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!

October 28, 2012

Charcoal (my dog’s true tale)

During the summer that started with the end of third grade we moved to Morro Bay, a sleepy little fishing village located on California’s central coast.  It was quite a change for me as I had lived nearly all of my young life until that time in Rialto, a suburban community located in a large valley east of Los Angeles, that still had numerous orange groves.  We had also lived a couple of blocks from my paternal grandparents, who I frequently visited.  Our new home was several hundred miles north and far from family and childhood friends.

While lacking many things I had grown accustomed to, it made up for it in other ways.  Also, since we had vacationed in the area before, it was not completely foreign to me.  I recall spending most of that first summer riding my bike, playing on the beach, and exploring my new home.  When fall came that year it brought with it many cold and foggy days and, of course, the start of fourth grade.

Soon I found myself thinking about turning 10.  Like many pre-teens, I remember feeling that I would be very grown up since my age would now include two numbers.  My birthday fell on a Saturday that year and my mom and middle sister had left early that morning to go shopping.  They returned later on and asked me to help bring in the groceries.  I ran to the car and instantly noticed a shopping bag moving by itself!  I reached for that one first, as my mother and sister must have known that I would, because they were behind me.  I was happily surprised to see a small, dark and furry lump that popped up and greeted me with a lick!  He was no bigger than a Guinea Pig and had soft but wiry black fur, with a matching black nose, dark brown eyes, and a wiggly, long for his size, tail.  From the minute that I spotted him I knew that he was one of kind.  The first thing my mother asked me was “what are you going to name him?”  Without hesitation, I responded that since he was black as “charcoal” that would be his name.

Initially, I made Charcoal a nice bed, I thought, on the floor next to me, but he would have none of that and carried on until I picked him up.  After that, he slept at the foot of my bed.  We went for walks nearly every day and he grew quickly.  Being mostly Terrier, he was a smallish, medium-sized dog, who probably never exceeded 30 pounds in weight.  As he grew, he turned out to be not the cutest dog, but he had qualities that made him endearing nonetheless.

I taught him how to walk on a leash, though he really never cared for that much.  We would hike through fields and down rutted roads usually on route to the bay, piers, or the beach.  When he got bigger, I would ride my bike and he would run behind where often, because he was mostly a Terrier, he would bark at cars or people while trailing me.

I would sometimes find interesting trees to explore which, being a boy, I would do often.  One day while doing just that, Charcoal became tired of waiting for me on the ground and he started to climb the tree too!  After a few attempts doing this, he became pretty good at it, for a dog, and could usually make it half way up most trees.  Of course, I almost always had to help him get back down because I did not want him to get hurt, though loose sand covered most of the ground that we explored and the trees were not very tall.

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Charcoal loved to play tug-o-war and he would find a toy, or rag, or once in a while even a stray piece of clothing, and drop it near me whenever he wanted to have a game.  He also loved chasing other animals and at night he would sometimes go out for a bathroom break and refuse to come back in the house.  This worried me, but in the morning he would always be at the door and wagging his tail, as if to say thank-you for not making me stay in all night.  It was during these “adventures” where he must have met the locals, because when I rode my bike around town neighbors would often talk to him as if they knew him.  I figured that he must have because his response to them was a wag and never a bark, which he did to strangers he did not trust!

When Charcoal was a year old we moved about 5 miles across the bay to another town called Los Osos.  The house we lived in was brand new and surrounded by fields with Oak trees and bushes, containing all manner of wild life from possums to lizards, the former Charcoal loved to chase!  This was made easier for him to do because the property, like most in the then semi-rural area at that time, had no fence.

The elementary was also brand new, and located down a sandy dirt road, two blocks from home.  One day, Charcoal showed up after lunch, and was distracting students who were looking at him through the windows.  The teacher was about to call maintenance to have him removed when I recognized him and let her know that he was my dog and that I would take care of it.  I went outside and walked him to the road and told him to “go home.”  He looked at me with pleading eyes and then turned and went back towards home.  At some point after that initial showing he appeared again, though this time it was near the end of the day, and he did not go close to the windows, but waited until I came out.  By spring of that year, he regularly met me at the end of each day and walked me back home!

The next year I started Junior High, 7th grade, and also attended a new school, but it being well over a mile away, I had no visits from Charcoal.  One day, in the fall, I road my bike up to a local market to get some comic books (we did not own any video games).  Charcoal followed me and waited outside the store.  I was not inside for more than a couple of minutes when I heard the sound of dogs barking, with one of them being mine.  When I got outside he was in the jaws of a large Pit-bull and it was swinging him around.  I quickly located the owner inside and he freed Charcoal, who was bleeding from a large wound on his neck.  I went to the payphone (cell phones were not widely available yet) and called home and asked my brother to come and pick us up.  Charcoal did not whimper or fuss when the Veterinarian was fixing him up.  If I remember correctly, he required around a dozen, or so, stitches and the Vet told us he was lucky to be alive.  He soon healed up and was back to doing the things that he loved in a short time!

When taking him on walks, or bike rides, to the bay, I noticed that he did not want to go near the water.  I thought about this, and one time brought a favorite rubber toy with me and tossed it in the bay very close to the shore.  He went in and grabbed it quickly, shaking himself off and looked at me as if asking that I not do that again.  Of course, being the child that I was I ignored his request, and in a few days I had him regularly fetching sticks in the bay, which he did often after that.

Time passed and before I knew it, I was starting the 8th grade.  I had Charcoal for 3 and half years by then.  Unfortunately, he still liked to go out at night and many times continued to refuse to come back inside.  One morning after going out (I think it was in October) he did not show up and was nowhere to be found all day long.  I was really worried about him when late that afternoon a friend from school called.  I knew from the sound of the ring that I did not want to answer the phone, but I did, and my friend asked if I was missing my dog.  I said that I was and he told me that his brother accidentally hit one while driving home late the night before.  He asked me to come over and see if the dead dog was mine.  I hung up and was at his house in half the time it would have ordinarily have taken me to travel the 4 blocks.  I slowed down when I saw my friend in his driveway and the unmoving, small mound of black matted fur next to him.  He asked me if that was my dog, to which I just nodded, turned and quietly walked back home.

In his passing he taught the 13-year-old me a great deal about the essence of life and, in time, there were other terrific dogs, but none were quite like him.  I have not been back to that town in many years, but when I visit, I am instantly reminded about those halcyon childhood days and my loyal pal and fellow adventurer who was so much more than simply a pet…

July 16, 2011

Our last family vacation!

“We are going to take a vacation to Mexico” my mother told the five of us kids as we listened, most only half interested.  She said that it was going to be our last family trip together because my sister was starting college in the fall.  I do not recall the rest of that conversation as I was very young, but the outcome is permanently imprinted in my mind.

The next thing I do remember is all 7 of us piling into our brand new Chevy Impala and driving from our home in southern California towards the Mexican border, which was a couple of hours away (this was before the current problems made trips like this less desirable to take).  We crossed the border and drove to Guaymas de Zaragoza, a port city on the eastern side of the Gulf of California notable to tourists for its warm weather and many undeveloped beaches.  From there, we boarded a ferry, the Benito Juarez (I am not sure why I remember the name, but I do), headed across the gulf to Mulaje in Baja, Mexico.  However, after a few of days of fun, somehow, we missed the return ferry to Guaymas, but learned that we could take the newly completed Baja highway and be back home in a day.  This is where the trip took a really memorable turn!

We followed the directions and drove a couple of hours to the place where we were to connect with the highway. When we arrived all we could see was more dirt road.  My father checked with some locals and found out that the highway was not yet completed, but that the asphalt was only around 30 miles away.  My father had to be back to work soon and so we decided to go for it!

Unfortunately, that information turned out to also be incorrect – this was long before the days of cellphones and the Web, and no maps were available that showed the progress of the road construction in Mexico.  We continued on and, at one point midway in our journey, we ran over a large cactus that was half buried in the sand and had transmission problems.  Some ranchers were nearby and helped my father make the car drivable again (I never heard exactly how they did that with few tools and no parts).  Another time my mother was answering nature’s call when a bull started heading in her direction.  When have super-8 film of her running back towards us with the animal clearly visible in the distance!

At times we had to move large rocks to enable the car to pass the very rough dirt road.  At night, my father and brother slept on the hood of the car, while my sisters, mom, and I slept inside as we had no camping gear.  Along the way we passed a small village where my father was able to get enough gas and food to keep us going.  We also met some Americans in a dune buggy going the opposite direction who updated us on how far we were from pavement (still over 100 miles) and gave us some foul-tasting water to drink.  I am sure they thought my parents were crazy and, being a parent today around their age then, I can totally understand why!

By noon on the third day we finally connected again with the asphalt.  My mother literally kissed the pavement, which was not very clean but mom did not care (we have that on film as well)!  We ended up driving well over 200 miles on unpaved roads in the Baja desert, during the middle of summer, with 5 children, and few supplies.  Later, we learned that there were 7 species of venomous snakes in the region and the car forever after had a layer of red clay that permeated the interior no matter how well it was detailed.  This was no doubt deposited during the numerous times my brother was slow to roll up the window when wind gusts or passing dune buggies kicked up dirt and dust!

Mom and dad are gone now and that trip is just a memory from many summers past.  As mom predicted it turned out to be our last trip together as a family and it was very memorable, though not for the reasons that she had hoped.  Still, we persevered, worked together despite the occasional bickering, learned some important lessons, and have great stories to tell about it that never fail to entertain!

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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