Editor’s note: This is an editorial that ran in the opinion section of the 8-24-16 edition of the Kokomo Perspective.
It was 1961, and I was a scared 5 year old as we disembarked at what was then Leopoldville airport in Congo-Brazzaville (Africa). My parents, my brother, and I had just completed the first leg of a 5,000-mile journey, away from our comfortable lives in Da Gama Street, Johannesburg, South Africa, to live on a commune in Israel. Since then, my life experiences have entailed rapid changes, breathtaking explorations, and amazing journeys.
After arriving in Israel, my next 26 years were demanding, adventurous, and entailed immense learning. I grew up on a commune, served in the IDF, Israeli Defense Forces (Major, Ret.), completed a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, married, and had three sons. Then, in my early 30s, I moved to the United States to complete a PhD in public policy. For the past 26 years, I have been a professor, scholar, and an academic leader at a very dissimilar group of American universities (in three different states). This wonderful life journey has allowed me to gain many diverse experiences and insights to say the least.
I witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly, saw highs and experienced lows. These experiences have resulted in valuable “lessons learned.” In this piece I attempt to consolidate them and share the five essential things I learned about life.
I grew up on a commune with a population of close to 400. We had 1,500 acres that were intensely farmed, a dairy, poultry, and a large furniture factory. It was based on egalitarian principles: women and men were treated equally; the commune took care of members’ needs such as education and health; wealth was held in common; profits were reinvested in the commune; each family had the same habitation which was owned by the commune; there was no differential pay or any monetary incentives — all income generated by the commune and its members went into a common pool; all decisions were made democratically at a weekly meeting; commune members received the same budget according to family size, regardless of job or position; work duties were assigned by the commune and no work was allowed off-site; finally, leadership was elected annually.
We had no phones in our homes, no television, and only a limited pool of cars that you needed to request in advance. High school kids worked a few times a week after school and during part of summer vacation, yet never directly monetarily compensated.
In many ways, it was both utopian and challenging. An individual had limited choices, and all commune members were mobilized for the collective well-being. As my formative years were spent on the commune, I develop a strong ethic of camaraderie – an appreciation for the role that everyone plays in the success of a complex organization and charting its future. Leaders often get the lions’ share of the credit but my youthful experiences instilled in me the strong belief that success is a group effort. As a result, throughout my career, I have sought to cultivate the best in people and maximize each individual potential for success. Expressing appreciation and gratitude for a job well done is ingrained in me and comes naturally to me.
Only two weeks after graduating from high school with friends who went to school together for 12 years, I was required, as were all Israeli men and women, to join the IDF. This was the summer of 1974 – a very tense time. The Yom Kippur War had happened less than a year before and no one knew if – or when – there would be a resumption of hostilities.
I joined with much passion and a strong commitment to Israel’s defense. My military journey begun with the first shock of a challenging basic training, (i.e., Boot Camp) and continued with a variety of advanced training and tours of duty on the boarders. I successfully completed long months of training and became a combat intelligence officer. During most of my three-and-a-half years of active duty, I served in that capacity and was deployed in different theaters of operations, where I experienced combat. Upon completion of my duty I joined the reserve forces for twelve additional years (Ret. Major) in which I experienced more combat.
Serving in a combat unit as an intelligence officer at such a perilous time taught me much, specifically the value of life when faced with life-or-death situations. You learn to steel yourself, overcome your fears, and look out for the welfare of your comrades and those who you lead. Indeed, as I explain below, courage goes with camaraderie – your own survival is dependent on the relationships you cultivate with others.
I graduated from three universities and got professional certificates from two others. I have served and experienced being a professor and administrator in several universities for the past 26 years. College is my life, my professional identity, and the arena in which I have sought to make a lasting impression on the institutions I’ve served, the students who have attended them and the surrounding region. But leading change and assuring that institutions of higher education stay relevant and current beyond the class room isn’t easy – the risks may not be life-and-limb – but resistance to any change, uncertainty, and discomfort is grounded in higher education culture: cynicism, envy, and apathy can block efforts to engage a campus “on the move.” That’s why the key value I have learned working in colleges is to identify and recognize covetousness.
This phenomenon, I learned the hard way, should not be underestimated nor ignored. Some institutional actors not only want to protect their own turf, but also are often jealous and worse, envy others prerogatives (and authority). As Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay taught us, when someone has envy, “They’ll either want to kill you, kiss you, or be you.” How does one surmount this? I learned the hard way. Read on…
I have experienced a variety of cultures, religions, and nationalities all through my life. Born in South Africa, raised in Israel, living in the USA, and fortunate to travel the world in five capacities: as a kid, an IDF officer, a member of the commune who represented our production of exporting flowers and furniture, a traveler/tourist and as an academic, both for research and as an administrator, enhancing recruitment and exchanging research and economic development across several continents.
These travels allowed me a unique and vast opportunity to interact, engage, and learn much about others from different cultures and background. They have taught me the value of civility: the one path that can, with patience, overcome covetousness. This is not easy since civility is not always (or often) reciprocated but it is essential nonetheless. As a leader interacting in a variety of cultures, you need to have the skills of a professional diplomat, the bold vision of an innovator and the endurance of an explorer.
Civility is at the core of one’s ability to value and interact with a variety of cultures. That means learning about others and better understanding others. You can only effectuate positive change if you get people to buy-in to a common vision, and you can only lead when you recognize the wide variety of needs, concerns and dreams. Learning about different cultures allows us to recognize in a civil manner that everyone has a story, and everyone’s story is central to their identity.
The Five Essentials I Learned: camaraderie, courage, covetousness, civility and optimism:
Camaraderie is about friendship, a spirit of caring for others, a sense of belonging and community. It is a profound belief in being part of a group that shares values that are mobilized toward a common good. It often refers to “brothers in arms.” While the military interpretation of camaraderie is customarily that of soldiers at war who watch out for each other, it has a broader meaning for me.
It is really about overcoming difficulties and achieving opportunities together; working together to achieve what one alone cannot. It is about developing mutual trust in others – a constant challenge for the human condition. It is about fostering a culture and spirit of unconditional care for each other, trust and mutual support. It is not about a relationship between two people: it is a culture of an organization or group and an individual behavior within that framework.
Courage, in my experience, is a specific “mindset,” that allows you to overcome and confront fear, danger, pain, extraordinary challenges, terrible loss, and grief. It is the ability to confront uncertainty or intimidation. Many claim they have courage and conduct themselves in a manner that makes others believe that they do.
The fact is that you can only test your courage as a leader when confronted with an extraordinary challenging and at times life threatening experience. I have seen many who folded without any courage at the crucial moment while others, whose courage may have seemed suspect, stood out at the crucial moment. It is about confronting a fearful situation head-on and seeing it (and yourself) through.
But it is also about caring for others as much as you care for yourself. This is why one of my heroes is Ernest Shackleton, an early twentieth-century English explorer who, on an expedition to Antarctica, found himself and his crew stranded on ice flows when ice crushed his ship. Refusing to give up and, putting the welfare of his men before his own, he bravely rowed a canoe 800 miles in the South Atlantic Ocean to the closest human habitation. As much I have seen courage in person – in the IDF, on the commune – Shackleton stands, for me, as the touchstone of the courageous individual.
Covetousness is best explained by Suzanne Collins, who says that when someone has envy “[t]hey’ll either want to kill you, kiss you, or be you.” It is based on greed, a desire to possess something that someone else has achieved, and envy is intended to cause harm. It was only during my academic career that I became aware that covetous people can easily lay waste to others vision, plans and organizational future.
Not being aware that malevolent individuals “had it in for me” left me vulnerable to their designs. An envy person did all she could so others will not be allowed to “Imagine What the Future Holds.” After I and others suffered their ill effects, I turned to the latest research to better understand this. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University published in Science an article that “demonstrated for the first time that babies learn new things by leveraging the core information with which they are born.”
When something surprises a baby… they “learn more about it than from a similar yet predictable object.” Upon further inquiry, I discovered the “Sayre’s law” which states that “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake. That is why academic politics are so bitter.”
I know: from ancient religious texts, to philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes to today’s television shows, all say the same thing – malice is lodged in the human heart. Sometimes it is allowed to prevail and hurt you. But, unfortunately, it seems that you have to experience it first-hand to appreciate this ugly wisdom and reality. It’s what you do with that hard-earned knowledge, however, that counts.
Civility, according to Tomas Spath and Cassandra Dahnke, Founders of the Institute for Civility in Government, civility “is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” Civility allows us to have different opinions and values without being in conflict or disrespecting each other. It allows us to cross cultures, types of organizations, status, class, education and in fact all human differences without engaging in conflict.
It allows us the opportunity to work to explore common ground. Civility is central to any dialogue, especially between different and unique individuals, organizations, cultures, religions and nations. It allows us to create social contracts, to produce constructive forms of discourse, and to organize and mediate differences.
Civility is key for any successful economic, social or political transaction and exchange. It minimizes transaction costs and allows us to reach a steady state. It allows us the foundation to progress as individuals, organizations and nations. For me, civility is the obverse of covetousness – and, indeed, it is through the unpleasant ‘education’ of human malice that we learn, if we’re lucky and do not become vindictive in our turn, to approach others with more curiosity, more empathy, and more decency.
Optimism. Shackleton taught us that “optimism is true moral courage.” Optimism is about having the courage to face the future and envision a better time and reality that we can achieve, despite any constraint with which we are confronted. If we can have a realistic, and yet nonetheless, positive belief that better things will happen in the future, we can inspire others not only to face seemingly insurmountable challenge – but even to pursue ambitious goals. This goes beyond a simple glass half-full/half-empty dichotomy: a cheerful person, picks up the glass, savors the wine inside of it, assesses its best and worst qualities, and then proceeds to outline a way to make next year’s vintage even better. Einstein taught us to “learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Each of us has our own life journey and accumulates wisdom along the way.
My hope is that these five lessons may provide you with some guidance. Oh, and I forgot that there’s a sixth lesson: keep an open mind to the fact that there are always more lessons to learn!