Mugabe, Democracy, and the Unbearable Intertwingularity of Structure and Culture

The November 17, 2017 issue of the Eurasia Group’s excellent Signal newsletter reminds us that the now deposed Robert Mugabe was not always a “cartoon dictator”:

Mugabe, a school teacher and freedom fighter, was jailed in Rhodesia in 1964, the same year Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa. But Mugabe’s country gained liberation before Mandela’s. In 1980, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and Mugabe became prime minister.

In the beginning, Zimbabwe was a developing world success story, the “bread basket” of Africa. Its economy was dynamic and diversified. Mugabe the teacher governed a nation with one of the continent’s highest literacy rates. He became president in 1987. But over time, the economy slowed, and his hold on his people began to slip. In response, his newly radicalized policies began to drive the country’s economy into the ground. The liberator then used violence to essentially crown himself king.

Running for re-election in 2008, he promised to abide by the people’s verdict. He finished the first round in second place, and announced that “only God” could remove him from power. Preposterous levels of inflation made cash less valuable than paper. Unemployment hovered above 90 percent. Millions fled the country. The king is now 93, and his subjects are fighting in the open over what comes next.

Past a certain number of people and issues, pure (i.e. direct) democracies do not scale (although technology potentially changes this). (This is true in all group contexts, not just societal.) So we create shortcuts, which — in the case of societies — usually looks like representative democracies. Shortcuts are efficient, but they (willingly) shift power away from the people, creating opportunities for abuse.

When it comes to power, if there are opportunities for abuse, someone will generally exploit them. To counter this, we create structural checks and balances. This results in new kinds of complexity, which can not only defeat the purpose of the shortcuts, but can also end up being more inefficient and less effective than the original structure you were trying to improve in the first place.

What often happens in this case is that people lose faith in the structures. We see this all the time in countries (including our very own right now). We see it all the time in organizations too.

Often, the criticism is merited. It’s critically important to acknowledge and try to fix structural flaws. But it’s also critically important to remember structure is not everything. Culture — our norms and beliefs — matters too. Shifting those norms and beliefs is really hard, but it’s not necessarily harder than changing structures.

Changing structures can shift culture, but it’s not the only way. The other way can seem messy and unpredictable, because it involves people, but sometimes it’s actually easier, and often, it’s better.

I wonder what would have happened in Zimbabwe if they had had a truth and reconciliation process in 1980 as South Africa did post-Apartheid. Similarly, what would this country have been like if we had had such a process following the Civil War?

In general, what would happen if countries took the time to align around a truly shared, collective vision? What if we consciously and intentionally invested in developing empathy in our citizenry?

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt via Wikimedia Commons

Dealing with Bullies

I was a small, skinny kid for most of my childhood, which meant I occasionally had to deal with bullies. My mom had a little twist on the Golden Rule she instilled in me at a very early age, which helped me deal with these bullies.

“If they hit you,” she advised me, “hit them back twice.”

The best way to deal with a bully is to punch him in the mouth. Given that physical violence is generally (maybe even appropriately) frowned upon, I later realized that there is an equally effective technique that amounts to the same thing: Find his source of power, and neuter him.

Hysterically expressing moral outrage, however valid, is a waste of energy. It exhausts you and your allies while feeding the bully and his supporters. I’m not suggesting that you suppress these feelings. Find ways to channel them into things that the bully cares about — taking away his status, his power, his audience.

Turning his audience means that you have to take the time to understand them and be disciplined in how you communicate with them. If you listen, you might be surprised to learn that you actually have common ground. Put everything else aside, and focus on that common ground.

Finally and most importantly, have the backs of the people you care about and who care about you. Solidarity is strength.

Seinfeld and Obama on Staying Grounded by Keeping It About the Work

Jerry Seinfeld’s episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Barack Obama is predictably great. I highly recommend watching the whole 20 minutes.

I particularly enjoyed the exchanges on maintaining perspective. Seinfeld teased Obama about this throughout, asking him questions about his underwear, emotional eating, raising the heat in the White House, and other stuff that normal people have to worry about.

At the 00:14:35 mark, they started talking about how privilege and power changes you. Seinfeld said, “Privilege is toxic, sadly. Things that people struggle to achieve, they get to positions of power, influence, money, can do things… it has a toxic effect on their judgment.”

Then, Obama turned the tables on him. “Has it happened to you yet?” Obama asked.

“No,” Seinfeld replied immediately and definitively.

Obama kept pushing. He mentioned Seinfeld’s sudden and extreme success — the fame, the money — and he asked, “How did you calibrate dealing with that?”

Seinfeld responded:

I fell in love with the work. And the work was joyful and difficult and interesting. And that was my focus.

Very reminiscent of what Obama himself said earlier this year in an interview with Humans of New York, although in that case, Obama was referring to how you recover from massive failure.

Losing my Voice

Yesterday, I started losing my voice, and it stayed gone all day today. Of course, I had meetings scheduled all day today, and I needed to speak at all of them. So I got to try on a new persona today — that of a person who speaks softly, calmly, and slowly.

Normally, my voice is clear and strong. Projecting is not a problem, and although I have learned to speak softly on occasion, when I get excited or agitated, I naturally start speaking faster and louder.

So today was interesting. I liked that my inability to speak up without straining my vocal cords forced me to slow down and speak softly and gently. I was able to stay calm and deliberate as I spoke, even when I was excited about something. It felt better — getting excited eventually drains me — and I’m sure it made it easier and perhaps more enjoyable for others to follow. I’d love to keep practicing this.

However, there were also times when I wanted to project simply so that others could hear me. Not being able to do that felt frustrating and disempowering. It would be interesting to experiment with this long-term to see how much of a role my natural voice plays in me being seen by others, and how I might compensate in other ways.

Lessons from the NBA on Life, Learning, and Navigating Power

Ten months ago, as I was in the midst of figuring out my next chapter, I wrote a blog post about legendary basketball coach, Phil Jackson. I expressed chagrin at how a man like Phil Jackson was essentially being put out to pasture. He was getting coaching offers, but he had made it clear that he didn’t want to coach, and it seemed like teams were missing out on the opportunity to benefit from his wisdom due to their lack of imagination.

Last week, Jackson was named president of the New York Knicks. If you know basketball, you know that this was an eyebrow-raising development for two reasons. First, James Dolan — the owner of the Knicks — is widely acknowledged as one of the worst owners in the NBA, largely due to his meddling ways. It’s hard to imagine that match working, although Dolan has repeatedly been on record since last week that Jackson will have full control over basketball-related decisions.

Second, it was somewhat surprising that the Los Angeles Lakers never found a way to make it work with Jackson, given that he led them to five championships and is engaged to one of the owners of the team. It’s complicated. The Lakers are a family-owned team whose beloved, larger-than-life patriarch — widely considered the best-ever owner in the history of the NBA — recently passed away. His children — including Jackson’s fiancee — have been groomed to take over for years, and Jackson has always had a complicated relationship with his soon-to-be brother-in-law, who is now in charge of basketball decisions.

Still, why weren’t other teams jumping to employ Jackson? Ramona Shelburne wrote a great column for ESPN.com on this very topic:

For all the self-reflection Jackson has done in his 68 years, there was one image he was never going to be able to see clearly. His own. The way he’s seen by others, that is. Not what stares back at him in the mirror, or what’s inside his heart and head. On some level, Jackson understands that he is an intimidating man. His 6-foot-8 frame casts a towering shadow. His 11 NBA titles, Hall of Fame résumé and status as the coach who got the best out of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant walk into any room five minutes before he does.

It’s more than that, though.

The job he wanted for himself, the role he envisioned for the autumn of his basketball life — as a team president with final say over basketball decisions and the authority to create and shape the culture of a franchise — is a large one.

Pat Riley holds a role like that in Miami. So does Larry Bird in Indiana. Jackson certainly has the credentials for a role like that, too. But it’s a big ask of any owner. That kind of power is why an owner spends hundreds of millions of dollars to buy a professional sports franchise. So he can have the power. It is inherently threatening when an employee has even a little bit of it. It is kind of terrifying when that employee is a legend like Phil Jackson.

If you are in a Phil Jackson-like position, and if you’re wanting a certain role, you have to make it safe for others to embrace you. It’s not enough to sit back and wonder. You have to understand how you’re perceived, even if it’s the furthest thing from your own perception of yourself.

As I wrote last May, I see myself in Jackson’s situation (not that I’m even in the same ballpark of his accomplishments). I sometimes find myself wondering why people in certain situations don’t reach out to me more. I’ve made it abundantly clear that I’m wanting to share everything I’ve learned over the years and that I have much, much more to learn. Folks who know me know that I’m all about learning and doing great work, that I’m secure about my reputation, that I give credit more than I take it, and that I have no need to be the boss if I’m surrounded by great people and a healthy culture. If you care about similar things, why wouldn’t you try to take advantage of that?

At the same time, I understand both the perception and the reality of my situation. Organizational development professionals in particular tend to come from academia and management consulting, fields that are rife with scarcity mindset and do not believe in or understand the benefits of openness. It’s hard for folks in these fields to understand where I’m coming from and to not perceive me as a threat. I have little patience for people who are more concerned with protecting their reputation than they are about learning, and I’m not shy about expressing my feelings. If it were truly important for me to find ways to work with and mentor others who feel this way, it’s my prerogative to make these folks feel safe. Frankly, I’m mixed about this.

There’s also a flip side. What am I doing to reach out to and learn from others? Could I be doing more?

In 2011, Joe Lacob, who had recently purchased the Golden State Warriors, hired Jerry West as an advisor. On the one hand, this was a Phil Jackson-like no-brainer, maybe times ten. Jerry West is probably the greatest general manager ever. He won six rings as an executive for the Lakers, left in a bit of a power play (involving Phil Jackson), and turned around the Memphis Grizzlies, a historically moribund franchise. That’s not even accounting for his career as a player. West’s impact on the NBA is so great, they literally made him its logo.

Unlike Jackson, West was on record as saying that he didn’t want to become a decision-making part of any organization. On the one hand, if you were trying to turn a franchise around, why wouldn’t you want someone like West? On the other hand, even if West was being authentic about his desired role, you would need people who were tremendously secure to be able to work with him as an advisor.

Here’s what Lacob had to say in 2011 about the concern that there were “too many chefs in the kitchen”:

Everyone who says that is completely clueless. It’s a stupid thing to bring up. This is a 100-plus-million-dollar business. You have to have management. Most NBA teams are incredibly poorly architected on the basketball side. They have people who are ex-players, and Jerry West is an exception to this — but most of them are ex-players or scouts or whatever. They don’t know how to negotiate against incredibly trained killers like Arn Tellem or other agents. That’s what they do for a living. I’m not a genius. There’s a different way to do things and be successful, clearly. But it’s a very successful, thought-out map.

He certainly will feel the itch [to get more involved]. I’m sure he would love to be running something again and pulling the trigger again. That’s the excitement of it, right? But he also knows, and we’ve had these discussions at great lengths, he’s 73 and he’s in L.A. He can’t do it that way. It’s a young man’s game. There’s a lot of day-to-day scouting, a lot of day-to-day video analysis. He’s not prepared to do that right now and doesn’t want to. He has other interests right now.

Three years later, the relationship seems to have paid off. The Warriors are one of the best teams in the NBA, and Lacob credits West for coming in and changing the mentality of the organization.

I think that Joe Lacob is a wonderful model, and it’s got me thinking: Who are the Jerry West’s in my field whom I could be reaching out to and learning from?