Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Great Teachers and Learning Organizations

Does your mind ever wander while you are supposed to be paying attention in a class or meeting?

Do you ever feel "cheated" by apathetic teachers or managers who can’t engage and organize people?

Between fifth and ninth grades I barely made it through school, partly due to clueless teachers, partly due to family problems, and partly due to my sense I lacked control.

Then, when I started tenth graded, a light switch seemed to flip on in my brain. I started reading on my own, interested in learning vs. memorizing test material. Math made sense. I loved structuring equations and finding solutions. I loved learning.

I read everything available about the power of the spirit and positive psychology. And, I was exposed to my first great teacher, beyond my parents, my head high school football coach, Ted Monica.

Coach Monica was a Lombardi disciple. In fact, he helped the Green Bay Packers on draft day for years. He and his football program were highly organized. He was very tough and gruff on the exterior, but we responded to his honesty and underlying goodness. For me, he represented the ultimate definition of a coach, or teacher. He was smart, a real expert in his field and very sharp and perceptive. Coach had a very strong presence and voice, and great eye contact. His quick glare made players shake in an instant.

Few, if any, of the college head coaches who recruited me had his talents.

I flourished under his high expectations and applied his structured approach to my classes. They seemed easy compared to his marine boot camp like (he was Korean War Marine Veteran) triple sessions. I felt like I’d passed a mark to manhood by surviving the many physical challenges. They were balanced. He seemed to know when to cut back, just barely. He kept us hungry to improve, and to learn.

My offensive line coach, Jack Francis, introduced the linemen to training camp by stating: “in order to play at Madison, all you need to be able to do is tell your right hand from your left, and to count from one to ten”. I did a quick self-assessment and felt relieved knowing I could pass his first criteria. Our confidence grew. In truth, we ran an intricate veer offense, but coach kept it simple. We flourished.

During my three years as a starter, we never lost a game and ended our seasons consecutively ranked 3rd, 2nd, and 1st in NJ. When questioned by concerned parents and media about whether all the winning was a good and real teacher for us, as life is full of setbacks, coach would state: they lose everyday in practice. He was right. He had a way of keeping egos in check.

One time, Joe Butler, the star, 1000 yard rusher my junior year (I had three consecutive 1000 yard rushers run to my side; Chris Jilleba in 1977, Joe in 1978, and Steve Doherty in 1979) was feeling pretty confident after a good game and said, after reviewing a missed assignment during film review on Monday afternoons: “sorry coach, my fault”.

No one ever volunteered a comment during films unless questioned by coach. There was dead silence and dread in the room. People feared Joe’s response would summons coach to punish the whole team with sprints, or the dreaded “Green Bays” – 10 consecutive 440-yard sprints with a minute’s rest between each lap. The first 440 had to be run under 2:00 minutes and each subsequent lap had 5 seconds reduced, so the last lap had to be run in under 70 seconds.

Finally, coach said: “No, it’s MY fault, for having YOU in there.” We giggled in relief we weren’t sent to the track, and Joe learned to keep quiet. Needless to say, we reminded Joe of the incident every time someone said sorry.

Coach created an environment where we enjoyed each other. This was a trademark of my high school teams. When we practiced, we were totally committed and concerned with making every collective effort possible to execute. When we played our games, this individual execution was augmented with a sense of trust and interdependency. We felt like 11 people all working as one, like brothers.

Since my days at Madison, I’ve searched to find this feeling outside of my family. Most organizations create incentives so individuals put themselves ahead of the good of the whole. Our Madison teams functioned as one, and it elevated our performance, and results.

Peter Senge, in his Book "The Fifth Discipline" states the key trait distinguishing thriving and surviving environments is their members' ability to learn from their experiences. He states: "Often when things go poorly, we blame incompetent leaders, a downward trend in the marketplace, or customers who don't know a good product when they see one. We usually wait for someone or something to rescue us from our dilemma. What we usually miss is the bigger question: 'What are we, collectively, able to create?'" Creating possibility requires learning from our experiences, rather than being defined and immobilized by them.

Thanksgiving week during my senior year in high school was a pivotal week in my life. My mom was buried the Friday before. She died late that Tuesday after an eight-year battle with melanoma. On Saturday we played East Orange in a football state championship playoff game. On Sunday, the senior players took a special SAT make up, originally scheduled for Saturday. Then, on Thanksgiving, we played our traditional rival, Millburn High. So, my mom's death came during the only week of the year when we played two games.

Thanks to the environment Coach Monica and his staff created, I barely missed a beat. We beat East Orange, led by future NFL star Sam Seale, in the waning minutes of the game. I took the SAT's on Sunday. My scores allowed me to be recruited by the Ivies and Service Academies. We also beat Millburn, but this was not unexpected. We went on and won our third consecutive championship, and undefeated season. When our season ended, our winning streak was at 34 games. The team needed six more victories to beat the then state record of 39. We ended the season ranked tops in NJ. John Dagon, another captain and our ferocious middle linebacker, and I were named first team all state.

I consider myself blessed for being influenced by great teachers, coaches, and counselors. They enable students to seek the truth, and to enjoy the learning and growing process.

After high school glory, my mom’s death started a series of downward spirals. My first year and a half at Brown was marked with classroom and personal upheaval. I searched the campus for an instructor, administrator, or even staff person, who I responded to like I did to Coach Monica.

I pulled myself into Professor Barrett Hazeltine’s office. Here was a selfless light at the end of the Brown's tunnel of seemingly self-absorbed and self-important faculty and staff. Humble, considerate, and friendly, he never forced a solution, but offered support in helping me find my way at Brown. His demeanor was diametrically opposed to Coach Monica’s approach, but it worked.

Like Coach Monica, Professor Hazeltine was very successful, and recognized, for helping students realize their potential. He is a Brown icon. Brown’s award for teaching excellence is named after him. Both he and Coach exuded concern and competence, albeit with completely different styles.

His classes were engaging and empowering. He was dynamic, yet sincere. Students took leadership roles in facilitating group discussions of real life business cases. We practiced presentation skills, time management, problem facilitation, and continuous improvement. Successful, attractive, graduates would return and discuss their business and life endeavors.

When I see the gold sun on top of Brown's emblem, I think of Professor Hazeltine, providing a warm and enlightened glow over a turbulent organization. Whenever I see or touch a football, I think of Coach Monica. They both influenced their students to create excellence in their homes, in their organizations, and in their communities.

I spend much of my time in organizations helping managers become better teachers.

Below please find some excerpts from one of Professor Hazeltine’s speeches. It’s entitled: “FOR THE LOVE OF THE ACQUISITION OF LEARNING”. It’s hoped you can find some nuggets to apply to your team to impact great performance.

“We can be useful because we can give our students both the confidence that they can learn (and after learning do) and also the knowledge and the wisdom so this confidence is not a delusion.

Teaching can be thrilling because we get to see students come alive - to realize this poem is meaningful, this environmental analysis is something they can do. I fear I, personally, teach to the bottom of the class-- the group for whom education represents high value added, the group that can blossom at a university. Perhaps because I am so impressed and pleased when the less highly regarded do take off. Of course good things do not always happen to those in the bottom of the class and probably the most painful part of the teaching business is making clear what is valid and acceptable and what is not. Teaching can not only be painful, it can also be difficult and risky -one is putting one's reputation on the line every class. We are a profession, like major league athletics, where one is only as good as one's last' performance.

Why is a teacher important? An essential insight for me was that I was not responsible for telling the students everything I knew. I was not even responsible for knowing everything that they might ask me. I was not important to them because of what I knew. They could find out themselves what they needed -- if they wanted to. The important thing a teacher can do is to make learning significant and possible. We should focus on making students want to learn and trust them to do the rest.

A teacher is important because he or she is an advocate for intellectual life. The student, any person in our society, is besieged with choices and advocates for those choices but few advocates duplicate what a faculty member professes. A glance at the newspaper, -or evening TV, makes it obvious how badly our society needs people of intelligence, confidence and conviction.

A good teacher is important also because he or she represents quality thinking. Students need to be able to recognize ideas that are incomplete or inaccurate or insensitive, whether in the popular press or from themselves. The thrill of accomplishment, of learning, is lost when discriminations are not made between high and low quality work. If any idea is respected then nothing is really respected.

We are good teachers, I believe when we show that our subject is challenging, significant, accessible -- when we show that learning is worth doing. We are also good teachers when we show that other facets of life are worthwhile -- concern for others, integrity, spiritual life, a conviction to act on one's belief.

Just as we are representatives of intellectual, moral and spiritual life we are also representatives of our society's culture -- what our society appreciates and believes. Technological developments, television, transportation, medical discoveries, to name a few-- have changed greatly the conditions in which people live, leaving them in many cases without a firm sense of what they are and where they came from. The passing on of cultural values is important especially since many of the institutions that give society its stability are presently having difficulty.

Being a parent gave me much insight into what is important in teaching -- what did I want my own children to become? What should I want for other people's children? I would certainly like them to be intelligent and I would not want them to be ignorant of the arts and of science. I would like them to be responsible citizens and lead a moral life but most of all I want them to be confident and curious -- to want to learn, to believe they can learn, to be eager to do new things, to lead a full life. Nothing has happened to a student while in college unless this sense of what is possible has taken hold and a teacher, better than any other mechanism I know, can nurture this sense. I tell my seniors that if they do not feel good about their ability to meet new challenges they have wasted 4 years and $80,000.

One cannot help noting that at most institutions faculty are usually not trained or encouraged to think of themselves as mentors to undergraduates, instructors, yes, mentors not often. Graduate school and the people we meet expect us to be expert in the subject field. and rarely explicitly pay attention to the values we profess. We are trained to feel best about ourselves when we have delivered a terribly clear and beautifully organized lecture. We do not always realize that students may often learn more from other things we do - perhaps even things we do unconsciously, perhaps especially things we do unconsciously.

Students do deserve, however, clear and organized class room presentations. A scholarly aspect of our profession is just that -- to organize and interpret the subject -- to make student learning more efficient and effective by pointing out fruitful approaches, to show what has worked in the past and what has not. As someone said those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

It is our understanding, even ask other things. In larger classes one can use devices also -questions, votes (when I bring up what seems an important question I ask for a vote and insist that all participate -"everybody has to have an opinion on this".). My lecture outline handouts have blanks where the student is expected to do something -- complete an argument or a calculation.

I move around the lecture room, coming up to a student in, say, the fifth row and soliciting an opinion from her or him. If all else fails in a dull part of a class one can make a minor blunder, an algebraic mistake, for example, and let the class discover it. I try to find excuses to shake hands because a grade school teacher told me touching is reassuring. Someone else told me the only thing really clear from studies of how people learn complex material is that they tend to remember what they discover for themselves. So I try to structure presentations so students can discover the results for themselves and in the process gain confidence. After all, I won't always be there to help.

How would I, as a student, want to be treated? As a partner in the educational enterprise. It does help to learn names in a big class. Moving away from the lectern or- the blackboard tends to reduce the psychological distance. Giving handouts personally to students creates an opportunity to greet them individually. As a symbolic gesture I often ask the class to decide on some administrative procedures, such as what day the assignments will be due. My own style is to try to find a way to praise every student every day but others may not find that comfortable. At the very least the student should be made to feel welcomed in the classroom.

So how does a teacher do harm? By lowering the student's self esteem so he or she feels the material can never be mastered. By not involving the student in the exercise. By not demonstrating that learning is satisfying and worthwhile. By not making the material clear and absorbing. By acting as if he or she does not care to teach.

People who have chosen teaching have chosen a profession with high rewards and high responsibilities. We do affect greatly, for good or bad, the lives of those we teach. Good teaching is something that requires thought and commitment and practice. Too often it has been taken for granted -- neither recognized or studied.”

If I can help you adapt coaching, learning, and teaching principles to your organization’s management practices, it will be great to chat.


At 1:30 AM Saturday morning a loud rustling in the woods behind our yard woke me. I went to the bathroom window and looked. I was still sleepy, so I shook my head to make sure I was not hallucinating.

A large person, with a faint light, was trudging through the woods, just beyond our property line. Every few steps, he, and I knew it was a man by the painful noises he made as he fell onthe brier filled brush, rocks, logs, and stumps. He was moving from my right to left. Just about three feet to his left was our property line, a complete
clearing. I know the area well.

My back is recovering from clearing the one hundred foot by one hundred foot area between our grassed yard and this wooded nature preserve / wetlands. In 2004 I cut down about eighty scrub trees, grounded the stumps, cut the oak for fire wood, chipped the rest for paths, cleared all the brush with a "Gravely", a monster machine able to clear trees 3" in diameter and less, and herniated a disc.

Before I yelled to ask what was wrong, I thought of the neighbors' young children. My voice might alarm them. So, I got the phone and was ready to call the police if this person started acting dangerous. After he made his final two falls, he cleared the woods and walked on a path to our other neighbor's house. I saw relief in his body and realized it was a neighbor, most likely following his disobedient dog through the woods.

What puzzled me was the danger and discomfort he subjected himself to by not walking through our clearing. Perhaps, and I hope this is not the case, he feared getting shot for trespassing. Perhaps he was unaware. Maybe he was so tired and preoccupied, he could not assess the situation with rational thought.

Stress, mental models and perceptions can keep us from seeing clear solutions. The first stage of good dialogue includes checking one's thinking, to determine whether thoughts are fact based or opinionated. People more readily agree on facts. I've
seen clients' opinions, often in the form of e-mail; wreak havoc and destruction, much like our poor neighbor did the other night.

Without looking up, communicating, checking for understanding, and trying new options, we can get stuck on destructive paths. I'm fortunate to help people and organizations identify and clear obstacles with communication, leadership, teamwork, and problem solving.

If you have upcoming projects where these can help, it'd be great to chat!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ozzie to Ozzie

To help leaders influence and engage people, following please find the organizational needs family sitcoms depicted over the past fifty years. Family is a fundamental team unit. Family sitcoms show how leadership and team needs evolved and changed over the past fifty years. Dynamic units, like families, tend to change non-stop, while bureaucratic organizations like the United States Government, Ford Motor, and the Catholic Church, can become too focused on internal issues to meet audience expectations. When organizations respond to market needs with alacrity, they thrive.

It's possible for organizations to change with the times by aligning members around shared values and principles, regardless of members' cultural and demographic differences.

The most popular TV show in the 1950's was "I Love Lucy". Perhaps Lucy's popularity was based on her comic antics, and her manipulating Desi. These were welcome diversions from traditional, idealized, 1950's TV families found on "Leave it to Beaver", "Ozzie and Harriet", "Father Knows Best", "Lassie", and "The Donna Reed Show". These shows depicted fathers like generals, much like Ike, Dwight Eisenhower, the former general who was President for much of the 1950's when hierarchy reined supreme. Fathers knew best. Ward Cleaver, an insurance executive, was trusted and respected. Dads ruled the roost. Relationships on these shows appeared ideal. People from these shows focused on the positive, and expected others to do the same. They had traditional, supportive, and financially sound families. Based on these shows, people weaned in the 50's want authority and structure. Their social status coincided with massive economic growth.

In many of these families, leaders made decisions and announced them with little constituent input or deliberation. This process was not engaging or empowering, but America had just defeated evil in World War II using similar decision making models. Americans appeared willing to follow orders, perhaps blindly. TV mothers, with the exception of Lucy, and their children were compliant and conforming. Perhaps their needs for autonomy and independence were overshadowed by economic memories of the depression and the cold war and their subsequent desire for security. Just as Desi could not influence Lucy to portray an idealized female role, leaders can't expect to lead everyone from the 1950's with an iron fist. However, based on these shows, many people from the 1950's will respond to clear roles and responsibilities, i.e. structure. For those who question authority, civil unrest transcended 1960's TV families.

The most popular TV show in the 1960's was the "Beverly Hillbillies". This comic distortion of a traditional family structure spoofed males as dimwitted (Jethro), overstressed (Mr. Drysdale), or carefree and unbothered (Uncle Jed). The cool, collected male figure of most 1950 families was lampooned in the 1960's. As he entered his New Rochelle home, Dick Van Dyke tripped over his ottoman. Lucy, Wilma Flintstone, Betty Rubble, Morticia Adams, Lilly Monster, and Jane Jetson were the real leaders in their households. Fathers were ostracized for being less competent than their wives. Dads got their families into a jam, and the moms came to the rescue. This humorous spoofing allowed shows to portray dad in a more human light than in the 1950's. Yet this humor may have masked real fear, disagreement, anger and discontent with the country's leadership.

The actual 1960's political leaders like JFK and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., were assassinated. The United States was involved in the Vietnam War. Rebellion, the counter culture, drugs and civil liberties were touted, perhaps in response to the idealistic and oppressive expectations from the 1950's. People spoke up. Their needs and wants were elevated. As a result, 1960's leaders began to wrestle with decisions after polling constituents and considering varied perspectives. On a positive note, the creative freedom and drive released in the 1960's resulted in Neil Armstrong being the first person to walk on the moon.

In 1960 shows like "Andy Griffith, My Three Sons, Bonanza, Courtship of Eddie's Father, and Family Affair" father figures were portrayed in a positive light. The caveat was these fathers were widowed or single and received sympathy for managing on their own. Julia, a progressive family show about a single black mom, was the only show depicting a single mom. The 60's TV families spoofed and ridiculed the structured and traditional families of the '50's. This may have been an indirect assault on the United States leader, Lyndon Johnson, and his questionable foreign policies. As a result, folks from the 60's may be very humorous, but they'll also use humor to guise their cynicism and suspicion. They are struggling with their roles and responsibilities and to want have input, and to understand, processes and procedures. They want the whole story, and the facts, and creative input. This desire for truth was reflected in 1970 TV shows depicting families.

The most popular family sitcom in the 1970's was "All in the Family". Archie and his family addressed real issue like racism, sexism, homophobia, and abortion. Actual socioeconomic issue in the 70's like the oil embargo, Richard Nixon's resignation, and the recession made the United States question its economic and constitutional strength. Shows like "SOAP", and even "The Brady Bunch" discussed issues never imagine allowed on 50's TV. "The Jeffersons", an "All in the Family" spin off, welcomed the first successful African-American family to TV. Then came "Sanford and Son", "Chico and the Man", and "Good Times". On "The Partridge Family", Shirley Jones was in charge of her household.

As the United States faced some painful truths about its economy and its leader, the 70's family shows attempted to depict family reality. In some instances the mom ran the household. The kids were vocal and influential. However, taking a lead from the 60's, 1970's TV dads and male figures, in general, were still parodied.
Via this attempted self-assessment, and evolvement, the United States became more inclined to facilitate and serve others. The decision-making model used to facilitate these solutions involved polling groups and deciding. The USA became a bastion for resource and hope for countries in crisis. Jimmy Carter facilitated a peace agreement in the Middle East. Retrofitted shows like "Happy Days, The Waltons, and Little House on the Prairie" did search for squandered values, but we also evolved. People reared in the 1970's want to discuss the truth. They'll seek healthy, collaborative, respectful, and communicative relationships in their work places. They need incentives, recognition, and celebration to perform their best. They may also want to party. In the 1970's, the legal drinking age was lowered and free love flourished. This drive to satisfy one's desires, at any cost, came to a peak in the 1980's.

The most popular TV family sitcoms in the 1980's: "Dallas", "Dynasty", and "The Cosby Show". The common value shared by these and most other 80's sitcom families: material abundance. "The Facts of Life", "Family Ties", and "Falcon Crest" all shared opulent settings and wardrobes. Many of these shows rewarded narcissistic, selfish, and lying people.

In the 1980's a former actor, Ronald Reagan, was in charge and in society, style seemed to outweigh substance. People went to tragic lengths to achieve status. Kids killed each other for their sneakers and coats. Logos appeared on clothing. What you wore or had - external validation, defined a person more than the content of one's character or mind. In the fifties, the economy was jumpstarted by growth. The 80's economy was manufactured by credit and junk bonds. Key decision makers in the 1980's were able to sell their goals, roles, and policies to their constituents.
Capital depreciation timelines were reduced to spark spending. This and the arms race bankrupted the government. The deficit flourished. The great build up of our country's military arsenal did collapse communism. The world sighed with great relief. As a result, people from the 1980's want goals and their economic and emotional benefits. The more cynical may also want proof. Missing fiduciary responsibility in the 1980's led to 1990 sitcoms where people align with people committed to common goals.

The most popular 1990's shows depicting families: "Cheers", "Seinfeld", and "Friends". Characters in these shows created quasi families and in lieu of their biological families. Perhaps in response to divorce being more common than not, or two working parent households, people learned to develop alternative support networks. To make up for lost time and attention, parents over accommodated their kids.

In the 1990's President Bill Clinton and kids, for the most part, were in charge. Social order and decorum took a back seat to self-interest and the me generation's kids. Children ran the roost in shows like the "Simpsons", "Married with Children", and "Roseanne". Cable TV, population explosion, and incessant marketing made people feel like they should have and win everything. People from the 1990's need commitment and support to succeed. Parents felt the pressure to validate themselves via their children's toys, elite school admissions, and victories. Individualism was touted. Soccer moms and hockey dads lost control at games when they, or their kids, couldn't win. Ironically, the parents who couldn't handle the monsters they created had doctors prescribe their kids Ritalin. Many children had excuses for their shortcomings, and the meds to prove it.

This drive for success, and the collapse of traditional organizational economic order aligned with Bill Gates' capacity to create a new economy. Young people no longer have to wait for corporate politics, or "their time" to become millionaires, or billionaires. 1990's people want decisions delegated to them. In general, people from this decade will expect to succeed. But they may not want to do the needed legwork, and their over-structured younger lives may hinder their creative problem solving capacity as adults. They'll want, or need, a leader to fix things when they don't work.

The most popular TV shows in the current decade include: "Friends", "Survivor", and "Who Wants to be a Millionaire". In today's TV families, Ozzie Osborn depicts a unit questioning the traditional norms and boundaries of decorum and respect while "Everyone Loves Raymond", "Seventh Heaven", and "Frazier" portray the other end of the spectrum, goodness, concern, and selflessness. Current Americans volunteer to help others more than anytime in history. Charitable contributions are at an all time high.

George W. Bush, the current President, speaks in extremes. He has to win, or he loses. Thus, people raised in this generation are struggling with polarity in our society; the haves vs. have-nots, liberals vs. conservatives, red vs. blue, good vs. evil, selfish vs. selfless, honest vs. lying. Reality TV has flourished under these extremes. The middle class, and independent thought, is evaporating. Although not family based, "Survivor", "Big Brother", "Dog Eat Dog", and "American Idol" all reward and recognize people for competing, and in some cases, being cut throat, selfish, and devious. People come to consensus, with their kind, to make decisions.

The evolution of the manufactured kid, whose parents package the child's skills with overstated successes to prop them up for admissions to great schools, and professional success, evolved from the 90's. In some cases, these parents pay consultants over $40K to market their child to elite schools. As a result, workers from this decade will run the gambit between traditional values and anarchy. They'll need a leader to set the tone with the talent and tools to build success for everyone.

Based on this evolution of TV families, all organizational units in the United States, from families to factories, need leaders who can unify the people in their organizations around common themes and needs. How do you engage a diverse team? What values, and incentives, work with people whether they were reared in the 50's or the 90's, or today? How do you motivate tenured workers to transfer their knowledge to a new generation, considering their demographic, cultural and communication differences? How do people dialogue despite different ages and perspectives and feel as though we're making progress while helping others get ahead too?

Based on TV families, successful audience engagement includes a five-step process.
1. A clear goal / objective (1980's)
2. Mutually agreed upon roles and responsibilities (1950's)
3. Clear and understood, and discussed, processes, policies, and procedures (1960's)
4. Healthy relationships based in trust, cooperation, communication, respect, and collaboration (1970's)
5. Commitment and support to excel (1990's)

Decision-making needs vary as well. Depending on the person, and his or her confidence, a leader can:
1. Decide and announce (Tell) (1950's)
2. Sell, vs. Tell (1980's)
3. Poll individuals and Decide (1960's)
4. Poll the Group and Decide (1970's)
5. Come to Consensus (2000's)
6. Delegate with Constraints (1990's)

Considering the changes caused by last week's elections, and families on going changes, it's hoped this piece helps people adapt, and ultimately thrive.

See you next month!

Father's Day

Father's day is upon us. So much effort is dedicated to creating and finding the right father's day gift. Once I became a father, I realized the best gifts are unintended blessings from my kids.

For instance, when our eldest daughter was learning to talk, she and I visited Thayer Street in Providence to pick up some gyro sandwiches at Andreas. Mohawks were popular amongst Thayer's crowd. A young man with foot long spikes walked in front of the car. I watched her eyes follow him up the street. She turned to me and asked: "daddy, is that a dragon?"

Our son was going to bed one night when he was four. He looked troubled. I asked if anything was wrong. He said he had a secret. Assuming he'd hidden an accident, or had broken something fragile, I sensed this was my opportune time to build his trust. I said he could share with me. Everything would be OK. I wouldn't be upset. He turned, quietly, and said: "I love toys. I really, really love toys."

When our middle daughter was a toddler, she loved to be hugged and carried. Sometimes, her interests went unannounced. As I walked from the living room to the kitchen with a tray of dishes, she flew from the couch and screamed: "catch me daddy!"

These incidents, combined with bum, bum dances, daddy imitations, thoughtful concerns about family and friends make me wonder in amazement about the miracles in my life, and the gifts I receive everyday in the form of my children.

On her own volition, when she was ten our eldest daughter started a greeting card company. She recruited her sister and friends, and targeted dad as a main client. The cards covered all personal milestones, calendar events, and all religious celebrations. Some were humorous, some rhymed, all were customized with decorations.
Before kids, my identity revolved around being a husband, brother, son, cousin, nephew, grandson, godfather, uncle, friend, neighbor, coach, writer, speaker, teacher. Being a father changed my perspective. It made me think of life in terms of their lives.

I believe a person does not need biological bonds to receive these gifts. I had a very good friend who died two years ago. He was a war hero, a public servant, an attorney, and a philanthropist, but he never had the opportunity to be a biological father. However, he cultivated relationships where he received these gifts from people he mentored. Thus, the true gift of being a dad, is giving others time, compassion, and humor, so they can share their gifts.

This is what makes great coaches effective, and great teams thrive. They sense a bond where their gifts are celebrated and recognized.

Mother's Day

Last week I attended mediation training in Boston. The timing was interesting, with the dates following mother’s day.

My mom was a natural leader, and mediator. She stood just five feet, three inches tall. This, combined with her terminal illness, made her physical presence less than imposing. However, her will and spirit, and beautiful face, made her indomitable. She turned every incident into an opportunity to learn, or to help.

Growing up in NJ, we had a neighbor named Andre Passamato. Andre drove his Harley Davidson to work when the weather turned nice. He left his home between 5:30 and 6:00 AM every morning, revved his engine, and shot out of the neighborhood like a bat out of hell. As a result, he woke everyone up along both sides of the street.

The neighbors were up in arms, tired of waking early and losing an extra hour of sleep every morning thanks to Andre's motorcycle alarm. They feared approaching Andre. He had big tattoos and a Fu Manchu mustache. He looked imposing. They did not want to fragment the neighborhood by calling the police.

My mom stepped up. She spoke to Andre. He was most respectful, and apologetic. He felt awful. From the moment of this discussion, he never again revved his engine in our neighborhood. We maintained a great relationship. We slept peacefully. Every once in a while I heard him pop his engine in the distance, after he was several blocks away.

Another time, a loudmouthed boy who lived up the road taunted Gene Lee with racial slurs. Gene was in fourth grade, and followed the boy, who realized he made a mistake. Even young, Gene was very strong. Mom reprimanded the boy, sent him home, and spent time with Gene. I'm not sure what she said, but Gene never had an incident again. Gene and I became friends, and teammates in high school football and wrestling. He became an incredible athlete.

My mom's capacity to listen made her able to unveil interests, to explore possible options benefiting both parties.

After my mom died when I was seventeen, my family and I went through a whirlwind of change, and my mom’s memory was cast aside. I kept a private collection of pictures and letters from my mom. I visited her grave when home from Brown. I hung onto memories of my mom's capacity to bring people together. She had great faith and natural leadership abilities.

The mediation training reminded me of my mom. I was touched by how much of the training was instinctual for me because of what she taught me. Managing conflict is a growing component of my practice and it comes natural to me. Years after her death, I still appreciate the roots of my ability to mediate as my mom’s lasting influence.

"You're Not Going To Believe This!"

It's been a tough few months. We memorialized another one of Linda's cousins last week. Steven died in his sleep at the age of 47, leaving his wife Maureen and two young children, Tyler and Andrew.

Despite Steven's serious job with Gillette, where he managed arbitrage programs allowing Gillette to, by the minute, invest in advantageous international markets, he was the life of any party, with amazing stories. His stories helped me reflect on twists of fate. Below please find a few.

A few months back, Tyler said his dad was, as usual, reading on their back porch in Plymouth when he heard, and saw out of the corner of his eye, what he thought was one of the family's two cats walking up the porch steps. Steven continued to read, and clicked his fingers to attract the kitty. He reached to pet the responding animal. The fur was thicker than usual, and the belly much broader. To his horror, Steven looked down at a fat raccoon, now enamored with Steven's hospitality, and the food on the table. Steven shot into the kitchen, shut the double door, and called his family to see his new friend.

When Steven and Maureen were dating, Steven was cooking a steak on Maureen's deck in Quincy, MA, overlooking Boston Harbor. He stepped inside to check a Red Sox score. When he returned to the deck, a seagull was pulling at the steak. Not willing to lose his meal, Steven shooed the animal, but it persisted, creating a battle where Steven used a hose to spray the pesky animal to protect the steak.

This reminds me of a story by Marty, another cousin, who was video taping his children while vacationing at the Cape. His boys were toddlers, playing in the yard, when something fell from the sky into the camera frame. Marty zoomed in, and focused on a huge eel. A seagull was flying overhead and lost control of the jostling eel. Within a second, a seagull landed, and with two gulps, swallowed the several foot long eel, whole. On film, Marty caught the writhing eel undulating down the seagull's neck and could have won $10,000 if he submitted the piece to America's Funniest Home Videos.

Thinking of this eel dropping from the sky reminded me of the time I was pulling ivy from our home's chimney. It was 1977 and we'd just moved to the NJ house where my dad still lives. He purchased the home from a woman who let the place go. Ivy can pull mortar from bricks, so my task was to remove all the overgrown ivy from the chimneys. There was a slight landing on the chimney about twelve feet off the ground. This space was relatively flat, warm, and safe from predators. It was an ideal spot for an astute snake to nest. So, as I pulled on the ivy, snakes varying in length from six inches to two feet landed on my head and shoulders. They were writhing all over me. I ran around the yard, flinging snakes as far as possible.

My head seems to be a natural target. While strolling along San Francisco's waterfront last summer, I felt something scratching the top of my scalp. At first, I thought it was my brother in law Robert teasing me, but he was walking in front of me. Next, I assumed it was a street vendor, with one of those scalp massagers. I ducked, looked up, and saw a bird. A starling was attacking my head. There are a series of landscaped areas along the waterfront, where this bird was nesting. My height, combined with my hair color, must have sent a warning. My whole family passed the area, in front of me, with no harm. When I walked back to assess the situation, the bird attacked again. My family saw this and howled with delight.

My most unique animal story involves a retired TV chimp. My childhood friend, Grant Bennett, whose stepfather, Dr. Bennett, delivered my brother Jud and me at Overlook Hospital in Summit, NJ, went to live with his mom and Dr. Bennett in Berkeley Heights, NJ when we were in 7th grade. We stayed in touch, and the family included me on some great adventures, like Giants games (including opening day at Giants Stadium) and deep-sea fishing.

Grant's mom adopted a retired TV chimp. The chimp adored her, but was aggressive to males, a possible response to abusive methods used to train TV chimps. We were playing keep away with the animal, and he was getting testy. So, Grant decided to cage the beast. The animal didn't like the idea. Grant suggested I give the chimp a banana, to sooth him. After handing the chimp the fruit, it grabbed my left thumb, as if it was a banana. He sliced my nail in half with his bottom eye two. The lines in my thumbnail are still there. Fortunately, Dr. Bennett was on site to administer first aid.

As was Dr. Lassiter, Nayan's dad, following a failed attempt to herd Storch, their German Shepherd. A few years prior to the chimp incident, my neighbor Nayan and I were tasked with getting Storch, his big disobedient German Shepherd, into their house. Nayan said he'd open the door after I grabbed Storch's bowl full of food, and ran towards the door. Our goal was to make Storch follow me into the house. When I picked up the bowl, Storch growled and shot after me. I threw the bowl away and ran in the other direction, but Storch kept coming. He jumped at my face and bit a hole in my lip.

Through all of this, I never developed a fear of animals, or dogs in particular, thanks to Shane, our reddish gold Labrador retriever from a South Dakota kennel. He was my mom's wedding gift to my dad and a gentle giant, weighing close to 130 pounds. We rode him. He lived until I was about ten and brought us regular gifts. One time, he deposited a pregnant frog at the base of our back porch. The frog, unhurt but shocked, laid its eggs and then hopped away. Shane did the same with a chicken. Once Shane opened his soft jaws, the chicken scrambled away.

One of my most inspiring dog stories involves a friend. Chris was boating in Boston Harbor a few years ago when he saw something thrown from a boat about 50 yards away. The dropped item kept splashing and the suspected boat sailed away. Chris approached the splash. It was a dog. He recovered the animal, and tried to catch the offending boat owners. Every time Chris tried to approach the dog dropping boat, it sped away. He realized the owners wanted to drown his new pet, as did the dog. It never needed a leash, or training. It did everything possible to please its new master who called it "the best dog he ever owned".

Truth is stranger than fiction. Despite being written on April 1, 2007, these stories are all true. The only one I wish was false is Steven's.


The fifth year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks coincides with a unique date for me. I am the exact age today as my mom was when she died in 1979. I was a senior in high school at the time, and the prognosis from my teachers and relatives was not too good.

They felt, thanks to my age and transitory place in life, I was more apt than my siblings to suffer long term negative affects from my mom's early death. I always disagreed with this and felt, regardless of someone's age when his or her parent dies, it creates profound change. Yet, this impact does not have to be totally negative.

I'd love to be able to update my mom, to fill her in on what's transpired in my life since her death. Even though I can't directly communicate with her, there are signs she's aware. There will be more on these later.

But first, this article is intended to help you and folks you know who've lost a loved one young.

The Problem: The death of a young parent.

Hundreds of children, some yet born, lost parents on September 11, 2001. In follow up interviews, many 9/11 survivors stated, due to their young age at the time of their parent's death, they have difficulty remembering their parents. I was older when my mom died, so I remember her voice and presence, and even her smell.

But the expectation of sharing life's joys- celebrations, graduations, marriage, births, and professional celebrations, ends prematurely when a parent dies young. A decent part of my motivation was meeting her expectations and sharing successes.

When she died, I needed to find new targets to provide joy and happiness. This kept me juiced. Creative outlets, athletics, and activities helped because they brought me in contact with people with common goals, and they allowed me to have some fun. I attempted to make up for my family's lost support structure by joining constructive organizations, and by being creative.

The Doubt: Despite the great loss of a parent, life goes on.

It was interesting to see the varied responses 9/11 children survivors shared in a set of interviews I watched yesterday. It was very sad to see a little girl still grieving, while another stated: "life goes on." She felt she had to "live well, to carry on the memory of (her) dad. It's what he would want from (her)."

When my mom died, my high school football team was ranked tops in NJ. I was one of the captains. She was buried the day before our semi final State Championship game against East Orange. I was part of a high profile team and my family's story was in the news.

People reached out and supported us. They were warm and friendly. It was touching, selfless, and really good behavior. It will always be with me, and I'll always appreciate it. I anticipated this kind of sincere support going forward. When I showed up at Brown, I realized the party was over. People can be cold and competitive. If they haven't lost a parent young, they can't relate, or connect. They may even see early loss as a weakness they can manipulate.

Trials: New playing fields and processes.

As a result, I had to create an expanded set of values. My dad remarried within a year of my mom's death. Naturally, my mom and stepmother did not share the same views. Many of my mental models were based on my mom's teachings. Also, Brown's faculty's perspective was, in general, different from what I'd seen and experienced in my previous 18 years.

This is a challenge for some children whose parents die young. Their lives are turned upside down. Their truths - the companionship and comforts they sought and were given to sooth anxiety, to solve problems, and to have fun are no longer present. The memories persist, but, as mentioned, the younger the child, the harder it is for these memories to remain vibrant.

As a result, young kids whose parents die may be more prone to anxiety, depression, and anger. Their security is taken away. It can lead them to expecting, or dreading, similar disruptions throughout life. It can set a negative perspective. These children may not have the tools or skills to comfort themselves, or to see their situation in a positive light.

Transcending the death of a young parent: Grace, compassion, humor, hope, and toughness.

Joining organizations, finding new role models and mentors, and learning about new cultures, places, people, and their truths helped me transcend some of my depths. Then, falling in love, having a family, and living my dreams and those I anticipated my mom having for me kept me going.

Goals and a support structures outside of my original family helped me deal with my mom's early death. Based on the onslaught of support I received when my mom died, I knew good people existed. I sought them out. I met some mentors and established family-like relationships with my neighbors.

A few years ago a professor loaned me a book on childhood resiliency. It states one of the key features shared by resilient children is having someone who takes a sincere interest in the child's well being. This helped me - mentors who entered my life with good influence and intention.

In retrospect, I wish I'd developed earlier relationships with peers and role models who'd experienced similar loss. Traumatic events define us, and allow us to connect with others with similar experiences. They are bonding agents and can be used as platforms to connect and build instead of isolate. By integrating my loss and pain, I was able to accept the signs. As mentioned, I think my mom signals me at critical times. I sense her grace at special celebrations. People who experience the death of a young parent may experience similar events.

My hope is the surviving relatives and friends of the 9/11 victims will experience a deeper awareness of and comfort from life's miracles. I hope they learn to expect a successful life, just as their loving parent expected. In reaching out to them, we can help them overcome, and, in turn, help ourselves gain a greater sense of satisfaction.

Mental Models

Mental Models

"We are here (In Zimbabwe) and happy. The sun is shining--we pray for rain in church. Not many look like us so people are especially friendly."

Barrett Hazeltine, my friend and Brown faculty advisor, sent this last week. After celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and Barrett's 75th birthday, last year, Barrett and Mary decided to return again to Africa to help raise, this time, Zimbabwe's spirits and economy.

Rain came a few days later, but not enough to ease farmers' worries. What struck me was Barrett's last line.

One of my first friends in this world is Nayan Lassiter. We still stay in touch. Nayan was my next door neighbor in Madison, NJ. His family had a compound with his grandparents, great grandma, and visiting cousins, in one home, and Nayan and his family in another house. They also had a huge patio, studio, and pool. It was a great entertainment center.

When we were young, I never noticed Nayan's different skin tone. He was my friend, and we loved building forts, playing sports, and, on occasion, spying on, and visiting, his grandparents' / parents' numerous parties.

From my memory, solely African Americans attended some of the parties, and I remember people reaching out to Nayan and me, welcoming us, and asking us questions about who we were, and what we'd like to do with our time. They were "especially friendly".

In fourth grade, Gaye Newton invited several boys and me to her birthday party. The other boys decided girl parties were still too contaminated with cooties, but my parents made me attend because the Newtons were our neighbors, and Nayans' cousins. I was the only boy, and it was fun. I met people I hadn't known, and was treated really special.

A few years ago, I was asked to facilitate a leadership program at a Pocono's retreat owned by a New York City judge and his wife. The program was for high potential high school and college students. I was the only white person I saw, in my mirror, for four days. In addition to our seminar, the facility was hosting many other programs. Most of the people, again, were friendly, but I sensed some suspicion amongst those unaware of my role.

Many years ago, I facilitated a program for six protestant, and six catholic, 15 - 17 year old boys from Belfast Ireland. They were blended onto one soccer team, and played against a series of United States college teams before going home, undefeated. I worked with them on their first day together, to help forge their team. They looked, collectively, very much alike.

The protestants and Catholics could have been brothers; in some cases, twins. Yet, each knew who represented the other faith. In an early activity, elbows flew, almost followed by fists, before peers controlled it. By the end of our day together, even the most hardened boy decided to dedicate himself to the team. They'd proven they were trustworthy.

Yet, they all admitted, once they returned to Belfast, they could be killed if seen on the street with a teammate of the other religion.

Mental models can lead us to conclusions and decisions where we can change the world for good, as in Barrett and Mary's case, or restrict it, as was the case with the boys' return to Belfast.

Some people choose to focus on differences, physical or not, while others choose to solve common problems.

The choice is ours.