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Reflections on Positive Leadership on the Anniversary of 9/11

Posted Sep 11 2012 10:01pm

Posted on | September 11, 2012 |

As with many Americans and people around the world, September 11 will always be a day for reflection, a quiet day, a solemn day. The fact that our family was living and working in New York City on the day of the attack; the fact that I conducted a number of commissioned surveys of fear levels in New York City residents in the years that followed;  and that I had an opportunity in those years to work closely with Coast Guard leadership who were so instrumental in the remarkable maritime evacuation of citizens that day – all combine to keep the memory alive and the search for meaning ongoing.

In 2004, I delivered the Convocation Address at St. Thomas Aquinas College , a small liberal arts college run by the Dominican Nuns, and based on St. Thomas Aquinas’s instruction to “Enlighten the mind through truth”.  Each anniversary since 2004, I have reread the address to remind myself that, while there is great evil in this world, there is great good as well, and that progress requires a forward-facing and positive attitude. I share these thoughts with you below in the hope that you will find in them some comfort and relevance to your own journey.

Convocation Address
Saint Thomas Aquinas College
April 27, 2004
Islands of Common Stewardships
Mike Magee, MD

My sincere thanks to Sister Magaret Fitzpatrick, to Dr. John Durney, to Board and Faculty, students and families for including me in this important event.

We live in a period of great change.  Your world is just 10 miles north of one of this world’s 10 most historic events in the past 1000 years.

In your lifetime, you have witnessed the emergence of the Internet and HIV, of globalization and overnight delivery, of bubbles and bursts in our stock market, of the genomic revolution and the aging revolution.  You have witnessed as well great preparation for war, but little preparation for peace.

On my way here this evening I was wondering, what have you been thinking?  What has been going through your heads over the past 2/12 years?

Not knowing the answer, I thought I might share with you some of my thoughts in the past few years.  Those thoughts have centered on the issue of change, how it affects people, communities and societies – an area of special interest for me over the past two decades.

Change is one of the few human experiences which support two dramatically opposed human emotions.  For on the one hand, change is fear and on the other, change is exploration.  And while you can support both emotions simultaneously, you can only do so for a short period of time.  For they are in such opposition that the tension created between the two is not sustainable and forces you to choose one or the other.

If you choose fear, the natural tendency is to retrench, retreat, wall yourself off from the change, in the hope that the world will return to what feels normal and safe.  If you choose exploration, your mind moves ahead of the change, envisioning a better way, and dreaming, imagining, how best to arrive at that new destination.

Twenty years ago, while simultaneously studying change and leadership, I first defined the difference between negative and positive leaders based on their approaches to change.  Negative leaders embraced fear, using it as a currency to mobilize and organize populations and achieve short-term regressive goals.  In contrast, positive leaders were explorers who used a compelling value-centered vision as currency, and through role modeling and the strength of new ideas drew people in as they worked together to shape the environment in the long-term to be consistent with their vision.

Negative leaders retrenched and divided; positive leaders connected across the divide.  Negative leaders segregated; positive leaders aggregated. Negative leaders built walls.  Positive leaders built  “islands of common stewardship.”

On these islands, one consistently found qualities like openness, inclusiveness, cultural sensitivity, justice, opportunity for all, goodness and fairness.

On this island people spoke a common language grounded in shared values and a unified vision for the future.  They shared as well common tools including lifelong learning, new technologies, curiosity, introspection and an active social conscience.

On this island existed formative relationships, that is, as I care for you, you form me as a human being.  And on this island there was a rich supply of renewable capital – human capital, financial capital, and social capital – the equity captured between two individuals committed to each other’s success and to the concept of cooperative productivity. St. Thomas Aquinas College – open, inclusive, sensitive to all, just, filled with opportunity, good and fair – is an island of common stewardship.  Here you have lived and thrived on this island, and I wonder, what have you been thinking?

I too live on an island.  It is an island 10 miles south of yours.  It is 23 square miles and has over 8 million citizens.  On my island, English as a second language is taught in 167 different languages.  On my island can be found every country, every religion and every language in the world.  On my island, we live in peace.  Our crime rate has declined 15 years in a row and dropped 15% since 9/11.  We live in peace, but we also live in fear.

A representative survey I performed of 1000 New Yorkers last week revealed that 56% of us fear that we will be the victim of a terrorist attack.  35% feel less safe than 2 years ago.  35% think about 9/11 almost every day.

On my island we have learned that fear absent the ability to contribute in a significant and positive way creates only anxiety.  For while 73% of us are more vigilant and alert, only 19% of us believe we could spot a terrorist in our midst.  58% of us don’t find color-coded alerts helpful.  And 55% of us fear being attacked on the train, a real problem when you consider that 2 out of every 3 rail riders in the United States each day travel on New York City trains.

If we are currently living in peace on my island, why am I so concerned that we are also living in fear?  I am concerned for a number of reasons.

First, fear is currency for negative leaders.  In an environment overwhelmed with fear, negative leaders find fertile ground for their divisive messages, and once in control, fan those fears to advance their goals.

Second, fear has distinct mental health implications.  7.5% of our citizens who lived below 110th Street on 9/11 suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and 20% who lived below Canal Street, in much closer proximity to the attack, suffered this mental illness.

Third, fear accumulates.  My study reveals that vulnerable populations already primed for discrimination or abuse including blacks, Hispanics, and women have the highest levels of persistent fear.

The fourth reason for my concern is that fear is fundamentally regressive in that it blocks imagination, innovation, and risk taking.  In short, it robs us of our dreams and hopes for a bright future.

How do we combat fear?  I would suggest we begin by identifying, nurturing, mentoring and advancing positive leaders. That means voting for people who lead with vision rather than fear.  For parents, community leaders, faculty and others of my generation, it also means identifying promising young minds early in their lives and supporting their advancement and success.  And for each of you students honored this evening – the best and the brightest on this island of common stewardship, it means identifying one or more positive mentors to guide your future, and approaching them with a request that you might turn to them from time to time in the future to provide you guidance and wisdom.

My second suggestion on managing fear is to pursue balance.  Your skills, aptitude and ambition – already well displayed – assure your success on a superficial level, but not your happiness.  Happiness in my experience evolves from a life well spent, from enduring relationships, and from persistent and sometimes stubborn adherence to the values that have formed you.  Balance will be your earliest challenge – what to choose and what not to choose.  Remember it is o.k. to say no.  An opportunity delayed is not an opportunity lost forever.  It will reappear sometime in your future.

My third suggestion in managing fear is to never stay silent in the face of evil or injustice.  Your silence will forever entrap you and define you as passive, vulnerable and insecure.  Better to have the courage and take the risk of speaking up and standing out.

My fourth piece of advice is to persist and endure.  You will face many small and large challenges in your personal and professional lives that create anxiety and fear and seem overwhelming at the time.  Face these challenges without procrastination, but understand as well that the brain magnifies fear, that every issue you will face can be managed as long as you do not give up.  Persist, and endure. When your head hits the pillow, transfer the power to a Higher Power. Then take a fresh look in the morning. Things always look better in the morning. You are much stronger than you think.

My fifth message to you is to honor judgment over decisiveness.  We have somehow in our culture come to value rapid decision making in the extreme.  Many favor leaders that “do what they say, and say what they do.”  But as a surgeon, I learned early in my life that if you operated on the person who didn’t need the operation, and didn’t operate on the one who did need the operation, the outcomes would be disastrous even though you had been decisive.  It is not about being decisive.  It’s about using good judgment.

My final advice is this.  Find an island of common stewardship to live on.  And if you cannot find one, create one around yourself.

People are basically good, but they are not perfect.

People are basically kind, but when afraid can act unpredictably.

People are basically loving, but when misled can respond with hatred.

People are people.  And their organizations have much in common.  In every organization I have been in – and for better or worse I have been in many – there are roughly 10% saints, 10% sinners, and 80% in between.  And what determines which way the 80% go are two things.  First, who is leading them, and second, what is going on in the environment at the time.  Of the two, the most important by far is who is leading them.  For if they are led by a positive leader, they not only have a visible role model embodying values and behaviors worth developing, but also have an individual committed to shaping the environment in a manner that supports positive values and behaviors, and a constructive vision for the future.

Let me conclude by sharing with you the thoughts of two great positive leaders who I have admired from two great cities.

The first is Cardinal Bernadine from Chicago, who, shortly before he died, was addressing several thousand doctors at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association.  He said, “There are four words in the English language that have common English roots.  They are heal, health, whole and holy.  I tell you this today because in order to heal in the modern world, you must have health.  And in order to have health, you must keep the individual, the family, the community, and society whole.  And if you can do all this, that is a holy thing.”

The second positive leader is David Rockefeller from New York City, who was sharing lunch some years ago with 15 Rockefeller Fellows chosen to participate in a one-year leadership development program.  At one point during the lunch, one highly motivated and aggressive young leader asked Mr. Rockefeller, “What can I do to be as successful as you?”  His response was delayed as he looked down at the table and reflected.  A moment later he looked up at the questionner and said, “Well, I guess I would suggest three things.  Do not fear. Be Nice. And lighten up.”

So that is what I have been thinking.  I wonder what you have been thinking.

We have heard a great deal of late about preparations for war, but very little about preparations for peace.

This is a world filled with fear.  Go out, and do what you can to make it a world filled with hope.

Thank you.

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