Tag Archives: cross cultural strategies

Devil trees and leadership

Over the holiday break, a contingent of our family stood on a hill overlooking Panama City. As we took in the view, our son Cameron remarked, “It’s all about perspective, isn’t it? I might suffer a terrible death. From a personal perspective that would be catastrophic. In this city, that might make news. Yet, from a historical perspective, that is nothing. How many millions have suffered the same? It becomes nothing.”

We listened to the sounds of the city and watched women hanging laundry out of windows below. We surveyed the skyline, a building fashioned to look like a corkscrew, and the ocean etching a border.

Senya, Cameron’s sister, then encouraged us to contemplate that cities, or systems, like this were rocking and rolling, moving and shaking across this country, across Central America and beyond. She brought up the struggle of actually comprehending how interdependent actions were madly occurring all around us and that we were somehow affecting the melee, even as observers from above. How many people were hanging their laundry at that exact moment? How many were laughing, crying or walking to work? How many were watching like we were? How did each of those actions mess with another?

I appreciated this conversation and how it shifted my perspective in those moments. I was remembered a Jewish proverb that reminds us to place a piece of paper in each of our front pockets. On one we are counseled to write, “I am unique in all the universe,” and on the other, “I am nothing but dust.” The art is to know which piece of paper to fish out when.

I was brought back to Cameron’s initial statement four days later floating down a creek in a small fishing boat, or panga, near Bocas del Toro, Panama. Our captain and guide hailed from the local Nôbe-Buglé tribe.  After pointing out caimans and sloths, he added, “and that tree over there is called a devil tree. Some people will go make offerings in front of trees like those to call out the devil to get things that they want — jobs, a girl or money.  On Good Friday they wait to make their request and spirits will appear sometimes in the form of a monkey to answer them.”

He had my attention. I have been long fascinated by how trees play a role in cultural practices. In Thailand, you can pray to a tree to save your child from illness or to get a job. If rewarded, you return to the tree and give it gifts. Apparently, tree spirits are feminine as when traveling in the country, I witnessed a number of trees awarded very fancy dresses.

In Crow culture, trees might be adorned with prayer bundles or gifts if prayers are answered as  you can see in the included photo.  

And, Deidre, how are you going to  connect this to leadership?

Harkening back to Cameron’s statement, leadership is all about perspective. For example, how often does your average Westerner walk past a tree without notice? How many of you reading this knew about the potential importance of trees and tree spirits within these cultures? More importantly, how often do I remember that what is standard to some is sacred to others?

Leadership calls for humility. I know well that my personal perspective is not the only one on each situation, yet I need constant reminders. Too often I want to barrel ahead ignoring this fundamental fact.

Like the death example above, what might be a catastrophe for me could be interesting news to another, or have no significance at all. As simple examples, take the cutting down a tree or filling in a wetland. Therefore, as leaders some of our most critical tasks must become sharing, gathering and shifting perspectives.

And so, I am walking into this work week with the mantra, “It’s all about perspective.”

Thanksgiving as a Global Holiday

Community cannot for long feed on itself; it can only flourish with the coming of others from beyond, their unknown and undiscovered brothers. ~ Howard Thurman

I love the irony; what is considered a uniquely American holiday seems to bring out our most global attributes.

Here’s the scenario:

  • Cook all day for guests.
  • Spend hours at the dinner table focused on the dishes, conversation and family
  • Lay around afterwards with no goals other than digesting and hanging out.
  • Watch a game on TV

If I spell the game “futbol” (or what the US calls “soccer”) then I have described a ritual that occurs weekend after weekend around the world. Thanksgiving seems to give us the excuse to return our Old World roots. Here we seem to remember what I find to be a delicious experience of making a day all about food and relationship.

This realization came about last Thursday when we included friends visiting from India, Lebanon and Panama at our dinner festivities. Each settled in naturally to what could have been a novel event of remembering the Pilgrims and commented that this reminded them most of home of any of their Montana-based activities.

I first fell in love with food and community-dominant cultures when I was an exchange student in Mexico thirty years ago. On Sundays, friends would host a carne asada or barbeque where we would spend the afternoon eating, dancing, and then when bored, we’d car pool over to another friend’s house to see what they might be doing. Hanging out was a fine art and a distinct contrast from growing up among productive Norwegian descendants in downtown Minneapolis.

Refining this cross-cultural skill I  find to be essential when working with international groups who spend one to five months with us at Montana State University. Since I love it so, I’m always looking for an opportunity to assemble the groups to hang out as a community, yet I now recognize that these gatherings are also one of the key to success for our programs. Drawing on our Thanksgiving roots, is not only personally fulfilling, but also really smart.

I recommend, as we all are called to be more globally-focused leaders, to search out your own opportunities to recreate Thanksgiving at other times with your groups. It’s not about the turkey, but how to allow those we might perceive as turkeys to become a more integrated part of your team. What small ways can you balance the work with the relationships as I described in an early post?

The Global Techno Beat

During July,  I happily worked with Mongolian and Bhutanese monks, Middle Eastern business leaders, North African and Middle Eastern university student leaders and last but absolutely not least, 5 Iraqi high school students along with American peers. It was an incredible treat as I could soak up one of Montana’s best months while continually enriched by extraordinary conversation.

As foreign visitors visited Bozeman for leadership, civic engagement and conflict resolution training, I asked many of the participants some of my favorite closing questions before sending them on their way:

  • What have you learned here?
  • What are your next steps?
  • What have you appreciated during your time as a group?

Not easy questions for participants who have been drinking from a fire hose of lectures, field trips and project development skills for 8 to 10 hours a day.  For example, the Tributary Fund’s Mongolian and Bhutanese delegation not only attended multiple leadership and environmental courses in Bozeman, but also traveled south to the Teton Science School in Jackson, WY and then to northern Montana to the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas in Arlee, over less than two weeks. It can be a challenge to integrate so much data in such a short period, especially through the filter of your second or third language.

Mongolian Delegation at the Garden of 1,000 Buddhas in Arlee

After an intense month with all these visitors, I got a taste of my own medicine. Last Tuesday, I posed these queries to 17 extraordinary university student leaders from the State Department Middle Eastern Partnership Initiative (MEPI) program. A bright young woman from Bahrain gently responded, “May we also ask, what you have learned from us?”

Running from meeting to workshop all month, I hadn’t been able to think about much other than lesson plans, preparing and did we have any milk left in the fridge!  I could suddenly relate to the blank stares I had received from some after hearing my closing queries. Hmmm, great question, what had I learned?

My favorite teachers remind that after major experiences, we are best served by giving ourselves time to integrate our experience. Systems theorists stress the importance of iterative learning – gathering new information, testing it out and then reflecting on what we have learned. Angeles Arrien posits that the seminal Taoist text on managing change, The Tao Te Ching, teaches that we must continually

  1. Gather information (seek/be dynamic), then
  2. Open ourselves to the results (be receptive) and last
  3. Integrate the results of the first two actions.

So, lots of new information came in this month.  I have tried to be open to receiving. Now, what needs to be better integrated?  With some initial thought, four themes are emerging to be considered from this summer’s work:

  1. Technology’s role in leadership
  2. How to balance connection and action
  3. How it is a rarely “an American issue” or “a Middle Eastern situation,” but that it’s usually  “a human being problem,” and
  4. The absolute impossibility of truly knowing another in the global age

Today I’ll tackle technology…

For a bit of background, I began my career at IBM as a programmer. In 1985, many on our team coded only in machine language (that’s ugly stuff).  I would knit waiting for my programs to compile and my compatriots at IBM and I were some of the first to have email in the country which IBM called VNET.  By 1989, I was the project manager for one of the first electronic medical record systems in the country. We used optical disks the size of large dinner platters, $3,000 scanners heavy as boat anchors and computers that required cooled raised floor rooms to house them – all with less capability that you now have with a decent flash drive, a $200 home scanner and a steady PC server.

In those days, computer technology appeared in our everyday lives through clunky PCs and printers that we would use to write letters and attempt to budget the family finances and do our taxes. Working with computers daily at IBM had me swimming in very different waters than my friends and siblings.  This is not striking or very interesting until I contrast this with Asian students with whom I have worked over the past year who literally risk their lives daily to post their names and photos on Facebook. Where technology used to be nerdy, it’s now deemed a critical necessity.

The next generation, whether you come from a rural region of our south east, the Middle East, Latin America or a monastery in Bhutan wield external drives, digital cameras and cloud computing like our foreparents managed hammers and shears to complete their respective tasks.  Those I see in the classroom are usually armed better I to cross the digital landscape.

I witnessed students dialogue for hours on how to introduce those in their group of Kurdish descent (“should we call them Iraqis, Kurdish or from Kurdistan?”) all the while deftly creating a PowerPoint presentation. While grappling with big issues, I notice that there is no discussion on how they might want to add a short video or animate a slide.  On that they have equal awareness and agreement.

Computers can become more important than sustenance. Visitors with whom we work will forego meals and any entertainment to funnel their per diem money to a laptop fund. Host families and the program assistants consistently make midnight runs to Walmart during the last days of a participant’s visit so he or she can buy electronic equipment. It is not only cheaper here than around the globe, that I am told again and again, but also buying a computer for some is one of their top trip desires.

Through their yearnings and savvy, the students consistently demonstrate that computer and digital skills are key for our next generation of leaders…and, probably for all of us currently working to effectively implement change. This is not new news, but after this month of visitors, I realize I need to consider information systems technology as a critical leadership competency.

Last night in Washington, DC, I attended a final celebration dinner to send off our bright MEPI students after 5 action-packed weeks. Each of the 5 MEPI student groups from around the country were asked to create a 5 minute video or presentation on their time in the US. Our students selected a graphic design student, from Kuwait and a marketing major who also holds a corporate job in Lebanon to lead the charge. Knowing what was possible, most of the students provided photos and ideas and our two video leaders worked through 2 or 3 nights to create this final program deliverable.  It was stellar and included cartoon renderings of each student created by their team graphic artist, meaningful music and a carefully selected (and refined, refined, refined) photomontage to portray their unique Montana highlights.  I was impressed.

Although their video was truly unique, the Montana MEPI students’ professionalism and quality level wasn’t. The friendly competition included tough opponents! For example, when I was a bit awestruck by very polished video with fades, a story line and slow motion created at the University of Delaware. At the table, our students whispered, “It’s not a surprise, one of their students is a film student and works on action movies.”

Gone are the days when leading a project could be done without electronic savvy.  To sell your idea, to portray that your team was the best, or to present anything well, today you are going to want a plug, or perhaps a solar panel, attached.

Harnessing new technology, whatever the form, has always boosted leadership power. The train and then effective use of the car “drove” the results of political races when they were introduced. We can use the additional power for a variety of ends. And so,  if I arm you with a set of powerful tools, be it today computer expertise or how to turn conflict into opportunity, for what will you use them?

I’m a bit fixated on the above question when I am training young leaders. I was reminded again why it feels alright to keep pushing for clear and hopefully positive intentions while I passed through the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) . I stopped in front of a full-wall placard entitled, “Technology and Race,” The exhibit explained that by 1938, Hitler’s team had effectively employed the newest data gathering and storage technology available to create a country-wide national registry of Jews during that year’s census. By the following year, systematic killing began.

Then, down the hall, I strolled through the new USHMM Take Action interactive exhibit where you can access their website and track progress on ending genocide in Darfur, support relief and awareness efforts and create a pledge to make the world a better place. Knowledge is power. For good or ill, you must decide.

It gives me hope that every one of our Montana State University MEPI students chose to use their last Saturday afternoon in the US to thoughtfully tour the USHMM exhibits as well.  Each made a conscious choice; Best Buy, Target and more work on the QuickTime video needed to wait until another day.

The Power of Stories

My friend Sunny calls it, “the Friday morning weep-fest.” After last week I’d have to agree. Driving downtown, I too had tears rolling down my cheeks listening to National Public Radio’s latest selection from the Storycorps Project.

Storycorps is an oral history project begun in 2003 where tens of thousands of everyday people have interviewed family and friends in a mobile recording booth. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD that the participants take home, and archived for generations to come at the Library of Congress.  Here’s Storycorps founder, Dave Isay, sharing from the project:

Chief Justice John Marshall once said that “to listen well is as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well.”  I am impressed with not only the result of these interviews, but also the process. How often do I give my loved ones 40 minutes of uninterrupted, focused story telling time?

So you might wonder, what had me tearing up in the car? story corps

I listened to Debbie Watterson and her son Mitchel talk about having a deaf family member. Click on the link to see caught me.

This piece seems like an apt follow up to last week’s post on encouragement — I hope you enjoy it.

What a Bit of Encouragement Can Yield

This week I passed a coffee shop table where a friend sat with a pretty red-haired woman. Being introduced for the first time, I blurted out how beautiful she looked in an emerald green sweater set. I think I caught my new acquaintance a bit off guard and upon heading out again I thought, “There I go again…”

My husband shook his head a few months ago as we boarded a plane and I shared with the young, handsome airline staffer that he had great eyes. My daughter cringes when I can’t help myself and tell her friends how I love their outfits. I try to temper this behavior — the poor airline employee blushed apple red just to remind me that this is not common practice — but I still hold a deep belief in acknowledgement.

I believe in acknowledgement and its sister action of encouragement because 1) It’s a conflict resolution skill of the first order and 2) It’s the reason that I have chosen to bravely embark on many favorite accomplishments.

When I am passionate about an issue like good education for all, there is nothing more delicious than another seeing my passion and affirming fully that he’s heard me. “You really care about this. It is what feeds your soul. Here’s what I understand you are saying…” Hearing any of those are balm to the soul. If others are enthusiastically making a point, just let them know that you have heard the content, emotion and impact of their words; this works wonders in conflict. You don’t need to agree; just be clear that you have truly heard them.

Before I left on an year long exchange to Mexico after high school, I was required to go to a Rotary training session over a weekend at a camp outside of Minneapolis. One of the session leaders suddenly required us to give an impromptu speech to about 10 gathered students and adults crowded in a small cabin. 30 years later (can it be that long?) I still remember one of the Rotarians coming up to me and out of the blue saying, “You are really good at public speaking, do you know that?”  I didn’t.

Now, whenever I get up in front of hundreds, or embarrass young airline employees that kind soul is more than partially to blame. His words encouraged me. They mattered, whether were true or just one man’s opinion.

The art of Joshua Allen Harris

The art of Joshua Allen Harris

Check out this fun piece on artist Joshua Allen Harris, who after a bit of encouragement, has taken to creating fantastic pieces using garbage bags and subway exhaust.

Where has encouragement empowered you? How might you acknowledge another’s contributions this week?