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Leadership and the Human Stain

Leadership and the Human Stain
Use a Wiki for Better Note-Taking

    Wired Magazine recently posted an interesting profile of Getting Things Done author David Allen. A similar profile ran in Business 2.0 over the summer. The pieces detail a history of drug abuse and addiction, mental breakdown, drifting, and divorce, before Allen eventually encountered the spiritual leader John-Roger, the Mystical Traveler, and began assembling the philosophy that would come to stand as the core of GTD.

    While there’s little in GTD that’s explicitly cultish (despite the Wired article’s title, which calls GTD Allen’s “cult of hyperefficiency” — a representation the article itself goes to pains to dispel), the connection between Allen and John-Roger causes some people a great deal of concern. For them, Allen’s sullied past and spiritual leanings are marks against him.

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    Not to me. In fact, reading about Allen’s difficulties coming to terms with his life and, ultimately, himself makes him seem more worth listening to, not less. I say this as a man without a spiritual bone in my body, someone with no great respect for those who offer salvation or Truth to the misguided and confused. In short, I say this as someone who is not impressed with Allen as a believer, but is still impressed with his work and the role he’s taken as a leader offering tools to empower others to deal with their lives.

    In my first post here at lifehack.org, I wrote that “Leaders empower those around them” and this is the quality I admire in Allen. Knowing that he is, was, and will continue to be “only human” doesn’t diminish his leadership qualities; rather, I believe it enhances them. Too many would-be leaders assume a mantle of superiority, distancing themselves from their “mere” humanity with all the faults and weaknesses that implies. They hide their weaknesses, pretending to be above the trivialities of day-to-day life, and presenting a front of super-human strength and competence. These are the people who wear hairpieces and cap their teeth to avoid the impression of bodily imperfection and scoff at those of us who wear our hearts on our sleeves and worry over-much about the right thing to do.

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    There’s nothing empowering about this model of leadership, though — it’s leadership through fear and intimidation, through appeal to low self-esteem and insecurity, and it falls apart at the first sign of the so-called leader’s everyday humanity. Allen’s leadership is premised on something different; in interviews he comes across as humble and approachable, and in these profiles as eminently human. He has achieved the success he has attained not only in spite of his earlier failures but because of them — the failures are part and parcel of his success.

    Knowing his story makes his advice and his work more real to me somehow — it’s the work of a man and not a god. It creates a leadership that is not bestowed from Heaven but the outcome of worldly living. It comes, that is, from a life much like mine — maybe not in the particulars (as far as I know, I’ve never been addicted to drugs or spent time in a psychiatric institution) but in the overall quality.

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    This kind of leadership is far more compelling to me than the model of leadership by brute strength. It is the kind of leadership practiced by someone like Mahatma Gandhi, who led the Indian people to independence from the British not by hiding his faults but by emphasizing them, by displaying them for the world to see. Gandhi understood well the importance of human frailty and built his strategy of nonviolent resistance around it. Knowing that his peaceful protests would be met by violence, Gandhi embraced the fragility of the human body — knowing that the brutality that colonial forces would inflict against unresisting protesters would hang heavy on the consciences of both the present attackers and the rest of the world witnessing it via the media. Throughout his career, Gandhi demonstrated the frailness of his own body and the tenuousness of life itself by embarking on hunger strikes, inspiring millions with his own humanity.

    Or, to take an example from the opposite end of the moral spectrum, consider Bill Clinton who, regardless of what you thought of his politics or his morality, could make believers in a few moments of personal contact. Hunter S. Thompson, the drug-addled iconoclast and inventor-advocate of Gonzo reporting, a man who despised the politics of appeasement the Democrats arrived at over the span of the Reagan years almost as much as he despised the institution of organized politics altogether, still found himself admiring Clinton when he covered his campaign in 1992. Though he never learned to like Clinton’s centrist politics, he was compelled by Clinton’s very presence — not because of his strength but because of his weaknesses: the gusto with which he wolfed down his food, the womanizing and philandering that Clinton barely concealed, the squareness of his amateur sax-playing, the raw “humanness” of the man. America agreed, apparently; Clinton’s victory in New York clinching the Democratic nomination came hard on the heels of the revelation of Clinton’s affair with Gennifer Flowers. In contrast, George H.W. Bush (and later Bob Dole) was all too stiff and formal to be real.

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    The mark of human weakness is at the center of Phillip Roth’s novel The Human Stain, a meditation on human physical and, more importantly, moral frailty set against the backdrop of the Lewinsky Affair. For Roth, it is the “stain” of moral confusion, physical degradation, sexual and emotional need, and ultimately failure in every and any arena of life that marks us as purely and utterly human. And it is the reality of temptation, of moral misstep, of wrong turns and tortuous recovery that makes for true leadership, for leaders that lead by example and by sharing their unreserved humanity. That is the kind of leadership I see in Allen’s story, and it is the kind of leadership that a mere human like myself can embrace.

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    Last Updated on August 12, 2019

    How To Start a Conversation with Anyone

    How To Start a Conversation with Anyone

    The hardest part of socializing, for many people, is how to start a conversation. However, it is a big mistake to go about life not making the first move and waiting for someone else to do it [in conversation or anything].

    This isn’t to say you must always be the first in everything or initiate a conversation with everyone you see. What should be said, though, is once you get good at starting conversations, a lot of other things will progress in the way you want; such as networking and your love life.

    Benefits of Initiating a Conversation

    First thing is you should acknowledge why it is a good thing to be able to initiate conversations with strangers or people who you don’t know well:

    • You’re not a loner with nothing to do.
    • You look more approachable if you are comfortable approaching others.
    • Meeting new people means developing a network of friends or peers which leads to more knowledge and experiences.

    You can only learn so much alone, and I’m sure you’re aware of the benefits of learning from others. Being able to distinguish the ‘good from bad’ amongst a group of people will help in building a suitable network, or making a fun night.

    All people are good in their own way. Being able to have a good time with anybody is a worthy trait and something to discuss another time. However, if you have a specific purpose while in social situations, you may want to stick with people who are suitable.

    This means distinguishing between people who might suit you and your ‘purpose’ from those who probably won’t. This can require some people-judging, which I am generally very opposed to. However, this does make approaching people all the more easier.

    It helps to motivate the conversation if you really want to know this person. Also, you’ll find your circle of friends and peers grows to something you really like and enjoy.

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    The Rules

    I don’t have many rules in this life, for conversation or anything; but when it comes to approaching strangers, there are a few I’d like used.

    1. Be polite. Within context, don’t be a creepy, arrogant loudmouth or anything. Acknowledge that you are in the company of strangers and don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. First impressions mean something.
    2. Keep it light. Don’t launch into a heartfelt rant or a story of tragedy. We’re out to have fun.
    3. Don’t be a prude. This just means relax. This isn’t a science and conversation isn’t a fine art. Talk to people like you’re already friends.
    4. Be honest. Be yourself. People can tell.

    Who To Talk To?

    I’m of the ilk that likes to talk to everyone and anyone. Everyone has a story and good personalities. Some are harder to get to than others, but if you’re on a people-finding excursion, like I usually am, then everyone is pretty much fair game.

    That said, if you’re out at a function and you want to build a network of people in your niche, you will want to distinguish those people from the others. Find the ‘leaders’ in a group of people or ask around for what you’re looking for.

    In a more general environment, like at a bar, you will want to do the same sort of thing. Acknowledge what you actually want and try to distinguish suitable people. Once you find someone, or a group of people, that you want to meet and talk to, hop to it.

    Think of a few things you might have in common. What did you notice about their dress sense?

    Building Confidence

    The most important part of initiating conversation is, arguably, having confidence. It should be obvious that without any amount of self-esteem you will struggle. Having confidence in yourself and who you are makes this job very easy.

    If you find yourself doubting your worth, or how interesting you are, make a few mental notes of why you are interesting and worth talking to. There is no question you are. You just have to realize that.

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    What do I do? What is interesting about it? What are my strong points and what are my weak ones? Confident people succeed because they play on their strengths.

    Across the Room Rapport

    This is rapport building without talking. It’s as simple as reciprocated eye contact and smiles etc. Acknowledging someone else’s presence before approaching them goes a long way to making introductions easier. You are instantly no longer just a random person.

    In my other article How Not To Suck At Socializing, there are things you can do to make yourself appear approachable. This doesn’t necessarily mean people are going to flock to you. You’ll still probably need to initiate conversations.

    People notice other people who are having a blast. If you’re that person, someone will acknowledge it and will make the ‘across the room rapport’ building a breeze. If you’re that person that is getting along great with their present company, others will want to talk to you. This will make your approach more comfortable for both parties.

    The Approach

    When it comes to being social, the less analytical and formulaic you are the better. Try not to map out your every move and plan too much. Although we are talking about how to initiate conversation, these are really only tips. When it comes to the approach, though, there are some things you should keep in mind.

    Different situations call for different approaches. Formal situations call for something more formal and relaxed ones should be relaxed.

    At a work function, for instance, be a little formal and introduce yourself. People will want to know who you are and what you do right away. This isn’t to say you should only talk about work, but an introduction and handshake is appropriate.

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    If you’re at a bar, then things are very different and you should be much more open to unstructured introductions. Personally, I don’t like the idea of walking directly to someone to talk to them. It’s too direct. I like the sense of randomness that comes with meeting new people.

    However, if there is rapport already established, go for it. If not, take a wander, buy a drink and be aware of where people are. If there is someone you would like to talk to, make yourself available and not sit all night etc.

    When someone is alone and looks bored, do them a favor and approach them. No matter how bad the conversation might get, they should at least appreciate the company and friendliness.

    Briefly, Approaching Groups

    When integrating with an established group conversation, there is really one thing to know. That is to establish the ‘leader’ and introduce yourself to them. I mentioned that before, but here is how and why.

    The why is the leader of a group conversation is probably the more social and outgoing. They will more readily accept your introduction and then introduce you to the rest of the group. This hierarchy in a group conversation is much more prevalent in formal situations where one person is leading the conversation.

    A group of friends out for the night is much more difficult to crack. This may even be another topic for discussion, but one thing I know that works is initiating conversation with a ‘stray’. It sounds predatorial, but it works.

    More often than not, this occurs without intention. But if you do really want to get into a group of friends, your best bet is approaching one of them while they are away from the group and being invited into the group.

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    It is possible, like everything, to approach a group outright and join them. However, this is almost an art and requires another specific post.

    Topics Of Conversation

    Other than confidence, the next thing people who have trouble initiating conversations lack is conversation! So here are a few tips to get the ball rolling:

    • Small talk sucks. It’s boring and a lot of people already begin to zone out when questions like, “What do you do?” or “What’s with this weather?” come up. Just skip it.
    • Everything is fair game. If you are in the company of someone and a thought strikes you, share it. “This drink is garbage! What are you drinking?” “Where did you get that outfit?”
    • Opinions matter. This is any easy way to hit the ground running in conversation. Everyone has one, and when you share yours, another will reveal itself. The great thing about this line of thought is that you are instantly learning about the other person and what they like, dislike etc.
    • Environment. The place you’re in is full of things to comment on. The DJ, band, fashions; start talking about what you see.
    • Current events. Unless it’s something accessible or light-hearted, forget it. Don’t launch into your opinion on the war or politics. If your town has recently hosted a festival, ask what they think about it.

    Exiting Conversation

    Although I’d like to write a full post on exiting strategies for conversations you don’t want to be in, here are some tips:

    • The first thing is don’t stay in a conversation you’re not interested in. It’ll show and will be no fun for anyone.
    • Be polite and excuse yourself. You’re probably out with friends, go back to them.  Or buy a drink. Most people will probably want to finish the conversation as much as you.

    Likewise, you could start another conversation.

    If you’d like to learn more tips about starting a conversation, this guide maybe useful for you: How to Talk to Strangers Without Feeling Awkward

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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