Innovation, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Goodbye to a Tumultuous Year

boating-and-fishing

Illustration: Watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author (December 2016)

As 2016 winds down, it’s fitting in the quiet week before a New Year to consider the meaning of Black Elephants, Black Swans and the other metaphorical creatures of surprise, such as the boiling frog,  who opened up this blog two years ago this month.  There’s been a lot more attention given to them since then in other venues.  It’s surprising but true.  It’s equally surprising but true that the journey of many artists has, it seems to me, much to offer the rapidly changing world in which we find ourselves today–if we were to want to face up to these creatures of surprise.  This is because artists often try to see beyond the surface impressions to get at the truth of things–that’s what gives art its special meaning to many of us.

One could even say that we live in Black Elephant times if, by that, what we mean is what Thomas Friedman referred to in his op-ed of two years ago, called “Stampeding Black Elephants.”  In that article, he defined the metaphor “Black Elephant” as follows:

 “a cross between “a black swan” (an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications) and the “elephant in the room” (a problem that is visible to everyone, yet no one still wants to address it) even though we know that one day it will have vast, black-swan-like consequences.”

As I understand it, the phrase (which Friedman picked up from an environmentalist he’d recently met) “Black Elephants” refers to the concept of the uncomfortable, unthinkably unpalatable “elephant in the room” that we would rather not discuss or acknowledge, and therefore–too often–fail to address in time.  (This is also known as the “boiling frog syndrome,” or the “ostrich with its head in the sand,” or the “deer in the headlights” syndrome, etc.)

boiling frog image

Image: Watercolor, gouache, and ink by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

This concept covers the increasingly (but extraordinarily dangerous) popular tendency to avoid what the accumulated history of knowledge and scientific progress tells us to be true. And so, perhaps it is another “Black Elephant” to observe that these “elephants” may be multiplying right now (paradoxically and quite sadly as their real-life versions dwindle in number due to poaching and encroachment on their natural habitat.)  Facing up to these “elephants” is something that calls for well-honed critical and creative thinking skills–whereby people of all backgrounds including, of course, artists–join forces in shedding new light and creating new possibilities for dealing with the challenges of today in a fact-based way.  This is in fact how mankind has conquered so many diseases that previously killed so many in childhood.  Understanding how innovative breakthroughs occur,and accelerating our society’s capacities for innovation in so many sectors, are right now key to survival on a collective level.

Fortunately there is more awareness of these challenges, as well as our own inherently human desire to ignore them–aided by the fact of more frequent “black elephant” and “black swan” events in the last two years alone.  It turns out this awareness extends well into the suites of CEOS around the world.  I refer in particular to a recent paper, Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in a Digital Age, which I’ll turn to soon.  Last month I had an opportunity to hear the authors brief an audience on their research findings, and found their conclusions compelling enough to include in a revised syllabus for the coming semester of classes.  Interestingly, they too distinguish in their report between “Black Swans” and “Black Elephants”; the creatures of surprise are everywhere!

Black Elephants 1

Illustration: Watercolor, gouache, ink, pencil, gesso, and coffee grounds by Black Elephant Blog author (2014)

But for now with another spring-like day of temperatures in the 60s Fahrenheit, it’s time to be out enjoying the warm December weather, and re-charging our own personal energy reserves for what promises to be a challenging 2017!   Best wishes to all for a joyous New Year!

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Risk, Uncertainty

Strategic Intelligence on a Rainy Night

It was a dark and stormy night, but you wouldn’t have known it inside the brightly lit and charming home of the organizer of last week’s salon gathering featuring a timely and informative talk by the author, Michael Maccoby, of a new book, Strategic Intelligence: Conceptual Tools for Leading Change (Oxford University Press, 2015). True to form, this salon–held in the heart of Washington,D.C.– convened a diverse array of professionals, including a photographer, a portrait painter, members of the military and national media, teachers, an energy research expert, consultants, psychologists, retired think tank professionals, and recent university graduates.

Lead Speaker Image 1

Illustration: Pencil and ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Salons seem to be pretty rare in this age of instant news and busy schedules.  This form of idea exchange has been around for several hundred years, perhaps reaching its height of popularity in the 18th century…  On this evening, what brought us together, in these uncertain times less than a week after the devastating attacks in Paris and Beirut, was the subject of leadership.

After the dinner plates were cleared, the evening’s speaker, Dr. Michael Maccoby, took his place in front of the hearth where he faced the approximately 30-40 guests who were seated in the living room and into the hallway.

Attendees 1

Illustration: Pencil and ink sketch by Black Elephant Blog author

Dr. Maccoby has worked in many corporations and taught at several universities, and spent several decades studying what effective leadership entails.  His academic background is in psychology and anthropology and he also has focused for many years on issues related to technology, work , and character.  He also studied philosophy as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at the New College Oxford.

Speaker 1

Illustration: Pencil and ink sketch by Black Elephant blog author

He noted that there are countless studies available on leadership, many of them so deeply flawed that one leadership expert has even published a book called, “Leadership B.S.”  He offered his insights based on many decades of research and dealing directly on these issues with people in positions of leadership in both commercial and government fields.  He noted that there are many definitions of leadership but all fall short. Leadership is not, however, management.  He suggested that the interesting question is not the definition but instead:  “Why are people following this leader?”

“Some very effective leaders are not easy to characterize,” said Maccoby, mentioning names of some people he’s met whom many in the world associate with the concept of “leaders” but who do not actually fit the bill. In addition, leadership training often is very bad because it is decoupled from context, separated from the work, underestimates people’s capabilities, and the people “who go into leadership training programs often don’t want to be dealing with people.”

But leaders all need to work in teams; “even narcissistic leaders only succeed if they create a team.”  Maccoby added:

  • “A great leader creates a common purpose that others will buy… “
  • “The best leaders have developed a philosophy.”

Great leaders have three qualities, according to Maccoby:

  1. Purpose
  2. Passion about purpose
  3. Courage

Maccoby quoted Samuel Johnson as saying that “courage is probably the most important” quality because nothing can be accomplished without it.  “Courage comes from the heart… it is different from bravery,” said Maccoby.

Effective leaders also have “profound knowledge” and “insight from the heart rather than the intellect,” added Maccoby.  “One of the major challenges today is to move from tribalism to interactive humanism,” he said, so these attributes are ever more necessary to coping successfully with the complex challenges of our world.

The U.S. constitution is based on such a philosophy, he added.

In this context, “strategic intelligence” is a quality of an effective leader.  Its essential attributes are:

  1. First and foremost, “foresight.”  An effective leader is always aware of changing threats and opportunities. (Maccoby added that studies have shown that the weakest quality of the U.S. government [historically] is “strategy,” suggesting that this is an area that needs attention.)
  2. Vision” is the second attribute of an effective leader. It involves “taking what you see and creating something.”
  3. An effective leader is also adept at “systems thinking.”  He or she can envision a system that will bring you where you want to be.
  4. An effective leader also is engaged in “partnering” not only internally but externally to the leader’s organization.
  5. He or she also engages and continually motivates people, enabled in doing so through their “profound knowledge.”  This knowledge [as explained in Maccoby’s book] involves understanding of systems, variation, and knowledge creation, as well as motivation.
  6. An effective leader also understands psychology.
Book Cover 1

Illustration: Photo of Book

The phrase “strategic intelligence” is composed of “strategy”, which means “the art or skill of careful planning toward an advantage or desired end” and “intelligence,” which means “the faculty of understanding; intellect.”  In Dr. Maccoby’s book, he explains the skills needed for strategic intelligence and examines four different primary leadership types.  He notes the work of a psychologist, Robert Sternberg, who distinguished between different types of understanding and different sets of intellectual skills.  For instance:

“Analytical intelligence,” writes Maccoby, “is the type tested in IQ exams.”  It includes analysis, memory, logic, and problem solving.  Analytic intelligence is necessary, but not sufficient for strategic intelligence.  Someone with only this kind of understanding and ability will do well on tests but not in relationships.”

Doing well in relationships requires “practical intelligence,” notes Maccoby, which is a “kind of understanding necessary for partnering and motivating, but it is not enough for foresight and visioning.”

Foresight and visioning requires “creative intelligence,” including “pattern recognition essential to making sense of changes in the business environment that either threaten or indicate opportunities for the organization,” writes Maccoby in his new book.  “Visioning requires systems thinking, the ability to see the interaction of elements that combine to achieve a purpose, and imagination.”

A Q&A period followed Dr. Maccoby’s presentation.  Differences among audience members occasionally sparked debate, sometimes over things which happened over 20 years ago, reminding us that understanding our past is also key to strategic intelligence.  As the daily headlines suggest, mounting complexity, ambiguity, and contradictions are demanding  alot not just of leaders but of individuals around the world.  Effectively leading change in such a context is a challenge which deserves careful study.   Dr. Maccoby’s latest work makes an important contribution which hopefully will get the attention it deserves from those who need his insights the most.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Uncategorized

Carousel Study

The fall’s been spectacular here, with nearly every day too nice to spend inside. Between meetings, a fantastic opportunity to see original John Singer Sargent watercolors up close, and driving from point A to point B, however, it’s been tough to get a sketch in.

But here’s an attempt this week to capture the twilight and the fading but still beautiful fall colors as a carousel made its last rounds of the year opposite the American Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Carousel 4

Illustration: Watercolor and pen and ink study by Black Elephant Blog author

Next up on this blog, coverage of an excellent in-town and in-home salon event this week–an event that gathered attendees from diverse fields including the military, art, the media, consulting, energy research, and psychology–featuring the author of a new book on Strategic Intelligence: Conceptual Tools for Leading Change, Michael Maccoby, (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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