Archive for July, 2013

Helen Thomas was the very first female reporter to cover the White House. She was an aggressive questioner, sometimes abrasive, always direct and insistent, and yet loved by most who knew her. Indeed, she became a legend.

Sadly, Helen passed away this past week, and as I watched long time journalists reflect on their years of working with her, I could not help but think, “How did she pull it off? Aggressively and overtly persistent…and still loved!”

I am sure most of us have met aggressively persistent people in our work. In my world  most of them wind up disliked, or at least not admired. But then there are the occasional Helen Thomas’s who can be very argumentative, even rudely interrupting, and yet still end up loved and remembered as absolutely wonderful people and treasured colleagues.

Helen would challenge White House spokesmen and presidents alike.  She would press relentlessly for answers they did not want to give. Then, follow-up and press again. She was always insisting on more transparency and was determined in her search for the real inside explanation. And still, she was loved by everyone, including the presidents. In short, Helen was a true leader in her world.

Leadership is a topic that fascinates me. I like to identify the various styles that emerge in different types of organizations and situations at different times. I try to analyze what it takes to lead in each setting? Some persistent people I find actually become self-destructive.  Some simply fail. But others are surprisingly effective.

I have found that the most successful leadership styles emerge in natural ways from  each person’s total personality characteristics. In other words, they appear comfortable in their own skin. But in addition, their total personality also seems to fit acceptably within the organization’s overall nature and culture.

Helen seemed to be able to find appropriate spaces and times in each work day for being direct and insistent. And she always came off as self-confident, informed, and  single-mindedly focused on getting her reporter’s work done successfully. Equally, she found places where she was able to laugh, make jokes, collaborate with colleagues, and even occasionally receive and give hugs. In the end, her sincere and genuine humanity always came through.

I say, “Bravo Helen Thomas. I admire what you achieved. You were a true pioneer.” But to my colleagues I also say: ” You better fully understand all that made her successful before you try her style! It will take all of Helen’s many qualities to make it work!”

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Looking back seems to be what my mind has been doing in recent days. Now that I am in the transition from vice-chancellor and professor to vice-chancellor emeritus and senior teaching and research fellow I have been looking back with both my academic and professional colleagues almost every time we meet.

That was certainly true this week at this year’s Council for the Advancement and Support of Education’s (CASE) Annual Leadership Summit. I led the team that redesigned the annual CASE meeting a number of years ago to be a “leadership summit” that surveys the big picture issues higher education is facing and their implications for university advancement professionals. Looking back, I had to concede that this year’s team made it much better than I had imagined!

Looking back is a good practice at regular intervals all along our professional journey.  Questions such as these can lead to reinventing oneself… a critical  long-term survival skill:

What have I done in recent years? What worked? What didn’t? What should I do more of? What should I avoid? How can I build on my inherent talents? Answer these and other questions… and then move on.

A friend of TCU, and a founder of the PBS News Hour, Jim Lehrer, responded to a congratulatory email I sent him upon his recent retirement. Besides saying thanks, he signed off with one word: “Onward.” Many say, Sincerely Yours, Cheers, Best Regards, or simply Best. But I had never seen Onward… and I liked it. This word is strong. It conveys determination. It’s about leaning into the future and pushing ahead through whatever we find.

You will note that the links above have all been rewritten with my eye on the future. On these pages I will continue to explore the impact of new media, the critical need for media literacy, the future of the academy, advancing institutions, and the cross-cultural understanding potential of US public diplomacy and international higher education.

Lessons learned will continue to be my theme, but only as a framework for looking ahead. Reinvention time is over. Now it’s time to say, “Onward!”

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Could the recent controversial bill in the Texas legislature to curb abortion have come to a more amiable resolution? To do so would have required first establishing its “context” as a foundation for negotiation, and then for all parties to negotiate in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

1. The bill was written by a legislator who argued that his main concern is to protect the health of pregnant mothers. He is also a physician, which gives some credibility to his claim. However, critics see it as a clever way to politically advance the right-to-life cause and eventually eliminate abortions completely. The bill eliminates abortions after 20 weeks, and effectively closes all but very few clinics across the state.  Is there a way the goal of better protecting women’s health could be advanced while keeping a reasonable number of these clinics open?

2. The bill was also supported by people with a personal and/or religious commitment that the right to life is universal and the government simply must protect it. Is it feasible to revisit the separation of church and state principle on which this country was founded, and thereby seek some collaborative way forward?

3. The critics of the bill argue that a woman’s personal health is her private business and she should have the right to make her most private decisions on her own. The government has no right, they argue, to be making these most personal decisions for individuals. On this point, liberal thinkers seem to agree with the typical conservative position that governments should stay out of our personal lives. So is it possible to take government out of this discussion and find new more direct ways for those against abortion to make their case directly to the people.

In other words, can providing context on an issue like this make it possible to have a more intelligent dialogue about ways forward? Should the news media, strategic communicators, and educators, concentrate more on explaining the background and context of issues? For example, would explaining philosophical background, lessons from American history, possible alternative solutions, and more about how problem-solving processes actually work, help take the hard edge off polarized confrontation?

In the final analysis, will we ever again as a people consider that participatory negotiated compromise is the only true democratic way forward? After all our founding fathers certainly used compromise to launch this country. And, yes, amendments were made along the way to adjust and correct their initial decisions.

Facilitating compromise is a basic tool of the strategic communication profession. It’s a shame that few practitioners ever get to use it to help resolve polarizing social issues such as this one.

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One essential lesson I learned over the years is that understanding how to address issues requires first understanding their context. Breaking down complex problems into their component parts is essential before viable solutions can be found.

Let’s take the turmoil in Egypt this week as an example. Answering some key questions to establish context might offer clues about options:

1. Is it possible for a religious minority to advance its beliefs and govern the majority at the same time?

2. Is it possible for a military establishment to govern a complex and diverse society successfully?

3. Does history teach that militaries and religious minorities inevitably fail at building institutions, governing diverse populations and advancing economies?

4. Has it ever been possible to cast off this kind of past political baggage and reinvent a government from inside?

5. Or is it more likely that non-governmental entities such as experienced NGO’s, university experts, think tank specialists, and foundations can better assist in rethinking and renewing government structures, service institutions, legal systems, electorial processes, and business economies?

If informed analysis establishes that there are essential historical lessons to be learned from answering these questions, then should not appropriate “talking points” be written and used over and over again by reporters and strategic communication professionals alike in order to establish “context” for finding viable ways forward?

It seems to me that all this should be possible in our truly globalized world. And if not now, then very soon. What we need is a powerful spokesman to emerge with a new vision for an expanded definition of public diplomacy.

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