On Internal and External Forces, and Ironmen

Once again, remember: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste” – Paul Romer, 2004

You’ve probably noticed that it’s taken me quite a while to get to another blog post. This was not necessarily due to an attack of empty headedness, but more the appearance of another sudden life changing event.

We moved. Just picked up (essentially) and relocated. After posting the last blog entry, we up and bought another townhouse about an hour and a half away, started moving ourselves box by box, celebrated Christmas with all 17 members of our family in a rather empty soon-to-be-sold townhouse, celebrated a 50th anniversary, and in early January we were – elsewhere!

Getting readjusted in a new location does not lend itself to long quiet periods for contemplating and writing. However, there were occasions where some seeds were planted that eventually came together with this post’s central theme.

One such occasion was the wake for my brother-in-law, where The Three Amigos (the male “out-laws,” the two daughter’s husbands and me) happened to be talking about the experience one of them had with his father-in-law in sailing his houseboat from a lake in Tennessee, downriver to the Mississippi and then back up the Mississippi to a winter dock above St. Louis. The tale was a bit harrowing in the telling, especially with the realities of “normal” sailing on the Mississippi, the added difficulties of traversing the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and on top of that dealing with the currents up stream where the Mississippi narrows (I must admit, I have never heard the word “narrow” used to describe the Mississippi).

After some thought, I mused on the complexity (and skill) needed to make that journey.

First, one had internal forces to master, those one could control – the two motors on the houseboat and dual rudders, and the ones not controllable – the shape of the double hulls in the water and wind resistance against the boat itself.

Then there were the external forces, none of which were controllable. Some were partially “known,” such as the wind from waving flags and forecasts but which one still couldn’t see directly, and water currents that you knew were there but could only see their surface churning. But there was a vast number of other external forces that, while you knew they were there you were still clueless about – the shape of the river bottom and its influence on the currents, and the currents themselves. And all of these leave out unpredictable forces and events such as other boats (and captains).

Sort of like life’s journey, I added. We’ve got our own internal forces, our temperament and personality traits and our skills and experiences, things we (mostly) have a handle on. But then there are the external forces we encounter. Some, encountered through family, clan, tribe, and our culture, can be good in helping mold us. But sometimes they’re not.

Then there are the unexpected external forces, those events that throw us into crisis.

How we deal with these, how we choose to deal with them has a significant impact on the direction and progress of our life’s journey. The event itself is just a first part. The critical part is the second piece, how we think about the event that determines what we choose.

A light bulb went on when I realized that this scenario bore a remarkable resemblance to traversing the unexpected realities in life (as an individual, a parent, a family, an organization, a culture, a nation, and even as a society or civilization). There will be certain internal forces you have to learn to recognize and deal with, as well as a multitude of external forces and events.

All of this bore a strange resemblance to Donald Rutherford’s oft-maligned comments about known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

Maligned as these comments may be, the reality is – these forces and potential events exist everywhere and always.  It’s a consequence of Fundamental Principle 6: We will never have all the information.

Sailors and Pilots know; but for the rest of us – Breathers Prepare or Beware!

The second “seed” occasion actually preceded the one above and did not involve us at all, at least directly. We were just an overnight layover on the way.

It involves our oldest son, his family and friends, and the Ironman Maryland 2015 triathlon.

The common thread: This event also involved ample internal and external forces, and choices.

With his permission, here is the experience in his own words.


I wrote the following so I would remember the experience in 20 years. Happy reading! And thanks for all your good wishes and congratulations.

Ironman Maryland 2015

There were two events leading up to Ironman Maryland 2015 that had a major impact.

First, the race was originally scheduled for October 3rd but was cancelled at the last moment due to Hurricane Joaquin. Luckily, we found out just minutes before leaving Plymouth for Philadelphia where we planned to spend the night on our way down. This required adjusting my training plan and hoping a two-week mini-base, build, peak, taper periodization would work.

Second, on the way to Maryland for the rescheduled race day my friends Tamara, Brian, Rick and Tim had their car catch fire on the NJ Turnpike and burn – a total loss. Instead of giving up and turning for home they saved everything from the vehicle, rented a van, and continued on their way! It takes a special breed to be an Ironman I guess.

Entry 100 - Ironman 2015 Truck Fire

The facts of my race: I completed my first Ironman distance in 10 hours, 34 minutes and 55 seconds. My swim time was 58 minutes (3,000 meters instead of 3,800 meters), bike was 5:13 (112 miles) and the run took 4:05 (26.2 miles). Throw in about fifteen minutes in transitions and you have a full day of exercise – from sunup to sundown I was putting one foot in front of the other. As we were advised during the athlete briefing, ‘Just keep moving forward!’

Race day started at 3:30 am, which was the appointed time to eat breakfast according to my coaches at QT2 Systems – 3 1/2 hours before race start. In actuality, I was up before that – not surprisingly I didn’t get too much sleep on Friday night. So up early and ate 3 cups of applesauce sprinkled with a scoop of whey protein powder, a banana, a bagel and a full bottle of Gatorade Endurance. A full stomach needs time to digest before being put under duress! Nothing like GI distress to ruin your race. Bike and gear were all checked in on Friday, so all I needed to bring was my swim gear and warm clothes – in the forties at race start.

When we arrived at transition the wind was non-existent and the Choptank River dead calm. Perfect swim conditions! I deposited my bags in the appropriate locations and headed to my first of many stops – at a Porta-Potty. Between the time I went in and came out (a minute? maybe two?) the wind had kicked into high gear. I’m sure there’s a meteorological explanation for what happened, but at the time it was like someone had simply thrown a switch. When I came out, the flags were at full attention on their poles, and the river looked angry. No more perfect swim conditions. This is the point when mental preparation really helps, and I was struggling to remind myself that I had prepared a year (and two weeks!) for this moment. And it wasn’t just me that thought the conditions had radically altered – the race director announced shortly before race start that the National Weather Service had issued a small craft advisory and that meant that no paddleboards, jet skis, kayaks, or small boats were allowed in the main part of the river. Considering that was how all of our lifeguards were going to protect us, it was time to change the layout of the swim course! This delayed the start of the race by half an hour and shortened our swim from 3,800 meters to 3,000 meters. My first thought? ‘Does this mean I will still be an Ironman?!’ ‘At the end of the day, you will still be an IRONMAN!’ said the announcer. A big cheer from the crowd.

The Swim

It was the usual wavy, crazy, thrashing affair all triathlon swims are but I’ll remember this one for two things. First, I called him ‘the Kicker-doodle’ – the guy I couldn’t get away from with the crazy stroke and flailing legs that kept cutting in front of me. It was hard to stay in my ‘box’ with him so close but I couldn’t shake him. Eventually I convinced myself that actively slowing down was not going to cost me a Kona slot, so I let him go. Back in my box. However, as I was cruising along and feeling pretty good about 100 yards from the end, someone’s stroke came down on my right calf. The result was one of the most painful charlie-horses I had ever felt, and because the water was so cold my entire body seemed to go into a sympathetic seizure – my left leg and both forearms seized up as well, my arms so badly that for a moment it pulled my hands into fists that I couldn’t unclench. My first though was ‘my Ironman is over before it has even begun’. I dropped an F-bomb on my next breath that I’m sure every lifeguard on the Choptank River heard. I struggled to shore and limped through transition, hoping I could work it out on the bike before I had to run a marathon. My pace was exactly as I had hoped – 1:47/100 – and I came out of the water with a low heart rate and feeling pretty good, despite the right calf.

The Bike

WIND. Wind. More wind. We originally signed up for IMMD because the course was flat, and we didn’t want to have to worry about hills. But the downside to flat, and surrounded by water, and late fall, is that you have to deal with wind. 30 mph gusts shortening the swim? No such abatement on the bike! There is nothing that inhibits forward progress on a bike like a steep climb….. or wind. At least on a climb there is a distinct end, and a technique to save energy and get to the top as quickly as possible. No such luck with wind – it was simply grin and bear it, and I kept reminding myself that *everyone* was dealing with the exact same conditions. As Tamara described it, the entire IMMD course was ‘A BEAST’. I agree. As any cyclist will tell you, the best thing about a headwind is you can turn around and make it a tailwind! Just make sure your headwind is first and you end with the tailwind. That didn’t occur on Saturday – a tailwind out, and a ‘gale force wind’ in on both loops. While I was extremely pleased with my pace (5:13 = 21.4 mph) I paid for it with a very sore lower back – the muscles that help work the push and pull of the cyclist’s cadence. My calf held up, but the back suffered for much of the ride. But I didn’t let it slow me down, because I had been there many times before – I know what my body can put out on the bike for extended periods of time, and this was just a matter of getting through 112 miles with the wind and the pain. It was the run that had me worried.

Entry 100 - Ironman 2015 Brent Biking

The Run

Having never run more than a half marathon before (and only twice at that length), I had no idea how my body would respond to being asked to run a full marathon. And to do my first one *after* swimming for an hour and biking for 5? Crazy. The logical approach would be to start slowly instead of starting too fast. So that’s exactly what I did – although it *felt* like I was blistering the course (in relative terms, of course) I was able to manage sub-9 minute miles for the first 10 miles and sub-10 minute miles from mile 10 through 19.

Entry 100 - Ironman 2015 Brent Running

And then I hit my wall, or face my line – I’ve heard it called many things, but these two most often. The point when the road starts snaking in front of you, you can’t feel your extremities, you’re hungry but can’t fathom putting another Clif-blok or Gu gel pack in your mouth, and you just want to sit down and call it a day. Mile 20? 11 minutes. Mile 21? 13 1/2 minutes. But mile 21 is where I discovered the magic of the Special Needs Bag. In this bag racers are allowed to put anything they want, anything they think they might need or enjoy on the bike and run courses when feeling at their lowest. Food? Check. Photos of the family pet? Check. Notes from loved ones? Put it in there. My run special needs bag originally consisted of dry socks, Vaseline and pretzel rods. On Friday night we swung through Dick’s Sporting Goods to pick up a few forgotten items, and in the checkout line I impulse purchased a huge Kit Kat bar and stuck it in the bag. So there I was at mile 21, feeling like I was about to bonk, and I passed the special needs zone. I stopped. I waited for the wonderful volunteer to find my bag out of the lineup of 1,400 bags on the ground. I ate one bite of pretzel, and spit it out. On to the Kit Kat – three strips shoved in my mouth, and it was like someone hit me with an adrenaline shot. Only 5 miles to go! Each mile got faster from there, and as I got closer to the finish line I finally determined that I was, in fact, going to be able to finish and become an Ironman. Look at my finishing photo closely – clutched tightly in my right hand is my Kit Kat bar, carried with me the final five miles. Just in case I needed another shot.

Entry 100 - Ironman 2015 Brent Finishing

The Aftermath

Soreness. Black toes and toenails. The inability to stand up or sit down without looking like I was 100 years old. And the wonderful, jubilant, exhilarating feeling of crossing the finish line and hearing my name called: ‘Brent Edmonds, YOU. ARE. AN IRONMAN!!’


It is said that success can best be measured in the quality of people you raise up and release. In reality, I contend this is best measured by the success of the people you have released and what they do. After all, isn’t that the point of leadership development, team building, and parenting?

And he’s just my oldest.

Posted in 06: Incomplete Information, 09: Doing, 12: Character, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The $100 Question

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste” – Paul Romer, 2004

It’s taken a while to get to this point, but I trust you will find that it is worth it. Where we are now is the result of reassembling existing knowledge (and some discovered) after playing with and rearranging the pieces for a while. I invite you to bear with me for a few words (ok, more than a few).

We’ll start with an assertion from my last post, that employees are the basic building blocks of an organization, the assets on which the organization is built, and, very importantly, that they bring with them their own Personal Culture (their Temperament and Personalities).

Contrary to popular belief, “employee” here refers to all individuals employed by an organization, and thus extends to include the founders, CEOs, executives, and management, not just those lower on the ladder inferred by common usage of the word. As a consequence, and contrary to their (management’s) popular misunderstanding, they too are infected with the same human condition the development of which follows as the topic of this post, and which is closely tied to the Missing Attribute presented in the last post.

As a segue, let me relate yet another personal experience which I think turns out to be all too common.

The $100 Question

Later in my career we passed into the “Second Phase of Career and Life.” The First Phase was characterized by not having enough income to live as we would have desired and having to learn the tremendous benefits of living on a budget judiciously set to be 80% of our income. We did without certain things until they became important enough to move to the top of the “list.” Sort of like Capital Budgeting in an organization: choosing among a number of projects which ones are the most important for this year’s budget.

Fortunately, with hard work and skill growth, in two or three years the current “80% of income for living” had grown to be nearly 100% of what was total income previously. By habit we stuck with the “live off of 80%” rule, and one small positive consequence of many was that we could now afford to have a Kleenex© box in every bathroom and bedroom (and kitchen) rather than just one that we had to cart around the whole house. One might say that the important things in life were coming into reach. This was the beginning of the Second Phase of Career and Life. And this was when an important new discovery was made.

We were then living in the northeast, so the cost of living was appreciable. We were living off of a monthly budget (yes, still! – it is a discipline that provides a continual harvest) of about $6000/month. What I noticed was that when all living categories were covered and there was perhaps an extra $100 left over, there was a significant peace, a relaxed atmosphere at home, and we could even go out for an end-of-the-week dinner date without a guilty conscience. The glass of wine helped, too.

However, when (not if) circumstances arose where unplanned expenses popped up or expected expenses were somehow larger than expected, there might be a $100 shortage. Even when we had this in a buffer, there was still an unexpected tension in the house, accompanied by shuffling small amounts from one category to another (yes, this is legit) to cover everything. And no dinner date.

The discovery, or realization, was that the emotional response to a $100 shortfall (a threat) resulted in a tension and stress that was measurably greater than was the relaxed response to the apparent security of a $100 surplus.

Why is this?

Part of the reason is embedded in the quote I included in the last post: “If there’s a threat in the environment, you’re more likely to feel that your position is insecure, and this causes you to want to guard your resources, to defend yourself, and try to accumulate more resources…” This results in a tense, stressful environment. One might even steal paper clips from the office.

Another way of looking at this is to refer to a classic visual that is commonly used in discussing issues of inventory management (bear with me), and the driving force for implementing Just-In-Time inventory techniques. Here’s the visual:

Entry 99 - JIT Inventory Davis 10.5

and here’s a simple explanation: [1] when there is an inventory (or monetary, or emotional) surplus (the tide is high), it is fairly easy for anyone to sail through the seas (the conditions) with little or no concern for any threats. [2,4] It’s when there is an inventory (or monetary, or emotional) shortage (the tide is ebbing or low), when the threats of rocks and shoals are visible that it takes a knowledgeable and skilled person who knows the channels to navigate safely. [3] And even when the big threats have been avoided, there may still be other threats hidden until the tide ebbs further. [5] Perhaps with Just-In-Time techniques most inventory threats can be eliminated or managed, but the reality for Living in Real Life conditions (including monetary and emotional circumstances) is that the best we can hope for is probably [4]  (i.e., SIT Happens).

That’s the what, simply put. Now with a bit of this rearranging of existing pieces of knowledge from various venues we can possibly illuminate the why.

Let’s start with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, which if you don’t recall we’ll do a quick summary here.

In 1943 Maslow proposed that humans have a Hierarchy of Needs, beginning with the basics of air, water, and food necessary for survival. His proposal was that an individual cannot/will not move up the Hierarchy to the next level of Need unless and when the needs on the lower level are fulfilled. The needs he identified are as follows:

-Physiological Needs
-Safety and Security
-Love and Belonging
-Self-Esteem, and

The Hierarchy and the levels as Maslow pictured them are as follows:

Entry 99 - Maslowr

Hold that picture for a moment, and let’s next consider the Behavior Curve below, which I posted about on here, on page 3. This attempts to show how our active mode behavior becomes more and more focused on Self-Provision (the Taking, negative direction, or what I also called the Survivor mode, here) as we put more priority and emphasis on Self (our internal wants and needs) than we do on our external Values (that is, the ratio of Self to Values (Self / Values) is greater than 1). When we stress our external Values, behavior moves into the Building or positive direction, where the ratio (Self / Values) is less than 1. (Builder and Survivor modes are discussed here).

Entry 99 - Behavior Curve Excel No Title Text

Interesting concepts flow from this picture.

  • Positive results (the added value available to others) can arise even when there is still some attention paid to one’s Self. A 60% external Value focus means there is some 40% Self focus remaining, but this still moves overall active behavior into the Building, positive area (to the upper right). One can certainly add value in one’s job even when appreciating the pay, benefits, and work environment and not feel guilty about it.
  • Altruism, the complete sacrifice of Self for “other oriented external” Values, is not only impossible to achieve, but is then only a single spot on the curve to the far right where 0% Self lies. This is important because thinking one needs to be completely altruistic to be able to add value to others is simply not true. That’s more an either/or mode of thinking, rather than the preferable and/and.
  • Even if one person could become 0% focused on Self (that is, 100% focused on external Values), the most positive results they could contribute (to the right) pale in comparison with the negative impact (to the left) that one relatively selfish person can inflict!
  • Following that thought, this supports the concept of teamwork where many people contributing in and leveraging their respective areas of skill are needed to increase the total value added, and why we bristle with the presence of just one non-contributor who inflicts significant negative impact to the entire group effort (and psyche).

Now for some rearranging of these pieces in perhaps an unexpected way. First, take Maslow’s hierarchy as pictured above and rotate it to the right, as follows:

Entry 99 - Maslowr rotated stripped

and then superimpose it on the Behavior Curve above with the Hierarchy’s most basic survival needs (left) placed on the 100% Self point, and the tip of the Self-actualization placed at the 0% Self point, thus:

Entry 99 - Behavior Curve Excel No Title Text Maslow 1 crop

Then note the following, probably not unrelated correlations between Needs and active Behaviors:

  • The lowest level most basic Need (Physiological) for the Self (now at the far left) superimposes directly over the most negative, Taking (or Survivor) behaviors (Recall the drowning ocean swimmer in the last post);
  • The next level of Need, for Safety and Security, superimposes over more moderately negative but still Taking (Survivor) behaviors;
  • The Need for Love and Belonging (for instance, with Clan or Tribe) superimposes over slightly moderately negative behaviors; and
  • The Need for Self-esteem superimposes over the least negative behaviors (we tend to stifle or compensate for these needs in public, don’t we?).

These four most basic Needs are often referred to as Deficit Needs by psychologists, as they deal with recognizable personal voids. For various reasons, we could also identify them with the various forms of Baggage that everyone carries. Perhaps rather fortuitously they superimpose with the negative behavior areas of the curve (yes, this is no doubt due to arbitrary artistic scaling of the Maslow hierarchy triangle; no “magnitudes” of needs have ever been implied, to my knowledge);

and the last but important Need correlation:

  • The Need identified as Self-actualization superimposes on the positive active Building behaviors.
    • The culture or environment (including one’s “boss”) has to provide support (tools, resources, recognition, esteem, reward) for this need of Self-actualization for the added value to be birthed and maintained;
    • If/When the culture or environment does not/can not/will not provide this support, the individual can fall back onto Deficit Need fulfillment behaviors. In this case, if the culture or environment cannot be changed, the employee’s recourse is most likely to seek employment elsewhere (Gallup Poll: ~50% of departing employees indicate dissatisfaction with their boss as the number one reason for leaving).

I would be negligent if I didn’t point out that this last Self-actualization Need correlation and the two points noted seem to be uniformly applicable to all People Groups: Marriage and spouse, Family, Clan, Tribe, Organization, and Nation.

This correlation is also the strongest support for the need to monitor and increase employee engagement in the organization.

There is one more interesting piece of information that arises from this Behavior Curve. I noted that the curve implies that the most positive results one person could contribute (“+” to the right) pale in comparison with the negative impact (“–“ to the left) that one moderately selfish person could inflict. How does this positive impact compare with the negative impact?

  • Take the horizontal line in the Behavior Curve graph marked 100% Self on one end and 0% Self on the other. This represents the Zero Sum game line, where there is a balance between giving and taking in normal exchanges;
  • The area to the right, marked “+” between this horizontal line and the Behavior Curve therefore represents the results of a Positive Sum game, the “value” that can be added;
  • The area to the left, marked “–“ and below the horizontal line and the Behavior Curve represents the results of a Negative Sum game, that is, “value” that has been taken to the advantage of the selfish (Taking, or Survivor) player;
  • Since the left side of the Behavior Curve plunges and we can’t measure the area exactly, I took the curve from “90% Self” over to “10% Self” (to make it balanced and fair), and tried to calculate the “–“and the “+” areas. For my simplistic efforts, I arrived at the following approximations:
    • Negative area: 80.5%
    • Positive area: 19.5%

Looks remarkably like The Pareto Principle, the 80/20 Rule.  In other words, in hiring from the general population without an effort to select and maintain a Building culture, 80% of the employees potentially will somehow subtract something from the optimal environment, which could be one or more forms of poor attitude, lower efficiency, disengagement, or poor quality.  This may not be a surprise.

What are the implications of all this for us as individuals and our organizations?

I propose that we mostly live on a daily basis with a Self/external Values balance of about 50/50. Sometimes we venture more emphasis on external Values, especially when doing so feeds some personal needs, and sometimes we venture more emphasis on our Deficit Needs. We basically can shift a bit left and right along our horizontal Zero Sum line around the 50/50 midpoint depending upon normal circumstances.

However, when confronted with a challenge, threat, or a crisis, we shift into a defensive mode, which means our active behaviors shift to the left along the Behavior Curve. The bigger the threat or crisis, the bigger the shift.

Psychological research indicates a striking asymmetry that correlates well with the shape of the Behavior Curve and our responses to threats and crises:

We perceive a loss from a threat or crisis as having, on average, about twice the impact of a gain of the same magnitude.  This is known as Loss Aversion.*

This brings us back to the $100 Question: the surplus of $100 over the budget feels good, but the shortfall of $100 from the budget causes twice the distress. It’s the way we are built. And when we shift our balance from external Values to Self in a defensive mode, it’s what the Behavior Curve predicts.

We have to train ourselves to recognize these natural responses and intentionally overcome them. We can do this in Marriage, and really should be doing this in the Family, but it gets more difficult to accomplish in Clan and Tribe.

But in an Organization, for reasons to be discussed later, once again, we can train ourselves.

In an organization, we need to selectively hire not only people with skills, but also people who recognize threats and crises and can react to them as opportunities or be trained to react to them as such (the Missing Attribute).

We should do this to create an environment (culture) that Regresses to an Opportunity Mean, has the tools to accomplish this, focuses on teamwork to amplify the added value, and is rewarded for accomplishing it.

It means intentionally creating an overall positive and active Building (Added Value) culture and environment, which includes the minimization of the negative Taking environment.

However, here’s the surprise.  Since all of us are infected with the human condition, even with highly selective hiring in a positive Building cultural environment, we are all potentially susceptible to occasionally slipping over, even slightly, into the negative Taking zone. It takes awareness, a high EQ, good self-management, and good boss-manager skills to maintain our assets in healthy shape.  I think we call this engagement.

Simple, eh?


* Thinking, Fast and Slow, D. Kahneman, p 282-6, and The Ascent of Money, N. Ferguson, p 347.

What others are saying along similar lines about selective hiring and coaching talent:

Dan Rockwell (Leadership Freak): https://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/maximize-dont-squander-new-talent/

Richard Branson (Virgin): https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-i-hire-you-cant-fake-personality-passion-purpose-richard-branson?trk=eml-mktg-inf-m-howihire-0903-p1

Angela Ahrendts (Apple): https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-i-hire-my-guiding-principles-angela-ahrendts?trk=eml-mktg-inf-m-howihire-0903-p2

Ralph de la Vega (AT&T): https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-i-hire-what-im-looking-isnt-your-resume-ralph-de-la-vega?trk=eml-mktg-inf-m-howihire-0903-p3

Posted in 02: Value Added, A Definition, 04: Games People Play, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 15: Baggage, 16: Culture, Career | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Two Questions

“Crisis Doesn’t Develop Character, it Reveals It”

There are many discussions of the desirable attributes of outstanding employees that are readily available through leadership literature, and I have also posted my thoughts beginning here.

One of these attributes is Attitude, and although a number of people counsel that trying to pay too much attention to changing another’s attitude is inefficient and ineffective (both because a person’s attitude is deeply rooted and it is theirs to choose), I would counsel that paying attention to what an employee’s attitude is, is very important.

This comes from Fundamental Principle 14:

Attitudes become Behaviors by Choice.

While we perhaps should not spend inordinate time trying to change an employee’s attitude(s), we certainly can provide positive feedback when their performance (which tracks with their Practiced Behaviors, which arise from their Attitudes and Values), adds value in supporting the organization’s mission, objectives, and values. We can also inform them if this alignment is not observed, and gently move them out of the organization (say, to a competitor) if they are unwilling to change or adapt themselves. It might be nice if we could better discern imbedded attitudes, values and potential behavior during the hiring process, but that has proved problematic.

We are thus left with ongoing observation. By observing Practiced Behaviors, as opposed to just Professed Behaviors, we can get insight into true underlying Attitudes and Values.

Under most circumstances, such as planned or anticipated tasks, most of us have no difficulty in having our Practiced Behaviors align with our Professed Behaviors – the intent will be there although occasionally we all have been known to not follow through on promises or commitments in the timeliest manner.

It is under unusual and unexpected circumstances (for example, adversity in the form of sudden threats, challenges, or crises) where discrepancies between Professed and Practiced Behaviors are likely to be observed.

It is here where we will find the missing and/or underappreciated attribute I alluded to in the previous post. It is hidden in the Fundamental Principle above, but it is neither Attitude nor Behaviors. It is buried in “become,” how the Choice is made. To reveal this, we have to look at

The Two Questions

We all have built-in survival instincts, or at least we should. Many times these can lead to confused thinking, unexpected behavior, and possibly panic reactions. Consider ocean Life Guard training, which I once endured many years ago. When one approaches a swimmer in trouble in deep water, you approach them from their back. This is not because it is more “Politically Correct” or the most efficient way to get them air, but because when you approach them from the front, in their panic for air they see you not as a Life Guard, but as a solid inanimate floating object upon which to hoist themselves up. When they go up, you go under, and we have two drowning people.

Panic for survival results in knee-jerk responses.

When we are confronted with adversity, an unexpected and possibly threatening situation, our inherited, gut, evolutionary reaction is defensive, for survival.

More support for this comes from a recent study on the effects of stress and anxiety. Apparently, Americans, or some of us, are the most anxious people in the world (World Health Organization, cited in the study), and this can lead to making more unethical decisions in the workplace. To quote one of the authors of the study, “If there’s a threat in the environment, you’re more likely to feel that your position is insecure, and this causes you to want to guard your resources, to defend yourself, and try to accumulate more resources, even if that’s possible by being unethical.” This apparently contributes to why we steal paper clips from the office, among other things.

In stressful situations, we immediately ask ourselves the First Question,

“Who Did This To Me?”

It’s instinctive. Everyone asks it. It is an internal question, how we think, that is the first response to the unexpected threat, challenge, or crisis.

What happens next is crucial, because I think it is connected to the Missing/Underappreciated Attribute: How will we respond or react? What will we do?

Quite often our built-in response is the defensive reaction of Fix the Blame. This can take the form of a physical response, as above, or more often, a verbal one. It can lead to useless conspiracy theories. This is retrenching, digging in, amassing resources and energy to survive the unexpected threat. It is ingrained in all of us.

We can see it in toddlers playing together and arguing over who had the toy, in family disputes, in marital arguments, and in clan, tribal, cultural and national wars. History shows us that nations and governments are rarely prepared to deal with catastrophes or crises, and typically take the path described above (e.g. North Korea, Russia and the Crimea). This behavior has been around a long time.

However, over the long, slow course of civilization’s development, upon occasion, someone comes up with a different way of looking at a situation. It’s forward looking rather than defensive. And since it doesn’t quite fit with the way everyone else looks at things, it gets stifled.* The culture tries to apply Coercion to their Cultural Mean so it will go away. But it might endure and eventually, if valued by a sufficient part of the culture, it can become acceptable, then possibly admirable and esteemed, and then encouraged. It might someday actually become a Cultural Mean itself. It then becomes culturally developed and reinforced.

This way of thinking looks at adversity differently, and leads to The Other Question,

“What Can We Make of this Opportunity?”

This thinking drives a completely different response to the unexpected threat, challenge, or crisis. It is more Fix the Problem. Or perhaps better expressed as

How Does One Respond to Adversity?

The Missing/Underappreciated Attribute then is the “glue,” an “Attitude Field” much like a magnetic attraction, that pulls Professed Behavior and Practiced Behavior together to be identical, even in adversity. One can’t “see” the attribute, but one can see its results in action.

Some might refer to this Attribute as Character, but Character is more the broader category that has many separate aspects (see posts beginning here). A much closer Attribute would be Integrity (see posts beginning here), but there’s an issue here with our understanding of the word. We typically consider a person as having integrity when they adhere to our (common) values, presuming these also to be their values. I would suggest that in its simplest form integrity is when a person can be counted upon to adhere to their values (which might not all be in common with ours – see Sleeper Values). In this case, while we and the rest of the world hold Russia and Vladimir Putin in low esteem for their actions, they are actually acting with high integrity because they are behaving exactly according to their professed values. And while we might hold ourselves up with high integrity as Americans, the rest of the world does not due to the inconsistent behaviors they experience from our leadership (are we out of Gitmo yet? what was promised during the Iran nuclear negotiations? And Congress?).  (See relevant post here).

The Missing/Underappreciated Attribute, this Response to Adversity, then is the unity of properly aligned Values with the Integrity to act on them, to make Professed Behaviors and Practiced Behaviors indistinguishable.

It is often remarked that in the Chinese language the character for “Crisis” is actually the composite of two separate characters (true): the character for “Danger” (true) together with the character for “Opportunity” (not quite. The second character is separately paired with another for the word “Opportunity,” so there is a weak connection. But apparently it is good enough for English-speaking leaders to have used this motivational bon mot for decades). In any case, this dual way of thinking is indeed embedded into the Chinese language, and thus into their culture, and contributes to their success whenever they emigrate to other cultures.

This Response to Adversity is what I was observing when stranded a few weeks ago in the Las Vegas airport: how did airline personnel respond when unexpected events disrupted their normal operations (and caused a crisis for travelers who had three plane flights cancelled out from under them).

Some passengers responded from the first question: Who Did This to Me? followed by What Are You Going to Do About It? Others responded from the second question: What Can We (all) Make of this Opportunity?

Airline personnel uniformly responded with What Can We Make of this Opportunity? It is their Culture.

For most people, this isn’t an inborn response. It must be culturally and intentionally trained in, becoming a new Cultural Mean, an attribute of Organizational Character.

After all, Crisis Doesn’t Develop Character, it Reveals It.

Next: The $100 Question

*Note: In other words, they kill him or her, and then years later remark, “Hey, that wasn’t such a bad idea.”

Posted in 08: Observing, Listening, Learning, 09: Doing, 10: Integrity, 12: Character, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

SIT Happens

Sorry, I seem to have gone AWOL (Away Wandering Over Land) for a while. Part of this was intentional (planned travels), and part was purely spontaneous (though necessary travels). Suffice it to say that since April we’ve been from east to west coasts (plane), and from (nearly) north to south (by car).

All the while I did have a couple of main bullet points to begin a series of posts on Organizational Culture, but was just missing a flow, the proper narrative, the glue that would hold it together. It wasn’t until mid-August at the close of our travels that things began to come together (for a post) as they literally fell apart (for travel).

We departed on a Thursday afternoon from Albuquerque, NM, after another week on the ‘Dude Ranch’ with our friend Carol, connecting through Las Vegas on the way to Philadelphia. Lots of dodging of clouds during our approach to Las Vegas was a portent of things to come. We were one of the last planes to (roughly) land at 3:00 pm, and got to watch the thunderstorms and lightening roll over the airport, closing it and leaving loaded planes on the tarmac and at gates. Our 4:40 pm connection was delayed to 5:50 pm as our plane was diverted to Albuquerque (great irony here), leaving us to sit and ‘make friends’ in the terminal. Then it was cancelled due to weather, joining a feast of other cancellations. And so, SIT Happens, again. Rebooking was already an issue (1 hour wait on the phone; can’t rebook online because ‘your flight is already underway;’ and dare not exit security and try at the check-in counters), so now STAND Happens, a slow wait in line. By the time I reached the counter, there were no seats left to Philadelphia for Friday (and no courtesy accommodations as it was due to weather, out of their control), so I opted to get to Chicago, and then to Philadelphia Friday morning.   This flight was scheduled to depart about 8:00 pm. The plane arrived, unloaded passengers, and as we lined up to board came the announcement that the plane wasn’t going anywhere due to mechanical problems. So, SIT Happens, again. Another plane was redirected, and we were scheduled to depart at 10:00 pm. Once again, the plane arrived, unloaded passengers, and as we lined up to board came the announcement, a pilot and stewardess were over hours and they had to find replacements.  And so, once again, SIT Happens. We finally departed at midnight, arriving in Chicago at 5:00 am, and eventually arrived in Philadelphia at 12:30 pm (incidentally, while my thoughts are ‘flowing,’ this was in a narrow window just before the FAA computers went down and shut down the east coast for 4 hours). (Oh yes, luggage arrived the following day and was delivered).

That’s a rough synopsis from the passenger side of the events. What is more interesting, although of less interest to tired, irritated, and delayed travelers, was the response from the airline personnel, both the visible (on the floor and at the counters) and those not visible.

Staff, including managers, manned every available counter, immediately. They were courteous and accommodating in spite of passenger frustration and shortness; at the second cancellation, snacks and water were provided, and management remained to answer questions. (At the third cancellation they did bring a policeman ‘just in case’ but he didn’t have much to do). Communications were as transparent as they could be, under the circumstances. When we finally boarded it was by names on the booked passenger list as most boarding passes had been collected on the previous flights, a process that was tedious but fully explained ahead of time. The employee doing this remained courteous if not humorous throughout the process, moving as quickly and efficiently as he could. And when we pulled away from the gate, I noticed that a high up counter manager, one that had been on the counter for a couple of hours, was also on board, accompanying us on the flight.

Behind the scenes, while I can only imagine the specifics, I am familiar enough with scheduling and logistics to recognize the response to chaos, turmoil, and incomplete information. Shuffling planes becoming available when weather AND air traffic control permit; shuffling available crews; finding replacement crews; shuffling ground personnel and baggage; shuffling counter and ticketing staff, all these can be anticipated in theory, but the real thing is always unique. And stressful.

Bottom line, it was a rough travel day (and work day), and in spite of unusual circumstances (three cancellations for three different reasons) we all managed to make it through. A significant reason for this, observable during the developing situation, was the culture of that organization, and to a significant degree, the passengers’ recognition of that culture.

To apologize for the unusual circumstances of three cancellations for three different reasons, the passengers on our flight were compensated with vouchers for future travel. For the record, the organization is Southwest Airlines.

LAS Rainbow 2015.08.13 crop

So, here’s the connection, the flow: How does an organization create and maintain an operational culture conducive if not optimal to its mission, that is also sustainable, especially during a crisis?

First, take the obvious: you need a product or service (a What); you need a mission (a Why); you need goals to achieve (another What); you need a business plan and strategy (the How’s); and you need a realistic time frame to measure healthy progress (the When). But these are all inanimate things. They are not culture, nor can they have culture, nor can culture be thrust upon them.

Next, take the obscure: Culture is a characteristic of people, in this case both customers and employees. It is the way they think (Fundamental Principle 16), which then leads to how they behave.

Customers will be attracted to (or repulsed by) two organizational things. First, to/by the inanimate ‘What’ that is built and delivered: products or services; and second, to/by the animation that is the organization’s culture.

Finally, take what should be obvious but is often overlooked: employees are the fundamental building blocks that are essential in creating or building and maintaining the culture.  As I posted earlier, employees are not just ‘resources’ (which are consumed), but assets (which are to be developed so they will grow in value as they add value to the organization and its stakeholders).

Even as assets, we are still individuals. We each have a ‘Personal Culture’ (my picture), made up of our Temperament (our inborn behavioral and emotional patterns) and our Personality (which emerges through external cultural influence and experience), 1 which includes our unique Values (Professed and/or Practiced), Attitudes, and Beliefs. Along with this Personal Culture, parts of which are widely and commonly recognized and discussed in leadership literature, we bring more specific and desired attributes to the organization: our Skills, Talents, and the ability to learn and grow. I’ve posted earlier a bit on each of these attributes.

But there is one additional Personal Culture attribute that I have rarely seen discussed which I think needs to be introduced, and which connects directly from our recent travel experiences above. And I think this attribute is a critical one to recognize in creating a sustainable organizational culture.

Next: The Two Questions

1 Quiet, Susan Cain, p 101.  A most excellent, enjoyable, and instructive read.

Posted in 14: Behavior, 16: Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Culture 5 – The Whopping Effects of the Nonexistent Culture of Nations

While researching materials for the topic of the Culture of Nations, I discovered a very impressive book, one that I have now readily added to my Top Ten or More List of significant books (in this world there really needs to be room for more than ten, much more room). The book is The Central Liberal Truth, by Lawrence E. Harrison, and it has to do with, you guessed it, the Culture of Nations. The Introduction alone is one of the best essays I have ever read.

Why does This Matter? We’ve seen that culture has its roots in the individual and family and is nurtured by the people groups (s)he is part of, and that Regression to the Cultural Mean permits Behavioral Continuity to extend up into larger and larger groups. If Behavioral Continuity extends even to the Culture of Nations, then there is reason to expect Organizations to fit into this continuum. If culture does not matter to nations, then we are left with a more difficult explanation for culture in organizations, and the illogical predicament that organizational culture does not matter either.

For a reference point, albeit a generally obscure one, psychologist Geert Hofstede’s extensive analysis of national cultures and their effects on IBM’s worldwide organizations is well recognized within organizational psychology. While I have taught on his theory, it seems more academic and theoretical (read: great for researchers and difficult for managers and expatriates) and did not fully connect with the realities of observable cultural differences I have experienced overseas. But I only had my personal mental list of behaviors that, in practice, actually pinpointed a number of significantly real cultural differences. I was at a loss as to how to formulate this list into something practical and useable. Up to now the list had become the seeds of this concept of Practiced Behaviors and Professed Behaviors.

But back to the book: Now I knew I was onto something. It put data and documented examples to ideas that I had. I also knew it was potentially going to be a challenge. You already know that I would describe myself as either a Conserviberal or a Liberative, depending upon whether the half-full glass was being filled or emptied. More or Less Middle of the Bird but Comfortable Going Out on a Wing is my mantra. So, what were the clues that the book was going to be challenging? How about the following list of facts:

1) The title of the book is The Central Liberal Truth (yes, with “Liberal” boldly printed in Red);
2) The book review, entitled The Culture of Nations, was published on the Opinion page of The New York Times;
3) The author describes himself as a young socialist at one time, before realizing socialism didn’t work;
4) The thesis of the book is a quote (an aphorism) from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late American liberal politician and sociologist;
5) The quote itself is, The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” (Clearly only one way to save the culture);
6) The vast majority of the data and information comes from various United Nations studies; and
7) The book is a synopsis of three different Culture Matters symposia (1999+) held at Harvard University.

Clearly I was heading into staunchly-much-more-than-Liberative territory. And it felt very good (hey, I can go out on a wing, even a left one) because vast realms of verifiable public data are used, they are discussed unemotionally, consistent conclusions are drawn, criticisms are calmly addressed, and a majority of the practical and observable cultural differences (“Behavioral Markers” I will called them) from my mental list were validated. I like very much nearly everything the book presents, from the data through to the conclusions and recommendations. It definitely deserves to be on a Top Ten and More List. I only wish it had been available when I went overseas to live and work.

A crux of the book’s thesis is that the culture of a nation is not an insignificant contributor and with other forces has a direct effect on the direction and success of a society’s development. The elements of its culture are planted at an individual’s birth and nurtured by family, clan, and the culture’s social institutions (that is, self-reinforced by the culture itself. In other words, Regression to the Cultural Mean).

The real impact for me came in seeing what the identified cultural Factors (“Behavioral Markers”) were, and what effects certain social institutions have upon them and how these institutions bring about their influence.

In the interests of brevity, the following table is reproduced from The Central Liberal Truth, with the Factors (“Behavioral Markers”) indicated along with their typically observable manifestations in different cultures. (Note: Yes, I was cheap and bought a used book that was described as “Gently used, some highlighting.” The bold, dark circles and underlines belong to the “previous gentle highlighting owner;” the penciled remarks are mine. Since the two of us, this previous owner and I, agreed on so many things, I didn’t have to highlight much.)

Table 2.1a

Table 2.1b

For comparison, Hofstede proposes six dimensions of cultural differences (more on these later when we get to the Cultures of Organizations), variable scales such as Individualism-Collectivism and Low Uncertainty Avoidance-High Uncertainty Avoidance, which seem to me to be more like deep Foundational Attitudes which then influence behavior. The Factors in the Table above seem more readily describable in terms of both Values/Beliefs/Attitudes (No.s 1-8) as well as Observable Behaviors (No.s 9-24), thus I went with the additional descriptor, Behavioral Markers.

The following are the main culturally different behaviors I had observed and had to learn to “live with” (my mental list), which are also found in the Table above:

Wealth (No. 4): Do behaviors indicate the belief that Wealth can be created (Positive Sum: +∑), or is fixed and must be fought over (Zero or Negative Sum: 0∑, -∑)?;

Ethics (No. 6): Is an ethical code foundational (drives behaviors), or merely a convenient façade?;

Education (No. 8): Is education seen as a means of self- and cultural improvement, or a waste of resources?;

Work (No. 9): Is work a vehicle through which wealth (as added value) can be created, or is it as waste of time and of little or no benefit?;

Rule of Law (No. 16): Is the Rule of Law foundational, or again merely a convenient façade? My experience in Eastern Europe significantly illuminated this Marker. A reasonable description of how we view the law is that it is the steel beams and structure that supports a skyscraper, driven down to a bedrock foundation. The floors and walls are open, however, so that we can design and construct a living and working space that meets our needs. In Eastern Europe, however, the law is viewed more as a concrete floor and ceiling, with four walls with no windows or doors whose purpose is to contain you and your behavior. Any way you can evade its effects (and not get caught) are culturally permitted. One time we were stopped at a traffic light at a major intersection with six full lanes of traffic, including left turn lanes. Just before our light turned green, a car pulled up on the sidewalk to our right, and as the opposing light turned yellow, bounced off the curb and accelerated diagonally across the intersection turning left across all six lanes of startled drivers. This didn’t happen often, but ‘often’ and ‘Right of Way’ are relative words…

Corruption also falls into this category. While most people we knew spoke strongly against corruption and the drag it had on life, the economy, and the culture, when it was felt necessary to use it to get something done, they freely participated;

Individual/Group (No. 20): Is individuality and individual thinking encouraged or discouraged?;

Authority (No. 21): Is authority established to maintain the greater good, or is it a reward, a position of power to be exploited?;

Women (Gender Relationships) (No. 24): How are women socially regarded and treated in the culture?

Those were my eight “most noticeable variable behaviors” from my overseas experiences. Some of the remaining 25 Factors from the book I could see incorporating as subcategories. The importance is, these culturally distinct attitudes and behaviors are hard to avoid noticing. And impossible not to have to adjust to when you’re living in that culture, an activity that can be tremendously draining both emotionally and physically.

The book also assumes that societal or cultural Progress is a desired goal. I posted earlier that bonsai trees need to be constantly growing and so do we as learning beings, so this seems a fair assumption. Toynbee (and following posts) also identifies cultural growth and further expands on the ebb and flow of progress and the sources of it within the longer cyclical lives of civilizations (societies and cultures).

The uphill battle for the thesis is that sociologists, historians, economists, and those in development circles generally disdain or attempt to refute that cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes can have any effect on a society’s (culture’s) progress, even despite compelling evidence to the contrary presented here. They prefer to place the blame for a culture’s lack of development on external forces, including geographic constraints, lack of resources, or interfering influence from outside (such as Dependency Theory).

One of the reasons for this, I feel, is the development of cultural relativism after the Second World War and its offspring in the US, Political Correctness. While the premise was to prevent denigrating comments to be made of a person or group (attributing nonexistent or outlier behaviors to the whole group, true ‘stereotyping’), it morphed into primarily preventing any comments the group considered negative, including honest recognition of behavior that represented the group’s actual desired behavioral norm (their Cultural Mean).

Following the tenets of Political Correctness, then, it is inappropriate to attempt to identify a culture’s (or group’s) contributions to its own lack of success or progress through practicing its own expected behaviors (to do so would be construed as racism, a form of “Blame the Victim”), as everything is relative, and thus the forces preventing success must be external.

Unfortunately, one of the major unintended consequences of the cultural relativism and Political Correctness approaches is that they therefore shield and prevent real problems and their sources from being clearly identified, thus preventing any progress in reaching real solutions.

The ultimate irony is that as Political Correctness attempts to block any attempt to identify deeper problems, it also prevents Political Correctness itself from being scrutinized. It has morphed itself into an idol.

Based upon my number of years of observations, it seems that the truth is more the following:

Political Correctness: when one person intimidates another into feeling guilty and abandoning their values and beliefs, so they can cram their values and beliefs down the other’s throat.

The book recognizes this issue when it states, “For culture to matter, there must first be a realization that it needs fixing.” The blind practice of Political Correctness seems intent on preventing a fair chance for that to occur.

One of the strongly supported conclusions from the book’s analyses is that religion has a pronounced effect on influencing a society’s culture. The surprise conclusion, and one running completely counter to Political Correctness, is that particular religions (historically and currently) are more Progress-Prone (Protestantism, Confucianism) or Progress-Resistant (Eastern Orthodoxy, Western Catholic, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam). This conclusion is also reflected in two of my earlier posts (here and here), but not directly, as that would not be Politically Correct.

I love what the book says, the issues it tackles, the data it presents, the counter arguments to critics, and the conclusions it draws. Where I have a (small) issue is in what it says too little of. Parenting and child rearing are indeed covered as institutions creating both values and beliefs, but the importance of these in influencing change in a culture seems to suffer compared to the importance placed on other “village” (as in, “It Takes A Village”) institutions, including education, religious organizations, government, development institutions, universities, the media, and the private sector. The latter all can no doubt be instrumental in furthering cultural change, but by the time they can begin to act on an individual, say from the age of 5 years onward, research has shown that much of values, beliefs and attitudes have already been cast in stone.

This places greater emphasis on the roles parenting and family play in creating cultural foundations, while the other institutions seem better suited to influencing the culture through their collective supportive effects on parents and heads of families, and not in an approach that replaces them by awarding the privilege to the state, regardless of how well intentioned.

The good news is that a major conclusion of the book is that cultural change must be catalyzed from inside the culture, and not by external forces or influences. Bye, bye Nation Building. This would seem to modify the impact of Moynihan’s aphorism, which as an either/or condemning statement does appear to be both naïve as well as arrogant.  It would be better off and more effective if understood as an and/and visionary motivation.


Next: Organizations

Posted in 16: Culture, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Culture 5 – Fun with Flags, Parking Tickets, Saunas, and #Hashtags

The previous four posts (beginning here) sought to confirm that Nations do indeed have a Culture (a question somehow not yet resolved by either sociologists or historians) by looking at historical events, behaviors, and cultural sources for two not so random cases: Russia and the US. While the behavioral examples were seemingly more negative than not (that is, Practiced Behavior did not match Professed Behavior), the exercise did support two important points:

First, that Nations Do Indeed Have a Culture, and we human beings are strongly shaped by these cultural and moral values and norms (the unwritten rules), called Behavioral Continuity.

And second, it confirmed both Fundamental Principle 13: A small promotion (increase of importance) of Self over other Values drives a much more significant negative change in behavior, and

Fundamental Principle 14: There Are Consequences To One’s Behavior (including nations).

However, there are many additional Practiced Behaviors of national cultures that are more often humorous if not entertaining (from a distance, I suppose), even though they still have significant and observable consequences for people nearby.

Diplomatic Immunity

Let us first take diplomats in New York City and parking tickets (to which they are immune by the nature of being a diplomat). This is no doubt an issue that you may have heard alluded to, but unless you live in New York or travel there and try to find a parking place it may not mean much. The reality is that not all diplomats rack up parking tickets at the same rates.

According to an economic study by Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel, diplomats from nations (and cultures) that rank high on the Transparency International Corruption Index pile up huge numbers of unpaid tickets, while diplomats from nations that rank low on the index barely get any at all.

Between 1997 and 2002, the U.N. Mission of Kuwait picked up 246 parking violations per diplomat. Disregarding weekends, when presumably they are off having fun in America, this works out to one per day! Other nations whose diplomats had large numbers of violations included Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Mozambique, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Syria.

At the same time, not a single parking violation was recorded by any diplomats from Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Israel, Norway, or Canada.

There is a moral here, somewhere, I am sure. One certainly is that Regression to Cultural Means is at work. And perhaps, “When in Rome, don’t do as the Romans (and obey their laws).” Or, “You can take it with you (your own cultural norms).”


Springing off of these thoughts, in a recent book by Michael Booth, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, the author writes (pardon the long but marvelously pertinent quote), “I think it is fairly safe to say that in the rest of the world the Scandinavian countries are broadly perceived as democratic, meritocratic, egalitarian and classless, populated by vaguely outdoorsy, blond, liberal, bicycle-riding folks who live in tastefully lit middle-class homes with Bang & Olufsen TVs in their living rooms, mid-range German estate cars in their driveways, who vacation in Spain and slip a couple of notes in a Red Cross envelope every month” (full and enjoyable review can be found here).

Booth is British, married to a Danish woman and for quite a while living in Denmark. Being an outsider, he is fully aware of cultural differences, one of which he described as “social conformity” (which sounds remarkably like Regression to the Cultural Mean) and took pains to investigate various aspects of the five nations’ cultures. One unique instance was testing to see if Finnish men are as untalkative being naked in a sauna as they are outside of it (according to Booth, they are).

Bottom line in this very enjoyable book is that despite strong, shared similarities, the five nations each have their own character (culture) that strongly influences their communal and individual behavior.


The Japanese are very conservative people. In fact, they turn out to be the most conservative culture on earth, and not just in the choice of their investments in the stock market where the general view is that the market only goes down. This latter view is perhaps reinforced by what has been termed The Lost Decade (1990s) of the Japanese economy.

The culture suffers from a play-it-safe mentality that pervades much of their daily life, from regulators holding up approval of vaccines that had been approved decades earlier in other countries, why few Japanese students choose to study abroad, and why 844 trillion yen, nearly twice the country’s yearly economic output, sits idle in cash at home or in savings accounts yielding an average of 0.02% annually (Businessweek, 2012).

This seems to reveal real life circumstances that resonate and reinforce a general risk-adverse hereditary trait (that pesky gene that seems to be more dominant in the US, see a previous post). Economists speculate that this no doubt will continue to make for a much more difficult Japanese economic recovery.


France is a marvelous country. Every July I immensely enjoy watching the Tour de France for a variety of unrelated reasons: countryside, cathedrals, clowns, cycling and commentators immediately come to mind. France is also the crossroads where much of western civilization’s history took place. Perspectives on that history sometimes can take very large swings.

For one instance, the French are very proud of the fact that France was the home to one of if not the greatest monarchy on earth, that of King Louis XIV, the Sun King (1638-1715). His was the longest reign of any European monarchy, and during it France was the leading European power. Clearly something to be proud of.

They are also extremely proud of the fact that one of if not the greatest revolution, The French Revolution, was also theirs (1789-1799) (not withstanding it was heavily influence by the American Revolution, in turn heavily influenced the Bolshevik Revolution, and, despite its cultural symbol of Liberté, égalité, fraternité, managed to execute or summarily dispose of nearly 40,000 of its own citizens just in nine months between 1793-1794).

But, they seem to be either clueless or unwilling to admit that the latter historical milestone completely obliterated all that was great about the former one. And that is what we call a Cultural Lens. Perhaps more markedly than elsewhere, this particular lens has other influences as well.

We have had the opportunity to visit Paris a number of times and experience first hand some of French cultural norms. The first was when we were living in The Netherlands and had our college aged sons and one girl friend visiting us. In looking for something cultural to do, we received a flyer advertising a bus excursion to Paris for 12 hours. Since Paris is about 6 hours by bus from where we were living, this meant meeting the bus at the train station at 3:00 am to begin a number of collecting stops for other passengers, arriving at about noon after which we were on our own.   Departure was at midnight, so we had a good 12 hours to “see Paris.” Not speaking French, we had experiences similar to what many other Americans had shared: not many English speaking people around, and not many others willing to engage in what they thought was combat with an American trying to speak French. We did manage to walk through Montmartre, eat lunch at the Moulin Rouge (expensive), see the Louvre (from a distance), see the Eiffel Tower (also from a distance as it was closed off, unbeknownst to us and we were unable to get an understandable explanation), and sightsee up and down the Champs-Elysee. We did manage to get tickets for a boat ride on the Seine after dinner. Only then, with fireworks going off at 9:00 pm and in conversation with other tourists on the boat, did we learn that it was the 100th anniversary celebration of the Eiffel Tower (1989), with Regan and Mitterand doing the honors. And there we were, right in the middle of the Seine with front row seats. Occasionally, some of my habitual American family ‘flash mob’ adventures turn up golden. But we didn’t get much help from the locals.

The second experience was when we were traveling to Kenya to visit family and took a more elaborate but much less expensive itinerary that was by train from our home in the east of The Netherlands to Paris, transfer by local train to the airport, and then fly to Nairobi. The only leg that could not be arranged beforehand was the transfer by local train. In purchasing our three tickets at the kiosk, there was a flash of rapid hand movements while I tried to simultaneously count change in a bunch of odd-looking coin (this was B, before Euro). Later I realized that rather than change that should include 3 French francs, I had 1 franc and 2 centimes, FF1.2, because the centime, 1/10th of a franc, was nearly identical to the untrained eye to the bimetal franc but slightly smaller in size. I presumed I had been had, once again, by the ‘American in Paris’ syndrome.

By our third visit years later, I had been able to confirm a suspicion learned after living in The Netherlands for some time. In The Netherlands, while there are only about 15 million people, there are about 250 language dialects, and since most people do not relocate either for work or for home location, it is quite common for people who live separated by only 30 km away to not be able to understand each other. Thus, I discovered my own set of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Had we been able to stay longer and explore France better, we would have discovered that Parisians are not specifically rude to Americans trying to speak what they think is French, they are rude to any other Frenchman who lives more than 50 km outside of Paris who speaks fluently what they think is French.

This, then, is a French Cultural Mean, the importance of the purity of their language, purity so important that four centuries ago, Cardinal Richelieu established French linguistic policy that since then has maintained an intentional approach to “keep French French,” generally under the oversight of the French Academy. In the beginning it was more intent to get control over the multitude of dialects spread around a country of mostly immobile citizens, but more recently its task has morphed into resisting the incursion of English words that would harm the ‘Frenchiness’ of French. (In 1975 the Maintenance of the Purity of the French Language act was passed).

This has now, in recent decades, begun to change (“Mon Dieu!”) with the explosion of English technology terms. The debate now seems more over do they accept “hashtag” or insist on the more French “mot-dièse”? You can access more about the #FrenchProblem here.


All this in my mind simply confirms that there are Cultures of Nations, and, like human beings, these cultures reflect those highly prized values that directly influence our behaviors.

Which then raises some very import philosophical, if not political (or even politically incorrect) and possibly rhetorical questions:

If we identify a particularly prevalent behavior that expresses a people group’s consciously chosen Cultural Mean, are we really “stereotyping” them?

Or, is it only “stereotyping” if we take an “outlier,” a behavior way outside their Cultural Mean, and apply this to the people group as a whole?


Next: The Effects of the Culture of Nations

Posted in 16: Culture, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Culture 5 – America, In The Looking Glass

“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” Mahatma Gandhi

To continue chasing this question of “Do Nations have a Culture?” it’s only seems fair to now look at us, or perhaps that should be at The US. To do this, we will need to make use of a couple of Fundamental Principles, some laughs, pictures, and at least one cartoon.

First is Fundamental Principle 6: There will always be Missing or Incomplete Information. The idea in this post is to try and find information along the way that’s gone missing, or was intentionally buried, which could prove to be very helpful, enlightening, and lead to better understanding.

The next is Fundamental Principle 7. Do you remember it? We should revisit it, as we’re going to need it.

Fundamental Principle 7:

7A – Everybody Doesn’t “Get” Something;

7B – Most of us “Get” that we don’t “Get” Something, and take steps to compensate – we learn it, delegate it, hire it, or marry it (or sometimes vainly try to ignore it);

7C – But some don’t “Get” that they don’t “Get” Something, but think they do, and short of a miracle, never will.

Depending upon the Something, we can easily flip-flop between 7B & 7C.

The Something this time is: Cultural Lenses (Fundamental Principle 16f)

If you follow the thread of that final thought in the previous post, you might catch a hint that one could point a finger at another’s misinterpretations, misunderstandings, or negative perceptions of America based on their cultural lenses. And you would be partially right, because they do have cultural lenses.

But, wait for it – here comes some missing information – so do we. And the devious truth with cultural lenses is that they act like polarizing magnifiersthey conveniently magnify some things while making some other things disappear. That we are all completely clueless that we are wearing cultural lenses is one missing piece of information. The second piece is that these unknown cultural lenses create additional missing information in the things they hide. In other words, we are dealing with the infamous but real unknown unknowns. We’re busted. In this case, We Are All Fundamental Principle 7C.

So, let’s try to perform some sort of “miracle” by taking off our cultural lenses, or at least trying to clean them with some heavy-duty moist tissue, and looking more closely at ourselves in the Looking Glass in order to see a bit of what we are missing, and what others undoubtedly see.

The last post looked at The Little Ice Age and The Reformation in terms of the impact they had on people migrations, especially those across the Atlantic to join the colonies in North America.

Most history tends to focus more on these migrations to North America, heavily influenced by Reformed Protestants stemming from England, Scotland, and The Netherlands, as the primary forces that helped form the original patterns of American identity.1 Included in these ‘patterns’ of our culture were risk-tolerance, individual and religious freedom, and a free-market economy. In this post I want to peel away some stuff and look deeper at the latter two of these.

Pennsylvania was the first of the colonies to evolve the characteristic pattern of religion in modern America: a multitude of religious denominations, none of which wanted to claim the status of THE Church (‘The Kingdom of God on Earth’ (KoGoE), or of the State, or Colony, as it were. See the previous post). While it was sometimes argued that religious coercion would discourage colonial settlement and was therefore economically bad, a net result of both of these forces was to cast a foundational value of individual freedom and liberty, especially individual religious freedom. However, this freedom was completely and intentionally different (so we are told) from the religious toleration that was often seen in Reformation Europe:

Toleration is a grudging concession granted by one body from a position of strength;
Freedom and Liberty provide a condition in which all groups exist on an equal basis.2

Language and time being the fluid things that they are, this distinction now seems to be eroding considerably. Or perhaps the distinction is just becoming more of the dust on our cultural lenses. (I wonder if the Conventional Wisdom of a minority’s emphasis on gaining more toleration doesn’t just subconsciously reinforce another’s position of strength, rather than level the playing field. Unless the real objective is to displace the other from their position, real or perceived.)

Take freedom in general. If we were to picture the relationship between the Amount of Freedom (from none, 0%, to complete, 100%) horizontally and the Social and Cultural Benefits vertically, we would probably see something like this:

Gladwell Curve - Freedom - DoodlecastPro-2015-03-27-14-36-02 crop

This pictures what historians and philosophers have told us for eons, that if you have no freedom (to the left), you end up with an authoritarian or totalitarian state, and if you have complete individual freedom (to the right) you end up with chaos or anarchy. The safest place to be for everyone, so we conclude, is somewhere in the middle where the benefits of an individual’s freedom are moderated by the individual’s own responsibility to the greater (clan, tribe, society’s) good (upward responsibility), with a balanced measure of top-down regulation added (larger groups imposing responsibility downward).

An individual’s sense of responsibility is initially planted by the family (nature), but it is nurtured by the larger groups the individual is affiliated with: family, clan, tribe, and society. In other words, this is the “And/And” action of Regression to the Cultural Mean, and our resulting behaviors (individuals and groups) reflect our underlying attitudes and values.

To get more specific, take that general picture of freedom above but place it in the context of a free-market economy where interactions among individuals take on transactional, business-like characteristics (Fundamental Principle 1).

It takes only a few bad actors at the extremes of our sketch above, such as Ken Lay of Enron who let their selfish, negative sum attitudes (-∑) drive their behaviors, who then get publicized and paint a very negative picture of a free-market economy, at least how we are perceived to practice it – a picture painted both to the ourselves and the world. The number of good acting, beneficial, value-adding people and businesses far outnumber the bad, but they tend to get ignored in the US and are never to be heard of in the rest of the world. Since through other cultural lenses the world has learned and believes a free-market economy is supposed to bring all sorts of benefits to everyone (size of our economy, size of the middle class, quality of life of virtually everyone), what conclusion will they then draw? And since we’ve exported the TV show Dallas and untold Hollywood movies, should we really be surprised? We take these as satire or sarcasm, but without balanced information (there’s our missing information again), they take it as reality.  Believe me, they do.

From experience in living and working abroad in two different cultures (and traveling in scores of others), we discovered that their initial expectations of us as Americans were rather distorted if not low, and it took some time before barriers were broken and better, although still limited understanding was achieved.

Part of the issue is universal: neither they nor we have a crisp, clear understanding of what a predominant American culture really is for the ordinary American. The best description I have come across, and one that seems valid over hundreds of years, is the following:

An ordinary American is, in the fullest sense – self-interested and covetous of a sweet deal, but also capable of outrage in the face of greed and unfairness. (BusinessWeek, 2013).

First of all, absolutely everyone in the world is self-interested to a degree (see previous post), particularly when it comes to survival, and also interested in a sweet deal, especially when most of the “deals” in the world are of the zero sum type. So, these two do not really distinguish us from anyone else, except perhaps in degree.

What does distinguish us, I think, is the combination of these two with the last two characteristics: outrage in the face of greed (greed, and corruption, are two behaviors easily recognizable as negative sum), and outrage in the face of unfairness (the denial of justice, a behavior which is also easily recognizable as negative sum). It is these two, which have their roots and basis in the founding principles of America, especially Equality of Opportunity (that is, elimination or minimization of negative sum outcomes), that the world thinks of first. But then they read about and experience all of the exceptions, and they don’t see behaviors that match what they expect from all of the historical promotion (marketing) of America’s principles.  In other words, our Practiced Behaviors don’t match our Professed Behaviors.

Now consider the second cultural pattern above: what should the Cultural Mean of behavior look like for a society that is founded on freedom to practice a religion of choice? To us, it appears it has come to mean to be able to choose which church, synagogue, or other to attend once a week and which doctrines to believe in.

To the rest of the world, especially with non-Christians, it doesn’t end there. They have access to what they believe are the tenets of the Christian religion (not the important ones about the color of the carpet or where the organ is placed), and they are generally well informed about the Ten Commandments (for a start), and forgiveness and grace and the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, laziness, wrath, envy, pride) and in particular the commandment to

Do unto your neighbors as you would have them do unto you”

(a little play on the original words there, as we are to Do first, and then let them respond afterwards). This shouldn’t be too hard for a culture and society that’s willing to take more risks and is supposed to be more ‘other’ oriented (justice-wise). Right?

So, in the world’s minds and based upon their understanding of the tenants of our dominant religion, they would expect to see the following picture of our Practiced Behavior more or less consistent with a predominantly Christian society, especially one in which there was the freedom to practice one’s faith:

Values Consistent Behavior - DoodlecastPro-2015-03-27-14-33-04 crop

But the behaviors they read about or see in the media, what they often hear from people who travel to the US, and what they predominantly experience when we travel into their cultures, especially when the politicians we’ve elected to “represent” us have an uncanny habit of often embarrassing themselves and us whenever they visit, is probably more like the following:

Values Inconsistent Behavior - DoodlecastPro-2015-03-27-14-39-15 crop

While we consider ourselves to be a Christian nation (as do many nations in Eastern and Western Europe), there are two hidden issues (missing information again) that we can see only if we remove our cultural lenses:

-What convenient definition of “Christian” are we using? and
-What behavior is consistent with that definition?

I can see a Top Ten List of silent but working definitions being practiced (and not just in the US):

I must be a Christian because –

1) it says so on my birth certificate.
2) I live in the USA (or wherever).
3) I am not Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim.
4) I celebrate Christmas.
5) I go to church on Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, and Easter.
6) I go to church regularly and am involved serving voluntarily.
7) I accepted Jesus and was baptized.
8) I read the Bible.
9) I understand what a changed life in Christ is supposed to mean, and I try my best to live up to that.
10) I consciously behave and live my life 24/7 according to the principles Jesus taught and lived.

What the rest of the world sees are too few people at Levels 9 & 10 (active), and too many (mostly sincere) people from 1 through 5 (passive) and from 6 through 8 (luke warm). A lot of belief but little “doing.”

Why is this? I think that churches for 2000 years have placed too little emphasis on teaching and expecting (discipling) adherents to live out (behave according to) the fundamental tenants of human interactions basic to the faith in everyday life. We concentrate more on the task of getting people “changed” and not enough on the follow-up of what it means to live out the “change” and grow in it.

There is additional buried information that has very significant influence. The rest of the world also has access to the broader historical record, none of which we can change and much of which speaks against Christians generally and certainly makes our credibility suspect. A major reason for this is because it is not our history; much of it happened before America’s founding. But it is their history, Europe’s and the Middle East’s, as they lived through it.   Christianity’s previous record on toleration, either of Christian deviance or of other religions, might kindly be termed unimpressive. The Eastern Orthodox churches generally have a better record than the Latin west, first because the east-west split occurred in 1054 before the western organized crusades began in 1095, and second because power was taken out of their hands by the Muslim invasions by the Ottoman Empire (establishing their own KoGoE). Indeed western Christianity before 1500 must rank as one of the most intolerant religions in world history; its record in comparison with medieval Islamic civilizations is embarrassingly poor.3 What they “see” us doing (Practiced Behaviors) is much more consistent with what they experienced over two millennia, than what we “say” we are going to do (Professed Behaviors) through what we stand for.

If we are supposed to be changed people with particular values and principles, then we must act that way. What we fail to teach and too few people successfully demonstrate in the world, is that one can indeed be incredibly successful as well as influential doing it! And not only are there plenty of people in the world looking to see it, there are also plenty of people in America hungering to experience it.

One point of all this is that there are indeed Cultures of Nations. And the second is that the unique Professed Culture of Our Nation ought to be the Practiced one visible to the rest of the world.

The Bottom Line (thank you Walt Kelly, you were right in more ways than one):

Pogo - Met the Enemy 1965.21.12

Next: The Effects of the Culture of Nations

Notes: The following book, The Reformation, is highly recommended.
1 The Reformation, xxii.
2 The Reformation, 543.
3 The Reformation, 676.

Posted in 16: Culture, Lessons from History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment