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What to Think When Wright = Wrong March 22, 2008

Posted by davidzweig in Uncategorized.
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The furor over the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Sen. Barack Obama’s speech has brought the ill-designed out-of-control wreck of American presidential politics careening through the same kind of perplexing, bumpy landscape that has vexed business executives for years.

This odd place exists at the boundary between an increasingly confusing external world, and our our internal world of perception and cognition, where we try to make sense of things and form rational and moral judgments. Herein, for many years for many executives, the street signs have been reversed, removed, or altogether replaced with glyphs written in a foreign language.

By stating first that the Rev. Wright has a point of view that cannot be entirely dismissed because some parts of it are wrong or obnoxious, Obama has taken us down a road toward moral relativism which, in the current religiously charged atmosphere of politics, is a risky place to walk in public. He compounded the “offense” (to some) by suggesting that white and blacks feel they have been wronged by the other, albeit for different reasons.

This latter proposition calls to us to apply a kind of thinking that is more advanced than the usual pabulum of mass politics. It is what you might call “critical thinking” about complex issues. Business has become inured with it, and businesspeople adapted to think this way in order to survive.

As a mental exercise, thinking critically, not simplistically, about the Rev. Wright is similar to thinking about the morality and the strategy of selling capital equipment to an enterprise owned by the Chinese army (of which there are many). What if the Chinese use these tools to undercut you in the future? What if they have the freedom to operate with much looser labor and environmental standards, and can thereby underprice you? Should you walk away from the deal? There’s no simple answer.

The complex answer requires critical thinking. Critical thinking is more evolved than “Everything Wright equals Everything Wrong.” The sometimes Good Reverend and General Alexander Haig have a common plaint: decades of hard work can be decimated by a sound bite. Clarence Thomas cannot write an opinion on a candy Valentine heart. If only life were so simple.

In a world that demands instant answers everywhere from everyone, who has time to “live in the question”?

Some years back when an attempt was made to include critical thinking in the curricula of California State Colleges, an academic wrote:

Supplemental criteria for critical thinking include….the ability to reason back and forth between the concrete and the abstract, the personal and the impersonal, the literal and the hypothetical or figurative; facility in perceiving irony, ambiguity, and multiplicity of meanings or points of view; and the development of open-mindedness, reciprocity (Piaget’s term for ability to empathize with other individuals, social groups, ideologies, etc.); and autonomous thought.

Agree with it or not, Obama’s speech invited his countrymen to think this way about race for the first time, painting the complexity of his relationship with the Rev. Wright as a fractal of the complexity we see in broader black/white/brown relations. He called for whites and blacks to see the unsettled issue of race from the Other’s perspective. Who has done that before?

In business, one need look no further than successful stakeholder governance systems to find exactly this type of mental framing. Indeed, the ability to consider conflicting objectives in one mind at one time is necessary to any kind of progress in business or society. The stakeholder and Obama models both suggest common destinies and win/win solutions. In other words, the other party can hold a legitimate position without diminishing the validity of one’s own.

The hubbub over sufficiently rejecting, denouncing, renouncing, disavowing, reproving, disapproving the Rev. Wright speaks to some people’s need to redact every atom of this man’s preaching. It’s a bit like the quaint British custom of hanging, disemboweling, emascualting, quartering, and beheading, just to be sure the prisoner is dead. People are funny that way.

This cry to redact the person of Wright, and the refusal to countenance anything less, flows from the “check-the-box” and simple Manichean thumbs-up-or-down decrees we’ve been conditioned to expect from Washington and the media.

Business no longer runs this way. Some time in the ’80s it began to descend into an ambiguous Neverland. Chaos, chaordia, randomness, and unpredictability have tormented executives. Businesspeople must adapt or depart because the world offers no safe white-or-black bi-chromatic havens. This holds as true in the Oval Office as it does in the corner office. The current occupant of the White House and his advisors value as a virtue the ability to bifurcate major decisions into good/evil, enemy/friend dichotomies. “Resoluteness” is good. Nuance is bad. Action calls us to shun ambiguity and compromise. Donald Rumsfeld’s musing about “known unknowns”, drawn from the world of quantitative financial theory, was both the closest we heard to an acknowledgment of complexity of the war decision, and also also one of many rationales for dismissing complexity. Vice President Cheney poo-pooed “nuance” and Rep . DeLay ridiculed “sensitivity” to other countries’ sensibilities as “effeminate.”

President Bush justified his decision to attend the Beijing Olympics as being “complex,” just as the Democrats were beginning to call for him to boycott due to Tibet, Myanmar, and Sudan. Bush’s admission was striking because it is so rare.

My point is not to cast subjective judgment. As businesspeople, we look at objective results. After 7.5 years of effort, even this would have to admit its customary way of thinking has not successfully achieved the results it desired at home and abroad. The point is, the way of thinking, whether adopted by George Bush, Hillary Clinton, or Jeff Immelt, just doesn’t work.

As his own results began to deteriorate after Ohio, Obama reflected that his campaign had reverted to a “conventional” strategy. Unconventionality had propelled him above his rivals to his leadership position. Thinking like everyone else is what got him into trouble, he said. Ted Levitt (stuck in the middle) and Michael Porter (competitive strategy) have been telling executives the same thing for decades.

One tenet of conventional politics is to dumb things down into simple choices, to appeal to an eleven year-old’s level of cognitive and moral development. In such a way, the Rev. Wright must be all bad, and anyone associated with him also must be all bad. None of us have the ability to pick through the Reverend’s message and sort the odious (“damn America”) from the good (“help the poor”), or to condemn the sin and love the sinner.

Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite who reportedly wore gloves whenever he touched a score written by Mahler. Does this mean The Ring Cycle is bad music? Was Leonard Bernstein, a lifelong devotee of Mahler, a bad person because he agreed to conduct the first performance of Wagner ever in the State of Israel? Should we burn all our Bernstein recordings? Should we not listen to Candide because of his long association with the Ring of the Nibelungen? Or, is the issue more complicated?

In the last century many researchers began to study how people think, learn, and make ethical choices. For example, Laurence Kohlberg’s work on moral development has provided the foundation for ethicists in many areas of activity, including business and politics. At least one academic has found “significantly higher” levels of correlation between tolerance for ambiguity and self-actualization.

Self-actualization has begun creep into mainstream business. The World Business Academy has been advancing the cause for over two decades. But it’s still a minority pursuit that can be ignored by the majority of executives.

These businesspeople, and all of business and government, have been lashed together in a kind of three-legged race whose outcome will determine whether the planet has a long-term future. If ever you have participated in such a competition, you know the way to win is through collaboration, not resolute individual leadership.

In fact, the entire discussion of leadership in this political campaign has degenerated into a silly debate about experience vs. judgment as the simplistic one-size-fits-all definition of “leadership.” Here, business could have something to say. If Spencer Stuart tried to force such an idiotic dichotomy on all executive searches, it would never get another commission. Still, terms like leadership, judgment, and experience have promulgated a vast bibliography of business writing. It’s so pervasive that almost every reasonable author in the field begins by confessing the world doesn’t need yet another book on these topics. A smaller body of work covers self-actualization and ways of thinking.

I would argue that there can be no strong leadership or sound judgment without a base of self-actualization. Sen. Obama has invited us to join him in that journey through a landscape that is neither black nor white, that requires us to “live in the question”. Popular political thought has lagged business in accepting the reality that we live in just such an ambiguous world. In politics, business and life, few answers manifest themselves in black or white.

How apt it is that the man who brought this to the fore was neither exactly black nor exactly white. But then, who is?

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