Harvey brings out the best and worst in business practices

Hurricane Harvey is proving once again that large-scale disasters bring out the best and the worst in people, and that includes those who run local businesses.

A shining exemplar of the best side is Houston furniture store owner Jim McIngvale, known locally as “Mattress Mack.” As the seemingly endless sheets of rain started to flood Houston, Mattress Mack put out the word that those who needed shelter could come to one of his stores and have a warm, dry place to sleep. As Heidi Glenn and Daniella Cheslow reported for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition”:

Houstonian Jim McIngvale, known as “Mattress Mack,” has turned his two furniture stores into temporary shelters for Tropical Storm Harvey evacuees.

As the city started to flood, he posted a video online with a simple message: Come on over. He gave out his personal phone number. And hundreds of people streamed in.

“We sell home theater furniture that you watch TV in, they’re sleeping on that. They’re sleeping on recliners, sleeping on sofas and love seats. We have sleeper sofas, they pulled them out and slept on that,” McIngvale tells NPR’s Morning Edition. “They’re sleeping on hundreds of mattresses throughout the store. They’re sleeping on the couches — wherever they can find a place that’s comfortable, and God bless ’em.”

One station sold gas for a whopping $20 a gallon. A hotel reportedly charged guests more than twice the normal rate. One business sold bottles of  water for a staggering $99 per case — more than 10 times some of the prices seen online.

As people in southeastern Texas face the devastating floodwater left by Hurricane Harvey, they are also grappling with predatory businesses that are selling basic necessities at astronomical prices. As of Wednesday morning, the state attorney general’s office had received 684 consumer complaints, a majority of which involved price-gouging of bottled water, fuel, groceries and other necessities.

I’m betting that we’ll be hearing more stories of kindness, sharing, and courage during the days, weeks, and months to come. Hopefully those accounts will inspire the best in others and overcome some of the less wonderful practices that exploit people during the most trying of times.

Infusing good core values into a new organization

With a beta version of the TJ Society’s forthcoming website, at the International Congress on Law and Mental Health, Prague, in July

Readers of recent entries are likely aware that I’ve been hip deep in helping to create a new, non-profit organization, the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence (“TJ Society”). From the most recent draft of our by-laws, here is what the group is about:

Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) is an interdisciplinary field of philosophy and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of laws and public policies, legal and dispute resolution systems, and legal institutions. TJ values psychologically healthy outcomes in legal disputes and transactions, without claiming exclusivity in terms of policy objectives. The TJ Society shall advance these overall purposes by supporting legal and interdisciplinary scholarship; identifying and promoting best professional and judicial practices; sponsoring conferences, workshops, and seminars; engaging in continuing professional education and public education activities; and hosting and participating in print, electronic, social media platforms.

As I wrote earlier this month, I’m part of an all-volunteer board that is forming this organization, and I’m serving as its first chairperson. It’s a lot of work, but the broader purpose and the fellowship of a truly exceptional group of colleagues make it all worth it.

This also is an opportunity to put into practice many of the values that I have been advocating for via this blog. It means practicing inclusive, servant leadership dedicated to a cause greater than individual ambitions. It means treating others with respect and dignity. It means actually exhibiting transparency rather than simply touting it. It means avoiding unnecessary hierarchies. Above all, it means building a welcoming and difference making community. Fortunately, our board consists of individuals who walk this talk as a natural way of going about things. This is good: An organization devoted to psychologically healthy laws and legal systems should strive to operate in a psychologically healthy manner.

The TJ Society is a global organization, with a board and advisory council comprised of folks from around the world. This creates obvious communications challenges. It can mean maddening pile-ups of e-mails (many inflicted by yours truly) in attempting to work through topics that require group input, and very understandably patiences can grow weary among a group of very busy people. Additionally, available online meeting technologies such as Skype and Google hangout can’t change the scheduling realities of holding a board meeting with participants’ time zone differences ranging from six to fourteen hours! As I said, we’re fortunate to have such wonderful board members who can roll with the digital waves.

In terms of shaping my contributions to this fledgling learned society, I am fortunate to have other organizations and initiatives as role models. Over the years I have learned so much from the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, especially the leadership of co-leaders Evelin Lindner and Linda Hartling. I’ve also been inspired by the inclusive culture of the biennial Work, Stress and Health conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. I’m further grateful for the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health sponsored by the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, which, among many other good things, allows therapeutic jurisprudence scholars and practitioners to gather and learn from each other. I hope that the TJ Society will draw from the best characteristics exhibited by these entities.

It’s too early to say whether the TJ Society will build into its culture the values that make for healthy, inclusive organizations, but I’m betting that it will happen. Embracing and practicing these values at the beginning is an important start. Yup, as we grow we’ll make some mistakes, juggle differences of opinion, and probably deal with conflicts here and there. But if the foundation is strong, we’ll do things in the right way much more often than not.

Can institutions be caring servants for a greater good?

In the opening to his monograph The Institution as Servant (1972; rev. ed. 2009), the late Robert K. Greenleaf stated:

THIS IS MY THESIS: 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.

Greenleaf devoted much of his life to advancing the philosophy and practice of servant leadership. I was introduced to this concept by educator Steven James Lawrence, who tied it into the quest for greater dignity in our workplaces. This led me to the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in Atlanta, which describes servant leadership this way:

While servant leadership is a timeless concept, the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay that he first published in 1970. In that essay, Greenleaf said:

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

Linking institutions and individuals in a servant leadership mode

You can see the challenge, drawing heavily upon Greenleaf’s thinking:

  1. Organizations have become the conduits through which society does much of its “caring work.”
  2. Organizations are only as good as their citizens, especially their leaders.
  3. Thus, to foster better, more caring institutions, we have to create and empower more caring leaders eager and willing to serve in a servant leadership capacity.

Uh oh, this isn’t going to be easy, right? It runs smack dab into commonly-held notions of self-interested ambition and advancement that are drilled into the heads of high achievers early on. Think family expectations for success. Think the cultures of business schools, law schools, and elite colleges and universities. Many of us (myself included) are where we are because we bought into that achievement ethic, at least in part, and perhaps at times at the cost of conducting ourselves in a servant leadership mode.

Furthermore, changing existing institutions is hard work. Organizational cultures set in good and bad ways. Greenleaf wrote The Institution as Servant especially for trustees in businesses, universities, and religious institutions. However, stakeholders at all levels must be invited to play a role in positive transformation. Also, it may be easier to imbue new organizations with a spirit of servant leadership rather than trying to move existing ones that seem stuck in place.

Finally, as some protested when I first wrote about servant leadership over a year ago, some leaders claim to be operating in servant leadership mode when, in reality, they’re doing quite the opposite. Thus, servant leadership has been hijacked in some instances by individuals who tout themselves as being something they’re not. (I’ve seen folks like this in academic workplaces. They’re also fond of using terms such as “transparency” and “shared governance,” and the more they invoke them, the less they practice them.)

Still, this is all worth pursuing. To a large degree, our society is the product of the institutions that shape it. Better organizations and better leaders can only help us.

“It’s not my responsibility”

(image courtesy of clipart kid.com)

A conversation with a friend last night and an episode of a TV crime drama I recently watched served to crystallize this line in my mind: “It’s not my responsibility.”

Naturally I thought about “It’s not my responsibility” and responses like it in the context of my bailiwicks: Workplaces, law and policy, and the community. But before I share some thoughts on that, let’s get a definition. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines responsibility as “the quality or state of being responsible,” such as a “moral, legal, or mental accountability.”

Okay, sometimes “It’s not my responsibility” is simply a truthful, accurate statement of circumstances and limitations. At work we may have defined responsibilities, and exceeding them or stepping over those of others could lead to chaos and disruption. The law establishes responsibilities and obligations, too, and exceeding those boundaries could lead to unwanted consequences. Family ties may mandate responsibilities legally and morally, especially based on closeness of relations.

Beyond that, however, there’s a huge realm of discretion where we can choose to accept or undertake responsibility or not. This may occur in the context of taking a stand, helping or protecting someone, or contributing financial support. When we exercise our discretion to take responsibility, we are making a commitment notwithstanding the lack of external obligation to do so. That commitment should be every bit as strong as an institutionally imposed mandate.

Despite religious chest-thumping by some, I have to say that we are in an age where serving as each other’s keepers does not appear to be in style. Whether in our workplaces or other communities and relationships, I hope that will change.

In academic leadership, resume and character are separate entities

resumeclipart

Image courtesy of clipartfest.com

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned during a quarter of century in academe is that one’s resume and character are separate entities.

Okay, a quick clarification: In academe a resume is called a curriculum vitae, or c.v. A c.v. is a resume on growth hormones, detailing activities that normally are summarized in a page or two. For someone with a lot of publications and speaking appearances, a  c.v. can easily top ten pages.

In any event, whether we call it a resume or a c.v., the bottom line is that an impressive paper record and upstanding personal character do not necessarily go hand in hand. This is especially the case with professors who enter the world of academic administration, harboring ambitions of deanships, college presidencies, and other high-ranking positions.

Please don’t misunderstand me. There are plenty of good, ethical people in academic administration. Many bring a spirit of servant leadership to their work, as opposed to raw, preening ambition. But there’s another group, a pretty big one, that calls to mind writer William Deresiewicz’s excellent essay on leadership, based on a talk he gave to West Point cadets:

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along.

I have quoted often from this essay in this blog. The piece is well worth reading in its entirety. For dwellers in academe, especially, there’s at least a decent chance that you’ll see some people you recognize in his descriptions — hopefully none involving a mirror!!

The rise of the type of leader described by Deresiewicz is one of the problems infecting academic life today: Too many ambitious climbers, not enough servant leaders. At a time when higher education needs its best people at the helm, I’m afraid it’s a very mixed bag.

Author Jenna Blum: “I didn’t become a writer to not say what I believe in”

A great writer hamming it up for the camera

Hamming it up for the camera, or searching for an angle that clarifies today’s America?

How does a socially conscious novelist speak her truth in the Age of Trump?

For my long-time friend Jenna Blum, author of the New York Times bestselling novel Those Who Save Us and one of Oprah’s Top 30 women writers, it means weaving her values into her stories, sharing her views on social media, and engaging in political activism.

On Saturday, Jenna was the featured speaker for a program hosted by the Boston chapter of the Women’s National Book Association, speaking on the “crucial role of women’s literary voices in literature in the current political climate, and the fusing of art, writing, and activism.” She gave a wonderful talk, mixing personal stories, an understanding of history, and a sense of humor laced with vocabulary befitting a native of New Jersey.

Jenna’s own life story infuses her political outlook and her alarm over the election of Donald Trump. The daughter of a Jewish father and news writer and a mother of German heritage, she grew up in a household surrounded by books and an awareness of 20th century history. To write Those Who Save Us, a story set in World War II Germany, for over a decade she immersed herself in the Nazi era, reading deeply and serving as an interviewer of concentration camp survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.

This perspective fundamentally shapes her view of America’s current political situation. Referencing Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie, she said that Election Night 2016 was “like Carrie at the prom,” expecting “something awesome,” only to see it turn into a nightmare. Every morning, she wakes up knowing that “something bad has happened to my country.”

Her alarm over the Trump Administration has galvanized her into action, and she has now taken on the role of political activist. She also regularly uses her Facebook page to post action alerts and to share her views of the unfolding situation. (In the process, she sometimes fields criticisms from readers who are fans of her books — which I can attest she handles with both respect and honesty.)

Jenna’s success as a writer was not overnight. She turned Those Who Save Us into a bestseller through sweat equity, including exhaustive self-marketing, countless book club appearances, and talks across the country and internationally. It is to her credit that she is willing to risk some of that hard-earned privilege by urging us to resist what is going on in Washington D.C. today.

Such actions sometimes require facing fears personally. She talked about going to the January women’s march on Washington with names of lawyers written on her arm, in case she was detained and her cell phone was taken away. In fact, Jenna confessed that the Trump phenomenon has activated her “Anne Frank complex,” her label for “persistent fears that the Nazis are going to take me away.” Furthermore, she is aware that other authors are being counseled by publishers and friends to keep their political viewpoints to themselves, and she’s heard that advice as well.

But her remarks on Saturday made clear her belief that this is a time for people to step up and be counted. She is putting those beliefs into action. Besides, she said, “I didn’t become a writer to not say what I believe in.”

thosewhosaveus-cvr-thumb1

“The rules don’t apply to me”

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

Image courtesy of Clipart Kid

How much misconduct, corruption, and abuse in our society can be attributed to powerful people who believe the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to them?

I find myself coming back to this question over and again whenever I learn about significant legal or ethical violations committed by those in positions of considerable power. I’m hardly alone in thinking this way. Google the phrase “does power corrupt” and you’ll get tons of hits to studies and commentaries that basically say, yes, it often does. For example, in a 2016 piece for PBS NewsHour, Dr. Dacher Keltner of the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley details results of lab experiments where subjects are assigned higher power status:

Just the random assignment of power, and all kinds of mischief ensues, and people will become impulsive. They eat more resources than is their fair share. They take more money. People become more unethical. They think unethical behavior is okay if they engage in it. People are more likely to stereotype. They’re more likely to stop attending to other people carefully. It’s just this paradoxical quality of power, which is the good in human nature gets us power, and then power leads to the bad in human nature.

The effect is a chemical one, as Dr. Keltner explains:

When we feel powerful, we have these surges of dopamine going through our brain. We feel like we could accomplish just about anything. That’s where the power paradox begins, which is that very sense of ourselves when feeling powerful leads to our demise, leads to the abuse of power.

Now, I am not a high-and-mighty moralist when it comes to following rules for their own sake. Yes, there are rules of law and of everyday behavior that we should do our best to follow. However, I believe that some rules are unjust and/or unwise, and that discretion, mercy, and understanding should enter the picture too. But I’m not talking about the gray areas here, rather, I’m referring to abuses of power by those who have a lot of it.

What are the solutions? Citing a growing body of research, Dr. Keltner suggests that accountability and genuine transparency are key among them:

This really interesting new literature shows that when I’m aware of what other people think of me, when I’m aware of my reputation, I cooperate more in economic gains. I am more likely to sign up for environmentally efficient services. I am more likely to pay taxes. Just this sense that my actions are being scrutinized and my reputation is at stake produces better behavior for the public good or the greater good.

In addition, I’ll weigh in wearing my legal and public policy hat: The vital concept of checks and balances on power fundamentally shapes the United States Constitution and roles of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. I think it’s a good idea for us to implement or reinforce such mechanisms in our public, private, and non-profit institutions. Also, when one individual, cohort, or institution becomes too dominant, we need what economist and author John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power” to challenge these exercises of control.

We live in an age where abuses of power are common. The fixes are fairly easy to identify but hard to implement. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

%d bloggers like this: