Saturday, July 30, 2011

It isn’t about the debt limit or the economy, its about winning

Some years ago I agreed to testify as an expert witness on behalf of a defendant in a lawsuit. The subject matter of the litigation is unimportant. Before the case was to be heard, I spent an afternoon in the New York offices of the attorney defending the case reviewing my testimony. This was my first expert witness experience. The way the attorney - he was also a casual friend - introduced our discussion has left an indelible impression.

“Trials are not about justice,” he emphasized, “trials are about winning!”

It is hard not to believe that a similar rationale explains what appears to be Republican intransigence in the current debt limit debate. Consider the following:

[1] Winning the next presidential election is - understandably and appropriately - an overarching Republican goal.

[2] That the state of the economy is critical in determining the outcome of presidential elections is well known. If the economy turns around, this will reflect favorably on President Obama, enhancing his reelection chances. The worse the economy performs; the worse Americans suffer as a result, the more likely a Republican candidate will emerge victorious in 2012.

[3] Expert consensus that an American default will adversely affect both the global economy and the US economy is overwhelming.

[4] Whatever the short term costs, they are worth incurring in order to ensure the defeat of President Obama or, if he should not be renominated, another Democratic nominee.

As I said, the current debate is not about the debt limit. It isn’t about the deficit. It isn’t about the economy. It isn’t about the well-being of Americans. It isn’t about America’s international standing. Its about ensuring that the Obama Presidency is seen to be a failure. In short, it’s about winning.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Leading research centers effectively

Not long ago a colleague who is a senior staff member at a world-class research university outside of the US wrote to me. She has been tasked to draft a manual that will provide guidance for research centers at her institution and asked if I would share any suggestions I might have. I thought an abridgement of my response might be worth sharing more widely.

“Here are some brief thoughts on research centers, drawing on my experience with a number of them. I am not sure they will be helpful in drafting a handbook because I think that the function a handbook can play in contributing to a successful center is a fairly limited one.

“What distinguished every center with which I worked was the presence of an effective, even charismatic leader who had a clear vision. He or she had the ability to attract, inspire and empower those working at the center with the feeling they were participating in an important enterprise and making a difference. The people they attracted could produce results. The leaders were great mentors, though they sometimes assigned demanding, seemingly impossible tasks. They were also not afraid to fire non-producers or, if that was not possible, to deftly move them to peripheral activities. What is interesting is that these leaders were not good “managers” in any conventional sense. In particular, they did not hesitate to think out of the box and break the rules when the rules impeded their vision and objectives. I like to think that I exemplified some of these qualities myself when I built the Center for Teaching Excellence at American University though it wasn’t exactly a research center.

“Managing such leaders “from above,” as your department will be doing, requires patience, flexibility and a light touch. Creating a non-hierarchical context of partnership, teamwork and mutual empowerment is essential. It is, however, important to have disciplined financial management, which can be the Achilles heel of a research center and an area of weakness in charismatic, creative managers. How to impose disciplined financial management without stifling creativity is a challenge but it can be done. The principle is to combine maximum discretion with an emphasis on results and accountability.

"It never hurts to look at “best practices.” Pick research centers that are outstanding and develop a clear understanding of how they work. If possible, talk with those who have been successful leading such centers and take their suggestions seriously.

"A book I would recommend is Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins. It is not a book about research Centers, but offers some great insights on effective management. Another is The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization by Peter Senge.

"Best of luck and my best wishes for the success of your project.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

For moments of anxiety

This has been a hectic time of transition as I completed the semester, and packed up my belongings from Anderson Hall, after nearly 10 years as faculty resident. My new “second home” is in a nice condominium apartment, less than 10 minutes walk from the university. During this time I have noted down many blog topics – such periods in life evoke tumultuous thoughts and feelings – but actually writing and posting them has not made it onto my list of urgent “to dos.” It seemed a form of self-indulgence, taking time from more pressing imperatives, even though I recognize that my reflections may sometimes provide value to others.

During the moving out > moving in process, however, I have continued to listen to “On Being” (formerly “Speaking of Faith”) podcasts. An interview with Silvia Boorstein ( ) entitled “What we nurture” has proved particularly valuable and readers may find it valuable as well . Boorstein is a founding member of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre California. She was one of the first to begin raising consciousness of Americans about the value of Buddhist teachings in the 1970s. Like The Buddha himself, she does not identify Buddhism as a religion, primarily, and continues to identify herself as Jewish. The combination of humor and wisdom that characterizes her teaching is captured in the title of her first book, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist and in the two brief excerpts from her teachings, below.

I call the first, “the war between the two wolves:”

Two wolves are at war for my heart.

One is loving and compassionate.

The other is angry and resentful.

The wolf that wins the war will be the one that I feed.

(Note how this captures ideas about how the way we think actually changes the structure of our brains, described in the work of Richard Davidson and others on “neuroplasticity.”)

The second teaching is a reminder she speaks to herself in moments of anxiety.


You are in pain.

Relax; take a breath.

Let’s pay attention to what is happening.

Then we’ll figure out what to do.

Take time to listen to Krista Tippett’s interview with Silvia Boorstein. I promise you won’t regret it.

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