Archive for May, 2008

Gone fishin’

There will be no LeaderFOCUS this week… Monday morning, June 2.

I’m on Keats Island with a collection of executive leaders from all over North America and beyond.  I”ll pick up with another edition of LeaderFOCUS next week.

It’s still Monday morning.  And you are a leader.

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Time Management

Monday Morning, May 19, 2008

Randy Pausch is dying. The first time his name appeared in my world was in an e-mail from a colleague and friend who called his YouTube video a must see.  I trust the sender.  He’s a smart, discriminating guy.  So I clicked.

The University of Virginia, a place saturated with tradition, celebrates a professorial custom called “The Last Lecture.”  Many universities recognize it.  It’s a kind of farewell.  The best loved lecturers – and you just don’t get hired at UVa if you are not a skilled rhetorician – will generally find their auditoriums packed out for the grand departing.  After Professor Pauch had some time to digest his dire prognosis, delivered by a physician who could be trusted, he put together his “Last Lecture” in the tradition of the University founded in 1819 by none other than Thomas Jefferson.  He gave the talk at Carnegie Mellon University where he was teaching at the time.

Since that e-mail, Dr. Pausch’s life and work have permeated the new media.  There are several YouTube videos to choose from now, including a wonderful talk on of all things, “Time Management.”  (That lecture was given before he knew about the illness.)  ABC did a full hour on him.  He made an appearance on Oprah, I’m told.  He delivered a message to the United States Congress.  And he’s written a book entitled, The Last Lecture, which Carolyn has nearly read through (she reads passages to me almost every night).

Maybe his story is special to us because we walked the campus of the University of Virginia some years ago.  Thanks to a good friend who at the time was a candidate for PhD, we took the tour.  We walked the Lawn of the Adademical Village from New Cabell Hall all the way down to Jefferson’s Rotunda, the centerpiece of the original grounds and the third President’s crowning achievement.  It is a hallowed hall, revered by anyone ambitious enough to think he or she might achieve academic excellence in the rigorous context of this historic landmark.  Sandy showed us the West Oval Room where candidates for one gruelling session lasting several hours on perhaps the hottest academic seat of all defend their dissertations.  She shivered as we entered.  For years, Dr. Pausch taught there and grilled doctoral candidates.

Whether you consider Randy’s life as the result of amazingly focused work or charm will depend largely, I suppose, on your world view.  Was it luck or hard work?  He was born in 1960.  The years since, as a PhD in computer science, he has lived at the epicenter of the creation of virtual worlds.  Not only has his journey taken him to the University of Virginia where he mentored and trained graduate level innovators, he’s been tapped as a consultant to theme park attractions by Disney and others.  Familiar names like Alladin’s Magic Carpet Ride, Buzz Lightyear’s AstroBlaster, Cyberspace Mountain, Virtual Jungle Cruise, Virtual Pirates of the Caribbean, well, you get the idea.

And then came the prognosis: pancreatic cancer.  It’s about the worst of the worst.  His wife, Jai, and their three small children took the news hard.  Randy grieved, and then rallied.

Maybe the difference between Randy Pausch and the rest of us is that he knows more keenly than we do the number of his days.  Yes, we think, Dr. Pausch has a greater sensitivity to life because he knows full well now that his time remaining is finite.  Today is one day that he owns.  When it’s gone it’s gone.  How will he fill it meaningfully?  How will his choices reflect his values?  What will his children remember?  His wife?  His colleagues?  His clients?  His students?  His friends?

You and me, we also know that our time is finite.  (Come to think of it, I’ve alreadyhad a few more years than Randy Pausch.)  But we don’t think about it much.  Apart from a doomsday prognosis from an oncologist, we just go on thinking about something else.  And that this is just another day.

But on this Monday morning – as a fellow leader – let’s contemplate for a few moments the lessons we’re learning from Dr. Randy Pausch.  He’s a man who’s got it all, we’d say.  (Check out his Vitae.)  I’m not clear about the source of what is clearly for him a faith walk.

But I do know this: today is a gift.

Let’s live it.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2008

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Monday Morning, May 12, 2008

For Sara Tucholsky, it was the senior year she dreamed of.  She was not a stand-out (batting only .153), but she was a starter.  A utility player.  Her team, however, the Wildcats of Western Oregon University, had a winning season this year.  That Sunday afternoon in Ellensburg, Washington, they were up against a tough Central Washington University for a spot in the NCAA Division II playoffs. It was a double-header, with everything on the line for each team.  Tucholsky’s team won the first game decisively with a score of 8-1.

In spite of the high stakes, there were barely one hundred on-lookers in the bleachers.  No one imagined that this college diamond in a small town somewhere on the long road between Seattle and Yakima would that very day be the focus of the national media.

When Sara picked up the bat in the second inning of game two, she glanced at the runners on first and second.  And then at the pitcher.  She willfully ignored a handful of guys who were taunting her from out there beyond the outfield fence – and had been there the entire afternoon.  She stands all of five foot two in the batter’s box, and the gaggle of guys shouted out loud that she was an easy out.  Later, she said that in baseball, you’ve got to tune out the noise and focus on the task at hand.  She stepped up to the plate.  Took a strike.  And then on the second pitch, for the first time in her baseball career, something spectacular happened.

She hit lots of line drives.  Hot grounders.  Foul balls.  But never the long ball.  She’d been swinging a bat since she was a little girl.  She envied the taller, stronger girls with the big swing and the capacity for the high, towering fly balls.  She learned early on not to expect it of herself.  Now here she was in the game of her life, a senior about to graduate with the possibility of leaving her alma-mater with a mighty victory posted in the history books for generations to see, and “Crack!” right in the sweet spot of the bat, her most powerful swing ever, and the ball took off… right in the direction of the hecklers outside the fence.

She’s a sprinter.  Off she went, in a burst of disbelief and excitement.  Would it carry?  Would it go?  The few fans there jumped to their feet.  The pitcher turned and watched in a moment of deflation that only pitchers know.  Her teammates in the dugout – noses to chain-link, with wide eyed wonderment – watched and prayed “C’mon… c’mon!”  The two base-runners kicked in the after-burners.  And the ball hung up there in slow motion.  Sara half watched the baseline as she charged toward first, but mainly, she had her eye on the ball… go, go.  Go!  Over the fence!  It cleared and bounced on the grass outside.

The crowd cheered. Sara jumped, arms in the air.  She turned toward second and boom.  It hit her.  She missed first base.  Caught up in baseball’s best moment of all, a soaring home run, the rules clicked in like a lightning bolt.  “Oh no!” she thought, and she extended her right leg for the quick turnabout.  Her head snapped around.  The push stressed the Anterior Cruciate Ligament beyond its limit, and the popping sound of a torn ACL collapsed her powerful leg into a heap of sharp pain just past first base on the dry, hard infield.  Celebration turned to awful hurt – just like that.  In the agony that only an athlete who popped a knee appreciates (and there are lots of them), Sara crawled through the dust, pulling herself on two elbows and one good knee, dragging the bad leg, back to first base, slapping it with an open hand.

Onlookers were stunned into silence.  Everyone – coaches, players, fans, sports-writers, umpires, even that band of guys out there shagging the ball – now shrugged.  First – “What happened?”  And then, “What happens next?”

If you are an umpire or referee, you know the feeling.  Something will come along that day that never occured before in the history of the game.  It will test your knowledge of the fine print in the rulebook.  You know you have only a short time to make a decision.  You also know that the world will be second-guessing your judgment.  It will be some sort of exception, some special case, something that doesn’t fit.  You don’t have time to Google.  No time to consult the experts.  No time to call a hearing.  No booth for instant replay.

Umpire Jacob McChensey had such a moment.  Here’s a homerun hitter collapsed into a heap on first base.  Here come the coaches.  A couple things he knew for certain.  To book the home-run, she needed to touch all four bases.  That’s the rule.  The umpire knew that if the base coach touched her, she would be called out.  If the team put in a substitute, there would be no home run – it would be called a single with two runs batted in.* 

Home-run hitter (the league home-run champion for the season) and first baseman Mallory Holtman surprised everyone with a modest proposal.  She went first to Umpire McChensey.  “Can we give her an assist, you know, carry her around the bases?”  The umpire thought for a moment.  “Why not?”  He could think of no rule preventing such an action – unprecedented in his career as an Ump.  So Mallory went to her second baseman, Liz Wallace (an honors student) and asked her to help.  “Sure,” she said.  And then the two players on the opposing team, went to Sara, still stunned and perplexed and in intense pain, and offered to lift her up, and carry her around the bases to home plate to forever put Sara Tucholsky’s homerun in the history books.

The simple gesture had a powerful impact on the crowd.  It was an umpire’s nightmare – a mind bending dilemma.  But the solution was so self-less, such a contrast to the rough and tumble win-at-any-cost mentality that we assume dominates athletic contests that people found unexpected tears rolling down their cheeks as they watched the spectacle.  Throats swelled.  Words were there, but couldn’t be spoken.  Applause began, slowly at first, and then a crescendo rolled over the ballpark like a wave.  Two Washington players in white uniforms carried the Oregon home-run hitter around the diamond, pausing at each base to lower Sara’s dangling feet to touch second, then third and finally home-plate.

And for one shining moment, character reigned.  Selflessness trumped selfishness.  Giving trumped getting.  Caring overcame indifference. 

Mallory, the home-run hitter, knew what it was like to collect the rewards of the long ball.  She wasn’t about to let a snapped ACL take it away from Sara, even though she was on the opposing team.

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  Get out there with the intention to win.

But remember this.  The best wins of all come from giving. 

And caring. 

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

*Later, an obscure corner of the rule book would reveal another option not known to the Umpire or anyone else on the field at the time – but it was not considered.  In the case of a home-run, the team is allowed to replace an unjured player to complete the run around the bases.

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Wright and Wrong

Monday Morning, May 5, 2008

This morning, as we anticipate the telling returns from the Indiana and North Carolina primaries, I will once again stick my verbal toe in the political waters.  Some will conclude that I am a card carrying Democrat and Obama supporter.  I am not. 

It’s been eight weeks since I wrote an “Open Letter to Rev. Jeremiah Wright.”  It’s hard to believe what’s happened since.  It had little to do with my letter (ha!), which, I might add, is the second most read of my Monday morning essays (the first, inexplicably, is Into the Wild).  But few would disagree, the Wright issue has come to dominate the news in stunning proportion.  I suggested back on March 17 that the Reverend had his fifteen minutes of Andy Warhol fame.  Fifteen minutes?  Would that it had been so.

I submitted a copy of my essay to Dr. Wright via the church website that week.  I wondered if somehow I might get a reply.  I did not.  I’ve watched for some indication that maybe it got read.  When Wright booked an appearance with Bill Moyers, I set the DVR and watched.  Then, thanks to Internet on-demand video, I watched his performance before the National Press Club, too.  After the first, I thought maybe the prayer I referenced in my open letter might be answered.  After the second, I realized fully, it had not.

I guess you would say I prayed for a conciliatory Wright.  Instead, we got a strident Wright.  He lectured us like an Urban Sunday School class on the fundamentals of Black Liberation Theology, rehearsing the litany atrocities and the injustice of it all and then with a hand-picked collection of boisterous supporters in the cheering section drawing him out, he reaffirmed all those sound-bites looped twenty-four/seven on all those conservative talk shows and news reports, just in case some of us thought he had been misunderstood, or perhaps changed his mind.  Bob Herbert, NY Times editorialist put it this way: “He’s living a narcissist’s dream.”

So it has been well established.  The anti-Obama crowd pounced on the YouTube videos like an obsessed Prosecutor on a piece of irrefutable evidence.  You couldn’t tune in to a conservative radio talk show for five minutes without hearing Wright’s raspy voice in full shout mode calling down God’s wrath on America and summoning the chickens home to roost.  It went on for weeks.   Wright made these statements once from the pulpit as the dust was settling over the ruins at Ground Zero in 2001, but it’s been replayed thousands and thousands of times in the past eight weeks, just in case you missed it.

Preachers say the darndest things.  In the safety of their own sanctuaries, pastors enjoy a degree of freedom to toy with the outrageous.  People well know the biblical warnings about going after God’s anointed.  So it goes right on by.  People the pews love it, truth be told.

The media, on the other hand, doesn’t worry much about divine retribution over exposing outrageous pastor-talk.  Ask Falwell.  Or Robertson.  Or Oral Roberts.  Or James Dobson, for that matter.  If a comment can be construed as extreme and unacceptable, it will get headline attention.

So, I’m left to wonder what’s really driving this political Tsunami, this unrelenting, overwhelming, overpowering all-consuming wave of concern over the issue labeled “The Pastor Wright Problem”?

When Clarence Thomas stood in 1991 before the Senate subcommittee, his opponents obsessed over some inappropriate comments he made to a female subordinate, in a moment of righteous indignation, he shocked the committee and the nation by calling the entire proceeding a “high tech lynching.”  Somehow, they knew what he meant.  People who flat did not want a black justice sitting on the highest court in the land found an issue, no matter what his qualifications.  (He was confirmed, by the way.)

Peggy Noonan said it well in the Wall Street Journal.  She’s heard Rev. Wright’s rants.  She simply does not share the (sometimes feigned) outrage of much of the nation.  She said, “Hatred plays itself out, has power in the short-term but is non-sustaining in the long. America, and this is one of its glories, has a conscience to which an appeal can be made. It may take a long time, it may take centuries, but in the end we try hard to do the right thing, and everyone knows it. Hatred is a form of energy that does not fuel this machine and cannot make it run.”

On this Monday morning, as a leader, you and I sort through the noise.  We are looking for the truth.  We consider where we will align ourselves in the marketplace of ideas.  We all agree it is complicated.

I agree with Noonan – the Wright issue is the wrong issue.  People once wondered if Obama was “black enough.”  No one is asking that one anymore.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2008

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