Pink and Pinker

Two of my favorite authors since 2010 are Dan Pink and Steven Pinker. Pinker, of course, is the author of The  Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker got that title from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, and we appropriated the phrase for this website.

Pink and Pinker are kindred spirits. Before I retired, I used to show the You Tube clip below in my introductory course in Leadership Studies at Ripon College. It provides a good hint at Pink’s approach to human motivation, it covers some very useful information, and it’s a hoot to watch.


Happy Anniversary, Camp Manito-wish YMCA

From its earliest days in the 1990s, our nonprofit sponsor, the Wisconsin Leadership Institute (WLI), has enjoyed a supportive and productive relationship with Camp Manito-wish YMCA of Boulder Junction, Wisconsin. Manito-wish is a YMCA camp, founded in 1919, featuring a substantial emphasis on collaborative leadership behaviors. In 2008, when the WLI published its curriculum for schools and youth groups (Leading Together: Foundations of Collaborative Leadership), Manito-wish people contributed to the research, the writing, and the testing of all the exercises and games. The team was led by Laurie Frank, a Manito-wish mainstay and lead author of the curriculum.

The curriculum itself featured a reference to the “Seven Qualities of a Manito-wish Collaborative Leader:”

  • Builds a shared vision with those they lead.
  • Builds models: tries it . . . changes it . . . tries it again.
  • Shares a common space with others.
  • Lets others amplify their abilities.
  • Remembers that followership and leadership go hand-in-hand.
  • Doesn’t collaborate to turn out the lights.
  • Celebrates successful collaborations.

We will have more to say about all seven of these qualities, but let this post speak out for quality number seven: “celebrates successful collaborations.” The twenty-plus-year collaboration between the WLI and Manito-wish calls for substantial celebration, but an even more substantial occasion for boisterous cheering is the 100th anniversary of Manito-wish itself in 2018. So here are three cheers from the WLI and Our Better Angels:

Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! for Camp Manito-wish YMCA and all the good work that all its good people have done for 100 years. Please check out their website.

Pep Rally for the Parade of Generations

Our nonprofit sponsor, the Wisconsin Leadership Institute, is getting involved in a project to support youth leadership development through sports-related activities and metaphors. The central aims of this new project will be to leverage the tension between competition and collaboration in sports; and to support the educational and developmental lessons of winning without arrogance, losing without shame, and working together for the sake of the team, the organization, and the community. In this light, we could consider Our Better Angels to be something like a pep rally for the never-ending parade of future generations as they compete, collaborate, win, lose, and help each other help each other. We’ll keep you posted as our new project emerges.

The Courage to Lead

“The Courage to Lead” is part of the Leadership Skills and Values series of educational video programs. We’ve posted five clips on You Tube featuring excerpts from the program, one of which is below. You can buy the DVD from here.

The Storm Before the Calm

Shortly after the New Year showed up, Nick Kristof wrote in the the New York Times that, contrary to widespread belief, “2017 was probably the very best year in the long history of humanity.”

Kristof’s point echoes the gist of Steven Pinker’s monumental study, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker and Kristof both point out that we have come to doubt the goodness of human nature and to fear the worst among us thanks to the incessant reporting of violent, destructive, murderous, and just downright nasty behavior in most of our mass media news coverage.

When I was teaching leadership studies at Ripon College, I made a habit of asking students in my intro course how many had ever witnessed a murder. Over 33 years of teaching that course twice a year, only one person out of some 3,000 ever raised a hand. Then I would ask how many had seen at least 50 murders on TV, and every hand in every course in every semester went up.

Our brains are wired to pay close attention to danger, and the people who program our mass media, produce our crime shows, and report our news realize that violence sells – and so does sex. But the reality described by Kristof and Pinker, based on huge piles of verifiable evidence, is that human behavior has become much less violent millennium by millennium, century by century, generation by generation. Even in the twentieth century, in which millions died by violence in worldwide wars, the percentage of people touched by violence compared to the total population of the planet was way down.

This is part of what Kristof reported on January 6, 2018: “A smaller share of the world’s people were hungry, impoverished or illiterate than at any time before. A smaller proportion of children died than ever before. The proportion disfigured by leprosy, blinded by diseases like trachoma or suffering from other ailments also fell. . . . We journalists focus on bad news — we cover planes that crash, not those that take off — but the backdrop of global progress may be the most important development in our lifetime.”

So please don’t despair about the trajectory or the fate of the human community. Hitch your wagon to the better angels of the human spirit and think long term. We are actually living through a nasty storm before the next calm, and we should all pitch in to bring it about. You can read all of Kristof’s column here.

Hooray for Irma and Harvey

On December 29, 2017, the New York Times reported that the 2017 story that garnered the most likes, shares, and comments was not about all the awful, creepy, nasty, really bad stuff that happened over the previous year. It was a story about Harvey and Irma Schluter, a wonderful, civilized, quiet couple who celebrated their seventy-fifth anniversary in Spokane, Washington.

Irma and Harvey are terrific representatives and models for Our Better Angels. At OBA we believe that most people, most of the time, under favorable conditions, are reasonably intelligent, cooperative, and willing to work for people and causes they care about. Psychologists have demonstrated this beyond doubt over the last 75 years, but some folks who hope to manipulate and exploit others through fear, anger, ignorance, or greed make a habit of undermining faith in the human spirit.

Irma is 93 and Harvey is 104, so nobody can dismiss them as naïve idealists. In the Times article, Irma is quoted as saying, “If you can help someone, then help them.” At OBA, we try to help people help people.

Here’s to Irma and Harvey and all the Better Angels of the human spirit for 2018. You can read the rest of their story here.

Gentle Joseph

Once again on Christmas I thought a little bit about Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. During Jesus’ childhood, Joseph was no doubt considered his father by the people who knew the family, but two millennia of Christians have considered God to be the father of Jesus, which seems to mean that Joseph was Jesus’ stepfather.

Jesus and Mary get most of the attention at Christmas because of Christians’ belief in their direct semi-biological connections to God. I have always thought Joseph deserved more attention than he usually receives, since he was, after all, Jesus’ role model for a good human father, dispenser of encouragement, discipline, guidance, and perhaps even wisdom. Jesus apparently took up carpentry as a trade to follow in his human father’s footsteps.

Within the actual Christmas story, Joseph demonstrates courage, humility, and compassion, despite the fact that Mary is pregnant with a child who is not his own. No wonder the adult Jesus, the charismatic rabbi, was so impressed with the meek. While Jesus was still a small child, Joseph showed more courage and compassion in the family’s flight to Egypt, in an attempt to escape Herod’s decree to murder Jewish tykes like Jesus.

In Christian hymns and literature, Joseph is referred to as “Gentle Joseph.” In our current cultural and political environment, gentleness (not to mention meekness) is too often mocked as weakness, naivete, or impractical idealism. We seem to have lost appreciation for the notion of gentleness as a sign of civilized behavior, the capacity to live in peace among other civilized people, as opposed to barbarism. As the modern world dawned, people in the English-speaking world began to call aristocrats and civilized men “gentlemen,” and that meant something for a long time.

Mary’s mission to give birth to the Son of God was originally announced to her by an angel, but it’s clear to me that her legal husband Joseph was also driven and guided by what Abraham Lincoln many centuries later called “the better angels of our nature.” You don’t even have to be a Christian believer to find this story inspiring.

Reality and Reality TV

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reality tv is to actual reality as the lightning bug is to actual lightning.

To paraphrase that paraphrase, mere celebrity in our day and age is to real leadership as reality tv is to actual reality.

To paraphrase that second paraphrase, a reality tv audience is to the citizenry of a healthy democracy as a mere celebrity is to a real leader.

To echo my favorite scholars of leadership behavior in the modern world, the two defining dimensions of effective leadership are truth and love. The truth dimension is about reality and it includes the recognition that two plus two will always equal four and that collaboration is ultimately more productive than amoral cutthroat competition. The love dimension is about compassion and it starts with the recognition that we human beings are all – repeat all – in the same boat.

Our core values at Our Better Angels are courage, compassion, continuous learning, and community service. We fight strenuously against fear, anger, ignorance, and greed. We understand that meekness is not weakness and we realize that the meek have already inherited the earth, even if that news has not been announced on talk radio or Fox News.

We also believe that we are living in a raging cultural storm before the next era of stability and calm, and that we need effective, truthful, compassionate leaders to steer the boat we’re all in toward safe harbor. Finally, we believe that our four core values will only prevail if we remain committed to another contingent value: perseverance.


Fear Not, the Angels Said

Before delivering big news to human beings, biblical angels always began their announcements with a call to courage: “fear not,” they always said. We should be thanking all the women speaking up about sexual harassment and predation. They are among the best examples of courage nowadays. #FearNot #MeToo #OurBetterAngels