Angel Blogs


Milwaukee’s Near West Side Partners, a collaborative venture among seven neighborhoods of residential, business, health-care, and non-profit enterprises, has been named the Wisconsin Leadership Institute’s 2015-2016 “Collaborative Leader of the Year.”

The Near West Side area of Milwaukee is home to 40,000 residents in seven unique neighborhoods. Near West Side Partners feature high-performing schools, hardworking business and health-care institutions, generous non-profits, amazing restaurants, and distinctive entertainment opportunities. Each neighborhood – Avenues WestCold Spring ParkConcordiaMartin DriveMerrill ParkMiller Valley and The Valley/Piggsville – holds its own rich history.

(This blog post is adapted from a sermon delivered at the First Congregational Church of Ripon on September 4, 2016. The title is taken from Hebrews 13:2 – “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”)

Today’s scripture reading recognizes that we are often skittish about strangers. Don’t they look a little different? Isn’t their complexion a little odd? Don’t they dress a little funny? And what’s with those hairdos? Can’t they pronounce words correctly? Maybe they speak a whole different language – so how are we supposed to know what they’re really saying behind our backs? Or even right in front of us? Lots of people say they practice weird religious rituals.

OK, settle down. The verse from Hebrews doesn’t suggest any of that. It urges us to look beyond the strangeness of strangers. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

Some say competition, even more than love, makes the world go round.

Business leaders frequently trumpet the virtues of competition and seek the secrets of competitiveness. Competition drives reality TV, where winners may be treated not just like survivors but like idols. (By definition, of course, an idol is a false god.) A popular film recently featured a competition between Batman and Superman – two superheroes who have historically been committed to the welfare of the human community, suddenly turned into self-serving rivals.

Media coverage of politics has long been mired in the muddy metaphorical horse race, and as a presidential candidate, Donald Trump promised that if he wins, we would all win and win and win until we all get tired of winning.

Our Better Angels was created by connecting several disparate dots:

The Leadership Education Movement: In 1978, publication of James McGregor Burns’s monumental study, Leadership, launched a global movement based on the recognition that leadership skills and values are learned rather than genetically inherited and that leadership behavior is ultimately a reciprocal, democratic process subject to the consent of the governed, not just the whims of the powerful.

The Philanthropic Boom: For decades, nonprofit activity has been growing faster than business and faster than government. Nonprofit activity provides goods and services that business can’t provide but which don’t qualify for government support because they don’t benefit society in general. People choose to donate money and time to nonprofit organizations because of what they stand for, and they don’t get any material rewards in return. As the general population of advanced societies has enjoyed longer life spans, better health, and increased wealth, more and more people are experiencing the need for a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives – thus the philanthropic boom.

Recently I’ve noticed a recurring TV ad narrated by a young man who claims, in a rather snarky voice, “Sometimes ya gotta break the rules.”

He offers no insight about which rules to break or how to break them, but he does imply that people who like to break rules should like the product he’s promoting (a fast car). Presumably, people who like to break rules identify with fast cars and young men with snarky voices.

The ad reminded me of recent news stories about rules that ISIS theologians have laid down regarding appropriate ways to rape captive women. Oddly, none of their rules prohibit rape itself as long as it’s carried out within the rules laid down by ISIS theologians.

(This post originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on December 2, 2015.)

How should we behave in response to terrorist attacks and similar dramatic disasters? At the risk of oversimplifying the obvious, we should try to avoid panicking in fear, anger, and ignorance and try to act on reliable knowledge about human effectiveness under conditions of great stress.

But what do we actually know about human behavior in disastrous circumstances? At the risk of oversimplifying again, we should look both to ancient wisdom and contemporary behavioral science. Starting with the behavioral science, we know the following:

This video clip is the first segment in our program entitled Service: The Heart of Leadership. It tells the story of the Blue Mountain Project in Hagley Gap, Jamaica.


Many of us will remember the Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014 for some time. It showed up all over the place – in social media, on television, and in our neighborhoods. Thousands of people dumped buckets of ice on their own heads and raised many millions of dollars to combat ALS.

The dumping of the ice was supposed to be an alternative to the giving of the money, and as it turned out a lot of people dumped the ice but didn’t bother giving the money. Thanks to lots of recent psychological research, however, we know that normal, healthy people actually derive pleasure and satisfaction in giving, especially when they do so in the company of friends for a cause that is larger than all of them put together. Thus many folks made a flamboyant gesture of dumping buckets of ice on their heads, often putting the event up on You Tube, and then gave the money as well. Lots of money also went ungiven because people forgot about it or didn’t know where to send it. Some of the ice-dumping episodes resulted in injuries and other unfortunate upshots. The whole effort, in other words, could have been managed more effectively.

People are social creatures. Virtually everybody likes to be liked, and in an ultimate sense we can’t survive without the cooperation of other people. We are all born small and helpless, and from infancy we instinctively seek the support and companionship of others.

The Servant Leadership movement instigated by Robert K. Greenleaf illustrates a particularly instructive application of McGregor’s Theory Y. When Greenleaf graduated from college in 1925, he dreamed of making an important contribution to the world, and he believed that his best chance to do that was in a large corporation. So he went to work for the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, then the world’s largest and probably most effective business. He worked his way up from the bottom to the position of Vice President and Director of Management Research, a role he created for himself that gave him lots of room to explore his own ideas about organizational management and leadership. AT&T gave him extensive freedom to study leadership and management behavior in an attempt to develop the best possible leaders for the company.