Sizing Up Lebron James: Assessing the Mount Rushmore of the NBA

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Here we are on the other side of another NBA Finals and another Lebron James loss, bringing his record in the Finals to 3-5. In conversations about LBJ I’m reminded — often — that the record only indicates how often he has made the Finals. I’m also reminded that he actually averaged a Triple Double during this most recent appearance and how his team just couldn’t compete against a foe so loaded as the Warriors. It’s all true.

For me, Lebron James has always been a peculiar case. He is the best single player of his era as long as Kobe and Tim Duncan belong to somebody else’s era. He is likable and has made mostly all the right steps in his career. He seems to be a solid character guy and puts up numbers like you wouldn’t believe. Even if his what may be called “basketball skills” get put in the less-than-great category, he more than makes up for whatever deficiencies he has with physicality that basketball, or maybe any game, has never seen. Beyond rim-rattling drives to the basket he doesn’t do any one thing great, but he does all things at all 5 positions well and heaven help the man that gets between him and the rim in an open lane or open court situation.

What I wrestle with — and has become multiple ongoing conversations threads — is the Mount Rushmore of the NBA. It seems that my professional sports-loving, social media community is split right down the middle on where LBJ goes on the all-time NBA players list. I have several within my circles that not only put Lebron James on their NBA Mount Rushmore, that is, the 4 greatest players of all time, but see it as nothing less than ridiculous that someone may not. While choosing 4 has been challenging for me, choosing not to include James has not been up to this point. For the record, I’m going to go with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Kobe Bryant. That’s a representative from the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, and 2000s, taking titles, tenure, leadership, and place in basketball history into consideration. Next in line are, but in no order, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan, Akeem Olajuwon, Shaq, Julius Erving, and Wilt Chamberlain. That’s 10 ahead of LBJ and it’s an incomplete list. No Jerry West, Bill Russell, Isaiah Thomas, or Elgin Baylor. No Curry or Durant. But that’s not the point of this post.

This is purely entertainment and, admittedly, splitting hairs. James is awesome and has been since the day he stepped onto an NBA court to score 25 in his first game against the Kings. And he’s definitely among the game’s greats. Apart of this, however, he is probably the most interesting player in my lifetime. So, yes, he flops. But it’s the only way he would ever get a favorable call. He’s also the most scrutinized player ever, hands down. Everything he does is analyzed and over-analyzed. Here are a additional few thoughts on the peculiar case of Lebron James:

The Lebron James Era. Since Lebron James was selected #1 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 NBA draft we have been in the Lebron James era. Back in 2003, of course, we just didn’t know it yet. What was interesting to me during the recent NBA finals was the debate about Kevin Durant as possibly the best player in the league right now, unseating LBJ. Maybe Durant is. But if he is, it’s still the Lebron James Era of the NBA and will be until Lebron tells us that it isn’t. This would mean that if Kevin Durant is currently the best player in the league, it makes him the best player in the Lebron James Era, which is just weird. But Durant isn’t. In my opinion this is just a natural reaction to the collective “numbness” we experience watching Lebron do what he does well, so often. But to have his own era of league history (and who can dispute this) also helps the argument of those who want to put Lebron among the top 4 players of all time and even the best player of all time. If you want to name the “eras” of modern-day NBA basketball, there is the Bird/Magic Era, the Jordan Era, and the Lebron James Era, with all due respect to the Bad Boys, the Spurs, and the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. This alone supports the Lebron apologist greatest-player-of-all-time claim. But here is the difference. Even in the reality of the era, Lebron James hasn’t necessarily “dominated” the Lebron James Era. He hasn’t three-peated like Jordan and Kobe. He has lost in the Finals to Golden State and San Antonio twice and the Dallas Mavericks. Even thought the Durant/Curry-LBJ rivalry has emerged in recent years, there hasn’t been a decade-long foil to James. For comparison, Magic Johnnson has 5 championships in 9 appearances. Larry Bird was 3 -2 while Jordan of course went 6 for 6. Tim Duncan’s Spurs have 4 rings in 6 Finals. What we’re seeing in LBJ is the power of charisma, on-court awe, an ability to control the story line and remain a media fixture, and an extremely keen sense of brand — something that Magic, Bird, and Duncan just didn’t care as much about. And even Jordan, in my opinion, despite being a huge brand, was still a basketball player first. This brings us to …

Brand. This is what separates Lebron James most significantly from the likes of Bird, Kobe, Magic, Jordan and anybody else. James is much less than a player than he is a brand. By no means should this be taken as a shot at James as a player, but it does speak to just how big of a brand he is. Even in Finals losses he is the story. For example, when Kevin Durant hit the 3 in Game 4, the story was James’ defense. He can go from Cleveland to Miami and back to Cleveland and it doesn’t matter. He could go to LA in 2018 and it wouldn’t matter. Lebron James isn’t a mercenary player always following the money or a specific group of players, he is simply Lebron James. Always. Right now, regardless of whether you are a fan or not, he is bigger than the NBA. He is bigger than Magic, Bird, Shaq, or Jordan ever were. Another difference is how important this is to LBJ, which isn’t to be held against him. He has done everything right, avoided missteps (mostly), and has completely controlled the narrative which is a wonder in our cynical culture. You have to give him credit for understanding cultural ethos at such a high level. “Lebron James” the icon is absolutely climate controlled. If his record in the Finals has proven anything, it’s that he doesn’t have to win to be the story. Actually, he can lose and possibly be a bigger story.

Elevating Teammates. As I’ve watched James over the years I have concluded that LBJ doesn’t elevate his teammates in the same way Magic, Bird, Jordan, and others have. But somehow I can also couch this as something less than critical. In this way I think James is akin to Peyton Manning. For instance, I think Manning is the best ever at playing the quarterback position. Even so, if I were to draft a quarterback for my all-time team I’m not sure he would be in my top 5. The problem was that Manning was so good that he became his own system. That is, the Broncos on offense looked a whole lot like the Colts on offense all those Manning years. So, if a team could find a way to beat the system, there was no where else to turn. Lebron is also his own system. Regardless of where he plays or who he plays with, it’s still Lebron. He’s just that good. But because he is essentially his own system, a system unto itself, it’s really hard to maximize what the other players bring to the team. It’s the anti-Spurs. Again, Lebron James is the ultimate outlier. He’s so good that it stifles those around him, even if it’s only to a small degree, enough to keep them consistently falling short. Which brings us to …

Finals Record. What do you do with this? Out of 8 tries, LBJ has 3 titles. My questions is this: What changes in the Finals? Are his teams truly inferior to the West so much of the time or are is the East, which he has dominated, just inferior to the West. It’s certainly not James’ statistics nor his effort. The sum of it is that it’s a very strange — and rare — statistic. It’s rare among the elite at any level simply because so few players makes it to the World Series or Super Bowl as often as James heads to the NBA Finals. Tom Brady would be the closest approximation, I suppose, and you might also consider Derek Jeter. I don’t have any answers to these questions, of course, but in my opinion this statistic mars the “greatest of all time” argument. Yet these losses must be accounted for. Can the greatest player of all time continue to lose in the Finals? Granted, the Spurs and Warriors are really good teams, but the Spurs will be remembered for their consistency not their flash. Given this, they would seem beatable by the greatest player of his generation. So is it a coach or management scenario? And if so, why weren’t the Bulls, Celtics, Spurs, and Lakers plagued by a similar circumstance. I don’t have any answers to these questions, of course, but in my opinion this statistic mars the “greatest of all time” argument. Like so much of this, it just defies explanation.

This post isn’t an anti-James rant. It is, I think, an attempt to size up a player that is quite a bit different than those that have come before him both in physical stature and approach to career. His is a peculiar case, at least for me. While I think Lebron wants to win, I don’t think Lebron is necessarily desperate to win. When you’re as good as he is, heck, it’s still great. Perhaps not all-time great, but good enough to make the Finals and even win a few. He scores high on likeability. He’s super intelligent. He is mindful of his place as a role model of sorts and there seems to be a sense of humility and gratitude. There is a lot to like about Lebron James.

 

Trump in the East: Revisiting Revolution

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President Trump’s first trip overseas is now in the books. His itinerary took him from Riyadh to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Rome, Vatican City, Brussels, and Taormina and Sigonella, Italy. Photos of him with the likes of King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Prime Minister Netanyahu and placing a wreath at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem were downright surreal. The whole thing was just … so … international. I even texted a friend this: “Did you know that Donald Trump was president? Not president of Trump Inc., but president of the United States.” Whether it was a success or not depends on who you ask, I guess. But no one can deny the optics. President Trump stepped out of the television and into his new role as world leader. That he chose the east for this trip was no accident, either. It was an opportunity for the president to reaffirm the country’s leadership along with espousing and promoting a message of solidarity. What I appreciated most was the sense of sincerity.

Regardless of how successful President Trump’s first trip abroad may or may not have been, the outright collision of popular culture, our current American political climate, and the volatile east was impossible for me to ignore. The visuals of our just-inaugurated president in these far-away places, with men in traditional east clothing and in incredibly weighty moments, for me at least, conjured other far-away visuals from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. As fate would have it, I’ve spent quite a bit of time lately reading books from the revolutionary era that dates from the Spanish Civil War early in the Twentieth Century through the Cuban Revolution and the Cold War. I haven’t devoted a great deal of time, any time for that matter, to the Spanish Civil War. But from what I gather, there was essentially an ongoing revolution beginning in 1918 with the first World War through the Spanish Civil War which gave way to World War II, Korea, Viet Nam, and Cuba. Even though we’ve been led to believe that all wars are ultimately about money, this period of history actually seems more motivated by political philosophy than finance and power.

The Spanish Revolution has become the most interesting to me as it relates to our current state. Ultimately between the competing factions of communism and fascism, the Spanish Revolution has its origins in extreme nationalism that emerged as a result of creeping liberalism. As the central government leaned more and more left, the military led by General Franciso Franco attempted a coup with some degree of success. The “some” part of this is what embroiled Spain in its 3-year revolution with Germany and Italy supporting the nationalists and Russia supporting what was left of Spain’s legitimate government.

It’s important to note that the democracies sat this one out. They opted neither to join the nationalists or the progressives. While private citizens (even including Ernest Hemingway) from US. France, and England contributed to the efforts of the Spanish government in its fight against fascism, the states as sovereigns remained neutral. And the choice of these citizens? This is what’s fascinating to me. Just about anyone from any democracy that wanted to join the fight in Spain was likely going to fight on the side of communism against the more natural enemy of democracy, extreme nationalism in the form of fascism. In this context — and others such as Germany in the 1930s – nationalism came in way short on the “healthy nation” scale. Certainly not condemning national pride, history has shown us that nationalism in its extremity, dare I say radicalism, can lead down some dark paths.

As I’ve immersed myself in this revolutionary stretch of the Twentieth Century I can’t help but wonder if we’re on the edge of another such season, though surely not as violent in its swings. The American electorate surprised many of us with its reaction to encroaching liberalism. We saw some of the same tendencies in France’s national election and even now surprises from Great Britain. And here we are almost exactly 100 years later with a president elected on the high tides of nationalism. I wouldn’t suggest there’s anything magic about 100 years, but I would suggest that we as humans have short memories. I’ve read that every 5th generation is tainted by a tragic brush of forgetfulness. (My summary.) That is, say, the Baby Boomers studied under the World War II generation but failed to steep their children in a helpful historical or cultural context. The children of the Boomers then would have little to pass on to the fourth generation about what was learned in the 1940s. In this very human, somewhat twisted drama, the fifth generation is vulnerable to the same destructive conclusions and reactions as those that embroiled us in the era of turmoil that stained most of the Twentieth Century. Historian Joseph Ellis in his book American Creation, referring to the framers of the Constitution, notes how our Founding Fathers put into place a means for fueling a perpetual revolution yet, with its various checks and balances, might manage to avoid sudden and destructive turns. I’ve always appreciated that sentiment from Ellis and such foresight of the Framers. I’m just not sure I’m as confident in the populace.

Does history repeat itself? Although it may appear so, to say that history repeats itself personifies “history” to an unreasonable level. History is neutral and abject. What we mistake for a cyclical history is humanity simply falling into the same mistakes. Maybe it’s just semantics, but I think the two things are different. My point is that the problem is not with historicity but the human condition. Can we change it? I guess we’ll see. But maybe these are the wrong questions. Maybe the right question is this: Where will we put our adoration? Based on what I see run through my feeds every day we are, collectively, in a perpetual process of deciding what or who we will worship and more and more it’s landing, in some form or fashion, with our government. In what or who we will put our trust and hope. This question gets to matters of our heart, energy, and trust. An interesting “revolution” would emerge if we opted to pursue the original vision for America that exhorted the individual to become greater than governments had allowed to that point in history as opposed to our relatively recent obsession with simply being on the right political side. So many of the posts I see on social media remind of CS Lewis’ conclusion: We are far too easily pleased. Dare to be more than liberal or republican, than democrat or conservative, than progressive or pragmatic. This is a revolution of spirit.

North Carolina’s HB 2: Bruce Springsteen and the Philosophy of Progress

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I grew up on Born in the USA. So many songs on that record really worked for me. It may be surprising that my favorite was actually “I’m on Fire” but there were many great songs from which to choose. Even so, I wasn’t a huge fan until I came into the adult years during which I learned to appreciate lyrics from tracks like “Human Touch”, “Jungleland” off the Born to Run record, and the entire Devils and Dust album. I absolutely love the way Springsteen captures and articulates the  human condition and spirit, not to mention the way he champions the common man. It’s a spirit he and I share. I love the way he sees the world and its inhabitants. For that matter, I love the way the more left-leaning of us see the world, too. Their perspective can at times create a much more inspiring place than what reality might otherwise suggest.

And so this brings us to Springsteen’s decision to cancel a recent Greensboro, NC concert as a way to protest the passing of North Carolina House Bill 2. I happen to support legislation like NC’s Public Facilities and Privacy Act not because I’m a conservative curmudgeon that is opposed to specific and inalienable rights as they may be defined, but because this bill would appear to be a corrective move toward recent legislation that has overreached on behalf of one group to encroach upon the rights of another group. In other words, in my opinion HB 2 and similar bills in Georgia and Tennessee represent a reaction to recent overcompensation — overcompensations, to some degree, that have admittedly prompted long overdue conversations over matters of sexuality and gender. But that’s not how such a law is portrayed in a world that runs screaming down the easiest path toward manufactured outrage. Nor in today’s world could it be.

For reference, here are a few pulled quotes from Bruce Springsteen’s official statement about the decision to cancel:

He cites HB 2 as a law that “… dictates which bathrooms transgender people are permitted to use. Just as important, the law also attacks the rights of LGBT citizens to sue when their human rights are violated in the workplace.” His use of the word “attacks” is unnecessarily strong, in my opinion. A proponent of the very same bill may say with integrity that it actually protects the rights of some.

“ …To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress.” This is the part that grabbed my attention and will drive much of this post. I’ve had trouble truly understanding notions of progress in this context for a while now.

For the sake of context, below are a few questions and answers associated with North Carolina House Bill 2. This bill does not appear to be an attack on anybody. Rather, it returns some level of decision-making to businesses and private facilities on the issue of public restrooms:

Can private businesses, if they choose, continue to allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom, locker room or other facilities of the gender they identify with, or provide other accommodations? Yes. For instance, if a privately owned sporting facility wants to allow attendees of sporting events to use the restroom of their choice, or install unisex bathrooms, they can.

Can businesses and private facilities still offer reasonable accommodations for transgender people, like single occupancy bathrooms for instance? Yes. This bill allows and does nothing to prevent businesses, and public or private facilities, from providing single use bathrooms.

Does the new bill limit or prohibit private sector companies from adopting their own nondiscrimination policies or practices? No.

Does this bill mean transgender people will always have to use the restroom of the sex of their birth, even if they have undergone a sex change? No. This law simply says people must use the bathroom of the sex listed on their birth certificate. Anyone who has undergone a sex change can change their sex on their birth certificate, apparently, which is news to me. What this does do, however, is honor a person’s commitment as opposed to allowing him or her to choose a bathroom based on momentary affinity, desire, or other motivation. Better put, you can be whatever you want, but at some point you’ve got to land the plane. Seems fair to me.

Why did NC pass this law in the first place? The bill was passed after the Charlotte City Council voted to impose a regulation requiring business to allow a man into a woman’s restroom, shower, or locker room if they choose. This ordinance would have eliminated the basic expectations of privacy people have when using the rest room by allowing people to use the restroom of their choice. This local regulation brought up serious privacy concerns by parents, businesses, and others across the state, as well as safety concerns that this new local rule could be used by people who would take advantage of this to do harm to others.

I must say that I’m not bothered at all that Springsteen would cancel his show. And it doesn’t bother me at all that he may take a position contrary to mine. I appreciate diversity, honest dialog, conviction, and passion. I do, however, take issue with the notion of progress as it relates to this topic. Here’s the question that emerges from the Boss’ decision and subsequent statement for me: Is a transgendered person’s right to use the restroom of his or her choice an indication of progress?

To notions of progress. I recently stumbled onto I’ll Take My Stand as a part of a personal research project. I’ll Take My Stand is a collection of essays written by the Vanderbilt Agrarians in the late 1930s. Don’t be fooled by its dated-ness. The contributors of this collection included giants like Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate. These contributors and writers were confronted with very similar paradigms for progress as their more familiar agrarian way of life became much less commonplace. This transition necessitated that they, too, examine notions of progress and the appropriate responses to cultural winds. It prompted them to ask, So what is progress?

One of the essays, Lyle Lanier’s “The Philosophy of Progress,” begins by giving us a definition of the word itself. I love the way Lanier positions this for us: “Progress is both a slogan and a philosophy, a device for social control and a belief in the reality of a process of cosmic development toward some far-off divine event.” Thus references to progress and Lanier’s “far-off divine event” can be likened to Marx’s opiate of the people. That is, it pacifies us. It suggests that we give no more consideration to the subject at hand because change is progress and progress is good and who can be against that. By now we’re familiar with presidential hopefuls rallying us with promises of progress. We’re conditioned to understand progress as equal parts “future,” “favorable,” and “change.”

This essay also reminds us that “progress” is not the same as “change.” Just because we may experience the benefits of greater modernity, machinery, and technology, this doesn’t necessarily translate as actual progress. Referencing Wilhelm Windelband, Lanier claims that the problems of progress actually coincide with THE problem of civilization itself, which asks this question: “whether and [to what extent] … the change in human relations of human life has served to further man’s true happiness?” So, yes, there has been change, but the only indication of progress is to what extent we have developed what Windelband calls “true happiness.” Granted, this is a very subjective term. The context of the essay would suggest that “true happiness” is most notably attached to traditional social moorings. This sentiment is very closely associated with discipline and restraint as each relates to the drive for ever-increasing production and consumption and the “generally accelerated tempo of social change served to popularize the doctrine of progress.” Conceding to such a drive for technological and medical advancement may not be the best prescription for true happiness, though it does satisfy our growing need for immediate gratification. And, it must be noted, the accessibility of immediate gratification fits nicely with future favorable change. We’ve grown to expect both “more” and “easier.” Some refer to this as entitlement.

So here is what it comes down to: comfort. We all want to be comfortable. We hold it in the highest esteem. We strive for it. We seek it. We work for it and sacrifice for it. Even though Springsteen’s take on progress is manipulative, he is using a currency we have all bought into — wittingly or not. His definition and use of “progress” allows us to keep doing what we’re doing in the hopes of one day — be it retirement, the next job, the proverbial ship, a relationship, whatever — experiencing Lanier’s divine far-off event. The opposite of comfort, in this case, is to truly wrestle with the weightier matters of identity, purpose, and clemency. This forces us beyond the political conversation with its tidy categories into the messier areas of the soul. And it’s hard. Furthermore, to understand progress as the improvement of man’s material and social welfare, Lanier adds, is to lose a significant aspect of our essence. Life has to be about more than just getting what we want, yet this is the promise of Springsteen’s progress. Lanier puts it this way: “Man henceforth would be concerned not so much with saving his soul as with making himself comfortable.”

In his protest, what is Bruce Springsteen really doing. What is he communicating about his worldview and the potential for humanity to take on the noble struggle of identity and basic rights. Different from championing humanity, I think he has actually cheapened the human condition. For Springsteen this actually is about a concert and North Carolina House Bill 2. He actually believes that the well-being of these “freedom fighters” is at stake in the HB 2 decision and he mistakenly believes that the best thing that can happen is for everyone to get whatever they want. His goal is, in Lanier terms, simple social welfare. The truth is there are far greater things and ideas way beyond the typical understanding of “progress.” There is maturity in the hard “no.” The truth is that there are literal souls at stake.

Zero Dark Thirty: Drawing Lines Between Leadership and Influence

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There is quite a bit written about leadership. Books, blogs, articles plus conferences, banquets, seminars. There are people that have careers predicated on teaching about leadership, cultivating leaders, and leadership theory. It’s funny when you get to the point in life when you pick up that business book and read the first few chapters only to realize, “Wait a minute. I’ve read this before.” There’s only so much that can be said about leadership and each generation probably has a new expression and a new voice. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

So recently when I was watching Zero Dark Thirty for what must be the 100th time I noticed something: a distinction can be made between “leadership” and something I will call “influence.” For starters, leadership is generally assigned. It doesn’t mean this person doesn’t have influence, but the influence tends to be more embodied in the seat of the position instead of within the man or woman’s personhood — that is, who they are. One of my favorite writers talks about bringing the full “weight” of who you are. That’s influence. Watching Zero Dark Thirty we see that the principal character, Maya, and the person who drives close to 100% of the plot has no positional authority. She can’t tell others what to do even when it becomes clear that there are some plausible next steps. She can’t just snap an order or directive to make things happen. Is this right? I don’t know, but it happens every day in our firms, factories, and churches. Maya has to tap into something deeper. Something beyond job titles. She has to cultivate influence. Here are a few examples with some descriptions. I think there are some lessons for all of us here.

Give me the team I need.
Influence is passion. In fact, it’s 9 parts passion and 1 part everything else. In this scene Maya passionately lays the truth out on the table and in this scene we are left with no other conclusion beyond this: truth is a powerful tool. I’ve said before that a leader is only effective to the extent that she, or he, is afraid of losing her job. I love how Maya tells the station chief here that he can turn her loose to the job she’s been effectively “called” to do … or send her home. You might call this “selling out” to your mission, but in my life I’ve found that people respond to this kind of passion. In fact, we can’t help ourselves: we cannot be indifferent to passion at the highest levels. Ralph Waldo Emerson purportedly said that nothing great is ever done without enthusiasm. Passion is the first standard deviation of influence. Note: There may be offensive language in the clip below.

Count the Days
There’s a great line in Elizabethtown by Kirsten Dunst’s character Claire Colburn: “All forward motion is progress.” In Zero Dark Thirty, once Maya’s quest has found its end and next steps lay beyond her immediate control, she finds a way to exert influence through persistence. We’re led to believe that, every single morning, Maya writes the number of days that have passed without action in dry erase on the office window of the director. She will not be ignored. She is a constant reminder of both the stakes and the real story. Influence isn’t given. And it may not even be earned. More often than not, influence results from steadiness and advancing a given movement, idea, or project. Influence at times is only realized through brute force and will. That is, you stay on point. Maya literally moves a government with a dry erase marker. If all forward motion is progress, then every minute of every day matters.

Two Narratives
Tell your story, believe it, and keep telling it. More than ever, stories have become the language of our culture. We’re pre-wired to understand stories, understand the implication, and if they resonate with something within us, accept them as a part of our own personal narrative. Although she has no real positional authority, Maya becomes an influential force by never, ever turning away from an opportunity to tell her story. In this case it’s not only reminding people that Osama bin Laden is the objective, but how she’s going to get him. Most of us have two problems in this area: we don’t tell our stories enough or we don’t know our story well enough. To generate organizational influence you must know your story. Know your numbers. Know the facts. Know the narrative. Know the research. Connect the dots. A friend told me one time, “Want to know how you know when you’ve changed culture? You’ve changed culture when your values and objectives become a passing joke at the water fountain, that’s when you know.” Note: There may be offensive language in the clip below.

Know Your Objective
Influence and leadership tend to convene here to a degree. William of Ockam gave us what has come to be known as Ockam’s Razor. That is, we “cut” all the superfluous information that clouds our ability to see the essence of the problem or challenge. Of course, leaders must keep the objective in mind. It’s crucial to moving an organization. Quite different from keeping the objective in sight, however, influencers must obsess over the objective. An influencer lives and breathes the objective until it becomes who he is. You may call this “singleness of vision” or something like that. Influencers are not simply managers or delegators, they are engines. Engines need a direction or destination on which to exert their force. Storytelling is the vehicle of influence, but the objective is the fuel.

The last scene in Zero Dark Thirty is interesting in this respect. Once the objective is realized and the pursuit is over, what does an influencer do? For most of us, we move on. For Maya it’s not quite that simple. What’s overwhelmingly evident in this scene, though, is that she won. She put herself in motion and harnessed all the influence at her disposal to accomplish the task before her.

5 Hitchcock Movies in 5 Weeks

ImageAn acquaintance of mine who is also a movie buff is a huge Alfred Hitchcock guy. Apparently there’s a box-set collection of every one of his movies and this friend has it. Having only watched a few Hitchcock movies I asked for recommendations, put them in the Netflix queue, and have watched several over the last few months. My youngest daughter actually watched Vertigo with me, she and my wife both fell asleep during The Man Who Knew Too Much, and they were both in and out of the other options. (But it’s still pretty cool that my 16-year-old daughter watched Vertigo with me.)

Now that my season with Hitchcock is coming to a close now is as good a time as any to document some of my reactions to these movies for the proverbial “record.” Ultimately my rating is a combination of my own opinion and what I’ll just call  “Family Score.” These are not in any particular order:

hitchcock_torn_curtainTorn Curtain (1966)
Torn Curtain stars Paul Newman as an American scientist that publicly defects to East Germany. I’m OK with Paul Newman and I love Julie Andrews. What I’m not OK with is Newman and Andrews waking up together in the same bed in the very first scene — with all its implications. I mean, that’s Mary Poppins! It’s Maria! That being said, I do think Torn Curtain is actually a pretty good movie. Family Score: Unfortunately, I never got over the first scene and for the most part spent my time with Torn Curtain disoriented and in shock. Julie Andrews-as-not-Mary-Poppins-but-also-not-Maria creeped the whole family out and that’s just not right. 3 out of 5 stars.

 

ManWhoKnewTooMuchThe Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
I liked this movie. There were some location shots that were reminiscent of Hitchcock’s work in North By Northwest as well as some comedic moments that worked in a way contemporary dramas work today. Even though I’m not a big James Stewart fan, he and Doris Day do a great job as a vacationing family that stumble on to an assassination plot in Morocco. There’s a famous orchestra scene that might go on a little too long, but you get a lot of things that make Hitchcock Hitchcock in this movie. Family Score: It couldn’t keep my wife awake. Daughter never gave it a chance. By no means is this a viable recommendations for a Saturday at home. 31/2 out of 5 stars.

 

Rope2Rope (1948)
James Stewart is the only actor I recognized in this feature and he doesn’t walk into the frame until the 28-minute mark. Rope is Stewart’s least favorite collaboration with Hitchcock. The entire movie takes place in a single apartment in only 10 takes. Because of that it’s fun to try to find the places where the director cut the scenes. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking and maybe the most “Hitchcockian” of the movies I’ve watched. The premise is diabolical and strikes the chords you would expect of a psychological thriller. If you read the back story of Rope you will better appreciate its technical achievement. Family Score: Both daughters and my wife passed after repeated invitations to watch Rope (probably because of the title). The DVD sat by the television for weeks. Only for the most artsy. 4 out of 5 stars.

north-by-northwestNorth by Northwest (1959)
This feels like the most commercially driven and commercially successful movie out of the ones I watched. It’s also the one that “beats” like a contemporary thriller. In some ways it’s the opposite of Vertigo, which is much more quiet and introspective. I like Cary Grant in the lead role but it’s one my favorites, Eva Marie Saint, that really makes North by Northwest pop in my opinion. She is flawless. This is the also the movie in the Hitchcockian canon that I’m most likely to watch again. Family Score: By the time I made it to this point I had completely lost my family. But it’s my fault for not beginning the series with something more familiar. I watched North by Northwest alone one Saturday morning. 31/2 out of 5 stars.

 

vertigoVertigo (1958)
If there was ever a movie that didn’t need a plot to be great it is Vertigo. If asked I could probably remember what it is about but that’s not what’s most important to me about this film. Vertigo is without a doubt a frame-by-frame masterpiece. There is one seen during which Kim Novak’s character is looking at a painting in a museum. The scene itself may be less than a minute, but Hitchcock spent a week filming it in order to get the light exactly the way he wanted it. It’s that attention to detail that makes art. You watch Vertigo in the same way you would stare at a Van Gogh or Rembrandt. You take it in. You allow it to work the way its creator intended it to work. Family Score: Not only did my youngest daughter watch it with me, but she watched with me twice.  5 out of 5 stars.

 

Maleficent: Story of Healing … or Corrective

Maleficent_live_actionIn terms of review, Maleficent is a good—not great — movie. Jolie’s performance in particular is worth noting and I thought the special effects were actually utilized with some measure of restraint—a welcome respite these days. Although the story at times is disjointed, the overall impact is still somewhat powerful. Performances outside of Jolie are unable to match her intensity but I think the biggest downside to Maleficent is how it departs from the original 1959 version of Sleeping Beauty. The differences were noticeable and even jarring at times, but surprisingly I didn’t have a hard time getting past it.

I’ve been in several exchanges in which the general impression of Maleficent was underwhelming. I get that. It’s by no means a kid’s movie and it departs rather radically from what most consider “Disney.” But that’s actually what makes this movie work for me. For one thing, fairy tales are usually dark and it doesn’t require much to realize that many of Disney’s films include a villain that represents the worst kind of evil in the world. Scar is a murderer. Cruella De Ville is a puppy killer. (What can be worse than that?). Jafar is willing to leave Aladdin in an underground cavern to die a slow death. So Maleficent, in that respect, is true to the genre.

As the movie unfolds, however, a couple of surprising narrative threads come to light. First is the unexpected healing, redemptive journey that Maleficent is on. Her story begins in the Eden-like land of the Moors before heartbreak and betrayal of the highest order put her on a path toward the Maleficent we know from the original Disney feature. The revisionist twist here is that the title character is a victim. Moreover, she is a victim betrayed by love —specifically “true love’s kiss”— in an intense scene charged with sexual violation. Instead of giving in to the resulting pain that could easily usher in the well-worn path of destruction, this story offers an alternative redemption that progresses at a very believable pace. This a matter of identity. Trauma—particularly the trauma experienced by Maleficent— has the potential to send us spiraling into a false identity. We see Maleficent, however, recover her identity throughout the movie’s narrative. In short, it’s a story of healing and recovering something of what’s truer of about herself than what she has become. Maleficent’s path to healing and redemption became the primary story driver for me. That is, when I wasn’t wondering internally, “How are they going to pull this off?”

Second, and perhaps even more interesting, is Maleficent as a corrective heroine relative to the traditional Disney princess. Disney heroines have traditionally been portrayed a certain way. That is, she is beautiful but deprived; she possesses inner strength and resolve but needs help; her dreams require a rescuer; yes her dreams are realized but it requires a little ingenuity and a lot of patience. Beginning with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog this prototype began to change. Tiana has her own dreams and ambition. She doesn’t really need a prince. And she’s not only willing to do the work to create a desired outcome for herself but has already started the process when we are introduced to her.

Maleficent —while not a princess, still close as the apparent sovereign of the Moors — continues this course correction and probably turns it up a notch.  Not only is romantic love not at the heart of her transformation, but the prince, now king, is actually the antagonist. In the signature scene of the movie it is Stefan, the king, that is on his knees in complete deference to the female lead. But this Maleficent is is acting out of the trauma of betrayal, not the character she will become through her relationship with Aurora. The victim through the first third of the movie, Maleficent finds her heart and identity through relationship apart from romance —in defiance of romance in fact. This film, as others like it, show us that romantic love may not be the ultimate human experience—or at least not the most redemptive one. Suffice it to say, very different from my expectations going into this movie, Maleficent is very human.

I like the traditional Disney princess and all the happy endings. But I’m also not opposed to a bit of revision like what we’ve seen in the last 5-6 years. Cinderella and Belle are great but Maleficent and Tiana are even more complete characters and they also require a little more of us.

Email: A Postmodern Drag

wastedFor a few years now I’ve been wondering what happened to my relationship with email. There was a time when I really enjoyed it. At work it was a way to communicate easily and effectively. I could draw on my favorite means of communication—the written word—to articulate ideas and concepts using the keyboard to tap it out fast. During this Golden Age of Email in my life I loved getting email at home, too. There were days when  a single conversation with friends around the nation—friends I wouldn’t have any meaningful, real contact with were there no email—for days. In that day I was able to protect my email account from spammers so there was rarely, if ever, the nonsensical marketing message or the unwanted update from anywhere or anybody.

I can’t point to a single moment when it happened, but that day is gone. The Golden Age of Email is no more.

Now my personal email is almost exclusively junk mail. (Why did I change my position on providing my email to retailers? Did they just wear me down or was the transformation more sinister?) And even though I’ll check my personal email on my phone throughout the day, typically when I log on to my desktop computer there will be hundreds of emails downloading and not a single one of them from one of the guys about UK basketball, football, what’s so wrong with millennials, or something funny from the high school days.

And work email, for crying out loud. That’s just completely out of hand. I work with people that actually send emails between 12:00 am and 6:00 am. That’s not even human. And how about getting an email from the guy in the office one door down from me. (Is email actually faster than yelling?) I told a friend today, “When you can spend a day doing nothing but responding to email there has got to be something wrong.” Right or wrong, my mind has developed its own filter for prioritizing work email. Here’s my system: (1) Who is the sender (2) What is the subject. If neither registers I will probably wait for the phone call. Not negligent or rude, for me it’s become the simple matter of survival. It’s overwhelming. Here are a couple of thoughts on that:

Boss for the Day! Email has allowed anybody with access to my calendar (read as “everybody”) to put something on it. It’s true that I have the right to decline. (But that’s  not really true.) This gives everybody with an internal email account the capacity to be my boss. Which leads to …
Tyranny of the Urgent. Email has conditioned us, along with other versions of technology, to expect answers real time. Whereas in the days prior to the Golden Age of Email colleagues realized there might be a delay in responding or [gasp] solve the problem themselves, now a “stay of responsibility” is only a click away. So why not? Who could blame a guy for that. Which leads me to …
Problem Forwarding. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but there’s a chance that email has removed a great deal of initiative from the workplace. On the one hand, this technology has allowed us to essentially multiply our communications way beyond the old in-house memo. On the other hand, the temptation to forward a question, problem, or responsibility is just too great. In fact it’s irresistible. And I’m not saying I haven’t done it because I have. I’ve never done crack, but my guess is that problem-forwarding is something like that. I can see my future: “My name is Agonistes and I am a problem-forwarding addict.”

This post is actually a lament. I realize that technology will continue to propel us into different situations that require different skill sets, organization, and time management. But there was a day when people absolutely relied on human contact and interaction to advance the conversation. Of course email has its merit and it’s ultimately a very helpful tool so much of this is of course exaggeration. And frankly the world moves too fast for the old approach to production to work anyway. Still, for me at least, there’s the sense of something lost in the sound and fury. But by all means feel free to send me anything about UK basketball, college football, movies, Disney, or 1930-1950 Hollywood.