Archive for December, 2013

In previous posts I suggested that countries, institutions and even individuals can best articulate their distinctions by using easy to understand stories, or narratives. They should be inspirational, and as such they also have the potential to become “self-fulfilling prophecies.

Critics suggest that too many narratives stretch the truth too far, and become mere “spin.” But legitimate self-fulfilling narratives combine current strengths, values, cultural traits, location distinctions, and missions into a vision for a bigger and better future. A self-fulfilling prophecy uses current facts to inspire an institution or country to a new and higher level of achievement. Credibility is maintained because the vision is believable.

An America that is truly democratic, with opportunities for everyone, and protects each individual’s freedom has been a credible and enviable narrative for many years. It is inspirational, and promises a believable self-fulfilling prophecy. But polarization, infighting, unsolved economic problems, and confusing international behaviors are seriously threatening the credibility and believability of this narrative.

When you think about it, we all resent it when surrounded by truths that are stretched too far, or hear narratives that no longer ring true. Yet, we still yearn to be inspired by an institution or country we care deeply about. We will accept narratives that stretch us beyond the present. We will buy into exciting self-fulfilling prophecies. But such motivational narratives require consistent and credible champions.

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News reports last week about divisive tensions related to governance between the president of the University of Texas and the system chancellor increase concerns about the politicization of higher education.  This, coupled with news reports about potential new regulation coming soon from Washington, heightens those concerns even more.

Simply put, the US already has the best system of higher education in the world. Its’ diversity of institution type, wide range of prices, discounts based on need and talent, and program strengths, is unmatched anywhere. And it achieved that distinction through the work of talented teachers, top researchers and imaginative leadership. What happens to all this when partisans start thinking they know better than the best and most experienced experts?

Yes, there are some weak institutions, weak professors, and weak administrators. But from time I spent doing management training, I know first-hand there is deadwood everywhere, most especially in businesses and legislatures. But there is talent everywhere too. And that most certainly includes universities.

Economic realities, new technologies and international trends require the most talented in every industry to lead. Higher education in the US is already the established global leader with the proven  ability to develop first-rate international leaders, conduct the highest level research, utilize the latest cutting-edge technology, produce the most effective international citizens, and ultimately help solve the world’s most pressing problems. This is our narrative, and everyone in higher education must help communicate it.

It would be an absolute tragedy for us to tear apart our hard-earned success through political extremism. Otherwise, we will end up handing over well-established international leadership to foreign institutions… many of which, ironically, are already learning how to do it from us!

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Only once have I been to South Africa. I visited Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria, and it was in that period after Mandela retired as president.

I worked for an institution that found its’ struggles to respond appropriately to apartheid especially painful. I was its’ chief communication officer, and a faculty member. And so I listened and responded to both fellow administrators and faculty, as well as trustees, students, alumni and church officials. All had strong and varied opinions, to say the least. And by the time I made this trip, my views were clear. I was squarely among the Mandela admirers.

Mostly I talked with public television producers at a conference I was attending in Cape Town, and with academics in higher education. The producers came from many socio-economic levels, age groups and countries in Africa, as well as from over 50 other counties around the world. These incredible professionals spend their entire lives deeply engaged in investigating social issues and conflicts. The university people were mostly white South Afrikaners who strongly believed in a well-educated multi-racial future.

I asked a lot of troubling questions about what I was seeing, hearing and reading. Why were there still so many poverty-stricken “shanty towns” dotting the landscape? Just how many people still live in this awful poverty? What hope is there for the many gangs of very young children I passed on city streets?  What business opportunities are realistic in this still heavy crime-ridden society? What about all the rumors of government scandals and corruption? How effective is the current system of education? Can it do what’s necessary to meet the needs of a new democratic nation?

My clear impression was that the government was corrupt, and not getting the job done. It was investing mostly in itself, and the bureaucrats in it. While education and business opportunities were topics reported in the news, those opportunities were obviously not accessible to enough people. And the streets remained very dangerous… not just for foreigners, but for everyone.

I was told only to take approved taxis from my hotel, and on my return to make sure that my host arranged the transportation. My academic colleagues were committed to helping build a bright future, but many privately admitted they send their children to school abroad. Everyone on campus was  searched everyday entering and leaving, and they all assumed that their heavily insured cars would sooner or later be stolen.

But twenty-seven years in prison produced a man of clear ideas, firm values, and incredible vision. Upon release he made a life-changing and unbelievably startling decision: He totally forgave everyone who wronged him, from his prison guards to the former president of apartheid South Africa. And he reinforced that decision every time he appeared in public by whom he invited to appear with him. And  later on, he refused a second term as president, which allowed him to rise above the turmoil of daily politics and become the keeper of a much larger and powerful narrative.

At peace with himself, and through the force of a constant presence, firm conviction and message consistency, this icon was able to establish an amazingly simple self-fulfilling narrative… not only for South Africa, but for the world. Mandela simply calls for a multi-ethnic, truly democratic, intelligently compromising, free society. He chose that role of keeper of this simple and compelling narrative for himself, and that decision enabled him to become one of the most inspirational leaders of modern times.

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While scanning Book TV on C-Span last weekend, one of the authors speaking about conflicts in Israel commented: “We have lost our narrative!” I immediately knew exactly what he was trying to say. And from a communication dynamics perspective he was making a very astute observation.

All those years I spent helping institutions clarify their brand identities I was really helping develop their narratives. I would ask executive leaders to identify exactly why their institutions were founded. I would then suggest that the reason probably was to meet a need that was not being met. This starting point would become their unique competitive advantage, which would also be the essence of their brand identity, and fundamentally their founding mission. Over time, they would add a compelling vision grounded in that mission, and collectively all this would make up their basic story, or narrative.

Individuals have narratives too. Most of us have a driving purpose, even if at times it’s vague and elusive. Authors of memoirs bring a timeline and specifics to the telling of their story, and thus add substance to their narrative. Some are able to add a vision to complete their narrative. Understanding narrative is what keeps our identity and life purpose in tact.

Institutions and countries also have narratives.  And just as the Israeli author observed, we in the US may have lost our national narrative. The very “idea of America” may be getting lost in confused and prolonged angry polarization. We hear angry polarizing voices loud and clear. But where are the keepers of our narrative? Without a narrative we are lost.

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