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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 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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