When You Observe You’re In A Whole Over Your Head Maybe You Should Stop Just Digging

Yogi Berra was a great baseball team catcher and manager who recognized an essential feature of good management: “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Unfortunately, it seems that few leaders and managers of just about anything watch or observe anything worthwhile beyond their own cash flow and balance sheet; that’s not nearly good enough for life in today’s globalized economy! In short, we’re hollowing-out the whole world and feeling threatened, fearful and fightful. It should be time to stop shoveling against each other and digging dangerously deeper!

Watching the news today suggests that some leaders are in a hole that’s way over their heads—deeper than any individual’s ability to lead and manage a good quality life for everybody. That whole is our “spaceship earth” with its globalized economy. A hole we’re in is the lack of will and know-how to lead people and manage the economy in ways that enable sustainable quality-of-life for the whole of people and planet.

One reason for this was suggested by the respected systems thinker, Professor Russell Ackoff, who noted that: “The lower the rank of managers, the more they know about fewer things. The higher the rank of managers, the less they know about many things.”[Little Book of F-Laws, p.2, Triarchy Press Limited.]

This is quite understandable. Albert Einstein has often been quoted as saying: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” This is true in every science and human occupation. The solution to this necessary and unavoidable reality is truthful communication, collaboration, and a caring sense of community. Simple to say; hard to do!

In my professional work as an organization manager I recognized the wisdom of Peter Drucker, W. Edwards Deming, Russell Ackoff, and the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, that advocated a systems approach to organization management. But I, and my associates, found it very difficult to get senior managers to be interested. I also encountered university professors in business schools who had no interest in things like the Baldrige Program and its systemic management teaching because they and their management schools were in “stovepipes,” specialized in single aspects of management, i.e., accounting, finance, marketing, etc.; they basically ignored the larger world of whole organizations where — as in the way the world actually works — entire communities of organizations have to create and maintain relationships within and between them and the planet.

It is hard to envision and manage what you don’t or can’t see and understand, and few are taught to see and appreciate wholes and systems when they’re taught to see individuals and individual parts, and then focus on life as a parts manager. Doctors will work on eyes, heads, hearts. Business executives will pick marketing, manufacturing, retail, finance. Some may choose military, police, intelligence, politics. Others may select plumber, English teacher,  chef, cook, cleaner. The choices are nearly endless and there is seldom time for people and their leadership to see, understand, appreciate, finance and manage the whole of contemporary communities, nations and a civilized world. Political leaders have to pick a “party” and then pledge loyalty to the party rather than the people or nation, or world. Tribalism makes globalism impossible.

So how can leaders and students of management learn to think in terms of wholes when they’re trained to be a parts manager? How does one learn the necessity of and the how-to of integrating competition and cooperation, or to want to and design and a triple bottom-line economy for people, planet and profit? Whose job is that? In today’s world it’s kind of everybody’s and nobody’s job.

Coming back to the wisdom of Yogi Berra’s comment that you can observe a lot by just watching, there is a recent movie – The Biggest Little Farm – that enables one, in just an hour-and-a-half, to get a real sense of the reality of living systems in nature, its complexity and uncertainty, and how humans can live and manage in it. It’s a seeing is believing kind of thing. A young couple want to build a farm and they quickly find out that it is complex, difficult and hard work. They soon seek help and find Alan York, who knows that a farm is a complex multiplex of systems where the vision and mission includes managing the parts with an eye on the whole and a mind on integration and cooperation.

When York starts working with them I recalled Russ Ackoff teaching us the difference between what he called a problem to be solved and a mess that just gets worse if problem-solving approaches are used. The beginning state of the “farm” is that it is a mess (not a problem) that needs a cooperative whole-system design that will have to be done in stages and will take years of careful observation and work to become fully alive, productive and profitable. The film is well worth watching, paying attention to the simultaneous dynamics of dependence, independence and interdependence that has to be allowed and nurtured for successful relationships, outcomes and lives. We see how a mature adult is groomed in community in practice of love. One can observe—and sometimes even learn—a lot by just watching.

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Toward a Healthier Corporate Purpose

It is welcome news that on August 19, 2019, the Business Roundtable redefined its thinking about the purpose of a corporation. The new statement “moves away from shareholder primacy, includes commitment to all stakeholders, signed by 181 CEOs.

“Americans deserve an economy that allows each person to succeed through hard work and creativity and to lead a life of meaning and dignity.  We believe the free-market system is the best means of generating good jobs, a strong and sustainable economy, innovation, a healthy environment and economic opportunity for all.

“Businesses play a vital role in the economy by creating jobs, fostering innovation and providing essential goods and services. Businesses make and sell consumer products; manufacture equipment and vehicles; support the national defense; grow and produce food; provide health care; generate and deliver energy; and offer financial, communications and other services that underpin economic growth.

“While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders. We commit to:

  • Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations.
  • Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.
  • Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions.
  • Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.
  • Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.

“Each of our stakeholders is essential. We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country.”

A good way to make this happen would be for corporations to change their management system to a quality-first process, like the Baldrige Criteria, and have a triple bottom-line of people, planet, and profits.

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A Crisis of Attitude

In January, Gallup reported that 70% of Americans believe the U.S. healthcare system is “in a state of crisis” or having “major problems.” This is really more than a healthcare issue. It’s a basic leadership and management crisis. Organization leaders (and MBA Education in general) is often organized to teach parts rather than wholes. Professors teach one part and students major in one part of business administration to get their MBA, such as finance, accounting, or marketing.

Yet a whole organization needs a holistic leadership and management, too, and not just a parts manager! Leadership has to be customer-employee-community-planet and quality-focused; transparent and accountable to everyone and not just Wall Street’s monetary profits expectations; having a triple bottom-line of people, planet and profits; using participative management system protocols like the Baldrige Criteria for performance excellence.

In today’s crowded, fast-paced, 24/7/365 globalized economy we have nations, societies and organizations in constant crisis. Cooperation is important for well-being.

The good news is that solutions are readily available and affordable. Top management just needs to use them. I have heard from people who have used the Baldrige Criteria For Performance Excellence tell me that life is better when they use the Criteria in their workplace.

I wonder if the real problem is that top management mistakenly believes that command-and-control leadership is more important to them than a participative leadership system. I recall a passage in Milton’s Paradise Lost saying it is better to rule, though it be in hell, than to serve in heaven.

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Thinking About Society

It can often be helpful to people when they decide what they really want to work for, decide together how to achieve it and then work on it, checking in to know how well they’re doing, and making necessary corrections. I enjoyed reading this article in Yes! Magazine 

What a Society Designed for Well-Being Looks Like

Economic justice goes a long way toward improving mental health up and down the socioeconomic ladder…

…got me thinking about us in society: managers, leaders, and followers of the business, economic, social, and government systems that we the people live, profit, and die in. How is it that we believe that designing social systems for well-being or peace is almost always unaffordable but designing systems for war or police or prison is always necessary and affordable? I wonder about the logic, especially since the supposedly deciding factor–money–is actually–100%–an invented artificial resource where quantity is not in any real way scarce or limited.


Leadership in Life and Work

As the World Turns, From 39,000 Feet

Looking out a window, at 39,000 feet, I see a changing of the day. My mind drifts back to organizational planning sessions where we contemplated present, past, and future. We would “look” at the organization, marketplace, and our place in the world from “perspectives” that included a “ground view,” a 5,000-foot “look down” a 10,000-foot view and, sometimes, even claiming a 50,000-foot vision.

The on-the-ground view is the busy daily management; it can get hectic or euphoric, glamorous and exciting, scary and profitable, problematic and dangerous, innovative and obsolete, cooperative and competitive, winning and losing, tinged with highs and lows and—even an occasional idiocracy.

Yet now, from a 39,000-foot perspective, one can see that we’re all—friend, foe, or unknown life—living on the same spaceship and it’s a lot smaller-looking up here than it feels at ground-level; yet we somehow believe that we must relentlessly compete and even war in self-created win-lose “games” in order to survive politically, physically and economically; and so we invent and operate local and global social and economic systems to force this to happen 24/7/365; yet nature, as a whole, manages to cooperate and complement each other in order to maintain planetary sustainability and thrive.

Actually, as I looked around me on this flight, I may be the only one even looking at the light and the planet (except, I hope, the pilots, although they may have the machine on autopilot at the moment), but I’m thinking that from up here it’s easier to see that we all live and work on the only livable planet anywhere in this vicinity of the universe—so there’s really nowhere else to go!

One truth is that we all are nourished by a single real resource of sun, land, air, and water that if not kept clean and unpolluted no healthy life could exist. All of these are our real individual and common essential resources, without which there is no real individual or common good. Why not at least agree to not pollute the air, water, and land that everyone needs for life?

Moreover, when we don’t care for both the individual and the common good of all, the individual good of everyone becomes threatened with the possibility of a horrible way of life as we age and, perhaps, even some rather unpleasant extinction over time.

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The Heart’s Intuitive Intelligence

The heart’s intuitive intelligence offers a path to personal, social, and global coherence


We all have multiple intelligences that we can and need to recognize and cultivate to improve our own lives and contribute to the lives of others in the world. The HeartMath research organization has focused for a number of years on the intelligence of the heart. It’s fascinating!

HeartMath is a nonprofit that I’ve enjoyed some association with over the years.

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