Viking or Victim: the rise of "authoritarianism" in business and politics

The rise of "authoritarianism" is transforming our economic, business and political landscape.  Academic research has been laboring its growth in enterprises and politics for more than decade.  Part political science and part psychology, researchers like Hetherington and Weiler, Stanley Feldman, Karen Stenner, Johnathan Haidt and Elizabeth Suhay looked at a subset of people who hold latent authoritarian tendencies, which can be activated or triggered by the perception of physical and economic threats or destabilizing social change.

Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, in an attempt to bring a chaotic world under control.  Challenges to that order - diversity, an influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order, experienced as threatening, upend the status quo and underlying security.  In a time of social change and when faced with physical threats, economic uncertainty or threats to the status quo, the call by authoritarians is for policies, procedures, and strategies that offer protection, often forcefully, against the things they perceive as threats.

In business, if you were trying to design a CEO that would appeal to authoritarian shareholders, the results would look a lot like Ed Zander of Motorola, Bob Nardelli of Home Depot, Chuck Prince of Citigroup, Gerry Levin of Time Warner and Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers, to name a few.  In politics, the result would look a lot like Donald Trump.

One way to understand how authoritarianism works is to consider it as a personality profile, not just a business or political preference.  Feldman developed a widely accepted measurement by asking four simple questions:

1. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
2. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
3. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
4. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

Since 1992 and Feldman's work, political scientists who study authoritarianism have accumulated a wealth of data on who exhibits these tendencies and how they align on everything from demographic profiles to policy preferences to the rise of shareholder values and the "split" in the GOP.

Since the 1960's the Republican Party has reinvented itself as the party of law, order and traditional values, a position that naturally appeals to order and tradition-focused authoritarians.  In Stenner's book The Authoritarian Dynamic, he argues that many authoritarian might be latent - that they might not support authoritarian leaders or policies until their authoritarianism is activated.  This activation could be from feeling threatened by social changes such as evolving social norms or increasing diversity, or any modification they believe will profoundly alter the social order they want to protect.  In other words, when they feel sufficiently scared, they start to behave, politically and in business, like authoritarians.

Now, if social change, physical threats and, or business extremes like mergers/acquisitions, downsizing, restructuring, etc. coincide, it could awaken a potentially enormous population of citizens and, or corporate raiders and stakeholders, who would demand a strongman/woman leader and extreme policies, in their view, to meet the rising threats.

Beyond the alarming prescient, the concern about this dynamic is not the candidate or the CEO this profile offers, but the fervor of support among the citizen population and, or business community it engenders.

Pushing authoritarianism even further and to extremes is the threat of social change, such as the erosion of traditional gender roles or evolving standards in how to discuss sexual orientation.  It could come in the form of rising diversity, demographic changes from immigration or changes in the color of faces on television and film.  In short, any change - political or economic, that can disrupt social hierarchies.

These changes take away the status quo as they know it - familiar, orderly and secure - and replace it with something that feels scary because it is different and destabilizing and because it upends everyone's place in society.  Authoritarian shareholders and citizens, in response, will seek a strong leader to promises to suppress the scary changes, if necessary by force, or by whatever economic means possible to preserve the status quo and the expectations thereof.

The "action side" of authoritarianism or the willingness to use economic resources available to only a few or government power to eliminate threats, will not go away regardless of whether Donald Trump wins or loses the election or a new CEO takes over the reins of a underperforming corporation.  

In their rhetoric and style, both the punitive CEO and politically incorrect, Donald Trump both reduce everything to black and white extremes, good and evil, strong versus weak, greatest versus worst or the Viking versus the victim.  Their simple, direct promises are that they, and they alone, can solve problems that other politicians and former CEO's are too weak to mange.  Most tellingly are their willingness to flout conventions of civilized discourse when threats to the group, country or corporation are present.  The authoritarian style of leadership is simple, powerful and punitive, and it has potentially profound implications for America.

In politics, a party like the GOP might try to match the rhetoric of the leading candidate, and its "chosen" candidates may grudgingly embrace some the harsher policies of that candidate, the problem will be with the make-up of the party in the future.  In 2010, the GOP swept the House by delivering Tea Party candidates that challenged moderates and centrists.  This awkward coalition left the GOP caucus divided and ushered in renegade authoritarians (Ted Cruz), who actively opposed the establishment's centrist goals and uninterested in its economic platforms.  Gone, for example, from the political discourse is almost any talk of inheritance tax or tax cuts for people making over $250K per year.  In its place are rhetorical headlines accusing Mexicans as rapists or gleeful speech of massacring Muslims with pig-blood-tainted bullets.

The authoritarian base will drag the party further to the right on social issues and will simultaneously erode support for traditionally conservative economic policies.  Norms around gender, sexuality, race, and immigration that continue to chip away at the country's institutional discrimination will force the GOP to perform well in congressional and local elections, but these divisions will leave the party barely functioning and unable to win the White House.  By promising to stand firm against the tide of social change and be the party of force and power rather than the party of negotiation and compromise, authoritarians will tear the GOP apart.

In business, authoritarians who have battled for higher stockholder value over truly innovative products, programs and services may also find themselves winning locally and in regional markets where their sheer force, power, advantage and size thwarts competition, but unable to "win" in global arenas.  They may discover, like the GOP, that their Viking strategies have worked too well and may threaten to tear them apart.  

The Royal Path to Loyalty

"Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Bell Sneetches had now upon thars.
Those stars weren't so big.  They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn't matter at all.

Then, quickly, Sylvester McMonkey McBean
Put together a very peculiar machine.
And he said, "You want stars like a Star-Belly-Sneetch?
My friends, you can have them for three dollars each!"

In the early 60"s, Dr. Suess introduced us to two groups of Sneetches, one with stars on their bellies and the other with none.  The ones without stars desperately wanted to get them so they could fit in.  They were willing to go to great lengths to get them, and Sylvester McMonkey McBean was the guy who had the machine to help them put "stars upon thars," for a profit.

The Sneetches and Dr. Suess perfectly captured our very basic human need, the need to belong.  Our need to belong is not rational, logical or even reasonable, but it is a constant need among all cultures, all people.  It's a feeling we get when those around us share our values and beliefs.  When we feel like we belong, we feel connected and safe.  And as human beings, we crave this feeling and will go to great lengths to seek it out. 

Sometimes our sense of belonging is incidental.  I, for example, am not friends with everyone from Boston, but I lived there for 35-years and if, when I'm traveling and hear that all-to-familiar accent turn my head, sometimes I strike up a conversation because I feel I know them, even though I don't.  I intrinsically trust the familiarity of their voice.

Our desire to feel like we belong is so powerful that we will go to great lengths, do irrational things and often spend money to get that feeling.  Like the Sneetches, we want to be around people and organizations who are like us and share our beliefs.  When companies talk about what they do and how they do it, they appeal to our rational sides, but they don't necessarily represent something to which we want to belong.  But when they communicate their "why," what they believe, we will sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to include those products, people, and organizations in our lives.  This not because they are better, but rather, it is because they become markers or symbols for the values and beliefs we hold dear.

Brands, and the organizations who make them, that explain them "why" produce products that make us feel we belong, and we feel a kinship with others who buy the same things.  The brands then become symbols, badges, a kind of shorthand of belonging that, oddly enough, have little to do with the company or its products; they have everything to do with the people who buy these products themselves.  They also help us spot individuals who don't belong to our cohort group, and sometimes, deep inside of us, something that we can't put into words, we allow ourselves to feel how some things just fit, and some things just don't.

We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe.  Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special, safe and not alone is part of what gives them the capacity to inspire us.  Those whom we consider great leaders all have an ability to draw us close and to command our loyalty.  And we feel a strong bond with people within groups attracted to the same leaders and organizations with whom we are attracted.   

Apple users feel a bond with each other.  Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, even Hillary Clinton supporters are bonded with each other.  Anyone drawn to Dr. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, regardless of race, religion or gender, stand together, bonded by their shared values and beliefs.   They know they belong because they feel it in their gut first, and in their rational minds second.

So, if you want to inspire loyalty,  don't tell people what youu and your products/brand do, or even how you do it. 

Tell them why. 

Companies that talk about what they do and how advanced their products may have appeal, but they don't necessarily represent something to which you want to belong.  But when you tell people why you do what you do, people will include you in the their lives and your reward will be clear: you will have their loyalty.



    Today, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the world remembers the millions of victims of the Holocaust. Nazi Germany murdered six million Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and communists.

    Elizabeth Wilk was one of the survivors.

    Later today, she will speak at the Israeli Embassy, before President Obama, and in three minutes, she will tell her story to him and the world. Before she left for the Embassy, she asked me to listen to her story and to help her with her nerves.

    The anchor of memory is emotion. It's helped along, in this case, by the masterful use of simple sentences, which Elizabeth wrote.

    As she told me her story, I was flooded with images of people, places, things, and events, most of whom Elizabeth never mentions. But they're all there, behind every word, every pause. They lived in the silences between sentences.

    When she finished, she said to me, "That's it. There's nothing more to say."

    She was right.

    On Death and Dying and Friendship

    I've seen a lot of people die. I remember them all. Remember where they died and how they died, even how they lived. Because I can and do remember them, in a way, no one has ever died. What strikes me the most about David Bowie's death is how he made his life and his cancer, his own. He left the world as he lived it. Both were his creation. In the weeks and months ahead, some of his closest friends will understandably wish he had let them play a role in his death, wish he invited them to his bedside and into the final moments of his life. It's a hard pill to swallow to love someone and not be chosen by them or cared for by them at the end of their life as they face the darkness alone. We all die alone. We all take that final step alone, letting go of everything and everyone that make up our lives alone. Sometimes the darkness brings with it primal fears of the unknown, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes doctors limit participations. Sometimes patients do. No two people die or live the same way. There's an old aphorism in hospice that, more often than not seems to hold true: we die as we live. David Bowie's death, like his life, was his creation. From what I know of his art, he always let others put the period at the end of his sentences. He never did that for anyone. He always gave his audience an implicit, if not always an explicit role, even though they may not have known this at the time. He brought his art to the world and let the world draw their conclusions. The manner in which he died seems consistent with the manner in which he lived. I hope his friends and those who loved him but were not with him at his death or a part of his cancer, remember that as he let go of his attachment to this world, nothing diminished.

    Death ended a life but not a relationship.

    Relationships live beyond death. There is no period at the end of life when there is a loving relationship in life.

    Love conquers death.

    I hope his friends can come to know this.

    Does Good Treatment Mean Better Treatment?

    “Are good doctors bad for your health?" is a question posed by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel in a New York Times opinion article about our natural response to want the "best doctor" we can find in a medical crisis (11/21/15).

    As a young man, I grew up in a family of doctors.  They are a heady blend of academics, medical - research and clinical - doctors, artists, mathematicians, physicists, and for balance, quite a few blue-collar workers like my Dad, who was a printer.  Weekly, we ate dinner together.   Regularly our family doctors received, most often just after dinner, a collection of calls from distressed friends and family members asking advice on a variety of medical issues.  HIPPA restrictions were not in place when I was a kid, and so cases were discussed over dessert.  Some of these calls were benign, inconsequential calls asking whether a sprained ankle or wrist needed ice or heat.  But others, were more serious, where interpretations of blood tests and cancer treatment options needed to be explained and considered.   Inevitably, the more serious calls, also came with requests, "what doctor and hospital would you recommend?"

    I learned at a young age what is coming to light today in medicine: does more treatment mean better treatment?  In an article published in the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) - yes, I do read it - research suggests that doing less, even doing nothing, can produce better results.  To some people, this can seem counter intuitive.   

    Every test, every intervention, can go wrong.  Even less obvious, is that many senior, famous or soon-to-be-famous doctors that specialize in cardiology and removed from clinical practice and centered on groundbreaking research have a higher mortality rate than physicians recently out of training.  

    I know this is very shocking, but the new data suggests that your cardiac survival rate increases when you have an acute, life-threatening cardiac condition and the senior cardiologist at the hospital is out of town ornot on call.

    The research suggests that this is only true for cardiologists.  But my family dinner conversations point me in a different direction, although it is not validated by the research.  And that is:  you always have a better chance of a successful outcome if the hospital you go is a teaching hospital and staffed with reliably trained junior physicians, just out of training.

    This is important, so let me repeat it again if you have a choice between a teaching and non-teaching hospital, always choose the teaching hospital.  The reason is simple: they are more clinically adept.

    Other questions to always ask your doctor is will the test, and results change your approach?  And if the answer is yes, ask how much improvement can you expect?  Will the improvement prolong life?  Reduce risk?  Or, can this new approach create another problem?  How severe will the side effects be?  If the answer is no, then you must assess if the intervention and, or test is right for you.

    No one likes to be second-guessed or have to justify their decisions, doctors included, but studies show that when patients have all the information, know both benefits and risks, they tend to consent to fewer interventions and tests and feel more informed about their decisions.  

    None of the doctors in my family ever made a medical decision for anyone who called.  What they gave each person they knew, and sometimes loved, was information, benefits, and risks.  

    It's hard to tell someone bad news.  It's especially hard when someone is acutely ill and doing nothing is the best medicine of all.

    Want To Hire the Best People? Do this.

    About a year ago, Mandy Len Catron, wrote and essay in the NYT, entitled, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.”  She following a review of a study by psychologist Arthur Aron that explored whether intimacy between two strangers is accelerated by having them ask each other a specific series of personal questions.  Aron created 36 questions, broken up into three sets, with each set intending to be more probing than the previous one.

    The idea was that mutual vulnerability foster closeness.  The more I thought on this, the more I wondered, wouldn't employers who are not the beneficiaries of massive HR departments and equally massive personality tests, make better hiring decisions if they not only were able to check off job applicants key skill requirements.  But if they also were able to see key patterns associated with the development of an applicants' ability to establish, sustain, escalate, reciprocate and maintain relationships with other employees in a 45-minute interview.

    The answer is simple: of course!  So, here are the questions:

    Set One

    1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
    2. Would you like to be famous?  In what way?
    3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say?  Why?
    4. What would constitute a "perfect" day for you?
    5. When did you last sing to yourself?  To someone else?
    6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or the body of a 30-year old for the last 60 years of life, which would you want?
    7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
    8. Name three things you have in common with this company?
    9. For what in your life do you feel the most grateful?
    10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
    11. Take four minutes and tell me about the story of your life in as much detail as possible.
    12. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or attribute, what would it be?

    Set Two

    13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
    14. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
    15. What do you value most in a friendship?
    16. What is your most treasured memory?
    17. What is your most terrible memory?
    18. What does friendship mean to you?
    19. What role of work and commitment mean to you?
    20. Together, we are going to share.  Based on what I know of you so far, I am going to share something I consider a positive characteristic of you.  And you are going to share something you consider a positive characteristic of this company with me.  We are going to do this five times.
    21. How do you feel about your relationship with your Mother?  Father?

    Set Three

    22. Make three true "we" statements.  For instance, "We are both in this room feeling...?"
    23. Complete this sentence: "In this job, I wish I had something or someone with whom I could share...?"
    24. If we were to hire you, please share what would be important for us to know.
    25. Tell me what you like about this company.  This time, be very honest, saying things that you might not say to someone you just met and who will be hiring you.
    26. Share with me an embarrassing moment in your life?
    27. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
    28. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone?  Why haven't you told them yet?
    29. Share a job-related interpersonal problem you have had in the past?  And reflect on why you chose that problem over others?


    Why do we dodge responsibility when things fall apart?  Why are leaders unable to own up when they screw up?  Why do we have endless marital squabbles over who is right?  Are we all liars?  Or do we believe the stories we tell?

    One reason is that we’re all hard-wired for self-justification.  Here’s why: All of us share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for an action that turns out to be harmful, immoral or just plain stupid.  Most will never be in a position to make decisions affecting the lives of people.  But whether the consequences of our mistakes are trivial or tragic, on a small scale or national canvas, most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, to say, “I was wrong; I made a mistake.”

    It goes further than that: Most people when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously.  The Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification.

    Politicians are the most visible self-justifiers, which is why they provide such vivid examples.  They have refined the art of speaking in the passive voice; when their backs are against the wall, they will reluctantly acknowledge error, but not responsibility.  Oh all right, mistakes were made, but not by me; by someone else, who shall remain nameless.  When Republican Henry Kissinger said that “the administration” may have made mistakes in Viet Nam, he was sidestepping the fact that as national security advisor and secretary of state (simultaneously) he, in effect, was the administration.  This self-justification allowed him to accept the Nobel Peace Prize without hesitation, a small history fact that many Republican who scoffed the “dumbing down” of the Prize that went to President Obama’s seem to forget.

    We look at politicians, business and religious leaders with amusement or alarm or horror, but, psychologically, what they do is not different in kind, though certainly in consequence, from what most of us have done at one time or another in our private lives.  We stay in an unhappy relationship because we’ve invested so much time in making it work.  We stay in a deadening job way too long because we look for all the reasons to justify staying and are unable to assess precisely the benefits of leaving.  We self-righteously create a rift with a friend or relative over some real or imagined slight, yet see ourselves as the pursuers of peace, justice and balance – if only the other side would make amends.

    The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions – especially wrong ones – is an unpleasant feeling called, “cognitive dissonance.”  It is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions or ideas, or attitudes, or beliefs or opinions that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke to relax me.”  Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it.

    Dissonance is so disquieting because to hold two ideas that contradict each other is to flirt with absurdity, and most humans spend most of their lives trying to convince that our existence is not absurd.  So, people try to make sense out of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in their minds, consistent and meaningful.  Dissonance explains why Wall Street investors can justify receiving millions of dollars in bonuses after receiving trillions of dollars in citizen-funded bailouts while one out of every five mortgages in the country is in foreclosure.

    Dissonance theory also explores the self-flattering idea that people process information logically.  On the contrary, if the new information is consistent with our beliefs, we think it is well founded and useful.  But if it’s not, then it’s just stupid.  So compelling is the need to consonance that when people are forced to look at the disconfirming evidence, they will find a way to criticize, distort, or dismiss it so that they can maintain or even strengthen their existing beliefs.  This mental contortion is called the “confirmation bias.”  And it is on full display in Congress as members of the House and Senate confirm their biases in the healthcare debate, which when you think about it, really has nothing to do with patient health or care, but how insurance companies distribute money to hospitals and doctors. 

    Perhaps, in the end, Huxley was right when he said “There is probably no such thing as a conscious hypocrite.”

    Let's talk

    Every so often I find it difficult to talk with people.   My difficulty is often inspired by a series of frustrating attempts at having a productive and civil conversation about a difficult topic, like the Iran nuclear deal.

    My experience in trying to discuss difficult topics centers on what seems to be an underlying need of many people to win an argument, to force the other person, if possible, to see things their way.  If the person refuses to change her mind, she can easily be dismissed as a fool, a “contratian,” or in the case of the Iran nuclear deal, a supporter of terrorism.

    I would think that having a good conversation was like riding a bike: once you learn how to do it, you never forget.  It would become instinctual.  But having a good conversation, like riding a bike well, is surprisingly difficult.  Except for the gifted athlete, riding a bike will requires balance, form, position, focus, as well as a good feel for the dynamics of cycling.  It also takes a lot of practice.  That said, I can correct myself on this point by saying, it also requires a lot of practice for the gifted person to enter into a conversation or ride a bike.

    There are no classes, that I’m aware, on how to have a good conversation, so maybe a few hard won ideas about the art of plain talk might make it easier for us to talk with each other, instead of at each other.

    The first is easy: Be civil.  That means no accusations, no attacks, no finger pointing, or name-calling.  Next, try to assume the best not the worst of the other person, and try your best to make a favorable interpretation of everything the other person says.

    The state of our conversations might be improved if we tried to admit when the other person is right.  It might also be improved if we didn’t criticize an idea unless we were willing to offer an alternative, and if we tried to trust the other person in their area of expertise, which includes respecting what they have to say based on their own history.

    These ideas are not new, nor are they easily adopted.  Some people argue simply because they can.  The outcome of the conversation, or the civilities of it are not important.  

    Many conversations are actually two or more monologues, where the other person is simply an object, an obstacle or a potential convert to the other’s way of thinking.  In some exchanges the other person is so occupied with what he is going to say that he fails to listen to what the other person says.  The result is that neither person feels they have been heard and each person walks away frustrated or perhaps, each person tries to talk louder or faster than the other.  With everyone trying so hard to win, no one wins.

    My question is: why try to win?  In a good conversation, everyone wins because they’ve enjoyed the talking with each other.  They have sharpened their skills and their own thinking, and they have learned something from each other.   It requires real listening. 

    Fred Schiffer, M.D. is friend and very good listener.  He’s a very wise man not because of what he knows (and he knows a lot), but because of his ability to be puzzled.  He wrote sometime ago, in the introduction to an article, something that I try to keep in mind when I am having a difficult conversation. 

    “I want to stress that these are my views, and they may be at odds with some of my colleague (as well as allied with others).  Since this is my page, I’ll offer my opinions.  But, I only have opinions; no one has a monopoly on the truth.  I believe my opinions to be true (at least I do today), but that doesn’t make them true.  You can read my views if you like and consider them."

    Real listening like real knowledge can occur only when we’re open and willing to change our mind, our views, and our opinions.  Real dialogue requires far more listening rather than attacking.  It foists the consideration of possibility and inevitability of puzzlement.  It does not assume the worst, criticize, interrupt, or try to win.  It considers the possibility of things beyond the ken of our own camp.

    So, now that we’ve considered some ideas about conversation, let’s talk.

    Growing Older

    When everyday acts become a major production, I remember this dream scene: An elderly man goes to his neurologist for…well, a bathroom problem.  The neurologist’s assistant, a young, fresh-faced practical nurse with a sincere, girlish grin hands him a stack of medical history forms and questionnaires about the “problem.”  The old man is standing in line outside the men’s room, which is adjacent to a fully occupied waiting room.


    His Parkinson’s disease makes writing difficult, so his wife reads the questions and writes down the answers.


    She is hard of hearing; he reads the questions to her in a very loud voice.


    The answers reveal intimate things about his GI track that no man would ever tell his wife unless under oath, and even then, he should probably lie, or keep them to himself to save both of them the embarrassment.  Anyway and in every way, he tells her at just about the same time as he tells everyone else in the waiting room.


    The dream has a bedroom scene.


    “Wake up.  I need help going to the john.”


    “What?  Oh.  By the way, I had a dream about a table and someone was saying….


    “I’ve heard the story already.  I really got to go.  Got to go, now.”


    She slips the covers off his body and swings his legs out of the bed, then she takes both of her hands and staggers backwards towards the chair that’s near the window alongside the bed, while he, hanging on, staggers forward.  It’s the dance of the “left footed” and fun to choreograph, but, of course, the full frontal nudity will have to be negotiated with the dream editor.


    The director, however, wants dozens of photographs of them coming out of the medical building.  Holding hands lovingly…desperately.  He’ll loose his balance and sway in concentric circles.  Loves embers grow.  It might be fun to cut there and let them swirl forever.


    The chase scene is next and inevitable, but it’s different.  This time in the chase the elderly man and woman obey all the rules, moving sedately, if not modestly as long lines of cars and motorcycles, trucks and buses weave in and out, trying to pass the mature drivers.  They are not aware that they’re leading a small, horn-blowing parade of younger people who are racing to get where the Golden Oldies have already been.  No need to hurry, they think.  They enjoy the scenery, exchange the memories, turn off at the restaurant, turn back on the highway, and are surprised at the symphony of horns following them.


    Of course, there has to be conflict between husband and wife who has brought home the wrong texture of peanut butter.  The trick is that anger is expressed by silence.  No dialogue, just a straight shot of the mouth, a hand shaking, a quick turn of the head, and the scene fades.


    When they do speak dialogue is a problem.






    “Poor Ida.”


    “Is she out?”




    “She’ll get out.””


    “Always has.”


    There’s a close up of a hearing aid.




    “I said Lance.”


    “I washed your pants.”


    “Not pants.  Lance.”


    “Ida sold the ranch.”


    Foreign movie subtitles maybe necessary to reveal the intense drama of two people aging together, battling the problem of growing older everyday with humor and courage.  If my dream were a movie, it would be a hit…maybe.


    The job of trying to find meaning in a series of events that are happening to you, or anything you care about is the job of trying to put the pieces together and trying to make sense out of things. It requires you to be receptive, even somewhat passive.  You have to wait for the events to come to you, keep an open mind, and be prepared to find the unexpected in unexpected places.  At the same time, it also helps to be actively looking for certain kinds of clues and reasons.  While the purpose of understanding is to sweep up all the fragments and get underneath all the facts and illuminate and sharpen their meaning, it is also to impose and exclude other elements whose relevance often depends on their originality.  Nevertheless, in the course of collecting data, connections emerge.  Certain ideas are simply out there at any time, part of the collective consciousness that people in groups and organizations tap into, knowingly or not.

    One trend I have found to be prevalent among children and politicians lately is when they are encountering a difficult situation, they blame.

    Focusing on blame is bad idea. Not just because it can harm or injure relationships, cause pain or anxiety but also because blame inhibits our ability to learn from what’s really causing the problem and to do anything meaningful to correct it.  The urge to blame is based, quite literally, on the fear of being blamed. Too often, blaming also serves as a bad proxy for taking directly about what’s causing the pain.

    Blame is about judging and looking backwards.  When blame is in play, you can expect defensiveness, strong emotions and arguments about what a “good boss,” “competent employee,” or any “reasonable person” should or shouldn’t do.  When we blame someone, we automatically assign to roles: we assume the role of the accuser and offer the blamed party the  role of the accused. 

    That's not to say that the answer is “Don’t blame.” You can’t move away from blame until you understand what blame is, what motivates you to want to blame and accuse another person for your current or past situation, and how to move to something else that will better serve you.

    That something else is contribution.  The question to be asked, and answered for each person, is, “how did we each contribute to bringing about the current situation or what did us each do or not do to get into this mess.”

    As a rule, when things go wrong in human relationships, everyone has contributed in some important ways.  A common distortion is to see contribution as singular – that what has gone wrong is either entirely our fault or (more often) entirely theirs.  Except in extreme cases of child abuse, rape and genocide, almost every situation that gives rise to a conversation is the result of a joint contribution system.  Focusing on only one or the other of the contributors obscures rather than illuminates. 


    I’m not a statesman, or politician, and even as a citizen, I am a mere beginner.  Like all of us, I too am immersed in critically ill world.  My experience of our world is an almost daily series of disconnected shocks, and my first instinct is to try to bring it under control by turning it into a narrative.  That’s what I do. 

    Here’s what we do.

    Always in emergencies we invent narratives.  We describe what is happening, as if to confine the catastrophe.  When people heard that the “credit crisis” was spinning out of control, writers and pundits inundated us with stories and cases of other people and other organizations in crisis, but for some reason, few have ever told us how the crisis affects them.  Storytelling seems to be a natural reaction to crisis.  People bleed stories and we have become a blood bank of them.

    A person or an organization has to start by treating the crisis not as a disaster, an occasion for depression or panic; but as a narrative, a story.  Stories are antibodies against crisis and pain.  When various individuals and organizations file for bankruptcy, or when organizations displace employees into joblessness, I’ve found it helps a lot when you can create a narrative of what is happening to you.  Talking has a way of humanizing and translating experience.  It can prepare, strengthen and sometimes, even console you.  Anything is better than an awful silent suffering.

    I sometimes think that silence can kill you, like the terrible scene at the end of Kafka’s, The Trial when Joseph K, lies speechlessly, “like a dog.”  To die, or to feel dead is to be no longer human, to be dehumanized – and I think that stories or narratives are the most effective ways to keep our humanity alive.  To remain silent is literally to close down the shop on one’s humanity.

    I knew a man who had lung cancer, and during his final days, he was speechless.  For days, he lay in his bed trying to talk to the people with his eyes.  He was too depressed or maybe traumatized to try to write on a pad.  He died not of cancer exactly, but of pneumonia, as if his lungs had filled with trapped speech and he drowned in it.

    Some of the best writers of our time turn their anxieties and neuroses into a story in order to be able to control it to a degree, so a person in crisis, or on the wrong side of the credit crunch or a job loss can make a story, a narrative, out of their ordeal as a way of trying to detoxify it. 

    One of the many ways you might do this is to create mini-narratives.  Metaphor is a powerful ally.  You might, for example, see your predicament as a visit to a disturbed country, rather like Georgia.  Or, perhaps it is a love affair with a demented other who demands things you have never done before.  Or, as a presentation you’re about to give to a full conference room on a subject that has not been specified.

    Making narratives can rescue you from the unknown, from what Becker calls, “the panic inherent in creation” or “the suction of infinity.”  Thinking about difficult situations is what writers do best.  And we should all be writers, if only for the thinking and the way language can help us write our way out of a difficult situation.


    An engineer was crossing a road one day when a frog called out to him and said, "If you kiss me I'll turn into a beautiful princess".


    He bent over, picked up the frog and put it in his pocket. The frog spoke up again and said: "If you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, I'll stay with you."


    The engineer took the frog out of his pocket, smiled at it and returned it to the pocket.


    The frog then cried out: "If you kiss me and turn me back into a princess, I'll stay with you and do ANYTHING you want." Again the engineer took the frog out, smiled at it and put it back into his pocket.


    Finally the frog asked: "What is the matter? I've told you I'm a beautiful princess that I'll stay with you and do anything you want. Why won't you kiss me?"


    The engineer said: "Look I'm an engineer. I don't have time for a girlfriend, but a talking frog? That's cool!




    There was an engineer who had an exceptional gift for fixing all things mechanical. After serving his company loyally for over 30 years, he happily retired. Several years later the company contacted him regarding a seemingly impossible problem they were having with one of their multimillion-dollar machines. They had tried everything and everyone else to get the machine to work but to no avail.


    In desperation, they called on the retired engineer who had solved so many of their problems in the past. The engineer reluctantly took the challenge.  He spent a day studying the huge machine. At the end of the day, he marked a small "x" in chalk on a particular component of the machine and stated: This is where your problem is".


    The part was replaced and the machine worked perfectly again. The company received a bill for $50,000 from the engineer for his service. They demanded an itemized accounting of his charges.


    The engineer responded briefly:

    One chalk mark: $1.00

    Knowing where to put it: $49,999.00.


    Two engineering students were walking across campus when one said, "Where did you get such a great bike?"


    The second engineer replied: "Well, I was walking along yesterday minding my own business when a beautiful woman rode up on this bike. She threw the bike to the ground, took off all her clothes and said, 'Take what you want.'"


    The second engineer nodded approvingly: "Good choice; the clothes probably wouldn't have fit."

    Emergent Stress Reduction

    The world is anxious. The economy is nervous. Families are stressed. The unemployed are looking for jobs; the employed are looking over their shoulders. What in the world are we going to do?

    Psychologists refer to long, ongoing, challenging life events as examples of chronic stress. Unlike acute stress, the type of stress that is experienced quickly (like a spilled cup of coffee), chronically stressful situations in life often include uncertainty, potential negative future outcomes, anxiety, and possibly depression. To what degree and extent America and the rest of the world are experiencing chronic stress, and whether it enters into our day-to-day meaning making, can only be speculated at this point ? but it sure seems likely it played a pretty big role.

    The best medicine for chronic stress is human control, something all people strive for in life. We like when our lives are in order, our patterns fairly predictable, and our spirits high. Unfortunately, chronic stress challenges our sense of personal control, often leading to a host of anxiety symptoms. When we are able to regain a sense of control of the situation our anxiety lessens; and when we allow uncertainty to dominate our thinking we experience anxiety. If world affairs are weighing heavily on our collective minds, the uncertainty associated with the future may prompt us to step away from the present sources of our insecurity to adequately prepare for a difficult situation ahead. 

    What can a business do?

    One thing we can do is recognize this is more than a matter of orientation; it?s a matter of view, like looking through the rear view mirror, or looking out the front windshield. 

    It?s more than a shift from adding to an overwhelming supply of actions to wetting the appetites of customer who will demand more of what is supplied.

    It?s moving from immersion into what people want to the emergence of what they value. By that I mean that the first key to becoming emergent is to understand what demand exists for it and, only then create a differentiated supply that satisfies people more completely than anyone else. The way you do this is to compete on value-added differentiation rather than price.

    Value increases one of two ways: you either increase benefits or lower price. The emergent strategist tries to increase benefits in ways that create value for targeted segments of people, while the product strategist will try to create more value by increasing price.

    Emergent strategies attempt to understand before creating supply. By understanding the people you want to serve and make happy, you are better able to plan and produce products that are sharply differentiated or scarce, which earn you higher prices and profits. Once you satisfy demand more dynamically than your competition, you have more control over price, and that ultimately, will increase profitability and growth: you compete on products, goods and services but you win on emergent demands.

    Your stress may not completely resolve itself, but creating choices are critical to your managing it. It?s also critical for another reason: you can do or engage in business the same way by creating business economies that look namely at creating large amounts of goods and services as efficiently as possible, or you better understand the emergent demands in a market before you create a supply of goods and services.

    In the end, managing your business like managing your stress is within your control.