On the Face of It…

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I’m off on holidays very soon to Iran. When I tell people this it has been pretty much the same response -why Iran? To understand the turmoil in the world today I think you need to have a deeper appreciation of religious tension. To understand the complexity of the conflict in Syria, or the ‘below the radar’ horrors of Yemen you need an appreciation of the schism that is Sunni versus Shia. Whereas the world’s Muslim population is around 85% Sunni, Iran is 95% Shia.

Given its location along the silk road between East and West, Iran (Persia) has been at the centre of the development of civilisation. As a result Iran is generously endowed with UN World Heritage sites, in fact more per capita than any other country. Its historical religious connections are immense including the early foundations of Christianity, the Ishmalis and the pre-Christian ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. I found myself with a connection to the Ishmalis who were protection by much feared assassins. I once considered working for the Aga Khan Network (the spiritual leader of the Ishmalis) in Kenya.

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What perhaps has perturbed people most about my upcoming trip is the fact that my travelling partner, my wife, will have to wear certain dress particularly head covering. These discussions were a not infrequent topic in the lunch room when our Queensland Senator, Pauline Hanson, the leader of the One Nation political party, decided to make a point and wore a burqa into the Senate. As you might expect this sparked off a whole debate about whether women should be allowed to wear this full face covering in public.

At times people have commented to me that my wife should not have to be subjected to wearing the burqa and they wouldn’t travel under such circumstances. Actually my wife will not be wearing a burqa she will wear, when necessary, a hijab. Different thing altogether. The clothing of Muslim women appears to be such a polarising aspect in society. In fact if you think about it there is a much greater emphasis on female clothing than men’s the whole world over. In recent days Labour (and opposition) leader running in the New Zealand national election has been asked what ‘outfit’ (clothes) she will be wearing in a to be televised debate with the Prime Minister. To further illustrate my point Channel 9 morning TV host Karl Stefanovic wore the same suit for a year without fail and it wasn’t commented on once. His female colleague Lisa Wilkinson continues to endure comments about what she is wearing on a regular basis.

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While comments about women’s attire might be ubiquitous there are undertones to comments made about the clothing worn by Muslim women that don’t exist outside of this religious community. What should be widely understood, but clearly isn’t, is that the dress reflects local customs and culture much more than religious dictates. I think it is beholden on managers to be across the nuances of such things as part of what I would describe as their Cultural Quotient. Good managers are aware of cultural mores especially when they have an ethnically diverse workforce.

My blogs are primarily aimed to provoke reflection not preach/teach but on this topic it might be worth just re-stating some of the issues of female attire worn by Muslim women to inform the debate around the water cooler. The birthplace of Islam is Saudi Arabia and those who most strictly interpret the Quran are the Wahabis (who strictly speaking are a minority but influential sect of Islam). They see their role as purifying the religion and have a very austere approach to matters of life and worship. This is perhaps understandable given it took root amongst desert dwelling Bedouin. The life of the Bedouin is, by its very nature, an austere one and where women’s garb has a certain practicality outside of its religious undertones. So the first learning point is that dress for women is based on geography and culture more than just a literal reading of the Quran or Haddiths. Put simply, because I am neither a Muslim nor an Islamic scholar, the Quran requires a woman to cover her head and bosom. Contention remains over the degree of covering and different countries and cultures have different customs. One thing is clear – not all dress is the same.

When Pauline Hanson of the One Nation Party wore the burqa into the Senate she was not making a point with respect to all Muslim women, but primarily those who hail from Afghanistan. The list below, while not exhaustive gives a flavor of the diversity of dress worn within the Muslim world.

Arabian peninsular – Abaya which is black and involves covering from head to toe. The head covering component is often a shayla. At one end there is a small opening for the eyes and gloves may be worn (black) to hide the flesh. At the other end of the spectrum the head is covered by a separate veil showing quite a bit of hair and wrapped loosely underneath the neck, full face showing. In my experience both extremes and everything in between exist in Saudi Arabia with no real issue. If you think the abaya doesn’t afford much in the way of fashion license for Arab women Google ‘Dubai Style Abaya’.

Persia – Chador which is more like a house coat held together by the hands in black or other colour. Quite often it reveals brightly colored ‘western’ clothing including jeans underneath. The degree to which the hair is covered varies greatly. The face is almost always visible. A hijab which is a scarf that covers the hair may also be worn rather than a scarf.

Afghanistan – Burqa which is from head to toe with a mesh panel to enable some vision. It is generally blue but can be black. No face is seen.

Jordan – Kaftans often have detailed embroidery on the neck sleeve and hem. The headscarf associated with this is the asba which is cloth wrapped around the head like a wheel then draped in a decorative fashion.

Palestine – A heavily embroidered cross-stitched material is worn by Palestinian women. The complexity and structure of the embroidery will vary depending on the town or village from which the person comes.

Turkey – Jilbab which is like an overcoat buttoned down the middle. They can be quite snug fitting showing a sense of style. A silk scarf tied beneath the chin is quite often the head covering of choice.

Indonesia/Malaysia – Dupatta which is a long scarf draped across the head and shoulders often paired with matching garments.

Morocco – Jalabiya is a robe with a pointed hood often has a belt, or string enabling shape to be given to the garment.

There’s lots more too, with variations within regions and between countries. It’s a rich tapestry and funnily enough tapestry is often involved!

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The final thing to remember is that modest dress and head covering is not the preserve of Muslim women. In fact were you to visit areas in Pennsylvania in the US you would encounter Amish women wearing quite severe head-covering bonnets. Mennonite women, Catholic nuns, Irish and Spanish Catholic women, orthodox Jewish women, Sikhs, Hindus, Taoist and Buddhist nuns and Eastern orthodox women, for example, all wear some form of head covering.

The key issue is whether the woman wearing their particular dress and/or head covering is comfortable doing so and whether we can park our conscious or unconscious bias for long enough to interact with them in an authentic, equitable and compassionate way. Knowing the cultural nuances of your workplace and community, and appreciating the richness that diversity imparts, is a necessary part of our managerial and leadership toolkit. It’s also a great elevator answer for why I’m heading to Iran in a few days’ time.

 

 

 

 

A Marriage of Inconvenience? Pinning Your Company’s Colours to the Rainbow Mast

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In Australia we are a few weeks off voting in a postal poll that will ultimately decide whether marriage equality will be voted on in Parliament. For a range of reasons, our self-proclaimed ‘fair-go’ culture hasn’t thus far extended to same sex couples who want to commit to their relationship publicly. I can’t recall in recent memory an issue that has so divided politics and (yet to be fully tested) so not really divided the public. Time will tell if my latter assumption here is correct.

As I have blogged about previously, in many cases the corporate world is stepping in where governments have faltered. The adoption of the Paris Climate Accord in the US by big corporates, when Trump pulled out, being the most salient example. And so it is with the marriage equality debate. A large number of companies have publicly expressed their support for marriage equality and this has been recognised by the large logo wall that appears on the http://www.australianmarriageequality.org   website. There are many big names there aside from the obvious like Qantas and Telstra who have made the media when they came out in support. These companies are making a stand and good on them.

Those regular readers of my blog can easily divine that I am in favour of same sex marriage and, to me, other common sense public policy initiatives like support for the LGBTIQQ community. Making our workplaces more welcoming can never reduce productivity or make it harder to attract and retain ‘talent’. A diverse workplace is one of the key ways I believe to establish a great culture and help raise the understanding of all staff. The fact is that as humans we exhibit so many similarities that bind us and that the differences, though often outrageously amplified, are small and at the end of the day quite trivial.

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So it might be surprising to some that apart from my own publicly professed support of marriage equality I haven’t rushed to sign-up to show my support for same sex marriage wearing my corporate hat. It’s not that I have made up my mind to deliberately keep a low profile, it’s more I am still reflecting on the what role or right I have, as leader, to endeavour to promote a long-held ambition through wearing my corporate hat. I’m not there yet. Who knows perhaps in wiring this blog I will reach some conclusion?

In my head the argument goes something like this. A top manager of a company, being the CEO, might take a socially-ethical decision (to them) and decide to promote marriage equality. S/he may do it to reflect the diversity that exists within their workplace. In reality, such a decision is likely to be more of a ‘captain’s call’. What if some of the workforce is against marriage equality? If the naysayers are right there are many in the workplace who believe the sanctity of marriage should be reserved for the union of man and a woman; a number of whom who keep this view to themselves for not wanting to be out-of-step.

Where the CEO raises the flag for the ‘yes’ campaign, that CEO has made a judgment call and must be prepared to stand by it. The argument could also be made that CEO’s need to be principled and authentic and stand by these principles. Lord knows the corporate world has seen precious little truly principled management over the years, especially in the lead up to the GFC. Some might add that the apparent ‘blind-eye’ shown by the CBA over suspicious money transactions is a case in point that principles are held in check in favour of greed even today. So on balance as a CEO, ‘go with the Captain’s call’ my head says on this one.

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But what of the CEO as a leader? If we take a leaf out of the Handbook for Servant Leader written by Robert Greenleaf (wordplay intended). His credo is:

“Caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.”

It might well be argued that a servant leader, caring for people, might take soundings of those s/he leads and reflect the organizational viewpoint as a democratic output. It might be possible that in full humility a pro-YES CEO leader might reflect a pro-NO viewpoint to the world. On the face of it this may not be a huge thing but it does go to what is the nature of organisations and into organisational theory. Is the corporation merely a legal entity defined by contracts? Is it the sum of its parts including the hopes and aspirations of its individual workers, or does it exist as a fluid culture that shifts each time a new person joins its ranks? In some ways organisations are trinities incorporating all three. As leader we need to acknowledge how organic the organisation is and given this, how much more complex it is. It’s too simplistic for the figurehead just to be able to stand up and speak on its behalf without consideration of these other layers.

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So where has this reflection got me? I think I’m happy to be pro marriage equality without having to use the vehicle of my company to make the point. I don’t judge those who do. For the likes of Alan Joyce of Qantas his leadership is around a form of activism and I respect him totally for that. But for me it is almost too easy to stand bestride my company’s brand to make the argument. It would be unfeeling. Hopefully my brand that stands alongside, but separate to, my company’s is enough to show my authenticity on this topic.

Where leaders do need to be mindful after Nov 7 – the day of the vote – is that a degree of healing, empathy and consideration will be needed. Some will feel hurt and some elated. Finding a way to focus team members on positives and what we all have in common, aside from individual and organisational goals, will call upon the special skills of managers and leaders. It’s about re-building coalitions in the workplace – a marriage of minds as it were! We can all say yes to that.

 

The Stickability Elasticity of the Digital Brain

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One of my favourite episodes of Seinfeld is called The Strike where the 12 year long  industrial action at Kramer’s employer, H&H Bagels, ends. My favourite moment though is Elaine getting upset at having given a fake phone number to a guy she dubs ‘Denim Vest’ written hurriedly on her submarine sandwich loyalty card. She finds to her dismay that she was at the point of getting her ‘free’ subway and goes on a futile hunt to get the card back, even though she actually doesn’t like the food there. It’s also a classic for introducing the audience to Festivus and the concept of a ‘two-face’.

The notion of hanging on way beyond when you should let go is something I have been contemplating lately. I have also been reflecting on the lack of patience at holding on in there. These two things might seem, at first glance, contradictory but I think they co-exist quite happily in our lives at the moment – which is not really a good thing.  Digital media is making this more prevalent.

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While driving home the other night I put I played iphone music through my car’s Bluetooth. Bear in mind this is a selection of my favourite artists. I flicked endlessly from one song to the other on shuffle seldom hearing a song the whole way through. Having the ability to shuffle and flick forward at the touch of a button on my steering wheel is both a bonus and a drawback. Now, if the song doesn’t ‘capture’ me in the first few bars it gets flicked until some tune appeals. If that song starts to meander, especially through a bridge (the song not the engineering variety) then it too gets the flick. It doesn’t matter if it’s Springsteen, Dylan, Morrison, the Beatles or the Doors you’re only getting a nano-second to get me hooked. Convenience and massive catalogue are now two weapons in my listening arsenal.

I’ve become very fickle with little patience to stick with a song to see how it builds. In the analogue days of LPs, to move a song on meant getting up and going to the turntable. This built up a certain patience with the song and made the musical listening experience much more rewarding and certainly much less frenetic. The other ‘beauty’ of the analogue experience was that you were ‘stuck’ with the artist for the entire side if you decided the trip to the turntable from the bean bag was just too big an effort. In the listening, the concept of an album being curated became something to reflect on. Why was ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ placed next after ‘With a Little Help from my Friends’ on Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band for instance? Now the curating of song list is done by a pretty clumpy Apple shuffle program. The more tools I have to flit around, the more I am prone to use them.

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That very same evening I sat down to watch Netflix and put on House of Cards as we have been busily watching episodes on an every other night basis. I found myself watching it, not for enjoyment – as a piece of TV it lost its way after season one and went inexorably downhill from there – but to get to the end. It was my viewing equivalent of Elaine’s submarine sandwich loyalty card. I found myself sticking to something I should have bailed from long before.

It would appear we suffer simultaneously from attention and curatorial deficit disorder. Once something has got its hook in you it’s hard to unshackle yourself. I think it has to do with the fact that to be hooked in the beginning takes some effort, so if the TV show for example was capable of doing that, it is worth the extra loyalty. Many a program has tripped me up in this respect. Orange is the New Black is one, but surely the most striking example would be Season 3 of The Fall. That’s hours of my life I will never get back.

While that may seem frivolous, it is time I could be devoting elsewhere. It also, on reflection, makes you think about what you haven’t seen because your attention deficit meant you didn’t get hooked to start with. This is where my daughter, counter-intuitively a Gen Y, comes in handy. She insists I sit through a show again even when on occasions I have bailed before the end of the first episode. Breaking Bad, Making a Murderer and The Keepers being striking examples of my initial lack of appreciation. These have been moments of TV gold – definitely worth the perseverance.

This cognitive re-orientation, partly driven by the digital nature of services nowadays, compared to the softer warmer analogue of days gone by, is something we need to recognise and take seriously. It is having a profound impact on our lives and we need to at least acknowledge this. In the world of work we are told that we all need a brand and a narrative that is immediately going to ‘grab’ the audience. Web pages now need to have something that compels the eyeball to click-through. At work we get over 1,0000 unique visits to our website each month. Our click-through rate sits at a pretty dismal 10%. That is, on reaching our webpage, only 100 of the 1,000 visitors choose to click and move forward to find out more about us. This lack of stickability manifests itself in all sorts of situations in the workplace. For example when I’m interviewing someone, my digitally manic brain is searching for the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ bias in my judgment of them as a potential employee, now in seconds rather than minutes.

When someone starts a job, our tolerance of their learning curve in our company may be quite limited. The speed of climbing a learning curve is only partly associated with how good they are. The other component is the time it takes for the full range of complex experiences with which you can judge a worker’s competency, to arise naturally in the workplace. Maybe we should consider what impacts our recently digitised minds are having on the hiring, inducting and firing process? Perhaps we are judging our new employees too early and harshly and keeping hold of our long-serving staff for familiarity reasons for too long? We need to slow down and have moments that can quieten the manic brain. Equipping ourselves with the means to combat the negative impacts of our VUCA world is now an essential tool in a worker’s toolbox.

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Just something to ponder as we get impacted by Netflix, MP3 music and convenience that strips fidelity from our lives. Ever wondered why people’s homes in science fiction movies seem austere and sterile? Digital is a much colder experience. Oh there is one exception – that’s in The Handmaid’s Tale on SBS On Demand. That is one TV show I am sticking with…for the time being at least!

What We Can Learn From Emirates Team New Zealand

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With Emirates Team NZ taking out a resounding victory to secure the Auld Mug once again, we can learn important messages that can be applied to the world of business:

1) Size doesn’t always matter. NZ had the smallest budget but used cohesion and focus to overcome the disadvantage of not having endless dollars to splash around.

2) Innovation is essential. The NZ team introduced innovations as a disruptor challenging many of the ‘givens’ in yachting.

3) Learn from past failures but keep them in the past. NZ squandered their lead in the last America’s Cup in San Francisco needing only one race to win. Rather than letting this become a ‘hoodoo’ they used this as a motivator but never let it weigh them down.

4) Come back from adversity stronger and wiser. When their boat totalled itself during the Louis Vutton Challenger Series they picked themselves up from near disaster and re-grouped. The repairs and new equipment made the boat faster.

5) Old heads are not always needed. The hero of the NZ team, Peter Burling, aged 26, was in his first America’s Cup. In fact only one of the crew had been there before. When you are good enough, you are old enough. Sometimes we need to rely on talent that is not encumbered by reasons why things can’t be done.

6) Don’t listen to the knockers. Commentators were saying that Emirates Team NZ would struggle because Burling couldn’t win a start. Burling won 7 starts out of 9 against the world’s greatest starter Jimmy Spithill.

7) Know what you are doing. Every team member knew their job so there was no ‘chatter’ on board. Clearly defined roles allowed team members to concentrate on their part in the overall whole.

8) Use technology to your advantage. The Kiwis used technology including ‘playstation’ controls and wearables  to monitor key information to give them the edge.

9) Continuously improve. Despite winning race after race Emirates Team NZ went back to the sheds each day to see how they could improve for the following day. Even if it was just a few seconds they learnt incrementally.

10) Celebrate with humility. Despite it being a long-held ambition to re-capture the Cup, when they won the Kiwis kept the celebration in perspective. In this game, as in business, you are only as good as the last goal you kicked. Longevity is the absolute yardstick of success.

With the America’s Cup, the world’s oldest sporting competition, now in the Southern Hemisphere, it is an opportunity for countries such as Australia and New Zealand to demonstrate to the world that we can be world-beaters. Innovation, focus and continuous improvement are the key ingredients to success.

Wonder Women – fighting for those who cannot see the complexity for themsleves

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My daughter has been staying with us for a week and as a committed feminist has used her time somewhat mischievously to wind-up her brother. As an alpha male who is five years her junior he hasn’t accrued the wisdom yet to know that winning an argument is not the “be all and end all” in life. In fact it’s an argument that doesn’t find any middle ground given they are both coming at the issue from diametrically opposed positions. Seldom have I heard the words misogynist and misanthropist used so often in discussion/argument.  Life, and therefore the workplace, also contain persons for whom there are widely different perspectives. Gender politics is at play each and every day and is probably getting more heated.

Airing different perspectives and being open to hearing another’s viewpoint is important in a mature and welcoming workplace. The same applies in friendships, communities and families. There can be a fine line between tolerance for the sake of maintaining the status quo or keeping the tone light and calling out every issue you disagree with. This may come down to losing a friendship if you call someone out for a view you find that doesn’t accord with your own. It might be the “I’m not a racist” racist remark, the “I’m not homophobic” homophobic remark,  the”I’m not sexist” sexist remark, or the “I’m not Islamaphobic” islamaphobic remark. Tolerance of such statements can be tacit consent and soft encouragement. Calling it out possibly risks straining and ending a relationship whereas staying connected offers the opportunity, by example, to change behaviours; admittedly over a longer period of time. Seeing the perspective of the other party, regardless of avoiding appeasement, is an essential ingredient to being mindful and having a robust EQ.

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We were given some free movie tickets lately and chose to see Wonder Woman. Sensing that a scantily clad superhero might provoke a response e.g. objectification of women, stereotyping etc.I thought I would do some homework. It did strike me that Wonder Woman as a character sits in elevated company with Superman and Batman etc but would be quite lonely if she wanted to swap stories about gender equality. There aren’t any other top-tier female superheros from the Marvel or DC Comics stable. Imagine my surprise though to find that the feminist credentials behind Wonder Woman are actually quite substantial.

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The comics were written by a reasonably famous American psychologist, William Marston, using the nom-de-plume Charles Moulton, who, coincidentally invented the lie detector. Might explain Wonder Woman’s truth lasso! His inspiration for the character was Margaret Sanger a pioneering feminist and acknowledged founder of the modern birth control movement. Sanger just happened to be the aunt of Marston’s parnter in a rather bohemian polyamorist relationship. He had the opportunity to observe her close up. It’s not quite that simple though because Marston also had an interest in BDSM and ‘pinup girls’ which might explain why Wonder Woman is dressed like she’s on the way to a Fetlife convention inspired by a Vargas centre-fold. Life is appears is much more complex than binary polarised viewpoints.

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As it happens Wonder Woman is an easy watch. Armed with the knowledge I had gained from hearing a podcast featuring Jill Lepore who has written the seminal work The Secret History of Wonder Woman I found it layered in ways that your traditional DC or Marvel fare isn’t. Most super heroes have a vulnerability e.g Superman and kryptonite. For Wonder Woman it is chains. Chained she is helpless so the comics and the movie see her bound and totally helpless. Each time she breaks free she is emancipating – the chains being a metaphor for breaking free from society’s constraints. Each time she is bound Marston gets to explore his fetish.

The reversal of roles in the comics and the movie are plain to see. The damsel in distress is none other than Chris Pine (aka Captain Kirk) and he must die and not her. It’s him that calls at her door at night and not vice versa. She saves the day single-handed. The men well are just a bit like wallpaper in the background. Their parts are not fleshed out to any degree, kind of like many female roles in male-oriented movies. Director Patty Jenkins is having a field day turning gender stereotypes on their head except maybe the key one and where women today are still complaining – equal pay.

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Gal Gadot playing Wonder Woman received a reportedly pitiful $300,000 for the part. Even if this is explained away by producers saying that’s what all leads get on their first franchise offering, you would have thought someone had the presence of mind to flip things on the head for this movie. After all this is wonder woman. We all know Wonder Women in our personal lives, communities and workplaces. My daughter is a wonder woman and will do great things. Unfortunately she will encounter men in her career who will hold her back or pigeon hole her not allowing her to grow. Fortunately there will be those who will see her potential and allow her to shine. At the end of the day no-one’s flame glows brighter by extinguishing another’s. The same might be said for snuffing out someone else’s argument. If we are to get on, we all need to realise that the world, like Marston’s life, is full of complexity, contradiction and compromise.

Cities Are Our Democratic Future

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You can’t help but feel for London. With the spate of terrorist attacks and now the dreadful fire there must be a palpable sense of disbelief, grief and anguish hanging over what is one of the world’s great cities. Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, seems to be everywhere whereas British Prime Minister Theresa May not so much. Her expression of grief and upset, while no doubt genuine, seems to feel a little more forced than Khan who, after all, connects directly with his own city.

This appears to be an emerging trend where large cities because of their size, strategic importance and cluster of financial power seem to be wielding a lot more influence. Influence beyond our comprehension a decade ago. Cities, for many of us, are where we live, work and die. The Population Reference Bureau (PRB) calculates that by 2050 70% of the world’s population will reside in cities. Cities are in many ways easier to make a connection to. It’s hard not to fall in love with Madrid or Barcelona, New York or Amsterdam. It is a lot harder to fall for the USA or Netherlands to the same extent. Where passion for an entire country comes into play it can be hard to distil patriotism from nationalism. At the city level I don’t think you can be nationalistic. I’ve not heard of a concept called ‘cityalism’. I’ve heard of city pride though.

In some ways countries are letting us down. The UK just recently seems a good example. For those of us who wanted to remain in Europe the country votes for Brexit. The USA, once leader of the free world, now seems to want to focus internally and gives its mantle to China. China which has worked hard through soft diplomacy to re-enter the world post Mao, now builds faux islands in the South China Sea for aggressive strategic advantage. Japan, in recent years a beacon of what you can do if you don’t devote your intellectual elite to the pursuit of armaments design and manufacture, is now militarising. We waited with baited breath recently for what Trump would do on the Paris Climate Agreement and he didn’t disappoint. They’re out!

With all the flux in the world politics and the rise of populism it feels like democracy itself is under threat. Trump isn’t doing much to help by muddying the waters around the Fifth Estate with his constant labelling of any negative press as ‘fake news’. Putin seems ensconced as the leader of Russia (duly elected) and the maturing democracy of Turkey has taken a huge leap backwards as President Erdogan curtails opposition, the press and free speech in an endeavour to cement his long-term plutocratic ambitions. Voters everywhere (except maybe France and Germany) are fed up. Politics and politicians are turning us off and away from a real interest in politics. It used to be a topic of conversation at the pub, or in the coffeehouses. Nowadays our views are so polarised you would think twice about revealing your political allegiance for fear of being disowned by your friends of the opposite political colour. Tolerance for another’s political perspective is genuinely lacking in today’s society.

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It’s easy to feel gloomy with this pot pouri of negativity permeating our world. But there is a shining light on our horizons. As it becomes too difficult, or problematic, to contemplate issues at an international or national level, people are starting to think and act locally. Community is the salve for the schisms in society. Cities are on the rise. Cities are making the pledges to reduce greenhouse gases a reality when their nations refuse to play ball. Cities are engaging their citizens in a way that is forging a new and dynamic form of democracy that might leave our traditional democratic structures behind. It just might be that cities save the very essence of democracy. So it’s Sadiq Khan who seems to cut through for me lately. Cities are vibrant and they engage. Spain has grappled with the vexed and complex issue of bull-fighting for years. Barcelona just banned it outright. When it felt like New Yorkers were losing their city to the developers and wealthy, they morphed the Highline out of an ugly industrial relic.

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It’s easy to be pessimistic with the world today and this constant barrage of negativity. But some things endure. The human spirit is one and the other is the inexorable rise of the city and its ability to heal communities and create engaging places to live, play and do business. Where governments can’t or won’t step in cities now will. That is why Sadiq Khan looked so …err.. Presidential this last couple of weeks and why May and Trump looked forlorn.

Tai Chi and the Bottom Line

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tai-chi-1078x515I’m new to Tai Chi having only recently joined the Taoist Tai Chi Society of Australia. I’ve done a two day intensive and now devote two hours each Saturday morning where I practice this ancient and graceful martial art form done in slow motion with a group of dedicated and well-practiced Tai Chi-practitioners. Quite possibly the youngest in the group, I do know for certain I’m the only one sweating at the end of each session. What’s good about it is the fact that it requires so much concentration from me.  To even try to get near the fluidity and nuance of some of the moves, let alone string together the 108 move set that comprise Tai Chi, I have to devote my entire cognitive capacity. The worries, niggles and ideas from work can’t penetrate that time. Tai Chi I have discovered to my delight is not a semi-permeable membrane. After those two hours my mind is free from the tensions of work. Tai Chi in this respect is like gold!

It’s been a difficult time at work lately, losing our second biggest tenant which comprises over 20% of our income. It’s never easy being a Landlord. At any point when a tenant goes into administration the lease is one of the first things to go. Doesn’t matter that they are on a 10 + 10 lease. The email comes through and the administrator disclaims. Effectively this means from that point on you no longer have any money coming in even though all their stuff is there. Immediately your head starts to spin and inevitably your thoughts go to your bottom line. The question quickly arises as to how you can replace them and survive the loss of such a large portion of your income.

Regrettably this has meant redundancies, which I still feel is a reflection on poor management. Surely we are capable of retaining talent and replacing the sitting tenant? If only it was that easy. I heard recently that redundancy is a relatively new tool in management and that years ago management held onto staff loyal to them. In the endeavour to find new tenants, deal with administrators, handle the auction company, show prospects through, find ways to retain staff, re-organising our own company and farewelling someone in the most mindful manner under the circumstances, the stress levels peak. The brain starts to process these ‘simultaneous equations’ even when you try to switch off.

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I know that my most creative moments happen when I have cleared my head of the clutter. My daily meditation routine, in our meditation room, has sadly failed to de- VUCA my world at the moment. That is 20 minutes of me noting my thoughts without judgment and letting them slip away…only to be immediately followed by another. At the moment I find I need ‘industrial strength’ declutterer. Without a clear mind I am less able to get my mindset right to address the problems we are currently facing. That’s where Tai Chi has come to the rescue. After many a Single Whip, Carry Tiger to Mountain or Pick Up Needles from the Sea Bottom I am cleansed. This affords me most of the weekend to refresh, ready to tackle the challenge afresh on Monday morning.

True uncluttered downtime, where we can break free from thinking about work is essential. Despite CEOs regarding themselves as stress resistant and resilient individuals, we all need time to cleanse our palate otherwise everything tastes the same. It is true that in time of difficulty we seem to attract further difficulty. Actually, it often just feels that way because our mindset has shifted. Devotion of so much cognitive load to the problem means that when a small issue comes along we inflate its importance, not because it seems really large, but because we assess our capacity to deal with it psychologically, physically and emotionally as severely limited. Creating quiet space in our heads in a VUCA-world is one of the most important skill sets an executive can possess. Passing on this ‘wisdom’ is one of the most important roles an executive can fulfil. This is especially true for any departing staff who will be experiencing their own cognitive overload as they consider life without the security of a regular income until they get back on their feet.

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Philosophies from the East have much to teach us as our world gets more complex and technologically cluttered. As information overload occurs and we find ourselves caught in the middle of work that can follow-us 24/7, no matter where in the world we are located, finding a way to switch off is essential. It may seem strange to some to look back to the days before business technology to find a cure for its ailments, but if we want to address our issues in a meaningful way I would recommend thinking about Tai Chi or similar eastern practice. For me I no longer have a choice – it’s my bottom line.

The Stark State of Our Corporations

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It’s the stuff of movies, particularly sci-fi, where the corporation, generally with some arch technology, ends up thwarting and subordinating the State. People become slaves to some corporate juggernaut able to monitor and control our every move. Think Omni Consumer Products (Robocop), The ICS Network (The Running Man), RDA Corporation (Avatar), Multi-National United (District 9) and my personal favourite, Energy Corporation (Rollerball). Just occasionally you see a mega corporation doing good, a la Stark Industries in Iron Man. But it’s the exception rather than the rule.

This week we have been ‘rocked’ by one of the most predictable events in recent political history; the departure of the US from the Paris Climate Accord. No right-minded person could think that climate change is some sort of fake news or hoax. Even Margaret Thatcher, way back when, commenting on climate change said even if you weren’t convinced wouldn’t you err on the side of caution? It can’t do any harm surely? Well Donald Trump thinks it can – to his blue collar coal-mining constituency who voted him in at the very least. The dystopian world that many feared would eventuate with the election of Donald Trump seems to be unfolding before our very eyes. You can almost admire Trump. He thinks something – without any basis in fact – and then follows through on his irrational assumptions. His thoughts on the matter are writ large in the media, especially Twitter.

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So too recently has our very own champion of women’s tennis Margaret Court used the media to espouse her distorted beliefs. Just lately she has felt compelled to make some pretty ‘out there’ comments about gay people and transgendered children. Her linkages of LGBTIQ people to Nazis, communists and the devil is the stuff of pure befuddled fantasy. She has so much of an issue with gay people (especially lesbians in the game that gave her so much of her wealth and fame) that she has refused to fly on our Australian carrier Qantas because its CEO is an openly gay man and a supporter of marriage equality.

The withdrawal of the US from the climate accord has left a leadership vacuum in climate change. In fact it would appear that the inward focus of Trump is leaving a leadership vacuum across a range of fronts. Take for example the breath-taking proposition of Communist China assuming the leadership mantle of free trade. Where climate change in the US is concerned it would appear that corporations will fill the void. Big names like GE, Du Pont, Exon Mobil, Tesla have indicated that they will step into the breach. It’s easy to see why. Those who embrace new technology get the jump on it. If you are a market follower it can be nearly impossible to play catch up. US corporations do not want to see energy innovation become the domain of other countries.

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It’s just not in public/climate policy where corporations are stepping up taking on quasi State-like roles. In social policy there are a number of CEOs of corporations who are embracing societal issues. Partly this is driven by responding to consumer pressure, partly due to internal pressure as millennials increasingly take up key roles in organisations. Woe betide any company that under pressure from its media savvy millennial workforce thinks that incremental evolution not revolution is the best way forward on social issues. This is a demographic who demand to see results now.

Alan Joyce, the CEO of Qantas, as an openly gay man has pinned his rainbow colours to the marriage equality mast. Good on him for that. More and more we are likely to see Corporations acting in the stead of the State. While governments play politics, Corporations have an enviable potential to actually deliver if they choose so to do. It will attract the ire of those who disagree with the moral/philosophical issue being championed. Margaret Court’s recent tirade is testament to that. With a clear road ahead it is hard not to imagine corporations pushing the boundaries across a range of issues previously regarded as the preserve of the State.  Space flight is one very clear example.

Corporations now appear willing to step up when voids are created. Climate change is an existential threat so the role played by Corporations as good global citizens will be crucial if we are to survive the climate change threat. The more governments shy away from taking big bold decisions in the face of huge challenges, the more the public will come to rely on Corporations to save us from our elected politicians. This is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle. We know who we elect warts and all. The intense scrutiny of the media in the 24 hour news cycle has seen to that. Social media has heightened our gaze. If Corporations become de facto leaders through absentee government then we have to ask just how much do we know about these unelected power brokers? Perhaps as Shareholders now we need to know where Directors stand on a range of issues from climate change, gender equity, marriage equality, LGBTIQQ rights, migrants and refugees etc. rather than just what business qualifications they have and what other Boards they sit on?

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Victor Hugo described history as ‘an echo of the past in the future; a reflex from the future on the past’. History has taught us that when Corporations have unfettered freedom, think the East India Company, things don’t always go as we would like. Science fiction writers and directors most often cast the Corporation as evil in their imagined future and we all know how accurate they are in predicting the future look of things (hover boards aside).

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So next time you applaud your government for standing aside and letting ‘us’ get on with it, or celebrate the fact that our jobs will be safer and our electricity bills lower without action on climate change, reflect on this. It may not just be coastal erosion and devastating climactic conditions your grandchildren are fighting, but also some nebulous all-encompassing Corporation that cannot be elected out of office. Remember for every Jeff Immelt there is a Lehman brother or a Jeffrey Skilling. And remember we can’t rely on Iron Man. Our choice will be more stark than that!

 

 

Hear’say in the Heart of Manchester

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My daughter went to her first concert at the Manchester Arena (MEN Arena back then). I remember it well. It was Hear’say, a manufactured band on a TV show called Popstars, a forerunner to the Idol franchises. Your daughter’s first concert is a big deal. She’s growing up….she likes music ‘yay’ hopefully she will grow up and like the Indie stuff…fingers crossed. So it was those emotions that welled up when I first heard of the Manchester bombing and saw the photos. It was an outrageous and heinous act, but for me the impact comes not from my initial visceral response to this act committed by someone deluded by the wrong notions and quite possibly manipulated by zealots for whom the exercise of power must be equally satiating as their distorted view of their religion. Rather it is the subtle impact of it a day or so after that has slipped behind my emotional guard.

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As a parent I reflect on the lost potential of the lives lost. For those who survived to go from the rapture of the moment to a living nightmare will be life-defining. This wasn’t an act that caught people out in the street, it was deliberately perpetrated to target young people enjoying themselves, many for their first concert like my daughter all those years before.

This had me reflecting about my other subtle connections to acts of terror. I first travelled internationally on what turned out to be a 15 year migration to the UK. From Los Angeles to New York we flew on Pan Am and I clearly remember the words painted large on the plane as we were boarding – ‘Isle of the Seas’. That very plane crashed some time later torn apart by a bomb on board over the town of Lockerbie in north Scotland.

My wife and I eloped and married in New York. On our wedding night we went to a restaurant overlooking Manhattan and made a call to our parents. They brought a telephone to our table. I think I had seen that done in the movies. The view was spectacular; one of the best in the world. Ten years later that very restaurant was the scene of some of the most chilling live television ever to be watched as people ‘opted’ to jump from the blazing and falling Windows on the World restaurant in the Twin Towers on 9/11.

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Before we migrated again, this time to Australia, I was working for a company whose offices were in the British Medical Association building in Tavistock Square in London. My local tube stop was Russell Square where many of the survivors emerged dazed and confused on that day in July 2005. The bomb on the bus exploded outside what was my office block.

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The recent terrible deaths outside the Houses of Parliament in London happened right where I had many years before had the privilege to be in the crowded press gallery in the House of Commons when Prime Minister Tony Blair debated Britain’s entry into the Iraq war after already giving it the green light. Some may say that in some small way the terror we see today can be traced back to that fateful decision. It in no way provides it any succor or justification. Many Australians would have felt the same pull of emotions when watching those dreadful scenes on our TVs.

Events like what happened in my much-loved old home town of Manchester bring back thoughts of how lucky one can be, and for some, how in a moment their lives are changed forever. My time in that wonderful bruised and resilient city was thankfully not marked by the stain of terror but great warmth and wonderful memories. Communities come together in times like this and Manchester despite its tough exterior is something of a beacon to the world with faith communities joining in solidarity and support. Ultimately religious arguments, within and between faiths, boil down to wanting to be right. My book is the truth yours isn’t. My faith is righteous yours isn’t. My values are pure yours aren’t. This way madness lies.

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Coincidentally I viewed a TED Talk today delivered by Ric Elias who was on Flight 1549 that landed in the Hudson River in 2009. Contemplating what he thought was his certain death he was able to distill three core lessons for life. The one that resonates most for me, and I think is germane in this world where terrorism permeates our lives in both outrageous and subtle ways, is this.

‘I no longer choose to be right….I choose to be happy’

If we learn one lesson from the outrages that are perpetrated on our world by the delusional it is that we should prioritise happiness above all else.

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In a nostalgic mood I Googled Hear’Say and watched their clip ‘Pure and Simple’ which was their first single and a runaway success. It transported me back to more innocent days, but I am thankful my daughter  has expanded her musical repertoire making her Dad even prouder.

 

Conversing @ Colvinius

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I got a tweet yesterday from someone who had just died. It simply said ‘It’s all been bloody marvellous.’ It was none other than Mark Colvin, the longstanding journalist from the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). The death of Mark is a blow to quality journalism and his passing is made even more salient by the fact that quality journalism is under attack like never before. There are three threats to the fourth estate. Traditional media is under pressure from falling advertising revenue, social media is skewing newsfeeds, citizen journalism is in many cases reducing the quality of the message and furthermore Trump, ostensibly the leader of the free world, has been doing his damnedest to undermine the role that the media plays in filtering out fact from fiction.

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I was no early listener to Mark Colvin whose career spanned some 40 years with the ABC. I was in the UK enjoying arguably the best quality radio, television and print media journalism in the world. The BBC remains, I think, the best news organisation across radio, television and digital platforms. So on my migration to Australia I was bracing myself for a bit of a culture shock from ‘nation speaking peace unto nation’ to laid-back news ditties interspersed by surfing forecasts. Imagine my surprise when I tuned into the ABC and listened to the likes of Fran Kelly, Waleed Ali, PK, Phillip Adams, Virginia Trioli, Leigh Sales, Maxine McKew, Tony Jones and of course Mark Colvin. I realised pretty quickly that my highbrow bias was totally off beam. Mark though, stood out for me partly I think because of his radio voice which appeared to have a tinge of British accent. He had a very direct approach, not quite Jeremy Paxman, but one that had an edge suggesting he had little tolerance for BS. He never got upset or talked over his interviewee and what was abundantly clear was that he didn’t work from scripts. His second question always seemed to be seamlessly linked to the previous answer; a clear mark of an accomplished journalist and interviewer.

Why is the passing of Mark Colvin, aka known by twitter handle ‘Colvinius’, so important? Possibly like no other time in modern history has the freedom of the press been so much at risk. There is the Trump effect. He believes that if you say it is so then it is so. This is mainly true if you run a Corporation. This is patently true if you host The Apprentice. This is clearly not the case if you are in public office and especially if you are running a country. It’s people like Mark Colvin who have kept and keep on holding such individuals to account.

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Secondly there is the worrying aspect of falling advertising revenues to the traditional media platforms of radio, TV and print. We have a very recent example of this in Australia on, of all days, World Press Freedom Day, with the notification of over 100 redundancies of journalists from the Fairfax Group. This means quality journalists committed to keeping our politicians, those in public service and corporations honest. Democracy is kept alive through the constant application of scrutiny. Those who do so are increasingly targeted as ‘un-American’ or ‘un-Australian’ etc. when nothing could be further from the truth. Those who place the spotlight on our freedoms are surely the great defenders of it which comes out of patriotism and not hatred. As Burt Cohen would attest, to lose quality journalists means our ability to actually undertake some of the long-form journalism or investigative journalism is seriously compromised. Denying media freedom is something we would not tolerate in the free world, but allowing it to be starved through lack of quality personnel seems to be something we sit idly by and allow.

There is the argument of course that alternative platforms, including digital, are taking the place of traditional forms of media and we should just suck it up and get on with it. Besides the young people are accessing their media that way aren’t they? All well and good but the questions you have to ask yourself are whether Facebook, Google, Skimm or Buzzfeed etc. would have had the tenacity and prowess to uncover the Watergate scandal if they had been around then? I strongly suspect not.

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Digital platforms, especially social media, have underlying algorithms allowing social media sites to garner an incredible amount of information about individual eyeball owners. Behaviours and patterns are the primary focus here because advertising revenue is what underpins these companies. This isn’t the world of the first wave of internet companies which were based on ‘fluff’ with no underpinning business model. The business model for the likes of Facebook, Linkedin etc. is well established and it is advertising. We know from FeedVis, developed by the Northeastern University and the University of Michigan, that social media news is actually curated for us. This has caused the New Scientist to claim that ‘in the history of mass media people were in control of what you saw. That’s not true anymore.’ We have every right to be alarmed by this. Our news is likely reflecting our current biases both conscious and unconscious. We know from neuroscience that our ego-brain is constantly seeking confirmation of our particular view of the world. Such self-affirming ‘proof’ delivered to our news feed daily, if not hourly, cannot be healthy from a knowledge, growth or democratic perspective.

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That said, not all digital news delivery is bad. I love keeping abreast of breaking news via Twitter. So did Mark Colvin by the way. What’s remarkable about Mark is that while he embraced the technology, he also embraced the polar opposite of Twitter and its 140 character limit with a breadth across an amazing range of issues that often had his colleagues breathless in admiration.

So I’ve received his last ever tweet. Those who listened to Mark on PM on a regular basis will know what I mean when I say that when I got his last tweet I held on for a further one, after a suitable, almost awkward pause, that simply said….’goodnight.’