senior rank they hold. However, in the down economy as our class’s manager interviews found, managers at higher levels in lean organizations still have a lot of technical skills because they are doing a lot of frontline/skills-related activities.

- Classic models: Henry Mintzberg’s “10 managerial roles” (informational, interpersonal, and decision), similar to Robert Katz’s “skills of an effective administrator”  (technical, human, conceptual).

Scott Adams extremely insightful comic strip Dilbert captures an essence of management that likely resonates with millions of workers who find themselves led by those who fall short, very short of is well-document as being a good leader. Go to Adams' web site for more of his great work: http://www.dilbert.com.

Scott Adams’ extremely insightful comic strip Dilbert captures an essence of management that likely resonates with millions of workers who find themselves led by those who fall short, actually very short, of what is well-documented as being a good leader. Go to Adams’ web site for more of his great work: http://www.dilbert.com.

Management vs. Leadership:

Managers marshal resources to achieve the vision of others, and if they are good, help each person cultivate their talents and grow. Leaders are “visionaries, strategic thinkers, activators.” A talented few may excel at both.

Managers: rely on analysis and rationality, stress conformity, more like scientists, project power over people, seek obedience, emulate other successful managers/leaders.

Leaders: envision, rely on intuition, have self-confidence and take risks, project power with people, are creative and spontaneous, emphasize team building, explore new possibilities, inspire people to follow their vision.

Key Characteristic of Great Leaders: Emotional Intelligence (the principal theorist of this theory is Daniel Goleman):

  • Self-Awareness: Ability to recognize one’s emotions and their effects.
  • Self-Regulation: Ability to think before acting and suppress disruptive moods.
  • Motivation: A passion for the work beyond salary or status. Optimism, commitment, drive to do better.
  • Empathy: Ability to understand people’s emotions and treat them accordingly.
  • Social Skill: Good at building relationships and networks, finding common ground.

Leadership: Innate Ability Helpful, Practice Is Essential

Management experts debate if leadership is innate or learned; research suggests the latter. But innate traits such as drive, desire to lead, integrity, intelligence, and skill make it more likely that an individual will become a leader but are not the only factors in play. Research has shown that individuals can develop their leadership skills if they are given the right opportunities and mentored.
- Leadership as Innate: Intelligence and technical skill are key, and both are at least partially determined by genetics. Emotional intelligence—main predictor—tends to run in families and be greatly influenced by personality and childhood experience.
- Leadership as Learned: Businesses believe leaders can be created and invest a lot of time and money to identify and train individuals to assume leadership positions.
Transactional Leaders, focus on meeting organizational goals. Make adjustments as needed to complete tasks for group.
Transformational Leaders use personality/relations with followers to inspire the team to go above and beyond expectations. They are defined by charisma, vision, integrity, symbolism.

Abraham Lincoln, the Embodiment of Strong Leadership:

  • Lincoln Model, Emotional Intelligence: By the time he had become President, Lincoln had mastered his emotions and exercised great control by not sending “hot letters.” When the time came for action, he acted decisively, but only after deep analysis of the full situation. His greatest asset was his astounding empathy to understand his rivals, allies, and especially his opponents, including the slaveholding South. He was also a beloved storyteller and well-liked and admired by his peers. Lincoln also learned from missteps and made amends with opponents when victorious, and he did not carry personal grudges. He was driven to have a life that fulfilled a higher purpose and to preserve the Union—a nation he believed that had great future promise.
  • Lincoln Model, Learned Leadership: With just one year of schooling, Lincoln embodied personal drive and self-learning, as well as integrity. Lincoln spent years practicing his craft, in Whig party politics and then in the Illinois Legislature. He lost to his then-more renown rival Stephen Douglas in a U.S. Senate bid in 1856. He then won a brokered convention of the Republican Party in 1860, held in Chicago, after becoming the foremost speaker on the greatest issue of his day, the expansion of slavery. He credited the assistance of many benefactors and friends for believing in him and helping him rise to political prominence.
  • Lincoln Model, Not One Style of Leadership: Lincoln mixed authoritarianism (suspending the writ of habeas corpus, etc.) as a wartime president, but had a democratic style with his cabinet (his “Team of Rivals,” the most capable politicians of his day he personally recruited). He was transformational; his peers recognized his greatness, inspiring them to work harder.

Policy, systems, and environmental change: the current, faddish, cow-patty flavor of public health

One thing I have never shaken since my days as a rookie reporter is my penchant for calling out the obvious. This is one of the sacred duties of the press: to speak truth to power. This also means calling a spade a spade, and bullshit for what it is, and what it smells like.

Anyone who has ever worked in the business of reporting news and telling facts knows this is one of the press’s sacred trusts—and myths—and the clearer we are in doing that, the better our society is from having that unbiased information.

I captured these various images on Google when I typed in a few keywords, and clearly this concept has a lot of widespread acceptance by people who know a cow patty when they smell one.

I captured these various images on Google when I typed in a few keywords, and clearly this concept has a lot of widespread acceptance by people who know a cow patty when they smell one.

Today, I stumbled on Marcy Wheeler’s blog, the Empty Wheel, which tackles many hot-button policy issues. Last year she blogged about climate change in a piece called “The Cost of Bullshit: Climate Change, National Security, and Inaction.”  She pointed out that the cost for maintaining the status quo was too high, even when major government agencies from the Department of Defense and the Department of State concluded that the issue was a critical concern to U.S. national interests. Yet, no actions were being taken by the government, and all of the reports on the emerging crisis were “mere bullshit—more wasted government employees’ time and taxpayer money.”

Sure easy for a blogger not on the payroll to diss hard-working public workers and policy-makers, right? Or, is Ms. Wheeler simply calling out the obvious, like reporters have always done, or thought they were doing.

Will a public health fad meaningfully address the main killers of Americans?

The cost of bullshit has been on my mind late, particularly regarding public health jargon that inflates busy-looking arm-waving, but does not change reality.

For me, one of the most frustrating aspects of working in the public health is the field’s faddish way it labels its collective actions to address chronic disease issues, such as obesity, using fancy sounding concepts like “policy, systems, and environmental change.” Mon dieu, what big words, what big ideas.

This is an expression coming from the top, from the venerable U.S. Centers and Disease Control (CDC), to explain national efforts to tackle the monster that is chronic disease—the leading causes of death in our ever-fattening and ever growing income-unequal country.

These diseases kill seven in 10 Americans, and of the CDC’s meager budget of under $7 billion for our national public health effort is a mere drop in the bucket compared to other priorities of the $1.2 trillion national budget that is so-called “non-discretionary spending.”

The Congressional Budget Office released this info graphic on government spending and revenues for 2013. Go here for original: http://www.cbo.gov/publication/45278.

The Congressional Budget Office released this infographic on government spending and revenues for 2013. Go here for original: http://www.cbo.gov/publication/45278.

The CDC still estimates 18% of U.S. GDP spending is on healthcare, and a third of it at the place where the most outrageously overpriced and at the same time least effective primary care interventions can take place—hospitals.

So what do public health officials do, when faced with a handful of breadcrumbs thrown to them from Congress? They invent concepts that make it appear that public health is doing something, when there is little or no clear evidence population benefits are accruing based on investments at this level in the large ocean. Yes, I am taking about the catchy and jargon-laden ideas like “policy, systems, and environmental change.”

This is a hodge-podge of activities that encompass everything from starting farmers markets to promoting smoke-free buildings. Here are a couple of definitions I randomly found from some online sources:

  • State of Mississippi: “Our environment and the policies and systems in it shape the pattern of our everyday lives and have a profound influence on our health. The design and walkability of communities, the availability of low-cost fruits and vegetables, and the smoking policies in our workplaces have a direct impact on our physical activity, diet and health.”
  • State of Maryland: “Policy, systems, and environmental change (PSE change) refers to public health interventions that modify environments to provide healthy options and make healthy choices easy for everyone.”
  • Fairfax County Virginia: “Policy, systems and environmental change is a way of modifying the environment to make healthy choices practical and available to all community members. By changing laws and shaping physical landscapes, a big impact can be made with little time and resources. By changing policies, systems and/or environments, communities can help tackle health issues like obesity, diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases.”

Budgets for this kind of intervention exist in most public health jurisdictions, and public health leaders are doing to the talk, because they have so few funds to do the walk. But public health experts end up playing in a small sandbox when these investments are measured against other spending, and then we spend a lot of time trying to convince ourselves through published papers, webinars, conferences, and the like that this is working. The illusion is powerful, like the illusory power of the Iron Throne in the Game of Thrones, except the shadow from a fad still does not make meaningful change when the numbers are crunched and the costs are calculated regarding chronic disease.

From the Game of Thrones, a lecture on power and illusion, for Westeros and beyond.

From the Game of Thrones, a lecture on power and illusion, for Westeros and beyond.

Public health departments who get funding through competitive grants from the CDC spearhead these efforts and then spend extensive amounts of time documenting their work trying to prove the bread crumbs made a difference to the overall health crisis facing Americans.

About $200 million was doled out from 2011 and 2012 through an effort called Communities Putting Prevention to Work (the amount initially announced in 2010 was about $380 million). In one case, Public Health-Seattle & King County published findings that show its CPPW-grant-funded efforts in schools cut youth obesity in specific schools by 17 points. Great job, except the funding was not permanent and it was not renewed when the grant ran out. The program is now in the past tense.

In 2014, public health professionals learned another funding source, the Community Transformation Grants, which also promote the policy, systems, and environmental work, is being cut too. Some can argue the money is being allocated to other programs that tackle chronic disease, focusing on heart disease and diabetes.

More musical chairs without really changing the big picture again?

I do not mean to belittle the work of public health people doing this work. They are my colleagues. I respect them. And the work being done, like promoting activities to reduce tobacco use and get more people eating healthy food, should be continued.

But as a field, I am convinced this type of work is self-delusional because it hides the nasty realities of how much larger issues shape the public’s health, such as how transportation budgets are allocated, how cheap petro-based energy is spurring obesity in measurable ways, how legislation is crafted by special interests at the state and federal level, and how the principle of health care is considered a privilege not a right in the United States. (In Denmark, by contrast, the public funds about 85% of all health care through taxes, and the system is rooted in both law and a social contract that is premised on system where all citizens are provided free and equal access to quality health care.)

Emilia Clark, mother of dragons in the smash HBO TV series Game of Thrones, is a good visual metaphor of what public health is not in the bruising world of budget appropriations at the state and federal levels of government.

Emilia Clark, mother of dragons in the smash HBO TV series Game of Thrones, is a good visual metaphor of what public health is not in the bruising world of budget appropriations at the state and federal levels of government.

The nasty realities we do not want to think about, using a contemporary TV metaphor, would be what happens when the violent kings of Westeros cut deals and cut heads, to maintain order in that mythical, lovable place with White Walkers, a giant ice wall, and fire-breathing critters. Mother of Dragons, public health is not, that is for sure!

I imagine a new fad will emerge in public health in the next three years, like it does in management. We might change the concept, but we likely may even have a smaller piece of the government pies.

No, public health jurisdictions cannot stop working until we see changes on these fronts. But the more we in public health delude ourselves that we are making a difference with scraps from the table, the more easily we are duped into accepting that the larger model is as it should be, and how it shall always be.

We will continue kvetching about farmers markets and soda machines, but not moving in a rigorous way upstream, where budget deals are made with transportation dollars, for starters. And I think we have to start being honest with ourselves about what we are accomplishing in the sandbox and whether this is the best use of our meager and diminishing resources.

Greenwashing or great brand marketing?

The Rainforest Alliance‘s Follow the Frog viral video now boats more than 3.8 million views. If you have not seen it, the now-viral video is a made-for-YouTube brand promotion for the organization’s efforts to save the rainforest through preservation and collaboration with corporate partners, who put a cute little frog logo on their products.  (The organization’s actual mission statement is here; and wow, they publish slick annual reports too.)

The video itself mocks what I could only presume to be do-good, liberal-guilt-drenched, white, middle-class YouTube users that direct action, person-to-person contact with other cultures, and global-minded activism are failed and meaningless strategies for dupes like the star of this video. The moral? Why quit your job? Why learn about things first hand and be involved in meaningful efforts overseas? Most importantly, why stop shopping? Instead, sit back, relax, and buy more stuff with a little frog. And, by doing that, you can save the forest ecosystems and those charismatic critters and natives you care so passionately about.

That, in a nutshell, is the storyline. Oh, and if you do participate in failed efforts abroad, your wife might leave you for another man who is, yes, not white. (No, I am not making this up. This race element is integral to the “follow the Kermit” story. Please tell me this was not intentional, please, OK?)

Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl at work with the Nazis during the making of Triumph of the WIll.

Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl at work with the Nazis during the making of Triumph of the WIll.

Clearly, the Rainforest Alliance’s brand managers and media team hit pay dirt with this one. Be one of us, sport tattoos, be cool, and be a froggy consumer. (These brand managers need to consult in public health, which lacks a hip frog right now.)

Does that mean they are not just, as some critics claim, “greenwashing” consumerism? This creepily somewhat reminds me of the wildly successful Kony 2012 phenomenon, itself the artistic step-child of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl’s seductive 1934 film Triumph of the Will. That acclaimed masterpiece of filmmaking, by nearly all metrics, ultimately celebrates the virtues of the National Socialist Party led by dictator Adolf Hitler, a year after he peacefully seized control of the German state.

A scene of the Nazis during a rally filmed by Leni Riefenstahl for Triumph of the Will, one the most successful propaganda films ever.

A scene of the Nazis during a rally filmed by Leni Riefenstahl for Triumph of the Will, one the most successful propaganda films ever.

Do not get me wrong. I buy certified organic coffee. I love cat videos and Jimmy Kimmel’s infamous twerking video as much as the next YouTube user. But, ouh la la, there really is nothing more powerful than a good story, a clever media product, and the right artist to sell just about anything, from armchair activism to strong-arm fascism.

Sadly, I do not think you can teach this stuff. The best and the brightest will inevitably also work with the nastiest, wealthiest, and the worst, sometimes more than with the “virtuous.”

So, what do you think about following the frog? Good for forests? Or, something completely different?