The Right Skill Sets

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One of my favorite anecdotes comes from one of my brothers. He is a brilliant mathematician and engineer who designed the software for the navigation system of the International Space Station. To reward him for his exceptional work his company thought it would be a good idea to promote him to a managerial position. He had not been doing that type of work for very long when it became apparent to everyone, including him, that his skill set did not include directing and motivating people. He was more than happy to step back into his original position when all parties agreed that the best way to use his talents was in research and innovation, not dealing with people. To the company’s credit they decided to link his improved salary to his actual talents rather than trying to fit him into a one size fits all mold of promotion.

While there are indeed brilliant individuals who seem capable of succeeding at almost any level, most of us are best suited for rather specific types of work. All too often because we are particularly good at one thing, we are encouraged to climb the promotion ladder to test our abilities in other ways. As the Peter Principle notes we often find ourselves in a place where we are somewhat incompetent. This is because, as with my brother, we simply do not possess the needed skills.

In the world of education I knew phenomenal teachers who became rather ordinary administrators and somewhat mediocre teachers who found their niches in administration. The two areas are not mutually exclusive but they do indeed require different kinds of talents, and not everyone has the ability to succeed in both arenas. Sadly not even advanced degrees and training insures that a person will be a great leader.

My mom used to speak glowingly of her boss at the University of Texas Health Science Center. Ironically her department went through a series of managers all of whom flopped. They came in highly touted with doctorates and years of experience, but they had not before attempted to lead and inspire a group of workers. One after another they failed, until finally someone thought to promote from within. The woman who was chosen possessed only an associates degree from a local junior college. What she did have that the previous bosses did not, was a clear understanding of how to encourage people to work to their highest potential. Within weeks she had turned around the morale and the production of the department. She not only outlasted her predecessors, but remained at the helm for years sharing the honors that were bestowed on the group.

I have thought about the phenomenon of finding the best fit for people’s skills with regard to the office of the President of the United States. There is a huge difference between someone who is able to garner votes by dent of personality and someone who actually knows how to be a chief executive. President Trump, for example, has been wildly successful in the world of real estate, but he is not necessarily an exceptional manager. His work has relied on salesmanship, not the quiet day to day process of guiding the ship of a business. A CEO, CFO, head of HR and marketing manager each have very different jobs that require highly specialized skills and talents. So too, the President of our country should be someone with true executive skills, not just someone with great ideas or a charismatic personality. Sometimes that person may not appear to be as dazzling as many of the contenders for that office have been, but in the end they know how to balance all of the moving parts quite well. President Dwight Eisenhower is an excellent example of such a person.

What I’m also quite sure of is that we all too often give far too much credit and blame to our presidents. The fact is that every single situation is complex and subject to so many factors that to lay either congratulations or complaints at the feet of one individual is simplistic. The economy is a great example. For the most part what is happening at any one moment in time is the culmination of many years of particular policies, and yet we blithely blame a president if things go awry and celebrate that person if all is well. In truth what we are witnessing probably resulted more from predecessors than the person in charge of a particular era.

We are also inclined to credit the outcomes of natural disasters to a single president. The very idea of doing so borders on the absurd. Most of the time the damage is determined by the intensity of the natural event as well as the reliability of the infrastructures that local governments have put into place. By the same token the response to such disasters varies from place to place mostly due to how the state and local governments have prepared as well as what kind of attitudes the people in the area have. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was a tragedy waiting to happen not because of President Bush, but because of a long history of corruption in the New Orleans government as well as a neglect of infrastructures long in need of repair. What happened there was a travesty having little to do with the national response.

So too was the aftermath of hurricane Harvey a more positive event because the state and local authorities worked together along with the media and the citizens. It was an outpouring of support from thousands upon thousands of citizens that cemented the rebuilding process. It was a can do spirit among the people that made headlines. The fact that President Trump came to town was of little consequence other than his promises of pushing for funding for the victims. Ultimately it was Congress that passed bills to send relief to the city, and even there some lawmakers voted against the efforts but did not receive the bad press that is all too often attributed to a president.

I don’t think any president should either take credit or blame for most of the things that happen in the country. The truth is that there is a long history behind every calamity or success. There is also a reality that the best outcomes derive from sending the people with the appropriate skill sets to do each of the necessary jobs. The president should be someone capable of guiding the ship of state, and encouraging and supporting the individuals and groups who have the know how to get things done well. That’s how it supposed to be.

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Finding Refuge From the Storm

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I’ve had to take a deep breath of late,  and step back for a time. The furor over politics is ratcheting up as we draw nearer to the midterm elections, and the sheer lunacy of it all has been wearing me down, I found myself stewing over the craziness of each day’s episode of election tales deep into to the night. Then I found myself sleeping later and later in the morning to make up for my attacks of insomnia. In spite of the fact that all is going well in my life, I was getting sucked into the vortex of anger that was swirling all around me. It was not until I saw a single hummingbird perched on the branch of a tree near my bedroom window that I found the peace of mind that I had been seeking. Thanks to the feeder that my youngest daughter brought me from Colorado the tiny creature has been attracted to my yard, providing me with some unexpectedly comforting moments.

I suppose that I set myself up for the anxiety that has been stalking me. I was so taken by the calm and bipartisan sweetness of John McCain’s funeral that I had naively believed that the political landscape would be suddenly transformed into a kind of Kumbaya sanctuary. I had been forewarned by one of my wiser and more logical friends not to hold my breath, but being ever the cockeyed optimist I truly thought that we had reached one of those watershed moments in history. Boy, was I wrong, not just in left field but outside of the ballpark entirely.

For a time I was unable to escape the chaos that spoiled my mood. I don’t know about you, but my email account is filled with political adds from all sorts of folks who want to part me from my money for their causes. They have become rather annoying with their daily rants that I guess are supposed to rile me up enough to take out my credit card. Little do they know that they are having the opposite effect. I just want them to go away.

Watching the news on television or listening to it on the radio isn’t any better. I’ve sworn off of CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS and NPR. Instead I tune in to the local stations mostly to hear the weather report since this is prime hurricane season and my city is often the target of those kinds of storms. Otherwise, I just don’t want to hear the posturing or have to watch the embarrassing behavior of most of the folks in Washington D.C. or those who are hoping to get there. I truly wonder if they all believe that I am as much of an idiot as their commentaries seem to assume. Sorry folks, I’m not falling for any of the propaganda. I can spot the techniques from a mile away. You won’t see me jumping on any kind of bandwagon.

I love catching up with friends and family that I don’t always get to see by way of Facebook. I enjoy knowing how people are doing. Now that I am retired I might lose track of them were it not for all those comments and photos on my wall. Nonetheless, my space has been bombarded with the pros and cons of the newest Nike ad and dire warnings about Brett Kavanaugh. It’s all way too much over the top for me. I’ve had to mostly stay away from it lest I surrender to the temptation to make comments that might cause me to enrage friends and family whom I love. I’ve tried to just leave them to their beliefs, because in the end each of us is entitled to our individual opinions. I’m not going to change mine because someone else is ranting, and I suspect that even if I submit a carefully crafted persuasive piece it will make little difference in the grand scheme of things.

The one thing that I have seen that most infuriated me was an article in which the author submitted an argument that presumed to know what all white people think about the various issues of our time. He laid the blame for most of the world’s ills directly at the feet of anyone of western European ancestry, but most especially those who eventually became Americans. To be fair the author was also white and his intent was to write a kind of mea culpa for being born into such an horrific race. He apologized in the name of all of us.

I did not find his ideas to be as redeeming as many of my friends did. Instead I saw it as patronizing and highly insulting, not to mention presumptive. Only a handful of the world’s people actually know me or anyone else for that matter. It is impossible to make sweeping generalizations about individuals, and it is dangerous to place large groups of people into a single category. The complexities of humans are far too great to assume that we completely understand what makes each person tick.

As for myself, if truth be known I am a political misfit. I have rarely found anyone with whom I totally agree in matters of national concern. I would be maddening to anyone at the extremes of political life, and in turn I long for politicians of old like John Kennedy or Barbara Jordan. I liked George H.W. Bush’s kinder, gentler nation, and I loved bipartisan efforts like those of the Gang of Eight. I advocate for immigration reform and fiscal conservatism at one and the same time. I am against both the death penalty and abortion. I think that it is high time that we fully embrace the idea of gay marriage, but I don’t think that it is right to ignore the religious beliefs of those who disagree. I believe that minorities still suffer at the hands of racists, but I do not believe for a second that all white people are racists. I have seen bad teachers, bad business owners, bad lawmakers, so I assume that there are bad police officers hiding in the mix of the good guys who serve and protect us. I have a theory that there are evil doers who are having a great time watching us tear at each others’ throats. It’s an old political trick that has been around for centuries and to my chagrin it is working rather well.

So for now I will spend more time with my little hummingbird, and less keeping up with the news. Besides, my grandchildren need me to help them review for tests in Geometry and Algebra II, so I have some planning to do. I will ignore the chaos and devote myself to more worthy pursuits.

Atonement

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I often joke that I may have to spend some time in purgatory when I die before earning a place in heaven. I note that I can rock along for quite some time doing my best to be a good person and then I do or say something not so nice that cancels some of my kindnesses. Truth be told I’m about average when it comes to my humanity. Like the scores of people who came before me and those who inhabit this earth with me I make mistakes. Such is the inevitability for most of us.

Now and again I see another soul who seems to have achieved a bit more perfection. Both of my grandmothers would fall into that category. They were generous, loving guileless women, but I have often thought that being isolated from most of the ugliness of the world as they were may have helped them not to back slide. Women today spend decades out in an often unforgiving world and the temptation to fight back sometimes leads to anger and invective of the sort that my grandmas never invoked. I believe that I will ultimately be forgiven for my lapses because I also firmly feel that my God is all about redemption. I mean, isn’t that more or less what Jesus told the world as He died on the cross?

I have been reminded of the power of honest contrition by admissions of weakness by heroes of mine like Mother Teresa, Jimmy Carter, and John McCain. All three made it clear in their writings and orations that they sometimes failed to follow their own principles. They spoke of making faulty decisions. In other words they were as human as any of us, which I suspect was also the case of my grandmothers, not withstanding my idealized image of them. As humans we are filled with imperfections and contradictions. When all is said and done the question becomes how we have attempted to live the majority of our days, and whether or not we have been willing to admit our transgressions and attempted to change.

My mother and my teachers all taught me that to sin is human, but to ask forgiveness is divine. They also insisted that once I demonstrated true contrition it was important that I move forward rather than eternally looking backward at my failings. I was schooled in the idea that I should love all of my fellow men, and that my hatred should be aimed at behavior that I found to be egregious, not people. That’s an admittedly difficult formula to follow, but it became a glorious model to use in my work as an educator. I was able to separate the flaws from the person, and deal with behaviors while still caring about the child.

We are in a cycle of judgmental excess, all around. We even take our self righteousness to the extreme of looking back in history and condemning entire civilizations and ways of thinking. We forget the rule of social science that tells us that generalizations are rarely acceptable in assessing humans. We also forget how different the world was from ours even a hundred years ago.

I have been watching the Amazon Prime series Lore and have been taken by the ignorance and superstitions that were prevalent in the world of my ancestors. Scientific and medical knowledge was so antiquated. Philosophies were often based on superstitions. People were generally uneducated much like my two sweet grandmothers who were unable to read or write, much less understand scientific and sociological intricacies. I find it oddly ridiculous that in our modern era there are so many who would overlay our own knowledge and understanding on people who often lived in isolation with little or no education simply because they appear to have behaved badly in a past that was as human as the present.

I also have a problem with pointing fingers of judgement at historical figures who attempted to atone for admitted transgressions and mistakes. It is so easy to insist that none of us would ever have been willing to follow bad leaders, but then we will never know if that is true or not. We cannot possibly put ourselves totally in the shoes of someone from another time and place. We would have to become them in every sense of the word, and of course that is impossible. Instead of looking backwards and admonishing people who lived in times far different from ours it is up to us to look forward. We can do that by learning from the past. Reading and studying with an open mind will teach us how to find the best thoughts and ideas. If we are to be fruitful in our quest for a more equitable society then we must spend more time constructing than tearing down, finding the good and building on that foundation.

I saw a group of students from Harvard who asked a professor what they might do right now to begin to foster positive change in our society. His answer stunned them a bit, but it was brilliant. He suggested that they take full advantage of their educational opportunity by becoming persons who have knowledge and the ability to think critically. He challenged them to acquire the tools that they will one day need to become great leaders, He spurned the idea that they spend their time protesting before they knew enough to come to reasoned decisions.

I also seem to go back to the folksy wisdom of my mother who was indeed a brilliant woman. In her times of clarity she understood human nature as well as any sociologist or psychologist. She often told me that people evolve over time, and that life is a journey through many seasons, all of which make us better people if we are willing to grasp the importance of each. She noted that youth was a time for observing and learning. She spoke of knowing when and how to grasp the reigns of leadership and when to pass them down to the next generation. She felt that a wise person would understand that we are all hoping and dreaming and failing. Each of us is an imperfect being with the potential for greatness. Our journeys in that direction challenge us to be humble and compassionate and forgiving. She always believed that there is an overwhelming goodness to this earth that beats with one heart. If that is our focus we will find happiness and purpose, even as we falter.

On the Road or At Home

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We humans are funny. We want to explore, but we also need a sense of security, safety. Who among us has not had the urge to just drive away, while still longing for the tranquility and familiarity of home? We love those glorious vacations when we throw caution to the wind, but almost always find ourselves longing for the comfort of the routines that await us. We oscillate between wanting to just chuck it all and drive away, and needing to spend time wrapped in blankets in our beds. It is as though we can’t really decide what makes us the most happy, and so our level of contentment all too often wavers.

We have so many choices, and yet it seems as though we have too few. Why is it so hard to decide what we really want? Would we indeed be better off if our lives were more constricted to fulfilling our basic needs rather than offering endless opportunities? Such is the conundrum for those who question what form of government intervention is best for the most people. The socialists offer a safety net for all when it comes to what Franklin Roosevelt called the four freedoms of speech, want, fear and worship. In an ideal world each of us would have total assurance that we would never again have to worry about whether or not we had food on the table, a place to live, healthcare when we needed it, the ability to speak our minds or to praise the God of our choice. Still the cost of such programs would almost certainly lessen the likelihood of having great differences in the manner in which we all lived. Our choices would be reduced, but we would not be without.

In a free enterprise, capitalist system each person has the possibility of making it big, attaining levels of wealth that also insure a life without want. The very nature of the system is competitive and results in disparities, but there is a great deal of freedom to experiment and try all sorts of ideas. It breeds creativity and excitement, but also some fear. It’s difficult to rise up from the bottom of the socio-economic heap, but not impossible. Many a person has found great success because the opportunities are indeed abundant. Still there are constant fears of losing all in the event of a tragedy or disaster. There is a push and a pull that creates tension and worry while it also nurtures our adventurous spirits.

It’s difficult to decide what is actually best for a society. I know that human nature is such that if we remove all of the incentives characteristic of a capitalist society we tend to be less inventive. At the same time if we are too worried about our futures our stress can work against us as well. Then too there will always be souls who are plagued with the bad fortune of illnesses and tragedies over which they have no control. I think of my mother who was left to raise three children with so little money that just surviving was a constant worry that was exacerbated by her mental illness. She somehow muddled through, but I wonder if our society would not be better if we had more mechanisms for assuring people such as her that they need never worry, because we will not let them down.

I truly believe that we might do such things without completely tearing down our economic system. Thee are brilliant aspects of capitalism that bring hope and dreams to all of us. At the same time we need to find ways of supporting those who truly are unable to help themselves. We have much room for improvement without taking away from those who have worked hard to achieve success. The problem is that the differing ways of thinking about economic matters have created such a chasm that we find it difficult to find common ground. One side raves that the more fiscally cautious are little more than greedy ogres, and the other side accuses the people who want more security of attempting to destroy our government. Surely there is a midpoint at which we might meet. Do we really need to throw the baby out with the bath water?

I grew up hearing stories of my grandparents who had fled from an authoritarian government that eventually had been forced to bow to Communism. I heard horror stories of what happens when there is a kind coup that overturns most of the customs and ways of doing things too quickly. For that reason I am still wary of trusting that quick overhauls will bring satisfactory results. I much prefer an approach that considers many different points of view and finds a way of fixing only the most broken aspects of society. I know that we need to do something, I just don’t want that process to be extreme.

I’ve read a great deal about the Russian Revolution. It is true that the common people were suffering, but the promises from Lennin and his ilk did not pan out the way most had hoped. Countless were purged simply because they disagreed with what was happening. Life was restrictive. The four freedoms were all but nonexistent. The new government was formed with too little thought, too little input from all sides. It was founded on fear rather than wisdom, tribal thinking rather than inclusion. I would hate to see such a movement take place in my own country.

At the same time the naysayers have to realize that we are reaching a tipping point. For too long there have been too many who feel like outsiders in a society that is supposed to feel free. Until we demonstrate a willingness to listen to what they have to say and then search for ways of helping them, the gap between groups will only widen.

I love my country with every fiber of my being. I think that in spite of its imperfections it is still a great place to be. I want to see progress in addressing our needs, our dreams, our wants. I want each of us to demonstrate care, concern understanding even for those whose ideas are complete opposites of ours. No president or lawmaker should be working for a particular base, but for everyone. Until we reach that point the uncertainty that we all seem to despise will continue. I hope that we are able to find solutions without creating so much division that we resort to embracing and enforcing only one way of thinking. We need variety in our government as much as we need it in our lives. Sometimes that means seeking adventure, and sometimes that means staying at home.

  

A Fit of Nincompoopery

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According to the dictionary a nincompoop is a silly or foolish person. Nincompoopery refers to the beliefs and behaviors of a nincompoop. It is folly, stupidity. With a tip of the hat to Nero Wolf who first proposed the turn of the phrase, I submit that each day Twitter becomes the locale of many “fits of nincompoopery.”

Let’s face it, how much of great worth can be stated or argued in only one hundred forty characters? The comments are generally so terse that they might be interpreted in dozens of different ways, and therein lies a great number of the problems. Add to that the trolls lurking under the Twitter bridge and the so called discussions often become quite nasty, festering like plastic bags for perpetuity. Many a soul has lost a job or been revealed as a scum bag because of an outburst of tweets that might better have been left unsaid. We now live in a world of instant verbal arguments among strangers who somehow erroneously believe that they are doing no harm. It all reminds me of the back and forth that I sometimes heard among rival groups of fourth graders when I was teaching elementary school long ago.

Sure it’s a free country and all that, but frankly I’m becoming quite weary of the vast numbers of degrading tweets, particularly when they come from people who should know better than to let their fingers run afoul of common decency. We all see and hear things that make us angry, but generally control our temptations to lash out. There is a certain level of immaturity associated with outbursts that are hurtful to other people, so I find myself wondering when we lost our sense of decorum.

We have Roseann Barr, who has never seemed to know when to keep her mouth shut, losing a popular television series over rash racist observations. There is a New York Times journalist who seems to think that there is nothing particularly wrong with hurling invective at white men. The director of the highly successful Avengers series was recently fired over troublesome tweets and jokes made many years ago. Of course there is also the embarrassing aspect of the President of the United States making a fool of himself and the country far too many times with his late night rants. Regardless of the defenses being suggested in these cases, we somehow have a sense that something is going terribly wrong, particularly when we accept such behaviors as normal.

Freedom of speech is an important aspect of our Bill of Rights and certainly insults between adults are nothing new, but the more frequent incidence of such behavior is bothersome to me. I prefer a bit of propriety in public. If two people wish to engage in verbal fisticuffs in private, so be it, but why do we now seem to actually encourage public verbal executions, and even sometimes get down in the mud with the perpetrators?

Believe me, I do not wish to indict certain individuals or political persuasions because quite frankly there is plenty of criticism to go around to all sorts of people. I’d just like to encourage everyone to be careful about rapid responses that are hurtful and ugly. Those kind of things have a nasty way of coming back on us, but more importantly we need to rise above the muck and grime as a way of life. Nobody ever wins an argument with invective, and most often it’s not even necessary to attempt to do so. What does it really matter if someone disagrees with our beliefs? Why should we feel compelled to put down individuals with whom we have a difference of opinion. The likelihood that we will actually make a difference in their thinking is slim to none. Indeed what will probably happen is that we will make them even more enraged.

I refuse to be that person who gets pulled into verbal battles, and I think that we would all do well to walk away when a fight of words seems imminent. I learned long ago as an educator that ignoring nincompoopery is the quickest way to shut it down. Most people who engage in such shenanigans are just looking for an audience and I refuse to give them one. Perhaps more of us should consider bringing in the crickets whenever someone is being outrageous.

As a society we still have not yet learned how to deal with social media successfully. We forget our manners and too often neglect to take a deep breath before reacting. We have people using our outrage to stoke their own egos. We don’t have to play their game.

I am slowly learning how to move quickly past comments and tweets that make me feel uncomfortable. I choose to let them just lie on the ground seemingly unnoticed. I am seeing more and more evidence that lots of folks are following the same routine. The most egregious remarks that I see are frequently going without response, which is the way that we might all shut them down.

There is a flock of mockingbirds living in the trees in my backyard. They chatter day and night, but I have learned how to turn off the volume in my head. Now I scarcely hear them even though they are still there. I’m doing the same with Twitter.