Monday, June 05, 2006

Spine or Optimism

A piece in today’s Chronicle (you need to subscribe for the link to work) says that Higher Education Professionals are subject to lots of stress, more so than in other industries. This is a U.K. study and whether the results translate to the U.S. is moot, but the primary recommendation of the report is nonetheless strange to me. The report argues that managers at all level in the organization need to take great care for the welfare of their subordinates. This, of course, makes sense, but it says nothing at all of the mission or scope of the work itself which, if it feels like putting square pegs into round holes, may be the primary source of stress. What of that issue?

It’s probably a mistake to equate management with leadership, but for rhetorical purposes I’m going to do that now and ask the following question. Knowing in advance that the nature of the work is apt to be a source of stress, what tone should the leader adopt? While angst and desperation are possible responses to stress, we associate those attitudes more with artists and alienated youth than with leaders, so I’m going to rule out those alternatives in advance and focus on the two other alternatives that are in the title of my post.

Spine conjures up images of Harry Truman, “Give ‘em Hell, Harry,” while optimism brings to mind the pony story that most of us were told in childhood, a version of which is here. In the metaphor of life as a poker game, the leader with spine plays the cards that are dealt, doesn’t fold and accepts the consequences, both good and bad. The optimist, in contrast, leader or otherwise, may be somewhat self-delusional about the realities in order to find a path to transcend them. Optimism is all about transcendence and rising above the current circumstance via our imagination and different ways of framing reality, finding new solutions that have yet to emerge. So the optimist may sometimes appear to be reckless, where the leader with spine will seem cautious.

One senses in America, especially within the Bush White House, that there is very little spine. Certainly the Op-Ed columns in the New York Times by Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman, and Frank Rich paint this picture vividly. (You must subscribe to Times Select for this link to work.) Indeed, Rich makes clear there is a disconnect for U.S. military personnel in Iraq when they return home and see nothing about war preparedness back here. Prosecuting a war would seem to favor the leader with spine, but what we seem to be observing instead is misguided optimism.

An unexpected demonstration of spine as of late is from Brian Cashman, General Manager of the New York Yankees. (I’m a Yankee fan, in part to preserve a vestige of growing up in New York, though I’ve lived in the Midwest for my entire adult life.) The Yankees have had a disproportionate number of injuries this season, with some of their stars out of the lineup and others performing below par because they are not physically right. The Yankees, known as the best team money can buy with the highest payroll in Baseball, did not make their characteristic move to buy a good player as replacement from another team that is cash constrained or to do likewise in a trade where the Yankees give up minor league talent. Instead they’ve been starting role players in pivotal roles and asking their hurt but not disabled stars to grit their teeth and bare it. Certainly the Yankees are not the dominant team they were a few years ago, but the approach seems to be working reasonably well. At this writing they are a half game behind the Red Sox and playing competitive baseball.

Yesterday afternoon, when the rest of the family was out of the house, I watched Capote. (I had Tivo’d it off of Pay Per View the night before.) This is certainly not light fare, but it is a compelling story and worth watching. It is the story of how Truman Capote came to write, “In Cold Blood,” why the story of these brutal murders in a small Kansas town was so important for him to relate, and how he personally got caught up both with the towns-people and then especially with one of the murderers himself, Perry Smith.

Capote, already a famous writer and celebrity, was out to transform the nature of fiction. In that sense he was extraordinarily optimistic. He wanted to chronicle an event that was graphically real and showed immense conflict. The movie depicts Capote clipping the story of the murders out of the New York Times, as if it were made to order for what Capote was trying to accomplish. And then what ensues is truly weird for the outsider, the viewer. While others would be repulsed by the subject, Capote is fascinated and gets close intellectually with his subjects. He finds a certain identification with Perry Smith, both in the creativity of his art and his writing, and because both of them were mistreated as children by their mothers.

This closeness gives an authentic quality to the writing of In Cold Blood that captivates the reader and the film depicts several scenes where first Capote’s publisher and then the more general public are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the work. But as Capote gets closer to completing the book, a moral dilemma emerges that ends up making Capote feel like it is he who is the prisoner and this creates a serious depression and downslide in Capote’s capabilities to act and communicate with others. Capote envisioned himself as an observer and chronicler but he was finding himself in the position of the friend of the murderers and his book and his personal fame were giving him credibility to influence the main outcome, whether the murderers would themselves be executed.

Capote rightly noted that the murderers had inadequate legal counsel at the original trial, so he initiated an appeal process. But although that trial may have been stacked against the defendants, there may have been justice in doing so, given the brutality of the murders. Capote finds himself in the role of judge, a role he initially desires but ultimately doesn’t want, and then a role he can’t accept. The movie depicts Capote as a drinker, but one who is in control of the situation at the beginning. At the end he is a confirmed alcoholic and completely trapped by what he himself has wrought.

Before the closing credits, some lines of text appear on the screen indicating that Capote never finished another novel. So while many of us remember him as a celebrity, for example appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, his creative flames seem to have been consumed by the experience of writing In Cold Blood. I would not have made much note of this except for having read this recent book review of A Writer’s Life, by Gay Talese, where essentially the same thing has happened, at least according to the reviewer.

Perhaps it is the case that optimists need their self-delusions to spur the creative act only to eventually suffer the risk that producing the new thing takes something out of them that they can’t replenish and hence never re-attain the vibrancy of their peak period of creativity.

We often don’t think of leaders as creative individuals. Instead we think of them as having the choices designed by others and then being hard nosed about which choice to make. There is no doubt that it was Truman’s choice to drop the A-Bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but it is Oppenheimer rather than Truman who is associated with the program to develop the bomb.

So we want spine in our leaders. And spine seems in such short supply nowadays.

Let me bring this back down to learning technology and perhaps more broadly to information technology. I know that I personally have wanted to have it both ways, and I believe many CIOs as well have felt likewise. I’m coming to the realization that it is one or the other, but not both. When I first got started I used to believe that Ed Tech administration was a place for creativity and when I expressed that to others I’d get strange looks. I’m beginning to come around to their point of view.

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