Leaders Question Lines

I begin today’s brief blog in a plane at 36,997 feet above the earth, specifically above Yellow Knife, Northwest Territories.  I’m mesmerized by the dynamic map on the monitor in front of me. It’s made up of shades of: greens, blues, browns, and a lot of white; white because we flew over the “top” of the earth. The Arctic is, of course, not the top of the earth (unless, I suppose you’re buried there beneath it J). The true “top” is a mind-bogglingly-near-infinite-space, changing constantly as we all spin through space.  And while each of our tops is in the as-good-as-infinite-space above each of our heads, the “bottom” of the earth is the very same for all of us; the earth’s core.

As in a family or any other organization, what or who appears to be on “top” or “bottom,” are actually but human constructions, images or metaphors which are at least as misleading as they are useful.

My United Airlines map also has geographic lines on it, which are also ALL constructions – of surveyors, and the politicians and diplomats “above” them. In some places these lines have become literally concretized — in Gaza (with tunnels beneath), Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, and of course the man-made wonder (irony) at the “bottom” of the U.S.

At Berkeley, invisible lines give great meaning between and among seniors, juniors, athletes, frat brothers, transfer students, Asians; “ladder” and “professional” faculty, and staff. At your place, you have perhaps sales AND marketing, finance, legal, HR, headquarters and field offices, etc.

Sometimes all these constructed lines are useful. And sometimes they’re terrifically skewed!  We’re coming back from Scotland where for the first time we met many of my dad’s cousins and second cousins. It turns out the surprise my sister Ann had leaked 5 years ago was totally confirmed. After 50 years of being told I was “half Irish” (and half Italian) it’s clear that dating back to Charles Mulhern, b. 1824 in Glasgow, we are half Scottish (with a wee bit of Welsh, to boot). “We’re just not Irish,” I conclude. Jennifer demurs: “Mulhern is an Irish name.” I say, “200 years back and nobody born in Ireland. We look pretty Scottish to me!” Sometimes the honest and useful thing to do is to deconstruct the constructed lines!

Vacation descends from the Latin, vacare, “to empty.” I emptied myself of some long held “truths,” but came back filled with the joy of meeting Scottish cousins – whom we enjoyed as much as if they had been Polish, Korean, or African (and some of these cousins are indeed of African descent). As in so many cases, at “bottom,” the lines and names of business clans or family clans are often unnecessary and divisive.

In leadership and especially in authority, we need to honor some of the lines, but an essential job must be to get people to erase some of the constructed lines that seemingly demarcate reality — in order for us to clearly see what IS and serve what COULD BE,

Leading with our best selves!

  • What a great connection to the need to rethink long-held “truths” as we live our unfolding lives. For xx years, you were half Irish. Now you’re maybe Irish and also Scottish and Welsh and also Italian. Tomorrow it will be something else – for all of us. How do we hold onto our stories yet not hold them too tightly? What stories do we have about others? And the bigger question – what do the stories lead us to do and not do?

  • Hi Dan,

    Don’t despair, your paternal grandmother [my Aunt] had relatives in Port Stewart, Northern Ireland. Dad remembers going there on holiday. Trouble is in northern Ireland Mc Michael is a very Unionist (i.e. protestant name). If Jenny goes back far enough the “Scots” are a celtic/irish tribe who moved from northern ireiand to Scotland long before the Norse invasion and raids on Britain and Ireland.
    Remember the scots motto “Who’s like us. Nae one and if they are they’re all deid”
    You could also have relatives in the “land of the long white cloud” New Zealand. As one of Cissie’s aunts emigrated there in 1920s .

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