Why I fly my flag

On this anniversary of September 11, 2001, I raised my United States flag to the bracket on the porch column. It was still early, but I knew that many of my neighbors would join me in this solemn act of remembrance of those dark hours a decade ago.

As I stood there a moment and gazed at those stars and stripes, I thought about all of the things that the flag represents. For a moment, I felt an uneasiness. Some of my dear friends won’t be flying a flag today — or any day, for that matter. Displaying this flag, they say, is an endorsement for all of the evil things that have been done by this country.

I readily and sadly admit that this great nation has, from time to time, fallen victim to decisions and policies that have been foolish, self-centered, and even savage. I mourn those lapses in character and I groan slightly each day as I see men and women continue to pursue vestiges of power, wealth, and influence in total disregard for others.

No human institution can withstand critical review. Whether it’s my government, my alma mater, my workplace, my family, or even my local church, I can point to moments of failure. But because of my connection, I am drawn to do more than criticize — I’m compelled to engage and improve wherever I can.

Through my study window, I can see my flag slightly billowing in the mild breeze. I’m not naive. I can see the shadows of ugliness that these patches of red, white, and blue have covered throughout the years. However, I can’t help but see — and even feel — the potential that is embroidered there.

I fly my flag to remember . . . and to dream of a time that people will pursue peace for every nation and every man, woman, and child. My hope and prayer is that citizens of every nation fly their flags in this common cause.  And that we can all be cured of blind allegiance.

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Public opinion and critical thinking

The light on my phone began flashing while I was in an online conference. Voice mail.

Voice mail is the ultimate game of office tag. I think that’s the reason that my stomach churns a bit when I see that light flashing. I know that the message waiting for me will, in all likelihood, obligate me to some action.

When my conference was over, I turned to my phone and the ritual that retrieves messages. Hoping for an announcement of some great financial windfall or that I had won a fabulous vacation, I listened intently. No money nor cabin on a lake were in my future.

A local newspaper reporter was requesting a short interview for a story he was preparing about some pending legislation in Austin. As the message continued, I rolled through several semi-connected and quasi-logical thoughts.

  1. He’s called me by mistake.
  2. Because I have not researched the statute nor the underlying research, I am not really qualified to give an opinion.
  3. But, I actually do have an opinion on this issue after thinking about the effects of the bill and weighing the costs on each side.
  4. To my dismay, my opinion is apparently in opposition to my historic political leanings.
  5. I have friends who might be surprised at my opinion.
  6. The safest thing would be to decline the interview.

I punched in the numbers to return the call. Three rings. Then, voice mail. The perfect opportunity to win this game of tag.

I carefully explained to the reporter’s machine that I really was not worthy of an interview. My plan was to hang-up with that announcement. Yet, I had a sudden urge to express myself. After a minute of stumbling over my words, I promised that I would call again after lunch.

And I did. The reporter was gracious. I gave him my opinion. The story ran this morning and, to my relief, I learned that the reporter was also a gracious editor. I sounded vaguely coherent.

Now an opinion is only an opinion. If you disagree with me, that’s all right — because an opinion is only one side of a conversation. I cannot force you to adopt my stance on the issue nor should I have that expectation. But I can enter the conversation and thereby invite you to join.

Hopefully, we will all take our places in conversations with an openness not only to the words of others, but to the new understanding we gain by engaging in the process.

I’m on record with my belief that public debate is worthless. I believe that because of the way that politicians and other activists conduct that activity. However, public conversation, recognizable by the underlying element of true critical thinking, is priceless.

What’s your opinion?

photo courtesy of Sanja Gjenero at stock.xchng

Systems that fail

I was reminded several times this week about systems that have failed.

That line of conversation would begin a lively discussion at the local coffee shop. We all have stories about our bad experiences at the hands of someone who blindly obeyed a process even though it was obviously flawed.

The truth is that a good number of those systems weren’t designed to fail and those processes were not flawed when they were implemented.  But things change and when systems don’t adapt, they fail to deliver.

Much has been written about the different types of leaders.  We want capable women and men to run our industries, schools, hospitals, and other organizations. We look for certain characteristics and we set certain expectations. One of the dominant themes we trumpet is that our leaders must be individuals who can solve problems.  And, thus, most of our leaders believe that they are where they are to “fix” what’s broken.

Systems are a part of the “fix.” We design plans that allow us to group similar activities and challenges together. We make policies and rules to permit a batch-handling of those things.  And then we demand that all problems be treated exactly the same way.  For the most part, if the system was well thought-out, it works with only a few exceptions.

In fact, many systems work so well that we come to worship the system. If someone or something doesn’t fit the system, we justify that particular failure as a glitch or anomaly or, in more graphic terms, collateral damage. We hesitate adjusting the system because it has served us well in the past. Since we know that systems can’t be totally effective, we establish an acceptable failure rate.

Most organizations, however, have one or more systems where the failure rate has far exceeded acceptability. Healthy organizations respond with adjustments and, when necessary, total replacement systems — which, of course, come with their own new problems.  Yet, a majority of organizations don’t respond until total failure is imminent.  Some, rather than investing in effective solutions, simply change their expectations.  Rather than redesign a system, they simply accept failure as their outcome.

We live in a complex world.  We must have systems. But we must have leaders who are more concerned with those they serve than they are in preserving a system that fails. If your system isn’t working, adjust the system. Don’t break the people.

Please, take it

ABC News Correspondent Diane Sawyer flew to the northern regions of Japan to view the scenes of destruction from the earthquake and tsunami. As she, her interpreter, and her videographer walked through a village, they came upon a circle of local citizens. Their chairs were pulled together loosely as they sat and talked and passed the time.

Upon seeing Ms. Sawyer’s group approach, a man jumped to his feet and moved across the circle away from them. At first, I thought he was trying to escape the camera or perhaps offer his seat to the visitors. Instead, he reached in a bag and pulled out what appeared to be rice cakes and offered them to his guests.

“Oh, no!” the journalist team exclaimed, “We have no need for your food.”

“Please, take it,” the man answered in Japanese. “We have more than enough.”

More than enough. As the camera panned across the scene, it was apparent that this small group of survivors had each other, a small bag of food, and barely enough warm clothing for the close-to-freezing temperatures.

But their lack of physical things didn’t diminish that which they shared in abundance. Sometimes deep love and respect for others — particularly the stranger — makes even the scarcest resources seem like more.

Too often our picture of a leader is of one who offers from a wealth of talent and resources. Our view of a leader is of someone who opens a great storehouse and delivers wisdom, compassion, physical resources, and guidance. Yet, the true leaders are those who see their storehouses emptied in service to others. The true leaders are those who worry less about self than about others. The true leaders are those who serve.

The beauty of the selfless leader is that those they serve return their love and respect. We see less of stifling hierarchy and more of seamless community. And in such a place, the words we hear at every turn are “Please, take it. We have more than enough.”

What if we weren’t wrong . . .

I’m spending time with a group of individuals who are asking questions. Not the demanding, investigative-type of questions. More of the shades of wonder-type questions.

I’ve been in other groups (though not for very long) that have asked questions, too. Invariably, their questions center on the mistakes of the past. “Why didn’t we see that we were so wrong?” I’ve stood by in horror as these people, acting in typical mob fashion, have castigated their predecessors — and occasionally themselves.

The constant messages ring out . . .

“We have arrived . . . We have attained a level of wisdom never before seen . . . We have been lifted from our previous stupor of ignorance . . . We are begotten of fools and ignorant people.”

But what if, in those not too distant moments when we or others believed or thought or felt differently, we weren’t wrong? What if we or our parents or previous administrations were right for the moment? What if our state of being was a result of the best we could do or think or feel at that time?

The group I’m now in asks questions that have no room for blame. Only capacity for gain. What should we be doing? Where should we be going? How is the best way to get there? Who could come with us? When should we take our next step?

The conversation that follows moves quickly. By not having to tread and retread the slick pavement of fault, we gain traction in things of importance. We move more rapidly towards making a difference.

Wait, you say. What if you or your predecessors were wrong? What then? What if you were wrong. . .

Then, I have to believe that a power greater than

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us will influence the current decision. I’m convinced that life is not marked by right answers, only best answers for the moment. And, if that’s true, we can stop worrying about being wrong and invest instead in doing what we hope and pray is best.

Wisdom, in the final setting, is not about being right. Wisdom is being open to what is right.