dranthonysblog

November 20, 2013

Leadership in a 1,000 Words

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Leadership is ever-present.  We experience it almost from the time we come into this world until the end.  When we are very young our parents, or guardians, guide, teach, and care for us.  They influence us to achieve common or at least desired goals.  Teachers and coaches do the same, though in a somewhat more detached and less informal way.  The same can be said of supervisors, religious leaders, and various professionals we solicit to assist us.  Friends and colleagues also display leadership as do civil servants, like police officers, firefighters, and military personnel.  Leadership is part of our lives and it would be difficult, if not outright impossible to thrive, or at least survive long, without it.

Leadership can have positive, negative and insignificant influence on our lives, depending upon your perspective.   Similarly, some lessons learned from leaders stay with you for a lifetime, such as the way some address elders as sir or ma’am, while others fade quickly like wearing your clothes a certain way to be perceived as “cool”.

It has been talked and written about since at least the time of the ancient Greeks and very likely much earlier than that.   Some who study leadership will tell you that it is learned from observing and experiencing it.  Others believe that leadership is innate and that we are born with it.  Another group advocates that leadership is some combination of the two.  Formal theories have been devised that range from leadership being explained by a series of rewards and punishments, to personality traits both in-born as well as learned, to situational factors, which give weight to context as well as to individuals.  There are also theories that seek to explain it by relationships, with power being a key ingredient, as well as many hybrid approaches.

Most will agree that great leadership has the ability to inspire, motivate, and transform outcomes from group endeavors of all types.  Many civilizations, nations, corporations, groups, and individuals have benefited from leadership.  Similarly, much damage, destruction, and pain has also been wrought by people exercising leadership for conquest or oppression.  These days, if you desire, you can take classes in leadership and even earn an undergraduate or advanced degree in it.  Innumerable books have been written about leadership, especially in the last few years, and yet we still do not really know much more than we did when we first started wondering about it.

One of my early jobs was as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria.  The supervisor was a man named Rick and he led a team of young people like me by being actively involved and often personally teaching us how to complete required tasks.  He did this usually with a smile and was always willing to lend a hand, whenever needed.  The employees, my peers, respected him and the work was also always well done and completed on time.

Many years later, I worked for a boss who knew little about the operation and cared nothing for the staff.  As far as we could tell he spent much of his time simply goofing off in his office.  The decisions that he made were done with little regard for facts and the results were not given any real scrutiny.  The end was predictable and he was soon out of work.

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A leader that I later worked for was very obviously tired and did not want the job.  However, because of the circumstances, he had little choice but to stay.  The staff respected his experience and he obviously worked very hard.  However, he was easily manipulated and many of the employees took advantage of this, which caused great problems for the organization.

Yet another individual I worked with was very successful at her job and made many improvements.  She listened to employees, analyzed issues thoroughly, and quite obviously cared about the organization and those who were employed by it.  She worked hard to enhance organizational performance and challenged everyone to do the same.  She was focused more on the work and less on what was in it for her and the organization prospered under her leadership.

These types of experiences, and many more, combined with my education and training have provided me with a unique vantage point from which to contemplate leadership.   These days, I really do not think any of the theories satisfactorily explain or account for all facets of leadership.  This is because human behavior is complex (any mom, little leaguer, or bartender knows this) and is very likely influenced by both inherited as well as learned factors.  The expression of inherited factors itself is complex and is probably affected by multiple environmental influences, in ways that we do not yet completely understand.

Additionally, the context of any situation contains a multitude of factors that can and likely do alter outcomes.  In this regard, followers themselves also influence leadership through formal and informal means, though this is seldom taken into account when evaluating the effectiveness of leadership.  Similarly, individual definitions of leadership are diverse and not fixed.  So what defines good leadership to one person may be perceived as inadequate, ineffective, or just plain bad to another and both could be evaluated differently by the same person on a different day!  Follower and leader moods and attitudes are also not fixed and these too will affect perceptions and subsequent behavior (i.e., the world looks better when we are happy than when things are not going our way).

Where does this leave us?  At this point, with three thoughts:

  1. Leadership is important
  2. We do not yet really understand leadership
  3. That understanding leadership should be a priority for everyone

It is important to keep these in mind, because there are some who claim to fully understand it and will pass on their knowledge to anyone who will listen, or pay, for the privilege.  Until we fully understand it, which may take a while, keep this in mind and decide for yourself just what constitutes effective leadership!

March 30, 2013

My time in San Quentin Prison

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I just completed spring quarter at the University of California in Santa Barbara and was looking forward to spending the summer at home with my parents.  My father had recently accepted a position as Associate Warden of San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California.  One of the perks, which could be debated, was that staff had the option to live on grounds at the prison.  The facility consists of an outer gate with full security that houses the prison inside as well as a community includes streets and living quarters for hundreds of employees and their families.  At that time, it also had a community gym as well and a small post office and gift shop located just outside the main gate.  The cost, I was told, was much more reasonable than rent or a mortgage payment was in Marin County, which is one of the more affluent areas in California.  The real estate that the prison and the expansive grounds it occupies, due to its location and proximity to the bay, are worth millions of dollars should the state of California ever decide to sell it!

It was very early in the morning when I left my small off-campus apartment in Isla Vista and my mind was filled with a predictable mix of thoughts about school and anticipation of a summer spent at home.  I moved out a couple of years before when my parents had lived in Sacramento and, though I had visited them since the move, I was unsure what to expect spending a few months living at San Quentin.  This was before I entered the Army and so I had no experience living in any type of secured community.

I arrived in the late morning and the gate guard asked me who I was there to visit.  I informed him that I was moving “home” for the summer and would be around for a few months.  After verifying my identification, and calling to confirm I was authorized, he lifted the gate and I drove in and down the road towards my parent’s house.  They lived on a hill in a beautiful home that appeared to be built around the turn of the last century, plus or minus a decade.  The yard was filled with flowers and the living room had huge windows that had a fantastic view of the San Francisco bay as well as the prison itself.  I remember thinking what a contrast the two aspects of the view were.  On exceptionally clear days, which were rare due to the near ever-present bay area fog, you could also see Alcatraz prison, then a state park, which added to the spectacle.

In addition to the living room, the house had a family room, sun room, back yard (also filled with flowers) and three bedrooms.  I remember thinking that aside from the proximity to the prison this was a nice place to live.   Interestingly, the grounds were all maintained by inmates supervised by guards.  I realized this early on when I saw that the landscape workers wore the same blue shirt and denim pants that the inmates had on.  I also noticed that they were very observant, especially if you were with a female.

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In the morning scores of inmates would gather in the main yard and would chant in unison while exercising.  I later learned that some of the groups also did this for religious reasons as well as for a show of unity.  To a curious outsider, hearing this mixed with the chilling and dense morning fog was both fascinating and somewhat unnerving at the same time!  In thinking about it now, it was not unlike some of the more solemn cadences that resonated during early morning physical training sessions that army units do when in garrison.

I visited the inside of the actual prison several times that summer and was fascinated not so much by the denizens, as I had been raised around that (i.e., my father spent the majority of his career in corrections), but by the stark surroundings and the aging architecture of the walls and buildings.  I later learned that it was constructed in 1852 with little renovation or change since.  In many ways it was similar to ancient forts of the type you would see in far-flung outposts still standing from Spain’s hegemony in places like Manila Bay.  During my visits, I also was the recipient of catcalls and much staring as I was 18 then, and even though I am a native Californian, it left an impression on me.  One positive outcome from this was that it helped me to more fully understand just how some employees feel when they are victims of harassment, which was useful when I started working in human resources a few years later.  I also viewed death row and saw the gas chamber, which was still operational at that time, though that summer it was not put to use.

Visiting day was on Sunday and I remember that because it was one of three times that the main gate was often crowded with people and cars.  The other two were during protests, which were also fairly common and usually concerned the death penalty, and during daily shift changes.  Visitors would line up and they included a fairly representative sampling of individuals from all walks of life, ethnicities, and income levels and included; girlfriends, family members of assorted ages, attorneys, and friends.  The expressions were as varied as the people though many sported looks of sadness tinged with frustration, no doubt in part due to the wait in line, and some tried to look cheerful, though it was clear they did not want to be there.  It was not too different from the group that I would see visiting juveniles when I worked as a counselor in a probation department later on.  During these experiences, I always wondered what these many were really thinking as they journeyed through the rote security process and queuing just to share a few moments with family, or associates, who were incarcerated.

The prison was located just a few miles down highway 101 from the Golden Gate Bridge, which was next to San Francisco.  During that summer I often rode my bicycle around the area and occasionally over the bridge never-failing to marvel at the scenery and the pace of life in and around the city.  It is impossible to live in Marin County and not visit the City for shopping, entertainment, or just for escape.  When you live on grounds at the prison this is especially true because there is a ferry terminal outside of the back gate that goes directly to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.  The ride across the bay takes under an hour and is better than fighting traffic and searching for an overpriced place to park your car on the weekends.

The summer eventually passed and it was time for me to leave the prison by the bay and get back to college life.  As I left I told the somewhat bored looking gate guard that I was going back to college and he responded with an indifferent “I don’t care gaze” but, being the well-trained peace officer and public servant that he obviously was, he wished me well nonetheless.  Living on grounds at a prison and not being a convict or peace officer is an unusual experience and one that stays with you for life, especially when that prison is San Quentin.

October 30, 2012

A Teddy Bear Tale

What you are about to read is believed by the party involved to have happened.  The person is completely credible and the story is unusual.  I have altered some of the details at the request of the person involved though, aside from that, what you are about to read is the story as I understand it.  It is up to you to decide how it happened…

Cindy lived with her two terrier mix dogs in a townhouse she rented in a trendy area of southern California.  She was 28 years old, college educated, and worked as an Office Manager for a mortgage company.  Her commute to work took nearly an hour each way, but she did not care because she enjoyed where she was living.

Her life to this point was fairly typical and according to Cindy she had no history of anything strange ever really happening to her.  Her parents were supportive and she was close to her brother and sister, though they lived in another part of the state.  She dated occasionally, though she had no one steady in her life at the time.

One day in October, she believes it was a Friday, she came home after a long commute and walked upstairs to her bedroom to get comfortable.  As she passed the spare room that she used as an office something seemed odd.  She continued on to her bedroom and as she put on her shorts and walking shoes, but she could not shake that feeling that something was not quite right.  Before she took the dogs out for a walk, she retraced her steps and stopped in her tracks when she looked into the spare room.

As she looked into the office she saw that the bed was still made and nothing was on the floor.  She also noticed that the closet door was closed just as she had left it that morning.  In the far corner, her desk chair was exactly where she parked it under the small table that served as her desk. So far so good she thought to herself.

However, when she looked on the desk, her heart pounded, her hairs stiffened, and goose bumps appeared instantly.  She froze and just stared at her desk for a long while.  What she saw, was really nothing much at first glance, but to Cindy it was surreal and not possible.  Her small brown teddy bear was standing on its head in front of the inbox, perfectly balanced.  The problems with this were several and they were exactly what had unnerved Cindy so much.  The first problem was that Cindy did not leave the bear that way and the second was that she knew it probably could not be done, at least not without glue, strings, and/or some other manner of support.  Lastly, all of this caused her to want to scream, though she held back.

Being a practical person, she spent a long while just studying the 12 inch, 8 ounce, toy with a bean filled body and stuffing filled head and appendages. She did this to confirm that there was no way that this pose was possible without support.  She looked for thread, wires, and glue and found absolutely nothing.  She then stopped and quickly checked the rest of her townhouse for signs of someone having been there.  Since she was a very neat person she would have spotted anything out-of-place in an instant, but she found everything in perfect order except for her bear.

She went back to the office, sat down, and finally grabbed the bear taking it from the unnatural position that it was in.  She then thoroughly checked it over for anything that could explain what had happened.  The bear was a little dusty, but otherwise in like new condition and, as far as she could tell, completely unaltered in every way.  She thought to herself that perhaps she was wrong and that an earthquake had made the bear fall and land on its head and that maybe just maybe it could somehow be posed in that way after all.  She spent the next half hour trying to repeat the pose but the bean bag torso and stuffing filled appendages would not allow it.  The bear simply could not be posed on its head perfectly balanced the way she found it, no matter what she did, even by leaning it against the wall for support!

Two people had access to her apartment, her landlord and her ex-boyfriend, who still had not returned his key.  The next day she explained the weird situation to both and was told flatly that neither had done it.  In fact, her ex-boyfriend was at work from the time she left that morning until well after she returned home that night, so he could not have done it.  Her landlord, who was also a neighbor, was honest and not one to break rules.  He told her that it is illegal for a landlord to enter without some compelling and urgent cause, like a fire, or without advanced notice being provided to the tenant, in non-urgent situations. He then reiterated to her that he did not do it, though he agreed the whole thing was very odd.

That day she felt uneasy, but she still loved the toy and did not want to get rid of it.  Her mother understood that her daughter loved antiques and had a fondness for bears.  So, when her mom spotted the vintage teddy bear in like new condition, at a local street fair, she bought it and gave it to her daughter for Christmas.  Cindy immediately loved the bear and put it on top of her inbox in the office.  The bear had been in the same spot for nearly a year, and only moved when Cindy picked it up to place unpaid bills underneath or pull them out to pay them.

After much thought, Cindy, who was raised Catholic, though she did not attend church, made a decision.  She grabbed some holy water that her grandmother had given her and sprinkled it on the bear.  She then said a brief prayer to herself.  After that she looked the bear in the eyes with a clarity of thought and absolute intent and said out load if he ever moved even millimeter or so much as gave her a creepy feeling again, she would immediately burn the bear to ashes and scatter what remained over a wide area.  When she was done with her statement to the bear, she left the room and went on with her life not thinking much about it again.

That was well over a decade ago, and according to Cindy, he still sits on top of her inbox, in her office. He has not ever given a repeat performance, though Cindy still occasionally wonders how, and why, it happened and she still says it is the oddest thing that she has ever experienced before or since.

June 5, 2011

A summer trip to New York City…

We had an informal tradition in my family, or at least that is how I understood it, that when you were around 16, you would get to go on a trip.  The trip was usually taken alone and to someplace far away with the duration being at least two weeks.  One of my older sisters visited Mexico where she stayed with relatives one summer and perfected her Spanish that she had studied in school for years.  Two other sisters went to Hawaii for a couple of weeks where they soaked up the sunshine and my brother went to Washington, D.C. where he visited the historic sites of our nation.

Being the youngest, when I turned 16, I naturally reminded my parents about these journeys that the others took and asked where I could go.  My parents were in a situation at that time where their resources were temporarily stretched, so they tried to dissuade me from any thoughts of a trip by saying that I could go next year or perhaps the year after.  However, I was ready to go somewhere and, as my father had observed long ago, when I get something in my head I usually find a way to make it happen!  A trait that has (mostly) served me well in life and this time was no different.

The “where” was a bit more challenging to figure out as I received the message clearly that it had to be relatively inexpensive and so Hawaii was definitely out of the question.  I spent a few days thinking about it when I remembered that my brother-in-law of 5 years was attending the University of Southern California’s film school and was a graduate intern working for Paramount Pictures in New York City.  I had only seen the western United States and Mexico up to that time and had never been on an airplane, so the thought of spending a few weeks in Manhattan was interesting to say the least.  My parents probably did not think I could come up with an acceptable trip, but when I did and discussed it with them they reluctantly had to agree.

It was the early summer of 1981 and soon I was going on a plane and bound for the Big Apple!  My sister drove me to the airport, LAX, and made it a point to remind me to be nice to my brother-in-law, her husband!  Another message received.  She helped me to check in to my flight and before long I was listening to my Walkman, playing “California Dreamin'” among other tracks that I remember, while flying east alone in what turned out to be the first of many such trips in my life, though I had no clue about that yet.

Three months earlier, I was sitting in 10th grade waiting for English class to start when I looked down and found a piece of paper that set me on another related, but much larger, journey.  That paper described a test that I could take and if I passed would enable me to drop out of high school and go directly to college.  My father’s promotions had come at the cost of the family being moved several times during my childhood and most recently to California’s capital where I attended high school.  The school I attended, Del Campo High, was the same one where Candy Lightner’s daughters went the year before and one was tragically struck and killed by a drunk driver causing the grieving mother to found Mothers’ Against Drunk Driving (MADD).  It was also the same school that former baseball major leaguer and current Cincinnati Red’s Manager Dusty Baker graduated from years earlier.  To me it was a nondescript suburban holding facility for teens where I knew few people, due to the moves, and was not at all challenged by the curriculum.  So when I found the paper under my desk, I read it and happily realized I had stumbled upon, by chance, a solution to my problem.  A literal treasure map for me!  My parents saw things differently and it took some work (well, a lot to be honest!) to convince them but they came around (I probably should have gone into sales!).  I took and easily passed the test a few weeks later.  Sitting on the plane, I had time to contemplate the fact that in the fall I would be in college, at a time that should have been my junior year of high school.

In a few hours the plane landed and I was off to retrieve my suitcase.  I then called my brother-in-law who was not able to pick me up because of work, but told me how to find the train to the plane and where to catch the subway and that he would meet me at one of the stations.  I navigated the crowds and remember feeling very grown-up as I followed his instructions and eventually got off at the correct stop.  My brother-in-law was, at that time, a big burly fellow who greeted me warmly, though in looking back, I am sure that he had to be convinced to put up with me for several weeks.  We quickly hopped into a taxi for a short trip to a large brownstone building on West 67th Street, located next to a restaurant that I am sure is long gone now called “The Three Monks” or something like that.

The apartment was a studio layout that my brother-in-law was leasing from a doctor who decided to give up his practice in favor of pursuing a career in acting (I am curious to learn how that turned out!).  Not being used to apartment life at all, I remember being struck by its small size as well as the fact that it only had one bed and a small sofa, where I was to sleep.

That evening we went out to eat and walked around.  I remember thinking how alive the city was and how things were very lit up and noisy.  Everyone appeared to be in a hurry and I recall being especially struck by the sheer number of people everywhere!  Being from southern California where you drive to go places, it also surprised me that the only car I needed was a taxi and that only rarely.  This felt far more foreign to me than being in Mexico, where I spent many earlier summer days enjoying the beaches with my family.

The next morning my brother-in-law went to work and told me to enjoy the city and left. Being a teenager, I went back to sleep but soon got up and ventured out into Manhattan.  I walked around the streets and saw girls younger than me selling themselves, other people in suits or dresses headed to meetings, students rushing to classes, and tourists like me taking it all in.  Once I walked by and twice passed Flip Wilson with a fancy invitation in his hand, apparently trying to find an address.  I saw street hustlers at work and was told by a stern-faced man that I was not “dark enough” to continue farther on from where I was, so I took the advice and turned around.  I spent a lovely morning in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, with a pleasant girlfriend of my oldest sister’s, who told me that I looked at least 18, which I know was said to make me feel grown-up and it did!  I explored central park daily and took a ride to the observation deck of the World Trade Towers, which I will never forget!

Most of the time, I had lunch on the street at one of the many vendors and never tired of people watching, foreshadowing what I would do on many future trips to faraway places.  At the end of the day I would meet my brother-in-law at the building where he worked, which was the headquarters for Paramount Pictures.  I got to know the elevator attendant fairly well and enjoyed seeing the well-appointed suites, where the executives worked.  Once, I was standing next to Warren Beatty when he was talking to an executive while I waited patiently for my brother-in-law and I remember thinking how many people would love to be standing in my place!  I, of course, just wanted them to finish up so we could have dinner and explore the city some more.

At night, we would eat in different restaurants and soak up the city.  We explored the village, listened to music at various clubs, and took in the movie, “New York, New York” one evening.  I remember the movie because I thought it was very cool to be seeing that while sitting in a New York City theater!  We went to Broadway, and saw “A day in Hollywood, a night in the Ukraine” and another time caught a pre-release viewing of “Gallipoli” in an executive screening room at Paramount.

On the weekends, when my brother-in-law was not working, we watched Shakespeare in the Park, Henry the VIII, if memory serves.  We also took a train trip to Connecticut for a few days and visited a good friend of my brother-in-law, who had recently written a script that was made into a movie starring Burt Reynolds.  I remember the writer had a girlfriend that was not a lot older than me who asked if I was going to miss attending 11th and 12th grades, to which I responded, without hesitation, that I would not and meant it.  Still, that served to remind me that things were changing for me and they would never be the same again.

Several weeks passed and it was time to head back home.  As I said good-bye to my brother-in-law, I sensed that he would actually miss having me around even though I am sure I was a burden that he had not wanted.  I thanked him and hopped into a taxi and went to the subway station, caught the train to the plane, and checked myself in for the trip back to Los Angeles.  On the flight home, I spoke to a much older lady who was an executive for a perfume company and she gave me her business card.  I also listened to my Walkman again, which at one point was playing “Arthur’s Theme” that includes the refrain “When you are caught between the moon and New York City” and I smiled to myself as I realized that it had been a good trip for me.

As for my brother-in-law, John Wells, he completed his master’s degree at USC, under the tutelage of instructors like Spielberg and Lucas, and eventually became one of the producers of China Beach, ER, West Wing and others. He was also elected President of the Writers Guild of America West, started his own successful production company, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  He and my sister eventually parted ways…

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