Three years ago I embarked on a much needed retreat back to Europe where I had once lived. Accompanying me was an old friend from the past… a large book that was a collection of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings. There was this wonderful transformational moment in this little known town in the valley of Slovakia called Banska Stiavnica. It had taken a few friendly Slovakian women who didn’t speak English to guide me through two bus transfers and a windy road to get there. But there I found myself in a small bench in a quiet garden where I sat alone for a few hours reading Emerson.
For those that know his prose, it is dense but beautiful and moving when you’re ready for it. What he said to me was:
“Be not the slave of your own past. Plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.”
In that moment of silent communion with a spirit of the past was the birth of a new part of me that realized I had to chart a new course guided not by my social status, my friends, my family, but by the light of something more eternal. Humanity and life was calling me to do more.
Everyone should have an opportunity to be free from the conventional, from the matrix of society to ask the question of where they are going. So take this opportunity to step back and allow me ask you, a representative of the human race, this question:
“What most needs doing in our time and place in history?”
Avoid the temptation to answer this question right this instant, but instead feel how big and important this question is. Is it just your needs, the needs of the family, or the needs of humankind? Is history a social studies course we take in school or is it filled with lessons of who we are?
“What most needs doing in our time and place in history?”
You might have images of a rapidly dwindling fresh water supply, hundreds of thousands of bodies from Rwandan genocide, sprawling North American cities with an insatiable consumer appetite, 6.5 billion people on a small planet, rise in fundamentalism all areas of the world, or perhaps it’s the paucity of the human spirit, the sweeping feelings of helplessness or cynicism, the lack of thoughtful, caring, and creative individuals. Or if none of these images resonate, what has you turn away from it?
For those that look, there is a great pain in the world that is so enormous, it makes you want to crawl back into bed and go to sleep. Or in my case, I’d much prefer to go back to playing on my computer where things make sense.
Luckily the awareness of the issues at home and abroad is growing and it helps me to know that there are people like you who care enough to ponder, to investigate.
Easter Island – An Case Study in Humanity
It is heart-wrenching to see the needs of the world. It is so frustrating that we are exasperated, “why can’t we just fix it?”. But so often we try to fix it and we fail at it. Why is it? It’s the old adage of “we can put a man on the moon, but we can’t feed everyone even in our own nation”. I often go back to an illustrative story from Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress.
In it he talks about Easter Island where one can find haunting statues on a desolate island. We wonder whether there was some mystical force at work here. But the actual story is more chilling.
The islanders built these statues to honour their ancestors, but this led eventually to rivalries that resulted in ever larger statues. Statue cults were formed claiming that the ancestors demanded their worship.
Unfortunately, building these statues used up more resources than the island could handle. The forests were wiped out – the same forests needed for shelter, fire, and tilling of the land. The land became acidic unable to grow crops. The citizens ended up eating all the animals including the birds, the dogs, the rodents which only increased their isolation. It wasn’t long before war ensued resulting in the complete destruction of the people.
Who was at fault? What went wrong? There was no disease, no external threat. This was a place where you can stand on the highest point and see the entire island. Who was the idiot that cut down the last tree?
Well I’m going to ‘fess up. It was me. It was also you, and it is also us. The Easter Islanders were human beings and the tragic flaw in the character of their society is also in us. It isn’t hard to imagine us cutting down the last tree, polluting the last litre of water, or killing the last fish in the sea. This story of a civilization that shoots itself in the foot has repeated itself over and over again.
Will we always be doomed like the Easter Islanders to cut down our last trees for the sake of imagined stories?
This story is not told to depress us all, but actually to inspire you. We are more aware of the challenges than ever before. We have put a man on the moon. What if we could turn our attention to ourselves, our society, our culture?
We need leadership, but what kind of leadership is needed? What is the leadership that will not have us get to the last tree? How do we determine what wise leadership is?
This is the question Leadership Calgary seeks and is continually seeking to answer.
The Three Step Process to Wisdom
Today is your lucky day… I am going to give you Leadership Calgary’s three step process to answering this question. Steven Covey had seven, we have three. And I’m going to give this to you for free.
Write these down, follow these three simple steps and you won’t need to take the program… in fact, we’ll hire you to teach it. So how do you determine what wise leadership is?
Step 1 – Search for the best and worst of human thought, learning and action throughout history across disciplines and across culture.
Let’s say that you had a day off and you wanted to understand wisdom, enlightenment, and leadership. Traditionally you are suppose to climb a mountain and talk to the guru. It’s not a bad idea.
But wouldn’t it be more productive if you took a broader look at how human beings behave wisely in all sorts of circumstances?
When I was a kid, my parents were the wise ones. Then I thought my teachers were the wise ones. Then you realized that teachers can be as messed up as students. Then I realized I had some wisdom myself. Today, I realize that wisdom can be found in all aspects of life… not just one person or one book.
- How engineers design new technologies that never have been done before.. that’s wisdom.
- How social entrepreneurs create an organization to address human right violations… that’s wisdom.
- How the military plans and executes their strategy… yes, that’s wisdom too.
Wisdom is very discoverable and it’s very practical. The problem is that they take a lot of time and effort time to learn. Wisdom, however, cannot be understood without its greatest adversary. Ignorance… all those things that we don’t know that could be useful.
- How engineers build bridges that collapse. We can learn from the ignorance there.
- How social entrepreneurs built international aid agencies that actually supported terrorism and genocide. That’s ignorance.
- How the military goes into country X and creates generations of civil war and fundamentalism. There is ignorance there as well.
There are many more ways for things to go wrong than right. Call me an optimist though, the benefit is that we have lots of examples to learn from. If we can learn from them…
Wisdom and ignorance can be found not just across disciplines, but throughout history, across cultures. It’s easy to be caught up in just our community, our field, and culture because it feels right. The Vikings might have survived in Greenland had they learned how to hunt from the Inuit. The problem was that as a general rule, they killed anyone who they thought were savages.
If we as leaders and as a community could draw upon a larger pool of wisdom than just Calgary or just Canada or even just in this moment in time, wouldn’t that be worth something?
Step 2. Map out the common themes, structures and patterns that are needed to support wise thought and action to reduce ignorance and error.
Mapping is critical to understanding human wisdom for two reasons:
- We need reminding because our memories our poor especially around things that are inconvenient to remember…..
- We can better recognize the underlying patterns so that we can intelligently move forward.
Patterning, mapping, finding the underlying concepts… this is what makes looking at the complexity of humanity possible.
One of these patterns is that throughout history there have always been a certain percentage of the population that cared enough about the community to point at the challenges none of us want to see. Rachel Carson pointed at the dangers of DDT in the 1960s. Back then, she was slandered, threatened, attacked by industries; today, DDT is banned. It’s the Rachel Carsons of the world through their boldness and keen sense of observation and investigation that help us progress. Society’s well-being depends on them.
We depend on not just what they know, but how they come to know it. If I could put a big asterisk over this point, I would. It is how they go about figuring things out that separates them from the most of us.
Spend a few years looking hard at any time or place where humanity has had to adapt or innovate, and you’ll notice recurring patterns of their processes. So whether you are starting a new business, creating an organization, or trying to eliminate poverty, many of the same principles apply. The same principles that can help each of us to be better leaders.
Here at Leadership Calgary we’ve found a few broad principles and there are also many more details we need help to fill-in.
Step 3. Integrate into your own thought and action in a disciplined way and help others do the same.
At some point, you have to wed concepts to thought and action. Epictetus said that “True philosophy’s purpose is to illuminate the ways our soul has been infected by unsound beliefs, untrained tumultuous desires, and dubious life choices and preferences that are unworthy of us. [The main antidote]…. self-scrutiny applied with kindness.”
We do need to turn outward to the world and scan the many ways people do stupid things. However, we also have to realize that those people are us too. Suddenly, we’re not off the hook… suddenly we’re responsible and that’s uncomfortable. Relationships have to change… Habits have to change… Our priorities are different…
In this way, leadership really does start within… and that’s hard.
If we turn now from the wisdom of Epictetus who lived 2000 years ago to modern day wisdom… there was this episode in Desperate Housewives where a priest was asking Gabrielle:
“Don’t you want to be a good person?”
Gabrielle responded: “What I want is to be happy.”
“That’s the answer of a selfish child.”
We all have this child in us that wants to feel good about ourselves. Certainly we should take care of ourselves, but when “feeling good” is the only goal, it becomes a barrier to “doing good”. How do we judge what “good” is? How do we fool ourselves about what good is? How does our animal nature get in the way? Huge questions that we are only starting to answer better.
This is another one of those asterisks: we’ve gotten really far in innovating in technology, in business… but we are in the dark ages when it comes to understanding human character and conduct.
We are, as Omar Bradley says, “Ethical midgets in a world of nuclear giants.” That is to say, we have the technological power, but not the judgment to use it. Leadership Calgary is trying to understand this frontier too. How do we innovate in human and social technologies?
Back to You
There you have it. Three easy steps. Go and do it! It is an iterative process of course. Even as you are exploring and mapping, you are also changing. And it is a process that will never, ever stop.
Some of you might say that Chris, that’s a lot of work, and in reality, it is a lot of work, but you aren’t alone. Ken Low has spent the last 40 years scanning, mapping, putting this together. Many others throughout the world have also been working on various pieces of the puzzle. Our recommended reading list is at about three hundred now.
Leadership Calgary takes this research as it stands so far and organizes it in a coherent way for your absorption, so that you to can build on top of this. There is much more to be learned.
Now back to you. Here are a few self-test questions:
Are you someone who is prepared to challenge your own worldview?
Are you someone who is prepared to let go of easy, clear answers?
Are you someone who is prepared to put in time and effort equivalent to a master’s course for ten-months?
If you answered any kind of a yes to all these questions, welcome to Leadership Calgary!
Each of you will have a different reaction to the curriculum depending on just where you are.
I started off five years ago as Chris, Nortel Software Developer with lots of volunteer activities. A year ago exactly at this same breakfast I announced that I was leaving Nortel. Today, the pieces of my business are falling into place to better align with what I think is important in life…. and there is so much more to learn and do. It will take years, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If you want to get a start on or continue your journey on discovering and investigating wisdom, Leadership Calgary is one place to start. The curriculum provides you a framework which you can use to investigate your own thinking while at the same time opening you up to other places of knowledge and inspiration.
Is it too high-minded to think about humanity, about life on this planet? Is it even possible to sort through this complexity? A better question might be… could you possibly find a more fulfilling and worthwhile project to work on?
Progress will not happen right away, but with thoughtful, caring, courageous individuals like yourselves we can only uncover more of the human story.
This article is excerpted from Chris Hsiung’s presentation at the Leadership Calgary breakfast orientation March 13, 2008 at the Hyatt. For more information about Leadership Calgary, visit www.leadershipcalgary.ab.ca.
Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching
Chris Hsiung graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering. He is a certified professional coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF). He is learning, teaching, presenting curriculum through Leadership Calgary. Currently he runs a practice (U Venture) guiding and coaching professionals who are choosing to engage in pioneering life challenges.