Lessons from TEDxCalgary

TED.com has exploded in popularity as an online place to hear and see ideas from really interesting people from the around the world. Now that TED.com has licensed their name to encourage independent TED-like conferences, us locals can also participate in person.

Last Thursday April 26th, a group of distinguished speakers and over one hundred attendees participated in TEDxCalgary to think about Humanity 3.0. It was a superbly organized event, and I was inspired to meet so many people concerned about the biggest issues facing humanity today.

If you missed it, not to worry. I was assured by Rahim Sajan, the curator, that the presentations will be made available online eventually.

In the meantime, I’m reflecting on what I responded to, what I didn’t, and what if anything has shifted in me.

This was a day of story-telling, a tradition that no doubt reaches back millions of years to people sitting around the campfire and sharing stories. In an institutionalized civilization like ours, it can seem like a deeply magical and moving experience.

But just telling stories by itself doesn’t make it meaningful. It might be moving, but not necessarily meaningful. It might also be very meaningful, but we aren’t yet ready to be moved by it. How are we to tell the difference?

Nick Nissley of the Banff Centre spoke about narrative competence, the ability to elicit stories from others. Implied is that those stories actually help people make sense of both our internal and external world. Steinback’s stories, although fiction, tell us deep truths about ourselves that illuminate what Greg Hunter highlighted about cognitive dissonance. While good journalists like Bill Moyers can bring to our attention the undercurrents of current events.

What struck me was that the while the personal stories were tremendously moving – Nick Nissley’s childhood in an orphanage and Jay Baydala’s turbulent upbringing – it was the larger life story that made them meaningful. When Nick connected with the history of Hersheys and their contribution to the orphanage and when Jay made the link between extreme poverty and his lack of voice, their lives found expression.

I’m more convinced that focusing on understanding just yourself will get you stuck. Like the students in Freedom Writers who discover the Holocaust, people find meaning when the vast stories of human achievement and failure become “personal”.

Artist and poet Sheri-D Wilson exemplifies this. Despite my discomfort with “new age-ness”, I was warmed by Sheri-D’s wandering and sometimes irreverent story about her life journey. Perhaps it was because she highlighted how much more you can learn from life than from formal education. From experiencing her own mortality to seeing apartheid to stumbling upon great teachers, she has had a far richer education than me.

Of course, when most people (and I include myself in that group) are factory-farmed human beings as Ken Low put it, it’s hard for society to learn “in the wild” so-to-speak. 12 years of compulsory schooling does some damage by teaching us how to conform, how to accept learning from authority, and how to get good at narrow disintegrated fields of study.

Luckily, human beings are resilient, and they can learn to become free-range human beings. To see Grant Neufeld dedicate his life to social activism and Gena Rotstein embark on an adventure to change people’s ideas of philanthropy, I felt a deeper commitment to be bold in my own efforts to be free-range, organic, and fair trade!

With all this diversity of human experience, it was almost jarring to see a TEDx talk by Daniel Pink attempting to convince us that money doesn’t work as an incentive for any work that requires a modicum of creativity. His talk was entertaining, well-reasoned, and worth sharing, but seriously, when did we arrive at this stage in society where we have to be talked out of thinking that we are motivated by money? People will do a lot for status, for love, for fear, and people will also do a lot to fight injustice or to make a difference. However, in a material world driven by economics thinking, it’s easy to get everyone to believe that success is determined by money alone. I hope that we will find a new way of thinking beyond economics.

The day was enjoyable and I was sad to have to leave it early. My opinion is that TEDx makes for tasty snacks, but 10 – 18 minutes is a short window of time into a speaker’s thoughts and ideas. It forces the speakers to contort their message to fit into a nice-looking box. In the end, it is kind of like eating pre-processed food. It tastes great, but it’s not as good for you as preparing your own dishes from scratch.

Nevertheless, inspiration can sometimes call upon our best voice to speak up more frequently and more passionately.

Chris Hsiung
U Venture
Better Life… Better Business

Breathing in Combat

Last week I held a very basic self-defense workshop for the City of Calgary Waterworks division. Now some of you might be wondering why a leadership coach / consultant would teach a self-defense course. First of all, it’s fun, but second of all as the Olympics show us, intense physical challenges teach us something deeply important about the human spirit.

Although self-defense is not a sport, think of what it takes to manage fear in a crisis situation. When faced with a life-threatening situation, people experience not only a flight or fight response, but also a third more deadly “freeze” response. Higher level brain functions shutdown and primal instincts take over.

In leading ourselves, we may not face life and death situations all the time, but we often experience situations that overwhelm us. You know it when you feel panic or extreme anger or any loss of emotional control. In other words, your higher brain functions shutdown.

How do we bring our emotions back under control? In combat, soldiers are taught “combat breathing”. Breathe in deeply, hold it for three seconds, then breathe out and hold for three seconds. By slowing down their heart rate, they can regain control of their thinking ability.

Believe it or not, this works for controlling our emotions as well. Give it shot! Next time you feel the stress, the anger, the panic… breathe.

Does “being present” lead to evil?

Here is something that makes the Holocaust possible:

“Another factor that reduces self-control and fosters the crossing of moral boundaries is a certain kind of mental state. This state is marked by a very concrete narrow, rigid way of thinking, with the focus on the here and now, on the details of what one is doing. It is the state that characterizes someone who is fully absorbed in working with tools or playing a video game. One does not pause to reflect on broader implications or grand principles or events far removed in time (past or future).”

Unmasking Administrative Evil by Guy B. Adams and Danny L. Balfour

What does it really mean to be “present” and “in the moment”? When is it helpful? When isn’t it?

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching

Chris Hsiung is the president of U Venture, a consulting practice that helps entrepreneurs and professionals develop their adaptive learning capacities to navigate uncertain times and build meaningful life ventures. He graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering and is an internationally certified coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI). He is also a student and teacher of curriculum at Leadership Calgary and at Momentum.

Are you an adaptive leader?

Flexible Tree in the HooDoosI would answer, “Well of course, I’m a flexible and adaptable person,” and be done with the question. But what if being an adaptive leader is a continuous struggle to help oneself and the group meet complex life challenges that are often beyond the group’s capabilities? Upon second thought, maybe it’s a question I’m never ever done with.

Here are a few questions I’m asking myself these days to remind me of the traps of conventional leadership. Perhaps they can help you too.

1. Are you stuck in a “style” of leadership?

The latest craze has been about leading by focusing on people’s strengths. It reminds me of the martial arts world where one style is touted as better than another style when in reality, combat rarely fits any style all the time in all circumstances. Similarly, does it make sense to claim that you lead in a particular style? Steve Job’s micro-managing of the design process led to beautiful products. The Navy SEALS training program doesn’t care much about what you’re good at; rather it cares whether you learn what’s necessary. The point of adaptive leadership is the flexibility to lead in whatever way that will help the group meet the challenge.

Yet I am keenly aware that my decision to be directive, supportive, or collaborative is a battle between what is needed and what I am comfortable doing. It’s easy to collapse the two and think that whatever feels right must also be the most helpful. So I ask myself, am I meeting my needs or the needs of the challenge?

2. Are you understanding the challenge superficially?

The pressure on any leader in a crisis situation is to set a clear direction and get everyone on board. In many cases, like when there is a fire in the building, acting on the plan immediately makes more sense than convening a conversation. But what if the crisis is more complex than can be handled by a pre-designed plan? What if it challenges our fundamental way of being (think global financial crisis)? In this case, thinking and acting quickly may get you into more trouble, more quickly.

There are a few practical difficulties in taking time to understand the problem though. First, the group wants to be assured. People want to be told that the recession is over and business can go on as usual and that they needn’t change their habits. Second, the group is likely to silence any dissenting voices that may be speaking the hard truths. The warnings about climate change, financial meltdown, or peak oil have always been there, but those perspectives are actively attacked or dismissed. And finally, most crises that creep up on us require some immediate short-term action to avert critical loss which may distract from just as critical long-term action. A person who has a heart attack needs attention now even if the long-term plan requires a better diet and exercise regime.

All of these difficulties deflect our attention from the roots of the problem. The adaptive leader must be an advocate for turning the group’s attention back to the root while still mitigating immediate concerns. As important is protecting those dissenting voices which may provide legitimate insights.

I ask myself, am I open to asking the hard questions? Am I willing listen to messages that are hard to hear? Can I take slow thoughtful action even as everyone demands a quick response?

2a. Corollary: Are you caring and thinking at a level beyond your group’s immediate concerns?

Every problem has varying time scales and breadth of impact with its own dynamic processes. We naturally put boundaries on how deeply or widely we think about it. For instance, when a car breaks down, we may limit our thinking of the problem to: “The car is broken. I need to find a mechanic.” But if we expand our thinking of the problem, we may become curious about what driving habits may have led to the broken car or whether a car’s impact on the environment is the real problem.

An adaptive leader invests resources in thinking beyond these boundaries. Businesses that only think of making and selling their product will ignore the impact of their products (think car manufactuers and its dependence on oil). Businesses that think of their employees as financial assets rather than human beings become blind to their value (think of the demise of Circuit City).

Every problem is an opportunity for wider and deeper thinking. Problems that create crises require even more of that kind of searching.

3. Are you building the group’s adaptive muscle?

In taking any kind of unprecedented action where much of the old routines of behaviour are irrelevant or worse, unhelpful, the group will undergo a process of shock leading to a wide range of coping responses. Some will “stick to their job” and avoid looking any further from it. Others will deny that anything has changed while still others may seek a simplistic solutions that are comforting but ineffective. The temptation would be to reassure the group and let them cope while you do the “real” work. Instead, the role of the adaptive leader should be to find and develop enough key people in the community that will pioneer new approaches and take the group beyond coping.

I can’t help but come back to Shackleton and his team’s unerring ability to operate under high levels of stress and uncertainty. This ability to handle the uncertainty and figure things out independently cannot be developed instantaneously. It takes the right mix of characters and a diet of right challenges to build the “adaptive muscle” of the group. Compare the people in a startup company with an established company and one can see the difficulty in having enough employees with that adventurous and self-authorizing spirit. In times of crises though, those people become even more critical.

* * *

So are you an adaptive leader? For me, it depends on the day, the circumstances, the challenge ahead of me, and the people and resources around me. Nevertheless, I won’t stop trying to be one and hope that you won’t either.

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
U Venture

Chris Hsiung is the president of U Venture, a consulting practice that helps entrepreneurs and professionals develop their adaptive learning capacities to navigate uncertain times and build meaningful life ventures. He graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering and is an internationally certified coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI). He is also a student and teacher of curriculum at Leadership Calgary and at Momentum.

The True Believer

Here is a short , but deeply personal expression of Diane Benscoter describing her experience of being inside a cult.

One might easily dismiss anyone who once was in a cult, but when she admits to knowing the appeal of killing the other, of genocide, it’s worth stopping and thinking: what about me is susceptible to cults?

Because we all are.

I personally feel it in my instinctive response to defend any verbal attacks on my organization or group. I feel it when I resist questioning deeply held beliefs. I feel it when I am righteous and just and can for a moment justify any means for it. I especially feel it when I am lost or uncertain and hope for an idea to save me.

What is this “virus of the brain” as Benscoter puts it that creates a resistance to all inquiry?

Part of the answer must be in that desire to be rid of the messy and difficult work of inquiry especially about the self. One would think that in our individualistic world, the self is the most important identity we hold. In reality, our animals roots find a deeper connection with our group identity than our individual ego resulting in an all too easy tendency to give up the self for the group.

A cult in this light would seem to provide the perfect relief for the dissatisfied soul. Free from questioning, from uncertainty, from thoughts of self, the individual can become one with a noble cause. Eric Hoffer in The True Believer noted that “a mass movement attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.”

There are other ways to give up the self besides joining a cult: drink or gamble to forget, lose yourself in a relationship, find a guru, join an institution. This is not to say that having support from a group can’t be tremendously helpful. However, if the group is leading down the path of less inquiry rather than more, the individual will be dragged in with it.

Benscoter is right. We do need to understand why this happens and what can be done about it. This isn’t a problem unique to a small segment of deviants. It’s a very human problem that deserves all of our attention.