living in truth, Uncategorized, urban sketching

Wandering through older sketches to make sense of the present

Blog post writing has taken a bit of a backseat lately.  Preparation for classes could be one excuse, but it wouldn’t be true. I guess it’s because I’ve been doing more thinking than drawing in this age of discontinuity.  The recent blast of winter in this area complete with snow and ice this year sadly has been too much for the many blossoms and flowers that proliferated here during an unseasonably warm February. Even the geese on a nearby lake are a bit confused by the eccentric weather.

This sort of disorientation (yes, that exhibited by the geese–as in “where are we?”) has been mirrored by the befuddlement of many people around the world at the jarring reports of current political events, especially domestically–more on that below.  Just as the early blossoms thought that the Spring in February was real, we humans are confused as to the political climate we are living through….

Looking back to look forward sometimes is useful, as paging through older sketchbooks can remind one.  While looking ahead to a forthcoming exhibition of my watercolors and sketches, I came across a few of my sketches from the past:

dupont circle

Illustration: Watercolor sketch, “Dupont Circle,” by Black Elephant Blog author (2016)

Lately, with the sun briefly peering out again, there are more inspiring palettes to explore in the near future…


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

On the geopolitical level of human affairs, the emerging palette is more complicated–even “complex”– a crucial distinction not yet as appreciated as it could be, though “complexity”–as in complex systems–is something we spend a lot of time on in the university graduate class I teach.  Making sense of complex problems is a necessary starting point to resolving them–and is too often a (very intellectually-demanding and time-consuming) step skipped over, as we have recently seen an example of in the healthcare arena.

Similarly understanding this moment in our collective human history requires us to draw from the experience “palettes” of a wide variety of people in order to understand our true options going forward.  I would include in this “experience palette” respected contemporary professors of history, such as Dr. Timothy Snyder–whom I had the privilege of hearing speak in person at a local bookstore recently.  People doing fresh thinking about economics also have an essential role

Rodin The Thinker

Illustraton: Watercolor, “”The Thinker’ at the Entrance to Rodin Museum, Philadelphia, PA” (2017) by Black Elephant Blog author

to play in the efforts to apply different palettes to our common future.  And a look back to the founders and founding documents of this American nation would also be essential, as I just did a week ago by wandering through the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia again.

It’s true, at least for me, that once you become accustomed to painting–and more vitally, living and making choices– in ‘plein air,’ it’s harder to settle for bleak cold days–whether due to the weather or the political climate.

We can call up sketches of the past to help us make sense of the present.   Are the things which divide us still more important than taking stock in a clear-eyed way of what actually has happened and what pathways forward lie ahead?  These processes are sometimes known as “scenario practice,” “forward reasoning,” and simply “foresight”–also processes we focus on in class. There is no end to the usefulness of learning we can gain from those who have studied the past, I’ve concluded.   As Professor Timothy Snyder tells us in his work linking the history of Eastern Europe to our present, the choice is (still) ours to make.


Risk, Surprise, Uncategorized, Uncertainty

Sketch of the Day

Illustration:  Sketch adaptation by Black Elephant Blog author of an oil painting (circa 1922) by Mexican artist Adolfo Best Maugard (1891-1969) which is part of the "Mexican Modernism: Paint the Revolution 1910-1950) exhibition currently running at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Illustration: Sketch adaptation by Black Elephant Blog author of an oil painting (circa 1922) by Mexican artist Adolfo Best Maugard (1891-1969) which is part of the “Mexican Modernism: Paint the Revolution 1910-1950″exhibition currently running at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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.










Risk, Surprise, Uncertainty

Anti-Fragility and Resilience

Taleb RodinAs the literature on “resilience” expands, some of the concepts addressed might appear to clash. This post will begin a look at some of these differences–to see if they really are differences. There generally is agreement, however, that the roots of resilience thinking are found in ecology and more broadly speaking the natural or biological sciences.  This material refreshes our understanding of the interactions of causes and effects in simple, complicated, OR complex systems, powerfully reminding those who are receptive that sometimes addressing problems with the wrong “solutions” or means can actually make them worse.

Judith Rodin, author of The Resilience Dividend, introduced in the previous post, examines the conceptual roots of resilience thinking in a number of fields.  She has interviewed many of the leaders in this arena, who represent disciplines as varied as engineering, psychology, business management, and city planning.  She reports that these people, while experts in their original fields, are “coming together into an approach to resilience building that can be broadly applied across many domains…as well as many scales…”

One of the experts she cites is Brian Walker whom she quotes as writing, “Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function.”  A plant ecologist, Walker has come to understand, as Rodin writes, that “resilience is not about not changing.”  The forests and savannas that he originally focused on survive disruptions–such as fire, drought, development,and pestilence–only by changing.  Walker extended this thinking to include human systems.  Walker found that the “idea of retaining basic function through disruption”–when applied to systems of humans and nature–“has far-reaching consequences.”  As Rodin writes:

One of the consequences is that the “systems of nature and the systems of humans are very much intertwined, and the resilience characteristics of one affect the other.”

In engineering, too, notes Rodin, “the concept of shock absorption without basic loss of function is central.”  Quoting the director of international development at Arup, a global firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants, and technical specialists, Jo da Silva, the experience of “witnessing how communities recover from physical collapse, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami, or social breakdown, such as the Rwandan genocide” influenced her thinking (and that of her colleagues) to move beyond the traditional paths of engineering to include social systems.

In psychology, as well, there are degrees of resilience, writes Rodin quoting a professor of clinical psychology.  In that profession, only fairly recently has there been a shift away from “dysfunction and pathology” toward “resilience and health.”  There are degrees of resilience in this area too:  some people will struggle more than others in certain types of disruptions.  A lot depends on the circumstances.

These findings are being integrated and adapted into other disciplines, according to Rodin.  “Resilience building is now on the minds of people in a wide range of other fields, including economics, sociology, politics, and governance, health care, education, theology, and the arts, and applied in the burgeoning industries of management consulting as well as personal growth and improvement.”

All of the disciplines at the root of the concept of resilience draw  on systems thinking, according to Rodin.  A system is “a set of interrelated elements that interact with each other within some defined boundary and are organized to perform a function or follow some purpose.”  Systems include the human body, a community, a computer network, a company, a city, and a society, according to Rodin.  An essential element of systems is “the feedback loop.”  The most simple feedback loop involves “cause and effect” closely related in time and space, according Jay Forrestor who founded the Systems Dynamics Group at MIT.  An example of this, he says, is warming your hands at a stove.

In complex systems, however, “cause and effect are not closely related in either time or space,” Forrestor writes.  “In the complex system the cause of a difficulty may lie far back in time from from the symptoms, or in a completely different and remote part of the system.  In fact, causes are usually found, not in prior events, but in the structure and policies of the system.”  According to Rodin, drawing on Forrestor’s work, complex systems, such as cities, “present to us things that look like causes but are, in fact, ‘coincident symptoms’.”  Because we are more cognitively prepared to expect simple cause-and effect situations, “we apply the same thinking to complex systems and, as a result, “treat symptoms, not causes.”  Forrester concludes, according to Rodin, that the outcome of doing this usually “lies between ineffective and detrimental.”  Rodin notes, for instance, that this is why–in the case study of Medellin, Colombia she examines earlier in her book–“Medellin could not break out of its cycle of violence and poverty” until it began addressing causes (such as neighborhood cohesion, transportation, education, access to basic needs, and other elements of the city system) rather than just symptoms.

Illustration:  Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Watercolor and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

The ecological roots of resilience thinking are identified with the work of a Canadian ecologist, C. S. Holling, who maintained that there are two different ways to look at natural systems–as either stable or resilient.  The former is consistent with a traditional engineering view of “consistent non-variable performance in which slight departures from performance goals are immediately counteracted.”  Like the plastic ruler which, bent and then let go, returns to its original shape.

The second view of systems, according to Holling, concerns a property termed “resilience” that is a measure of the persistence of systems and of their ability to absorb change and disturbance and still maintain the same relationships between populations or state variables.” This material is from C.S. Holling’s well-known paper, “Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 4 (1973) and quoted by Rodin.  Resilience is not about “achieving permanent stability of some standard state but rather about “absorbing”change and disruption…and achieving a new state of stability,” writes Rodin.  Holling continues:  If we are dealing with a system profoundly affected by changes external to it and continually confronted by the unexpected, the constancy of its behavior becomes less important than the persistence of the relationships.”

In a world which some say is more disruptive, getting clarity about the meaning of these concepts is a necessary starting point.  Thus, the concept of “Antifragility,” as developed in a book of the same name (Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder) by former businessman and quantitative trader and current author and professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb, merits attention. For Taleb, “Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness.  The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the anti fragile gets better.”  In what ways is Taleb discussing the same concepts as Rodin, Holling, and others, and in what ways do his concepts differ? A future blog post will take this up.