Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book of the Year

Active, committed, and engaged communities happen when individual citizens decide that it is in their interest to live in empowered communities working cooperatively and respectfully for the common good. These individuals also understand the importance of leadership in its various manifestations. Many of them have walked on Leadership Road and have learned that it can sometimes be a rocky, lonely place.
Like them, I’ve walked some of those challenging stretches of “Leadership Road”. While difficult and humbling, those early experiences were also huge learning opportunities.
Since then, I’ve walked further down that road. I’ve taken some excellent training (“The Art of Leadership”, available at the Hollyhock Institute is superb) and devoured many books on the subject.
I recently completed one of the best books- fiction or non-fiction- that I have ever read, and it is all about leadership in difficult times. The book, titled “Team of Rivals” and written by Doris Kearns Goodwin, is a history of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
It’s a massive book (750 pages without notes, 880 total) telling the social and political story of America before, during, and after the civil war. Yet for all that scholarly size, I couldn’t put it down.
Why? Ms. Goodwin is that rare breed- a historian who is a both a great researcher and a compelling storyteller. She brilliantly relates how the newly emerging power that was America in the 1800’s ripped itself apart over the divisive issue of slavery.
We learn how a child born on a dirt farm in backwoods Kentucky became a lawyer and then President of the United States. Ms. Goodwin tells how Lincoln guided the Union government to Civil war victory by assembling and leading a cabinet composed of many of his political rivals. The book focuses on the relationships between the members of the war cabinet, both at the political and personal level.
Above all, this is a book about leadership. Within the book, Ms. Goodwin lays out Lincoln’s leadership strategies and skills, and how he was able to manage himself and lead a team of rivals through dangerous and shifting political waters with the nation’s fate at stake.
She highlights the powerful role played by the family members of leaders, and how the pressures of public life impact the families of leaders. Especially interesting is her description of Lincoln’s intuitive understanding of the power of storytelling, and of the coping skills he used to escape the terrible pressures that came with his office.
“Team Of Rivals” is a must-read for anyone contemplating a walk on Leadership Road. While very few of us will ever experience the kind of challenges faced by Abraham Lincoln, all of us who want to live in active, committed and engaged communities will gain from his story. If you read one book this year, make it “Team of Rivals”. It’s a must-read for everyone with an interest in leadership.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Best Defense

It was a warm summer day, and I was listening on-line to the smooth jazz on KWJZ Seattle, chilling out with a cold pop as I drained the day’s cares along with my beverage. That’s when an ad on the radio kick-started both my attention and my blood pressure.
An outfit calling itself the National Crime Prevention Council sponsored the ad. These folks vigorously alert Americans to the dangers they face due to home invasions, muggings, and other crime. The ad itself was blatant fear mongering designed to ensure that properly frightened listeners install more deadbolts on their door, surveillance cameras on their streets, and security systems in their homes. While it sounded like a public service announcement, its aim was to boost sales for the crime prevention industry.
Yes, there is a crime prevention industry, and it is very skilled at manipulating our fears. They paint a scary picture of the multiple faces of evil lurking whenever we open our doors. We then wall ourselves off from our neighbors, turning our attention inward rather than towards the world around us.
The crime prevention industry performs a legitimate service, and, like any other business, they use skilled marketing techniques to ramp up demand. Marketing fear pays off. Many of us succumb to the industry campaign and trade off money and personal freedoms for the specious illusion of security. We live in a secured fortress, prisoners of our fears, and terrified by the world outside our doors.
Yet that isolation drives us away from the very force that gives us the greatest security, which is our active, committed and engaged participation in the world around us. Citizens in active, committed and engaged communities have a mutual interest in each other’s well being. They understand that they are accountable to their neighbors for their actions and inactions.
What does this community ethic look like in day-to day living? What will an active, committed and engaged citizen do when they observe a crook at work? Will they phone Crimestoppers anonymously, hoping to score a reward, or will they phone the police, identify themselves and report the suspicious activity? Do active, committed, and engaged citizens keep an eye on their neighbor’s property in their absence? Will they stop to help an injured stranger on the street, even if that stranger looks, smells, or acts differently? Are they their brothers’ keeper?
I don’t buy the fear monger’s advertising campaign. Life is short and precious- much too precious to live in fear behind walls that insulate us from the world. I choose a life rich with community interaction; supporting and being supported by my neighbors. In my world, risks and mistakes are learning opportunities, and true satisfaction comes from being an active, committed and engaged member of my community. How about yours?