Leadership Library Review: “Hidden Figures”

February 2017

“Hidden Figures” (20th Century Fox, 2016)

What are the big take-aways?

To my mind, the uplifting film “Hidden Figures” is three suspenseful (even though you think you know how they all turn out…) movies in one. In some ways, it is as much of a NASA space-race story and a story about the elegant charisma of practical mathematics as it is a civil rights story. It’s full of leadership lessons because it’s full of characters taking initiative in uncharted territory (in space, science, gender equity and race relations).

The movie is based on the actual events reported in the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. It depicts the friendship, and the personal and professional lives, of three African-American women who worked at the Langley Research Center in 1961, when the U.S. was trying to catch up to a surge in space exploration triumphs of the former Soviet Union. The U.S. was desperate to get a man – astronaut John Glenn – into orbit around the earth. (In the film, NASA is still racially segregated in 1961, but my internet research indicates the agency had been desegregated when it changed from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a couple of years before.)

Why do I like it?

What I like about this film is the same thing that many people seem to comment on in their reviews of “Hidden Figures”: it’s almost unbelievable that this powerful information about these potential role models had been largely ignored for half a century, and it’s thrilling to see it get due attention – especially via the performances of such superb actors. While a tad manipulative and righteous at times (e.g., the music choices, the flawlessness of the characters and the sets, a key historical inaccuracy, etc.), the movie nonetheless covers a lot of complex ground with clarity and emotional nuance. I was left feeling inspired and elevated, and hoping lots of kids everywhere in the world are sparked in their imaginations about what’s possible for themselves by learning about these heretofore uncelebrated STEM pioneers. (STEM is the acronym for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields.)

I also liked being provoked into more curiosity about the protagonists. The three real-life women featured as characters in the film were: mathematician Dorothy Vaughn (1920-2008), who managed human “computers” and served as a machine-computer programmer for NACA/NASA from 1943 to 1971; Mary Jackson (1910-2005), who originally worked for Dorothy Vaughn, then became NASA’s first black woman aeronautical engineer, and retired from Langley in 1985; and Katherine Goble Johnson (age 98), who was a mathematical genius who – according to Wikipedia – “calculated the trajectories, launch windows, and emergency back-up return paths for many flights from Project Mercury, including the early NASA missions of John Glenn and Alan Shepard, and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, through the Space Shuttle program.” Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.

One of the moments in the movie that particularly piqued my interest was when John Glenn is portrayed as asking specifically for Katherine Johnson to re-calculate his space capsule’s re-entry trajectory from orbit, because the mathematics produced by the IBM machine computer are considered by launch engineers as less trustworthy than her numbers. While paraphrased for dramatic effect in the film, the basic fact of John Glenn’s request is true.

In what situations would this be useful?

For leaders of all personal or professional backgrounds, this movie would be useful as a boost to follow timeless advice: be yourself, stand up for your values and vision, and be willing to take the risk of being “the first” at anything in which you deeply believe.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Obviously, there’s the book the film was based on, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly (William Morrow, 2016).

I’d also recommend the first 22 minutes of this “What Matters” WHRO program from 2011, which features a short biographical video about Katherine Johnson, followed by an interview of her. In it, she discusses her childhood, how she became a NASA “computer,” why John Glenn asked for her to hand-check the machine-generated mathematics for his first flight orbiting the earth, and – as a former education professional – Johnson also shares some of her thoughts on the intersections of gender, teaching and learning.

For the latest research on how young children are when their gender stereotyping about intellectual ability begins, see this study that came out last week in Science magazine. A very accessible summary of the findings was written by the Associated Press.

Posted in Leadership Library | Leave a comment

Leadership Library Review: Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia

January 2017

What are the big take-aways?

I am surprised by how affected I’ve been by the passing of the complex, hilarious and courageous actor Carrie Fisher last week on December 27th, a few days after she suffered an apparent heart attack.  She was only 60.

While controversy rages (appropriately, in my opinion) about whether Carrie Fisher’s career-defining portrayal of Princess Leia in the Star Wars space opera series is a feminist icon or quite the opposite, I can speak for myself that Leia was a certainly a powerful female role model for me.  Perhaps because I was about 11 years old when “Star Wars” came out in 1977, an early teen when “The Empire Strikes Back” hit the screens in 1980, and a sophomore in high school for the release of the final flick in the original trilogy – “Return of the Jedi” – in the spring of 1983, Leia’s evolution over those six years influenced my own development as a young woman leader.

Why do I like it?

Carrie Fisher was just 19 when she first played the astute, battle-tested and dedicated spy for the Rebel Alliance against the Empire.  In retrospect, I realize now that I looked up to Leia like a fantasy big sister with revolutionary political convictions, who knew how to get shit done under pressure and against the odds.

Leia was the only female hero in the mass-media culture of my youth for whom leadership, in service of a (literally) galactic cause, was the defining characteristic.  She embodied numerous potent and appealing paradoxes: Princess Leia is both royalty and a scrappy fighter for justice in the trenches; her rebel movement is predicated on the long-term possibility of peace but she does not shy away from taking deadly shots with her blaster when it is morally justified.  She gives a lot of orders, yet never hesitates to plunge into dirty work herself; she’s a straightforward boss who plays a hard-core man’s game without undermining other women or succumbing to stereotypes.  Although Leia’s title and passion alone earn her male colleagues’ respect, Leia repeatedly demonstrates her equality and credibility with disarming nonchalance, such as when she oh-by-the-way pilots the Millennium Falcon in a pinch.  She is both affectionate toward her compatriots and tough enough to withstand Darth-Vader-level torture.  Leia is pretty but it always seems more important (and attractive) that the Force is strong with her.  Romance is way down her list of priorities in life, but when Leia reluctantly falls in love with Han it is in large part because she’s so compelling she’s managed to captivate a swashbuckling maverick whose very name is Solo.

Throughout the original trilogy not much was really ever made of the fact that Leia is a woman until the quasi-scandalous scene in “Return of the Jedi” when she appears in a gold metal space bikini, as a slave chained to Jabba the Hutt.  That stupid outfit is so understandably distracting – to both men and women of all sexual orientations, for a variety of reasons – that nearly everyone forgets (1) Leia was actually captured in the process of rescuing her boyfriend, and (2) the escape sequence ends with Leia ruthlessly dispatching her monstrous tormentor by single-handedly strangling him with the chain that had been her leash.

In what situations would this be useful? 

Well, what’s interesting is that the latest trilogy in the Star Wars saga kicked off last year with a blockbuster hit, “The Force Awakens,” just a few months before my twin nieces turned 11 years old.  The kids loved it.

The rebooted story takes place in the same far-far-away galaxy, 32 years after the events depicted in the three original films, and introduces a new female powerhouse character named Rey.  An unlikely hero, Rey is a self-sufficient scavenger of mysterious lineage who – circumstances reveal – possesses mighty and unmistakable Jedi traits.  She becomes a confident, charismatic and decisive agent of her own destiny, and by the end of the movie Rey seems to consider both Han Solo and now-General Leia to be mentors of sorts.  (Perhaps we will find out in the next episode – which Carrie Fisher recently finished filming, due out in December 2017 – exactly why Rey is astonishingly adept at wielding Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber!)

Anyway, my twin nieces are among the next generation of Star Wars fans who will, I hope, be encouraged and inspired by a gender-transcending female leader.  Judging by my own experience, the timing is perfect.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

I highly recommend the New York Times obituary of Carrie Fisher.  It is thorough, enlightening and richly sprinkled with fascinating hyperlinks worth exploring.  If you like, you can play John Williams’ composition “Princess Leia’s Theme” in the background while you read it.

The passing of Carrie Fisher also seems like a poignant moment to reflect on the meaning of the Force, especially if you are not a geek like me who is inclined to habitually contemplate it.  It’s interesting and potentially revelatory that, according to Wikipedia, George Lucas’s first draft of “Star Wars” makes two references to “the Force of Others” and does not explain the phenomenon; in the movie, it is just “the Force” and Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi describes it as “an energy field created by all living things [that] surrounds us, penetrates us, [and] binds the galaxy together.”  The Force has a light side that can be used for beneficent purposes and a dark side that can be harnessed for malevolent ends.  Yoda describes the Force in these terms in my favorite Star Wars installment, “The Empire Strikes Back”:  “Life creates it, makes it grow.  Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.  You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.”

Return to Leadership Library

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Leadership Library Review: Abstract Painting, #34

December 2016

 Abstract Painting, #34 (1964) by Ad Reinhardt

What are the big take-aways?

On Wednesday morning November 9th, I woke up in Washington, D.C. to confirmation of what I had begun to understand by the time I’d gone to sleep late the night before: Donald J. Trump was president-elect of the Unites States of America.  As a serious Bernie Sanders supporter originally, I was deeply disquieted by the news.

Later that day, my husband and I visited the National Gallery of Art.  It was emotionally helpful to connect with evocative expressions of the human spirit, collectively so much vaster, more important and more enduring than my own.  Strolling past a monochromatic black painting the size of a large window, I immediately dismissed it as a clever and classic commentary on “what is art?”  But my gaze was inexplicably caught for a second beat, which I interpreted as an invitation to really interact with it.

What I noticed then, by allowing a slow immersion into the painting’s darkness, was a feeling of reassurance.  Committing to stick with the discomfort of the big black window (was I looking in, or looking out?), I watched all manner of distinctions start to emerge.  Pop, pop, pop.  Aha!  Soon, the sensation turned into something neutral and intriguing – like working a puzzle.   It occurred to me that a puzzle is always an opportunity to experience hope through discernment.

Why do I like it?

I like that this Ad Reinhardt piece mirrored my instinct to care about what’s happening geo-politically and to simultaneously remain non-attached.  We can only take action in response to events as they unfold.  While strategizing for the future and making adjustments as conditions evolve is wise, worrying doesn’t help.  Change is inevitable, so what matters is our willingness to converse with its inherent creative tensions which – similar to solving a puzzle – gives us our best chance of learning something useful.

As Holland Carter wrote in the New York Times about a series of Ad Reinhardt’s all-black paintings on view at the Guggenheim in 2008,

You let your eyes rest on them, and what you see changes, constantly: blacks change shades; reds and blues appear and fade. One minute you think you are looking at a grid or a cruciform; the next at a cloudy sky or a Monet landscape, dark like the negative of a photograph. Your vision is changing things; you are changing. The paintings are not. But they are, perhaps, leaving their trace on your psyche and memory. The mark may be permanent, whatever permanent means.

In other words, there is a durable power in recognizing that “[y]our vision is changing things; you are changing,” always.

In what situations would this be useful?

Meaningful art can support effective leadership over the long haul.  Speaking for myself, communing with this particular painting when I felt stunned, confused and paralyzed helped me to see exactly how – with enough patience – I have the ability to dismantle into manageable parts something that at first seemed monolithic and irrefutable.  What leader couldn’t benefit from such a reminder?

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

If you’re interested in more information about Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, I recommend Holland Cotter’s wonderful New York Times piece, “Tall Dark and Fragile,” in its entirety here.  For an engaging exploration of the social, political and spiritual texture of the black paintings that astutely quotes Ad Reinhardt himself, see this write-up in The Brooklyn Rail.

If you have my book, Seasons of Leadership: A Self-Coaching Guide, another interesting pairing with this painting might be the December essay about a four-step process for responding to sudden and difficult change, “Converting Crisis into a Turning Point.”

Return to Leadership Library


Posted in Leadership Library | Leave a comment

Leadership Library Review: Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit

November 2016

Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit by Parker Palmer (Jossey-Bass, 2011)

What are the big take-aways?

In Healing the Heart of Democracy, educator and sociologist Parker Palmer (no relation) deeply investigates the powers of heartbreak and courage in American democracy, with a focus on the cultural systems and attitudes that can help us work through national crises.  Distinguishing between a heart that is able to break open rather than break apart, Palmer argues that it is broken-open hearts that most effectively serve democracy in periods of strife (pp. 60-61):

We are now at such a place in our nation: we must restore the wholeness of our civic community or watch democracy wither.  Hearts opened by the many sources of heartbreak in American life have the potential to heal our political process.  Such hearts are the source of what Lincoln called “our bonds of affection.” That sense of unity among strangers that allows us to do what democracy demands of its citizens: engage collectively and creatively with issues of great moment, even – and especially – in times of intense conflict.  If we cannot or will not open our hearts to each other, powers that diminish democracy will rush into the void created by the collapse of “We the People.”  But in the heart’s alchemy, that community can be restored.

Several months ago, I chose this book for the third and final reading in my three-month fall Leadership Book Group, which is exploring “The Leadership Skill of Raising Consciousness in Ourselves and Others: Moving Forward with Hope and Resilience.”  I could not have known then how tender, urgent and timely its call-to-action for unity and healing would be by the time November arrived.

Why do I like it?

I like Palmer’s humility and his profound belief that Americans need healthy, counter-balancing political philosophies in order to have a robust democracy.  I also like this book’s pragmatic strategies for exercising communities of dialogue that are already inherent and accessible in American culture (neighborhoods, classrooms, faith-based communities and other “congregations”) to strengthen our democracy’s heart muscles.  The techniques are simultaneously time-tested and refreshing.

I also like the practical ideas Palmer advances for embracing the “endless challenge” of transcending the private self to enter – again and again and again – into the difficulties of public life encountered by all citizens.  He’s a realist.  He understands that political circumstances can be sad and overwhelming, and that it can be tempting to withdraw entirely (in fact, Palmer himself has struggled with clinical depressions that have, at times, removed him from participation in public life).  His approach is highly developmental, spiritually-informed but never dogmatic, and emphasizes how critical it has become for Americans to give ourselves more practice with functioning creatively inside the paradoxes of our political system.  This means stretching our collective capacities for working productively within atmospheres of intense discomfort and disagreement, as well as stretching our individual abilities to listen carefully to our inner voices of wisdom.  The book underscores how these tasks can be both aided and hindered by the dynamics of modern communication, such as social media and the 24/7 barrage of news and “infotainment.”

In what situations would this  be useful?

The situation we are in right now as a country makes this book useful to all U.S. residents – of all party affiliations – who could use a blueprint for activating their courage to help heal our political process after such a destructive and heart-rending election cycle.  This book will be useful to you if you are seeking pathways forward beyond the despair you may feel at this national moment, and are willing to consider doing what it takes to let your heart break open rather than apart.

As Parker Palmer writes (p. 193),

Full engagement in the movement called democracy requires no less of us than full engagement in the living of our own lives.  We carry the past with us, so we must understand its legacy of deep darkness as well as strong light.  We can see the future only in imagination, so we must continue to dream of freedom, peace, and justice for everyone.  Meanwhile, we live in the present moment, with its tedium and terror, its fears and hopes, its incomprehensible losses and its transcendent joys.  It is a moment in which it often feels as if nothing we do will make a difference, and yet so much depends on us.

That is leadership, in a nutshell.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

I enjoy Parker Palmer’s regular contributions as an “On Being” columnist, and if you’re intrigued by his words above you might want to browse his articles here.  Other interesting pairings could be the political spectrum-spanning “Reading Guide for Those in Despair about American Politics” from The Atlantic, here and “10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings: Fluid Reflections on Keeping a Solid Center” by Maria Popova, found here.

Another suggestion, from my own playbook, is to immerse yourself in poetry or other works of art that you find both poignant and transporting.  As the 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi observed, “The wound is where the light enters you.”

Return to Leadership Library

Posted in Leadership Library | Leave a comment

Leadership Library Review: David Ortiz and the Major League Baseball Tribute Video, “If”

October 2016

David Ortiz and the Major League Baseball Tribute Video, “If” (MLB Video, 9/30/16)

What are the big take-aways?

In 1910, the controversial English writer and Nobel Laureate in Literature, Rudyard Kipling, wrote a poem entitled “If—.” I first became familiar with the poem when my friend Doug Moran wrote a great book, If You Will Lead (previously reviewed HERE in the Leadership Library), about it. Doug’s main point is that Kipling was a leadership philosopher ahead of his time and his piece “If—,” which was originally intended as guidance and advice for young men, provides a timeless framework of essential traits that any 21st-century leader should aspire to cultivate.

In this three-and-a-half-minute video, produced by Major League Baseball and beautifully narrated by actor Kevin Spacey, the poem “If—” is offered as a description of how the retiring Cooperstown-bound designated hitter for the Boston Red Sox, “Big Papi” David Ortiz, represents the poem’s leadership wisdom. Watch and listen to it here.

Why do I like it?

In the interest of transparency, let me confess off the top that I’m not the least bit impartial. I like the inspiring poetry and imagery in this Ortiz tribute video “If” because I was born and raised by Red Sox fanatics in Massachusetts, and because I became a serious follower of the team myself in 2003. That also happened to be the year the Sox acquired David Ortiz (then David Arias), a little-known player with a lot of potential as a power hitter, who’d grown up playing stickball in a poor and violent neighborhood in the Dominican Republic.

I did not always love professional baseball, but I love it now, mainly because of Ortiz. And it has less to do with the three World Series Championships the Red Sox have won since Big Papi came to town, and more to do with the example of how much leadership, love and civic pride can be embodied in a mature professional athlete. Ortiz is a gifted and fallible person who has lived a complex life in the public eye with unusual generosity of spirit. I share the perspective of the wise 88-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, who said – when he met Ortiz in person for the first time on August 7th – “I must tell you this, I admire the way you play. But I have respected with great admiration the human being that you are” (Boston Sunday Globe, 10/2/16).

In what situations would this be useful?

The career of David Ortiz as reflected in “If” and as captured in the video’s clips would be useful to any leader interested in a portrait of psychological resilience, or more specifically – as the poem expresses it – the ability to “meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same.” To my mind, that is the hardest and yet the truest, most potent and spiritually-satisfying leadership attribute Kipling describes.

David Ortiz’s years with the Red Sox haven’t always been easy. To be sure, Big Papi’s stats are amazing (one of my favorites is his .688 batting average during the 2013 World Series, for which he won the MVP). He’s retiring after this year because he turned 40 last November, and still, on August 24th he became the oldest major-league player ever to hit 30 home runs and ended the regular season this past weekend with 38 dingers, 127 runs batted in, and a batting average of .315.

But the impressive numbers do not tell the much more complicated story: of a frustrated and talented Ortiz being released by the Minnesota Twins in 2002, with no prospects; of losing his mother to a car wreck that same year (she’s the person to whom he points skyward after each home run); of founding his charity in 2007 to help kids in New England and in the Dominican Republic who need expensive medical procedures (primarily critical cardiac care); of struggling terribly with his hitting in 2008, and especially in 2009, which bitterly disappointed many Red Sox fans whose expectations were very high after Ortiz’s contributions to Boston’s World Series wins in 2004 and 2007; of facing unproven allegations which surfaced in 2009 that he had tested positive for banned substances in 2003; and of rallying the entire city of Boston in 2013 with some choice words after the terrorist bombing at the Marathon.

Taken as a whole, the leadership story of Ortiz’s career is one of profound self-confidence, commitment to adapting (internally and externally) to transformation over the long haul, and holding the temporary illusions of triumph and disaster in perspective. And of feeling grateful for simply the opportunity to play.

 What other resources might “pair” well with it?

The text of the poem “If—” can be found here.

The Red Sox held a sweet pre-game ceremony in Ortiz’s honor on Sunday, October 3, 2016, which received nice coverage on the Sports Illustrated website. The ceremony was sincere and poignant, and highlights from it – in the manner that Big Papi himself arguably transcends sports – might still be meaningful to folks who are not Red Sox fans or even fans of baseball, but fans of love in all its manifestations.


Posted in Leadership Library | 1 Comment

Leadership Library Review: “Mike Birbiglia’s 6 Tips for Making It Small in Hollywood or Anywhere”

September 2016

“Mike Birbiglia’s 6 Tips for Making It Small in Hollywood or Anywhere” by Mike Birbiglia (New York Times, 9/2/16)

What are the big take-aways?

I went and saw the comedian Mike Birbiglia’s new movie, “Don’t Think Twice,” a few nights ago. It’s a well-written, -acted and -produced ode to the dedicated actors in the second-tier comedy and improv troupes which feed emerging talent to the premium entertainment circuit and top-tier TV shows like “Saturday Night Live.” For me, the major take-away from the film, echoed in this article, is that there is an important (and perhaps necessary) place in any industry for folks who love the work but who – for any of a huge constellation of reasons – don’t become big stars. Moreover, the satisfactions of doing what you feel passionate about, without the too-often unsustainable pressure and scrutiny that can come with certain forms of “success,” may be well worth the financial and status trade-offs.

Why do I like it?

I like the six tips. On tour with his new film, Birbiglia does Q&A sessions after some of the showings and he is always asked for advice about how to make it big. As he puts it, “[t]he truth is they should probably pick someone more successful to ask — I make small films, small one-man shows Off Broadway and small comedy specials for Netflix — but I’m the person who showed up to talk to them,” and so he offers them the advice in this article.

In what situations would this be useful?

Birbiglia’s first tip, “Don’t Wait,” may be the best counsel anyone can receive about getting started at anything, whether it’s taking a new position of leadership or influence, launching a new business enterprise, engaging in activism, or beginning a new expression of creativity in any medium. In Hollywood, for example, he suggests: “Write. Make a short film. Go to an open mike. Take an improv class. There’s no substitute for actually doing something. Don’t talk about it anymore. Maybe don’t even finish reading this essay.” I agree! (Maybe don’t even finish reading this blog post!)

The other five tips are also terrific: “Fail.” “Learn from the Failure.” “Maybe Quit” (which, in leadership coaching, we might reframe as “hold your objectives lightly” and be open to other ways you can manifest your personal mission than the one you are committed to right now). I love this one: “Be Bold Enough to Make Stuff That’s Small But Great.” And remember, “Cleverness is Overrated and Heart is Underrated.” As Birbiglia adds, importantly, “there are fewer people competing for heart, so you have a better chance of getting noticed. Sometimes people say, ‘One thing you have to offer in your work is yourself.’ I disagree. I think it’s the only thing.”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For one kind of pairing – by way of a fine example of the points Mike Birbiglia makes in his article  – I recommend his movie, “Don’t Think Twice.” Birbiglia is great in it, as is Keegan Michael Key and the luminous Gillian Jacobs.

For an experiential pairing, I recommend taking at least an improv workshop, if not a whole class. It’s wonderful training for leaders of all kinds, with its emphases on critical practices such as “yes, and…” thinking, accepting the reality that is being co-created by your team, and the “go big or go home” attitude. The original book by Keith Johnstone on the topic is still an excellent resource; I reviewed it a few years ago in the Leadership Library.  Interestingly, the extreme current popularity of improv classes was the subject of a feature article in this week’s (September 5th) issue of The New Yorker, “You Had to Be There.”

One more pairing, which I highly recommend for women leaders in particular, is Tina Fey’s Bossypants (also previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library).

Posted in Leadership Library | Leave a comment

Leadership Library Review: Between the World and Me

August 2016

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau, 2015)

What are the big take-aways?

A shattering memoir on race relations in the form of a letter to his teenage son following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown – the unarmed black 18-year-old killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 – Between the World and Me intimately describes Coates’ experience of growing up as a black man in America.

Coates refers to race as a social construct, with Caucasians – whom he calls the Dreamers – being the “new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white” (p.7), at the top of an American societal hierarchy that is destructive in its hypocrisy. From page 8:

The new people are not original in this. Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error.

Coates urges his son to see the bigger picture, including the very fragile delusion of “the people who believe that they are white” in their idea of their place in the hierarchy, and their unrestrained and doomed exploitation of others and the Earth.

Why do I like it?

I like Between the World and Me because it is an act of leadership: it is a choice to influence the purposeful behavior of others toward realizing a vision for the future. I am a Dreamer who is heart-broken and aghast at the extent of racial violence in this country, and especially at the complexity of its inter-relationship with the criminal justice system. Ever since my awakening to it with the assassination of Trayvon Martin – the unarmed black 17-year-old shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida in 2012 – I have been seeking opportunities for reflection and insight into these dynamics, mostly from mainstream journalism.

My mother read Between the World and Me as soon as it came out, and when she recommended it to me, I balked because I was fearful of the reported brutality of Coates’ autobiographical narrative. But as a result of this summer’s events, with the backdrop of so much disturbing political rhetoric in the U.S. presidential election, I decided to read the book and also join a discussion group among Georgetown Leadership Coaching Program alumni that was courageously initiated – in another exemplary act of leadership – by a black wife and mother to a black husband, daughter and son. My desire is to learn how to respond, as a Dreamer, to Coates’ advice for his son (p. 151): “And still I urge you to struggle…But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field of their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.”

In what situations would this be useful?

Reading and contemplating this book would be useful to any person of any race who is sincerely interested in exploring the nature and origins of their conscious and unconscious biases, as well as the impact on others of the racial, economic, and other societal privileges they may or may not have been born with or acquired. To my mind, this type of inquiry is a right, a joy, a struggle and an obligation that comes with being the leader of your own life.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Check out this article from the Greater Good Science Center, “How to Stop the Racist in You”.

Also, I highly recommend this “On Being” interview with Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, Cheri Maples and Larry Ward entitled “Being Peace in a World of Trauma,” recorded at a mindfulness retreat attended by agents of the criminal justice system.

As for readings, Between the World and Me is full of references to thought leaders and writers which might pair well with it. (The book’s title itself is a quotation from Richard Wright’s 1957 work, White Man, Listen!) Other pairings might include Coates’ memoir about his father and his childhood, The Beautiful Struggle, from 2009 (Spiegel & Grau), and his landmark article for the Atlantic in June 2014, “The Case for Reparations.” Recommendations that I have received, but not read yet, include The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Cornel West (The New Press, 2012), and Waking Up White by Debby Irving (Elephant Room Press, 2014).

P.S. Personally, I am also interested in learning more about David O. Brown, the Dallas police chief, who – in my view – has deftly handled, with remarkable wisdom and extraordinary leadership, the fatal shooting of five officers there last month by Micah Xavier Johnson. (Brown himself lost a son at the hands of law enforcement after the son killed a police officer and another person.) There is an excellent New York Times article about Brown here.

Return to Leadership Library

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment