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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.

May 7, 2011

My Mom…

I could not write about my father without also writing about my mother, Dorothy Jean Smith.  Her experiences are less expansive than my father’s, but that does not mean that her journey is no less unique or important than his.  Also, with Mother’s day coming up, and the world still digesting the recent news about what bin Laden’s demise means, a story about a mother is just what this doctor decided is needed.

My mother was the third born child of Ivan “Jim” Smith and Adelie “Addie” Kent.  She was born in the middle of the depression in Boise, Idaho.  Her father was earlier in life a farmer and park ranger but, by the time she was born, he was a beer distributor and her mother took care of the 5 children (4 girls and 1 boy).  Addie could trace her family tree back to the Mayflower, while Jim’s included a Dutch grandfather born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and also likely a confederate soldier from Louisiana.  Addie was raised on a horse farm and though short (a couple of inches shy of 5 feet tall), she was said to be a great rider.  At nearly 6 feet, Jim was tall for a man of his day (he was born in 1899), and had traveled the rails for a time when he was young.  When Dorothy was a girl, her father told her stories of a place where they eat flat, round bread with vegetables so hot they would burn your mouth.  She would later retell this story acknowledging the irony of her later life with my father and that fact that she was a great cook, especially of Mexican food dishes!

Dorothy, according to my grandmother, was a headstrong little girl, who when she was 3 would make neighborhood kids walk around, not on, her father’s sidewalk.  She loved to play with her younger sisters and sometimes had crushes on her older brother’s friends.  At 15, she took a job as a soda jerk (mom’s term for it) at a local ice cream shop, where she earned money to buy clothes and have fun, like most young girls in those early post war times.  While in high school, she was a cheerleader and among her classmates at Boise High, was a young man with the last name Albertson, whose father owned a local grocery store.

After graduating high school, a first in her family, she wanted to see the world. She found her ticket when a girlfriend suggested that they join the newly created United States Air Force (prior to 1947 it was part of the Army) together. Unfortunately, her father would not allow it and refused to sign off on her enlistment paperwork, a requirement in those days.  She eventually convinced him to sign and a few weeks later she found herself in San Antonio, Texas attending basic training, which is something that few young women did in 1951.  Her friend, unfortunately, was not found to be fit for service and so Dorothy entered the Air Force alone.

Immediately after completing basic training she attended a service school where Dorothy learned administrative skills.  Upon completion of the program she was stationed at Eglin, Air Force Base, in Pensacola, Florida.  Dorothy would later say, as her husband did as well, that this was one of the happiest times of her life!  The base was staffed with thousands of airmen, including pilots and support staff of all types, however, only a couple of hundred were women.  Mom said finding a date to catch a movie or go to a dance was never a problem.  Playing on the then undeveloped beaches, snorkeling and enjoying a game of ping-pong were the favorite pastimes that mom said she enjoyed while stationed in Florida.  One evening she met a Latino airman from California, who played piano in local clubs after hours.  The pair were soon dating and eventually became a couple, not unlike the popular one portrayed by Lucille and Desi on prime time television at the time. They soon married and spent most of their last year in the service living off base in a small house, where mom said that they constantly entertained their friends who liked escaping barracks life as often as they could.

After both were honorably discharged, the couple moved to southern California where they decided to settle down.  Over the next 10 years they had 5 children, 3 girls and 2 boys.  Early on they opened a restaurant which did not last, and my father worked a number of jobs, while mom stayed home and taught the children how to make beds so tight you could bounce a quarter off of them, and at bedtime lined them up and marched off to bed.  These practices were amusing remnants of the fact that Dorothy really wore combat boots and had all the training that came with them!

Mom was always there to make sure we were up in the morning, did chores after school, cleaned our rooms on weekends, had fun, and along the way taught us those skills that would be needed as adults.  Like most mothers during those days, her job was to manage the household.  She did this very well and cooked, cleaned, and coordinated all the daily details for her family while still making the time to befriend many and enjoy life.

She had a great sense of humor, even if it was at her own expense such as the time one of my sisters, who was 3, locked her out of the house when she really needed to use the restroom.  The result was predictable and mom loved to retell the story anyway never failing to mention the devilish grin her daughter had as she repeatedly refused to let her in the house.  There was also the time when mom needed to dry her hair while simultaneously trying out her eldest son’s mini-bike in the backyard.  She drove round and round until her hair was dry and had fun while entertaining us.  During our last trip together as a family, we drove 200 miles through the Sonoran desert (that is a tale for another time) and have super 8 film of her being chased by a bull while answering natures call and of her literally kissing the pavement when we eventually reached it!  The road did not look that clean either, but mom did not mind as she was just happy to be on pavement again!

When the children were a little older, she worked as a waitress part-time at a restaurant to earn to extra money and told us kids to help ourselves to her tips, which we (the bigger ones anyway) apparently did perhaps a bit too often.  Later on, she worked part-time as a hotel maid, but did not share those tips with us!  After her kids moved out, she worked full-time for a state social services agency helping field client calls and completing paperwork.

She supported my father’s career fully and even helped to found a halfway house and assist with professional association membership drives. She made sure our holidays were filled with cheer and laughter and that we took vacations back to Idaho, down to Mexico, up the coast, to the desert, or in the mountains whenever possible.  In later years she even made sure that Dad and her visited Alaska, Hawaii, Central America, the Deep South, the East coast, and Europe.

She loved to shop and enjoyed buying her friends and family presents, which she did often.  Dorothy believed in helping people and many times while growing up we had family or friends staying with us to assist them in getting through some transition in their lives.  She told me that it was important to always celebrate marriages, births, graduations, and other significant life events and to remember those who are no longer with us.

At the age of 60, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer and I was present when the doctor gave her 4 months to live. This was one of the very few times that I saw the twinkle leave my mother’s eyes. She quickly rebounded, obtained another medical opinion, and fought with everything she had to live.  Five years later she was cancer free and went on to live another 10 years after that! Mom was quite the fighter!

She saw the birth of 7 grandchildren, 4 girls and 3 boys, and made it a point to be present when both of my sons were born.  She told us children that she loved us very much, but that grandchildren were very special in a different way in terms of the joy that they bring during that stage of a person’s life.  She and my father were together over 50 years and, though they were quite different, they loved and supported each other as much as any couple I have thus far known.

Summarizing a life in a few hundred words provides an incomplete glimpse at best, regardless of who they were or what they have done.  Still, hopefully enough was written so that you have an idea of the kind of person my mother was and what she meant to her many friends and family members.  As this mother’s day approaches, the third since she has left us, I am very much reminded of her wise words about celebrating life and about how fleeting it really is.  If yours is still with you, spend time with her, and listen to her unique stories, even if you have heard them many times before…

April 16, 2011

Finding a job these days…

Countless articles, books, and blogs have been written about finding a job.  Most were typed with the best of intentions and all have their own perspective on how best to do it.  I know because I have read more than my share of them over the years and found much useful information in some, though others were definitely lacking.

The reason for the disparity is as varied as human nature.  Some are written clearly with the hope to make the writer famous, sell books, or build a consultancy.  A lot of them are based on the writer’s own experience gained in one particular industry, with only certain types of jobs, or in one region.  All of this is fine within a particular niche, but it may not work at all for different jobs, places, or circumstances.

These days many employers have down-sized significantly, competition is generally global, and uncertainty is rampant.  Traditional ways to find work probably will not help you to get a job.  This is made even more challenging by modern technology where the resulting hyper-connectivity to information and people is completely unprecedented in human history.  This fact alone has changed many things, including finding work.

I have been a job seeker several times in my life and most recently last year.  Having worked in Human Resources for the majority of my career, in jobs ranging from Personnel Specialist in the Army to Vice President of Human Resources for a global service sector corporation, I have a lot of experience in hiring people.  My master’s degree is in Human Resources and my PhD is in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, so you would think I would have all the answers when it comes to finding work.  Well, 15 very long months of seeking full-time employment taught me otherwise!

Why?  Two major reasons really.  The first is the economy.  Even now, when experts say it is improving, many employers are still understandably hesitant to add staff to their payroll.  In fact, a glance of the news shows that many state and local governments in the United States, for example, are still receiving less revenue and most if not all are working to cut their budgets.  This will translate into more employee lay-offs. In the private sector things are not much better as employers are still slow to hire new workers.  When employers do decide to hire they are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of applicants and that decreases the odds of getting hired for any job seeker.

Employers’ responses to being inundated with applicants causes the other major reason finding a job is so challenging these days.  In order to manage the process, all the applicants must be screened (filtered) to a number that the employer can reasonably assess and hire from. They do this many ways but the majority of processes amount to selecting only the most qualified candidates to seriously consider for a given job based on some criteria.  “Qualified candidates” in this instance often means only those with highly specific experience and training are given any consideration at all.  From the applicant perspective, it feels like you must have the perfect background to be hired for any job, when in reality for many positions you really do not.  The prospect of getting hired these days appears about as likely as buying the winning lottery ticket from the local convenience store.

Having said this, what advice would I give a job seeker now?  My best answer, admittedly based heavily on my own recent experience, is as follows:

  1. Do not give up, even though it may take a while.  Jobs exist and you will get one.
  2. Take care of yourself, eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep.
  3. Find time to relax.  If you appear to be stressed out, it will show!
  4. Decide what types of jobs you are “currently qualified” and “willing” to do.
  5. Research the employers that hire those types of jobs and learn everything you can about the industry, the work, and especially how they hire people (most public libraries have free Internet).
  6. Apply to jobs using methods that they favor based on your research, follow-up, and apply to others.
  7. However you decide to apply, make sure you present yourself honestly and in a fully professional manner (both on paper and in person).
  8. Network with professionals in the field and let them know you are looking.
  9. Be creative and dedicated in your search efforts.  Wishing or getting angry, or depressed, will not help get you a job.
  10. Believe in yourself!

Make no mistake not having a job is an extremely humbling experience for anyone!  You are not alone and you will find a job if you keep at it.  Good luck, though unlike buying lottery tickets, that probably has little to do with it these days!

March 30, 2011

Waking up…

I was sleeping soundly like many of us do during the work week.  I was young and living far from home when I awoke to the sounds of a siren and a voice from a loudspeaker.  As my consciousness returned, I quickly recalled that I was not in southern California living in the college dorms at UCSB anymore.  No, I slowly remembered that I had taken a break from college to learn more about the real world and travel.  I had joined the Army, attended training in Texas and Indiana, and was now living in Germany.

The voice and sirens that I heard were coming from a military police vehicle and I was being told to report to work.  The voice also said that it was not known if this was a training exercise or a real world alert.  That is how I found out that the United States had retaliated on Libya in 1986 for, among other things, the bombing of a disco in Berlin that was a favorite hang out for soldiers like me.

This time around, my military service days are memories, which have been replaced by parenthood, teaching, and working on the east coast.  Though I found out about our latest engagement with Libya in a more mundane way, via the Internet, it reminded me of the very real threats that exist outside of our work-a-day lives.  Threats that many of us, even in a post 9/11 world, still appear to take for granted.

How this is going to end is anyone’s guess, though many, as always, are making predictions, but the truth is they do not know.  Meanwhile, most of us wake up to alarm clocks and start our days and only think about these things when we hear about them on the news or when someone brings it up in conversation.

As for me, well I am at a point in life when I am just content to be waking up to a new day, though with far less a sense of certainty about what the future will bring than I had 25 years ago…

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