“Superior leaders get things done with very little motion. They impart instruction not through many words, but through a few deeds. They keep informed about everything but interfere hardly at all. They are catalysts, and though things would not get done as well if they were not there, when they succeed they take no credit. And, because they take no credit, credit never leaves them.” —Lao-Tzu
Robert Duffy is the former Chief of Police in Rochester, New York, and in 2006 became the Mayor. Currently he is the democratic candidate for Lt. Governor of New York State.
I was introduced to Bob Duffy by Frank Staropoli, a consultant in Rochester, who accompanied me to the interview and also asked a few good questions. Duffy, whose family enabled him to be a good observer of the forces that operate inside a nuclear family, adds an important perspective to this series of interviews.
AMS – Two questions: What was it that made you want to be a leader? And how early in your life did you start thinking, “I can make a difference”?
RD – I did not think that much about being a leader early on. I enjoyed being on sports teams, and was a co-captain once or twice. I enjoyed being depended on. I liked having a position where I could make a difference. And I have loved what I have done with the police force from the first day. By my eighth year on the police force, I started looking at what I could do if I were a sergeant, or if I were the lieutenant—sometimes out of frustration. I worked hard, as I wanted to have responsibility. Then I became a parent and I felt more responsible—not just for myself, but for other people. I wanted to have responsibility where I could make a difference.
AMS – How does that fit with your position in your family?
RD – I am the youngest; with two older brothers.
AMS – That is unusual. Perhaps your Dad was a youngest and you learned some skills from him?
RD – Yes, he was a youngest. And my mother was an oldest. Among the siblings, my oldest brother took few chances. He was very intelligent and did well in school. My middle brother and I were never able to do as well as he did in school. My middle brother was the rebel of the sixties.
My parents said I was always respectful and did not challenge their authority, but I got to do what I wanted to do. I learned from watching my brothers and avoided the interactions that my brother engaged in with my parents. My parents responded very strongly to challenges to their authority and/or to disrespect, and so I learned what not to do—I learned not to challenge them.
AMS – What kind of work did your father do?
RD – My father was payroll manager for a technical company. My mother taught fourth grade and later on kindergarten. When they were younger, my father studied to be a priest and my mother to be a nun. My father had an older sister who played matchmaker for my parents. She stayed in the convent.
My parents were inherently good people. We had dinner at six every night. My father walked in at five every day, my mother was home by 4:30. Every Sunday we went to church and had to kick in with chores. There were certain values I saw with my parents that were strong. They were organized and did the right thing. As a kid you might have wanted different parents, but now I know I was lucky they had strong values.
AMS – How about your parents’ extended families, how did they influence your parents?
RD – My mother’s mother died when she was nine months old from a virus or flu, and her father died when she was 11. She had a couple of half sisters who were born in Ireland. But she was born in the U.S. My mother was handed around to different relatives and came out with the feeling that staying together and having strong values were extremely important. Her father worked for the railroad and drank, so my mother also had a fear of alcohol. She had certain other fears. She never let us play football. She had seen someone become paralyzed and did not want that to happen to us. Her fears made sense. My parents did not come to our basketball games until my senior year, and then my dad became a real fan. We had to stick together. My mother would be very upset if anyone forgot to send a birthday card, for example. You always sent cards and remembered your family. That was what counted. Your friends were important, but it was your family that took care of you.
AMS – Have any of your parents’ values influenced how you operate as a leader?
RD – My mother had a spine of steel. She was the clear leader in the family. I have some of that in me. If I believe in something, I will hold my position even if everyone else is going in the opposite direction. There were times when I did not like that about my mother, but she could hold the line. We had to do our homework, there was no TV, there were no excuses for bad grades. My parents were very disciplined, very conservative people. I never heard them talking badly about other people. I never saw them fight or argue. I am sure they did have disagreements, but they did it in private.
I often tell the story of when I was eight years old. Another boy and I were playing around, throwing rocks at each other, and my rock broke a window in his house. I ran home, a few hours later his parents came with the rock, and I was grounded for one month. I kept thinking that my mom would let me go out and play after two or three weeks, but she believed in truth in sentencing.
What it taught me was respect. I knew I could not get away with things. Her saying was, stick to your guns. When you believe in something, you have to hold a line.
When people on my staff come in and advocate, for example, I’ll listen. But if its goes against what I believe, I don’t worry about talking a stand—even if it’s unpopular. I will support a better way of doing things, but on issues of principles I have to hold my ground and stand for what I think is the right thing to do. I listen very carefully and want everyone to have their say, but in the final analysis I have to define where I stand.
Learning to hold steady in the face of reactions—well, you learn this from standing up and determining your own direction. In your family you learned to do things without being rebellious.
AMS – If parents can deal with their own families, they can do well with their own children. It sounds like your mother and father dealt with their own families. Did they have good contact?
RD – My mother had a sister we were closer to. My grandfather died when I was three, and my grandmother when I was a freshman in high school. We had good contact with them, but they did not pop in on us. We went to see them on a more formal basis. It was not a real close contact like in some families. We became people more like my parents than different from them.
AMS – Did you her any stories about your relatives you admired?
RD – My mother talked about her family positively, but always acknowledged the difficulty of not having had a mother to raise her. My father and his brothers were veterans of World War II, and they all settled around Rochester.
Change comes in many ways. There are people in the family who march to a different beat. My middle brother was born with a cleft pallet, which made me aware of how I wanted to protect him and how mean kids could be to people who were different. My youngest daughter wore glasses growing up, and when she went to contacts she blossomed. It’s difficult to be physically different from other kids.
AMS – If you have people in your family with problems and differences, you develop more understanding. You learned how to accept differences as positive and not as negative. This may have made a difference in how you dealt with a big-city population as diverse as Rochester’s.
RD – My parents were always good to the other kids on the basketball team who were different. Even if kids had been in jail, my parents did not demean them. I notice with my own kids how easily they notice and are puzzled by differences. Accepting people as they are is a strong value that I saw lived out. I see that people are shaped at a very young age. It’s hard for people to rewire themselves unless they really want to. I see this in the schools and here in the police force.
AMS – Do you think that a positive identification with your father makes it easier to have the right wiring, or is more than that one factor?
RD – Hard to say. But I know it’s easier for some than for others. My middle brother has been married three times, and my parents married for 56 years.
AMS – Would it have been more difficult for your brothers than for you to identify with your father?
RD – Perhaps. I see in my family (where my wife is also a youngest), that my oldest daughter is very different from my youngest daughter, who just fits in with us easily. My youngest daughter might be home till she is in her forties, but the oldest is already wanting to be independent.
AMS – These are all important ingredients in the person you become. There are probably 11 factors influencing people to move in certain directions, and each one of us has to choose. Families are not cause-and-effect machines. They are living and adapting organisms. Some people have an easier time living in a system than other people do. Some people feel they just do not fit or are not understood or—whatever.
Frank Staropoli – I see that you, as a leader, use these talents for holding your ground and not letting the relationships become contentious. I see you have done that with the head of the labor union. Perhaps your relationship with your middle brother also helped you to have more compassion for people who were different?
RD – Sometimes I tell the story about when I was a young high-school kid. I was five-feet, seven inches and weighed all of about 120 pounds. One of the guys in school, who was a little different, was pushed down by one of the big football players. I said, “Leave him alone.” I am not sure why, the teacher was not there. I did not know anyone. The guy said, “Who are you talking to?” He comes over and hits me, and I without thinking hit him back. So he said, “Meet me after school.” I knew I would get beaten to a pulp, but I went there and the guy did not show up. I never knew why.
AMS – How do you see your family relationships as helping you to function in your role as the Chief of Police?
RD – I have been able to have a relationship based on respect with the Mayor. I listen very carefully to what he says.
FS – You seem to have a similar way of dealing with him as you did with your dad. You seem to maintain your own opinion, but do not get into confrontations with him.
AMS – I was also thinking about triangles and how people communicate in large systems. Is the relationship just between you and the Mayor, or do others get involved?
RD – He keeps his communication with me very straight. We have had few if any negative exchanges. There was one, on an issue about which neither of us was right or wrong. It was just that each of had a different position. Just as in my family, I do not come back and complain about what the Mayor is doing. I know where he stands and I appreciate that.
AMS – Another individual interviewed, Bob DiFlorio [see page XX], talked about the triangles with the School Board, the Mayor and the press. He had to practice keeping one-to-one relationships with each of them.
FS – I think there is a triangle relationship with Bob and the union chief for the loyalty of the men in the police force.
RD – A couple of years ago the union chief had a heart attack. I went down to the hospital and his wife jokingly said, “You might make him worse.” We laughed and had a good time. We have great respect for each other. We feel very strongly about our positions. I am not saying I am right and he is wrong. Therefore, we have a very strong relationship. I am never one for public fighting. We are trying to find common ground. It’s not perfect, but it seems to work. If you are a leader, you are an ethics teacher for your generation.
We have had people come in here and teach courses on leadership, like The Seven Habits, and I have seen that this is very effective. People cannot always listen and learn from their families. Any kind of course that helps you with seeing and respecting others’ values is very important.
AMS – The biggest challenges are in the future.
RD – What do I want to do here? The Mayor will retire in a year or so. I can walk away. But the city has great problems and it’s hard for the people to understand the price they need to pay to make this a better city. We live in a culture where people want to eat hamburgers and sue the hamburger company. We smoke cigarettes and want to sue the tobacco company. How do we bear the responsibility for the lack of responsibility in others?
Families and churches are in positions to effect change. We have a great city, and we have a great struggle in the future. There are a finite number of people. Our country will face many challenges, and yet the changes will have to happen on an individual level. I want to do something to make a difference. If I can address a small number of issues and work on them, we will have less to worry about in the future. I have a passion for what I do right now, and I think that is the key—to keep the passion alive for what you can and will do.
AMS – It sounds like what you are asking is, How can you change yourself to make the world a better place?
RD – I always try to focus on the strengths of any individual and work with them. But if I see that people are not behaving correctly, I do not reward them. We are trying to focus on the high performers in the police department.
AMS – Every system has rules. It does not matter if it is an ant colony or the human family. The participants in the system are guided by their interactions with others. If the system is set up to reward a specific type of behavior, then more of that behavior will surface. If you can get away with threatening others to rise to the top, then that is the kind of system that will emerge.
Dr. Bowen used to say to individuals, “I will be straight with you if you are straight with me, but if you trick me then I will trick you.” An individual’s behavior brings consequences based on their actions. Yet often people do not see the connections. Leaders have to hold people responsible. If you let people get away with too much, your organizational ship will stink or sink. If people stay responsible for their actions, the organizational ship will be well run and will sail straight.
Again, thank you for the time and all your good ideas in this interview.
RD – You are welcome, and I also learned a lot .One of the things I had not really thought about was how my relationship with my middle bother influenced me in so many ways.
Robert Duffy’s Mindful Compass Points
(1) The ability to define a vision: Wanting to make a difference and seeking the responsibility to do it are two drives that have shaped Robert Duffy’s life. His need to make a difference has been fueled in part by frustration with the status quo. But a deeper motivation may be rooted in the fun of the game, which he learned by leading and playing on various sports teams. In addition, his vision has been influenced by seeing the ways deeply held values have made a difference in both his family and in his organization.
When defining himself to the larger group, Duffy keeps in mind and balances two skills: remaining open to others, while (second) keeping a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish. Welcoming challenges to his viewpoint is very likely a talent he has developed, while sticking to his guns is a family value.
One of the values Duffy clearly stated is to increase personal responsibility while cutting down on the culture of blame. Before making decisions, he looks into the history of the individual or the issues. Organizationally, he focuses on the positive and rewards the outstanding people.
Having person-to-person relationships within his organization enables Duffy to develop deeper connections and stay in touch. When someone is hospitalized, for example, he understands the value of going to visit—not just sending flowers. Person-to-person relationships also encourage the development of mentor-like relationships, allowing the people in his organization to take their clues from real people, rather than from the rules or the slogans.
(2) The resistance to change in self and in any system: Duffy tells two stories that are perfect examples of how we learn about our reactivity and, if we are lucky (or reflective) can then use those lessons to find better ways to function. He first told about throwing a stone through his friend’s window, and then hiding out at home until the inevitable call came to face the facts. In the second story, he tells about seeing someone being bullied at school, then defending the boy by punching the attacker—all without thinking about the consequences.
Who among us has not been surprised by our reactions to threats? BUT—the larger question is, how do we the use this awareness to make better adaptations in the future? Standing up for the disabled can take many forms. And certainly, once a person sees how automatic it is for some to discriminate or harm others who are perceived as weaker or inferior, many new courses of action can be applied. There are those who gravitate toward being a vigilante, for example—like Duane “Dog” Chapman. Now his TV show, “Dog The Bounty Hunter” is now in its second season on A&E television network.
Generally speaking whatever path we choose will be shaped by our history. Those who want to alter the system by being more sensitive to individual differences will have come from a background, very different I would guess, from that of a colorful vigilante. But we need all types, and we need leaders who can appreciate differences.
(3) The ability to connect: Growing up in a family that has experienced early loss marks one as different. But people can compensate for early losses when there are mature individuals within the family system to fill the gap created by the loss. If someone in the family steps in and takes over the functioning of the one who died or left, the child will be able to grow up relatively secure. At the extreme, having a system that is well connected can make the difference between life and death. True as that is, people often do not see the significance of relationships as long as they are there. Or, to put it another way, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Family history has an observable effect on people who grow up in a system that is not the norm. Duffy certainly saw the significance of people staying connected, especially through the hard times. I assume that this history influenced him to develop a leadership style that puts him in personal contact with a larger network of people. Even in a contentious relationships—the one over contract negotiations with the union leader, for example—Duffy remains connected and supportive during difficult times.
(4) The ability to be separate: When we can’t get anyone to take our side, we are left alone to contemplate what is really important. After Duffy broke his friend’s window, he was unable to get his mother to back down on the punishment meted out. Being grounded for a month meant exactly that—a month. Duffy’s inability to influence his mother to be more lenient gave rise to his own values about truth in sentencing and the importance of sticking to your word.
I met Bob DiFlorio through his niece, Liz Sollazo, a friend of mine who lives nearby in Connecticut. When I asked her who she admired as a leader, who could tell an interesting story, she named her husband’s uncle without hesitation and said she would be happy to ask him if he would participate in this project. He said yes, and his story unfolded as soon as we met.
Bob DiFlorio is a retired school superintendent from Syracuse, New York.
When I first met Bob DiFlorio, I loved his friendliness and warmth. If I were a kid, he would make me feel safe and listened to. Perhaps his warmth comes from his Italian roots, or from his youthful experiences on the streets of Syracuse, or from his 35-plus years in the school system thinking about and being a teacher.
We sat at a kitchen table and it felt just like old times, even though this was the first time. His story unfolded without much prodding on my part.
AMS – I left my questions in the car as I assume you’ve read them and have the basic idea that my interest is in how you think you became the leader you are.
BD – Yes. I think there are many factors in becoming a leader. I come from an Italian immigrant family. My father died when I was six. My mother had to work, and she needed help. My oldest brother was 16 at the time, the next sister 14, then a 12-year-old sister, a 10-year-old brother, and then me at six, with an 18-month-old kid brother.
DiFlorio’s father, a fruit and vegetable vendor, was 46 when he died. His mother was 38 at that time. DiFlorio’s mother was still alive at the time of the interview, and at 89 still influences the family.
BD – When I was seven or so, I would have to leave school, get my baby brother from the babysitter, then bring him back home and baby-sit. I can still remember climbing up the snowy hills with him. We were taught to look out for each other, or else.
My Dad’s death changed our family. We were all a lot closer to my mother. She gave us a lot of independence, and she was positive, not critical. We all had to work to make the family go. At 13 I was working in a bowling alley three or four nights a week. We all had to bring money home to help out Mom. There were no thoughts of college. We had to get a good job and get married and carry on the family. Mom encouraged us. She saw that it was necessary for us to get a trade. My brothers all have a trade.
My mother was the eldest of seven children. She grew up knowing about responsibility. My Dad was the eldest of nine. Now my kids have 50 first cousins.
Throughout our neighborhood, and even in our school, people’s cultural backgrounds were very similar. We were Italian. Therefore, most of us had the same values. Families stayed together. You might sometimes want to kill your brother, but if anyone came near him it was your responsibility to protect him. It was my responsibility to look after my brothers even if they had angered me. These values lasted. Even now, every Sunday my three brothers and two sisters and I get still together for breakfast. We did not have a father, but my mother told us we had to have that unity despite our differences and fighting. We had to learn to get along, and now we enjoy it.
Another important lesson my mother taught us was that if there was dissention, we had to clear it up. This also worked to keep us together. We had to resolve our problems, and the way you did it was with direct confrontation.
Later in life this was the strategy I used in my administration. I was not afraid. I was direct. I was not intimidated by people being different, or by those who had opposing ideas. I can remember one superintendent I was worried about. He was intimidating. But I thought, “So what? I can get a job somewhere else.” Later on this superintendent brought me into his office and said, “I need you because you can get alone well with people and deal openly with tough issues.”
After high school I went into the Army, and when I came out I taught diversity. A guidance counselor in high school had encouraged me to go to college. He said, “You can be a teacher.” He told me I was going to go to Oswego State on a scholarship. That made a difference to me. I was the first in my family to go to college. I cut hair all through college and thought about being an electrician. After a stint in the Army Reserve, I taught drafting and driver education, and then got my master’s in guidance counseling. Then it took from May till the last week in August of 1963 to get a job in a school where no one wanted to work. This job was in an all black school. The school district was so tough they gave you a $500 bonus for joining the staff. They called it “hazard duty pay.” I was not intimidated, and I did not want to fail.
I was picked as one of 30 guidance counselors in the country, after my second year as a counselor, to attend a Syracuse University summer symposium. There was a trend in counseling of being non-direct, but I was not that way. I was direct. “You are going to college; you are going to do it.”
I didn’t mind listening to anyone, but it did not take that much listening before I knew what they needed to do to be successful—and I would tell them. Finding success has a value for each individual, and I knew that. It is the right thing to tell kids the truth and put the facts on the table. Yes, there will be kids who are bad, but what I saw was intelligence. They may act badly, but if you push them the right way they will go for it. Two years later, at 25, I left counseling and became an administrator. And I have been in administration ever since.
AMS – You seem to handle conflict well. I’m curious abut when you first ran up against your Mom.
BD – I would be out late, or something like that, and she would say, “What are you doing?” She never really hit us—she just told us that we have a responsibility, and we knew it. I had respect for her. She worked hard. Her job was to help out immigrants, and she loved that. People from all over would came to our house, and she would teach them English as a second language way before it became popular.
AMS – Your Dad was an oldest and you are one of the younger ones, and one of the most successful, so I would guess that your older brother must have had a harder time with his father’s death. How did your older brother do?
BD – He had a hard time in school. Later on he straightened out and became a plumber. My next brother went to work right away, and he took a lot of responsibility for the family.
AMS – How much did your extended family help out?
BD – My mother’s family was involved. My maternal grandmother lived with us for 30 or so years. My uncle was very present. When my Dad died, one of his brothers, Joe, lived upstairs and looked out for one of my brothers.
I am not sure exactly how I got out of my neighborhood to do well. A lot of things were involved besides the family. There were teachers who also really made a difference. You need to find people outside your family who can make a difference too. It’s important to find a sense of trust in your family, and then you can use it outside on the street. I learned how to get along with all kinds of people. I think being able to be independent helped me learn to think, think, think. I would have been dead in some situations had I not known how to think on the streets.
My junior year in high school there was teacher who said, “You better start turning this around. You have a brain and you better use it.”
AMS – How did you learn to be comfortable with confrontation?
BD – I trusted myself and I was not afraid to make a decision. I did not worry about it being right or wrong. If it’s wrong, then you just correct it. I always thought to myself, “What are you worried about, losing your job, being beat up, or the media being negative about you?” I said to myself, “I had nothing when I started. If I lose it all and have nothing, so what? I will just be back to where I started.”
This attitude paid dividends for me. I was not going to back down and do things I did not believe in. I knew there were things that you had to do that would be hard. I knew you had to bow before the state legislators to get things done. I also knew it was not worth being too proud to ask and badger people. There were too many children who were hurting, and the politicians did not and still do not want to put rescources into the schools. I had a big job and knew I needed to surround myself with very bright and competent people.
AMS – I am also fascinated with charisma. You said that on the street you were able to be wise, and then you mentioned talking to your son about how you learned to really listen to people.
BD – When people tell you their concerns, you try to get into it and figure out what it is they are trying to tell you. Later on in life this paid big dividends for me. I could listen to principals and find out their deep concerns. I think that because there was a deep level of trust in my family, combined with the freedom that I had, that I learned to listen—and in my family, you had to make the effort to listen. In my family, cut-off was not allowed—you had to listen. There was no running away.
In my job, I wanted to convince people—the city counselors or the mayor, for example—to use resources more effectively. The main thing was to encourage them to think about what they were doing, and then how they were going become more effective. I learned the importance of thinking things through before you make a decision, and not being emotional and reactive.
My main concern is still the rising level of poverty in the school system. About 75 percent of children in elementary school are on free or reduced lunch. I ask myself, “Where do we want to go as a society?” A leader is just one person. We have to understand the big problems and then take a position that people can understand. Then we can make things happen. We have to think carefully.
I left my successor two envelopes. The first had the message “Keep your chin up” and the second “Blame me.” In any job in life you will encounter lots of problems. But for me, I came in fighting and I leave fighting and that is the way it should be.
Bob DiFlorio’s Mindful Compass Points.
(1) The ability to define a vision: Often a question informs one’s vision. DiFlorio’s question was, “How do you teach?” School administrators know that there is a set of skills each child must learn. That’s a given. Less obvious is how to provide an environment that encourages the children to learn those skills.
DiFlorio’s vision was also informed by his experiences in his family and on the streets of life. He had learned the importance of independence and the value of hard work and direct confrontation, and had developed a deep sense of responsibility. As an adult, he understood that the students would do well if the school system was working well. He also knew that to make this happen, to improve the school system, he had to involve everyone—no part could be left out. To develop understanding between the parents, the children, the teachers, the political people and the media, DiFlorio had to deal with tough issues. But as a leader willing to be direct and confront problems, while also listening carefully, DiFlorio was well prepared.
His goal was to use the school’s resources wisely in order to help all the children learn needed skills. At the same time, he wanted to make sure each child was seen as an individual who might learn differently from the others. The school system’s resources had to be organized so that both students and teachers were treated in a way that encouraged excellence. This meant that all of the parts of the larger social system had to be engaged by DiFlorio in order to move the school system forward.
(2) The resistance to change in self and in any system: For many people, the most difficult thing to overcome is fear—fear of loss, fear of future loss. DiFlorio explained that he directly confronted that fear, accepted the risk, and used that acceptance as way to build his courage and character. He said, “I trusted myself and I was not afraid to make a decision. I did not worry about it being right or wrong. If it’s wrong, then you just correct it. I always thought to myself, ‘What are you worried about, losing your job, being beat up, or the media being negative about you?’ I said to myself, ‘I had nothing when I started. If I lose it all and have nothing, so what? I will just be back to where I started.’ ”
(3) The ability to connect: DiFlorio’s mother made sure the he understood the value of staying the course and maintaining connections. He was forced at an early age to deal with issues in the open rather than avoid them. He saw the value of having an extended family around during his growing-up years, saw that his uncle made a difference in the life of his brother, and was most positive about having his grandmother nearby when he was young. It is a guess, but there is some research indicating that complex social systems enable individuals to develop an awareness of how to operate at an intuitive level. It’s also possible that DiFlorio was born with a personality that easily connects with people. There may be a gene for sociability, and if so DiFlorio has it. A big and friendly guy who has no fear of others, he automatically relates easily to people and puts them at ease.
(4) The ability to be separate: DiFlorio was a default leader in his family in terms of sibling position, but easily took up the banner of personal responsibility and led. Able to step back and see the nature of a problem, he is more interested in solutions and getting things done than in winning friends or doing what pleases people in power. His ability to take a separate stand and fight with his brothers, and then reunite and deal constructively with them, may have established the groundwork for DiFlorio’s adult understanding that it is critical to fight for the things you believe in while maintaining and working within the relationship network during and after the fight.
Steve Waite –
I met Steve through my son-in-law, Michael Mauboussin. I had asked him who he thought was seriously interested in how leaders emerged? Michael suggested talking to Steve. As you will see talking to Steve is like spending a Saturday afternoon at the library. This was a warm and intellectually stimulating exchange, made all the more fun as Steve cannot help but bring in music to any discussion. Steve savors ideas like a chef delighting in each new ingredient. Yet, when it comes time for action he is able to do what needs to be done despite great emotional difficulty. His story is simple. Yet, he asks the most profound question. What do you do when the leader of the band dies? Despite the good meal and the joyful afternoon, we too must face the problems of succession and death. There is no hiding from the storm when a system transforms. If you want to go on a ride with Steve don’t forget to bring Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values.
AMS – I am interested in what age people are as they first start thinking about leadership?
SW – I recall thinking about leadership and being aware of Peter Drucker. No doubt, Drucker was a seminal influence on my understanding of leadership.
It was 1984, and I was working for the American Bank Company. I was fresh out of graduate school when I read Drucker’s view of how to manage, not just yourself at work, but in your life.
One of the things he said that resonated with how I thought was pick to out the right heroes. I always tried to pick out the best people to learn from. I was also fortunate in another way, I admired my parents. They were the best.
When I was very young, nine years old. I saw first hand how important it was to have a positive attitude and a great coach. My dad took me to a football game when Ohio State was number one in the country. No one thought they could lose. But Michigan State was fueled by a different kind of a coach. He was a great leader and his team believed in him. I will never forget that day when a low ranked team came from behind and beat the number one ranked team in the country.
There are other memories highlighting the importance of heroes. When I went to London I read about Churchill. There in his country I understood how he faced adversity and rose up in the face of overwhelming odds to lead his country to victory.
A third example would be Charlie Munger, who also emphized different aspects of leadership in his book.
AMS – To bring this back to you, do you think your position in your family influenced your way of being a leader?
SW – Perhaps it influenced my style. I am a middle sibling with two brothers.
AMS – Yes, and as I recall your Dad is also a middle siblings in his family.
SW – Perhaps I got his good genes. I admired him but we were different. My Dad was a doctor, and he had a love for medicine and a curiosity about heath and physical problems.
I had a love more for social problems and how they came to be. I also always loved music.
In my career path I was a macroeconomist on Walls Street. This might be something like a general practice doctor. My Dad also had to know a little about everything so he could decide what to look at in detail.
I love being able to delve into the various disciplines and sub specialties, and put knowledge together in an interesting way to bring new insights into any problem.
AMS – I hear how you identified with your father and now I am wondering how old do you think you were when you begin to be a more separate individual in your family?
SW – I knew you might ask this question, so I asked my Mom what she recalled about me having my own mind. She told me the following story: When I was six my mom was trying to get me to got to church. I told her, “no, I was not going as it wasted my time.” She laughed about how important it was for me to be engaged in deciding at that young age what was really important, no matter what others thought.
AMS – Religion is an interesting area to define personal beliefs. Often families have traditions and people follow these traditions. Perhaps it might be one indicator of a more open family system if children are able question the religious beliefs and expectations of the family?
SW – I am still a more spiritual person than one who thinks I should follow the beliefs of any one church.
In addition to being different about my spiritual life, my parents always said I was my biggest critic and too hard on myself.
But I listen to people’s criticism and yet do not believe I took it in too deeply. It is important to consider criticism as we have so many blind spots. In general I enjoy thinking about things at deep levels not just assuming things are true at face value.
I have continued to develop the ability to wonder if I and other people are thinking about things correctly. This has helped me to handle criticism. If the criticism comes from someone I have enormous respect for I will be tuned in 100%. But I am very analytic of who is telling me what and how much of what is said is factual.
AMS – From an early age your Mom valued your ability to stand up to her authority and to have an independent mind. She did not laugh or criticize you when you opposed her about going to church.
SW – Another factor giving the family more freedom about religious issues, was that my Dad did not often go to church. He was always on call and so did not make Church attendance a priority.
AMS – I am also interested in what your Mom and Dad’s extended families look like?
SW – My mom is the oldest of two daughters. Her mother was a tough Italian and was married to a kind and warm German man. My maternal grandmother was never able to tell my Mom she loved her and that was hard on my Mom.
It seemed like my Mom was more emotional or as I like to say, all limbic, and my Dad was all cortex.
AMS – I know it is very important to control that limbic and very hard for most people to do. Most people run on automatic. It is challenging to be aware of how we are automatically programmed to react. Our past experiences leave a trail of sensitivity in the brain. We are sensitive to repeating patterns. The past provides information that can trick the brain into over or under reacting to perceived threats that are often just worried chatter in the brain. If one’s mother was too cold then over generations people in the family can dread coldness rather than figure out ways to have fun with the supposed ‘threat.”
SW – Great poker player and great investors can control their limbic responsiveness. I was also drawn to this way of being by watching my parents interact.
AMS – I would guess your Mom would have had a more difficult time relating to men as your Mom had all sisters. Was your Mom able to relate well to your Dad as a partner?
SW – Actually Dad was good with my Mom as he had sisters. In fact they were very close. When he died, in 2000, a big part of her died.
I think about their relationship as part of quantum entanglement. They were deeply connected or entangled at a deep energetic level.
I think quantum entanglement is the most underrated concept.
My parents were very young when they met and yet somehow knew they were made for each other. Neither had another boy or girl friend. They were a fit from the beginning. They fell in love immediately and married in 1955. My dad then went in the army and then after he came out he went to medical school.
AMS – It is interesting how people are attracted to one anther so fast and sometimes the bond they create work, while for others the attraction fades. What is the difference? We know that more than 50% of marriages do now hold together over time. Perhaps a marriage that works gives people not just personal comfort, but it may also offer many solutions to problems created in the past generations.
I am not sure exactly how it works but John Gottman and others have shown how easy it is to predict which marriages will last based on how couples fight and make up or do not.
I would guess that people are sensitized to emotional contact early on. For a partnership to last there has to be a good limbic and cognitive fit.
SW – So you are tracing excellence in leadership and marriage back to family dynamics? Well, I can see in both situations that one has to be a self and take responsibility for managing relationships and solving problems.
Overall I think being a leader is simple task. First, you have to foster team-work and create a family like atmosphere of trust and cooperation.
I think you have to also lay down a few ideas that people can rally around and then let people do their thing. G. E. is a good example of this kind of leadership. G.E is a great company as they also think about succession. The great leader surrounds him or her self with others who are capable and can take over.
There is a market for psychological profiles for leaders and there executive teams. Another characteristic I would list is the ability to connect. Michael Dell is another one of my heroes as he is responsible and personal. He returns every e-mail I send him.
If you follow the personality profiles developed by Myers Briggs then I am an ENFJ. I naturally like to help people.
AMS – If you created a leadership spectrum, at one end you would have leaders who were aware of their impact on others and saw their fundamental job as enabling others to become the best they could be. This would put dictator like leaders, who have less and less respect for individuals, at the other end of the spectrum.
SW – Some people need dictators. They do not like to think and they let other people lead them.
AMS – Bowen described two forces; the togetherness force, to be more like others at whatever the cost, and the force to be an individual, at whatever the cost.
There is a mid-range of autonomous functioning, where a leader can be concerned about the good of the group, and about his or her functioning, without becoming selfish or bulling others.
SW – I saw that you asked a question about strategic leaders and degrees of transparency so I wondered do good leaders lie?
AMS – It is clear that a great leader has to be a great communicator. This becomes more complicated depending on the size, and the politics within the group. That may mean that at times a leader will put a certain spin on information or even withhold information believing this will help her/him manage the group.
SW – I helped created a technological company based on swarm intelligence. We created a forum for finding out what customers thought and sold that information. We knew people would be more productive with more information. The goal was to allow people to function at higher levels using the best information we could obtain.
AMS – I hear you on that point. However total openness can be an idealized value. Think about a small group like a family. The family leader has to think about how and when to communicate different subjects depending on the age and stage of children etc.
The anticipated death of a family leader from cancer might be one example. How do you talk about transitions in a way that allows people to cope well? The leader does not want to scare people or at the other extreme deny reality. A thoughtful family leader would ideally recognize that change is a process and keep working on staying open.
I have watched family leaders who are able to talk openly about death by having small conversations here and there about the possible changes so that others are prepared but not alarmed.
I do think one day we will be able to demonstrate with more clarity, that how one emerge from the family of origin influences us to be or not to be a leader.
SW – If you are lucky enough to be born into a family with a father who is a great leader perhaps it is easier?
There is so much we need to know that no one person will be able to give us all the knowledge we need; therefore, no matter how great your father is, I think you also need to find other heroes to learn from.
AMS – How far back in your family would you have to go to see where people learned from the people who did not so well?
Perhaps you might have other examples of leadership emerging where people had to overcome stress or early loss?
One way of learning about being a leader is to positively identify with someone in your family. Then there are more contrarians ways, how does one learn from bad examples in the family.
As I recall one your favorite books is Lilia. Phaedrus is sailing down the Hudson River when he meets Lila Blewitt, a psychologically unstable woman whom he considers to be “a culture of one” in whom he discerns an unexpected “Quality.” He wanted to learn from her and had a driving curiosity about what made her tick. Then he lost his intellectual curiosity and began wanting to control her. Once he fell into the “controlling the other to help them,” he lost her. I think this book contains a wonderful metaphor for all that we can learn from that those we do not value.
SW – It is hard to keep that process in mind just as it is hard to unlearn what you have learned. I think there is an old Zen question – “How do you keep a beginners mind?”
As an investor I teach students by letting them do it their own way, analyzing companies their way first. Only after they reveal their ideas do I teach them what will happen if they consider learning to think differently about companies.
As an investor I am always looking for new information to frame a problem in a different way.
Many of my heroes study nature and find a different way to think. Bill Miller does this. He is always looking for new information to help frame certain situations.
This ability to be open and think broadly is fostered in certain environments like the Santa Fee Institute.
AMS – I also think maintaining a beginners mind and questioning old assumptions, relates to the ability to respect and yet to question authority.
I can return to your ability to be respected in your family when you questioned your mother’s authority at six. The family did not squish you for your different viewpoint.
SW – Overall there was a sense of love as a major part of my family environment. When my Dad died I dedicated my life to love because that is what he was.
I view myself as a loner and more value friends because they are great thinkers.
My older brother turned me onto music and Jimmy Hendricks. I have played guitar since I was young.
My younger brother is like my twin. We are inseparable even though he lives in Detroit. He has the best of my Mom. I am the best of my Dad.
My older brother lives in Texas and is a geologist paleontologist. He married and divorced and remarried and has two boys. Brad has three daughters. And I have two girls.
AMS – So you have never had to define yourself as a seperate person with different ideas to your bothers? You have never had any serious disputes?
SW – No, we are all pretty much on the same age. My older brother spoke at the funeral. I was so proud of him. Now my mom lives near my older brother.
I am a fan of Peter Drucker’s concept that the future has already happened. Most people do not know how to tell what has or is happening.
I think it is more important to read books than to be entertained by CNBC. But look I wrote a very dense book that very few people read, but it is important to get these kinds of ideas out.
AMS – We can agree that popularity and responsible leadership are not always on the same path. But a leader does have to communicate his/her vision to people and then be able to deal with the resistance to his or her ideas.
SW – I wrote a piece called, The Leader of the Band. After my Dad died I wondered what you do after the leader of the family/band dies?
In my family, my mother went into a deep depression. I moved to CT and isolated myself to write my book. But then I realized that my Dad would want us to stay together and do the best possible job we can do.
In thinking about him and what he would have wanted I realized that my Dad did not die.
My Dad told me that my compassion was lost on Wall Street. I have had to figure out how to maintain my compassion.
The central question is how does the team or the band reorganize to keep on going?
I wanted to keep my father’s good ideas going. I am not sure how I have done the things I have done, like write my book in just three months after Dad died I just had new energy.
AMS – I think what we are doing here is to look at the deep values and how and when they are generated. One way of doing this is by telling family stories and finding the embedded values.
Then I was wondering about what skills leaders think worth while cultivating? How about the ability to bring up difficult topics and have open conversations with people, family members included? Is this a skill people should practice?
SW – Now, my Dad was very approachable and liked to answer questions. I would consider him open.
AMS – What are the factors that might encourage openness in a family or in an organization?
SW – In my family there was a high family value on being curious and learning. But the greatest single asset might have been my parent’s sense of humor. I notice now when I am filling out forms for graduate school for my students, the schools often ask about the candidate’s sense of humor. A lot of great leaders had a sharp sense of humor: Bill Miller, Warren Buffet and political people like Winston Churchill.
After my Dad died I took care of my mother for awhile. I saw a little girl in my mother again. I had not seen her in awhile, although I do talk to her on the on the phone most days. We were able to talk about death with out getting too emotional. This makes being open less threatening.
At first she would say, “you can never understand my pain,” and I would say things liken “I am trying to understand the pain that Jesus suffered.” And “I think you suffer because you do not have the physical presence of your loved one. You might find it easier to think about the love you shared and to share that with others. If you want to be alive you have to spread the love, if you want to be dead then you can sit home and not share the love that your husband gave you.”
As soon as I told her I wanted to try and understand her pain I think that really helped us out.
The other thing is she is a caretaker and really wanted to be able to take care of someone else and so when I talked to her I tried to key in on her own gifts.
AMS – I think it’s a good example to show how you offered your mom choices. You did not should her. You also allowed her to see the consequences of her choices. There are always consequences. Giving people options and not forcing them is an important guiding principle.
SW – My mom came from an era where the man took care of the woman and so now we her sons help take care of her to some extent. But I also want her to be more independent and I coach her. I stayed with her for a week.
Once she told me she work up scared and I said “there is no need for you to live in fear. I am here for you and you can take care of yourself as you get back on your feet.”
Its like at this time our roles are reversed. Her children are like her parents in a way. When the leader dies there has to be some period of adjustment, to get over the little humps.
After I was there for a week she said she felt much calmer.
Perhaps there was not enough role exchanging or diversity in my parents lives, and so when my Dad died, my Mom did not know how to do all the things that had to be done. Now I am trying to bring diversity back into my Mom’s life through Love.
AMS – Love to me is the willingness to remain optimistic and open while trying to hold people responsible.
SW – A lot of my music is all about love. I have no idea how these ideas come to be but they do come up and I try to let them live in my music.
I see that is society it is hard to know what personal responsibility is all about. Now we are living in an age where we can have a problem and so we sue Burger King.
AMS – It seem like we are living in a an age where its hard to know personal responsibility if we do not know the consequence of your actions.
SW- Hopefully, more and more people can learn that by being responsible and loving they can build a better future.
AMS – Thank you for your ideas and I will look forward to listening to your music.
Steve Waite’s Mindful Compass
(1) The ability to define a vision: In order to have and maintain a vision that is important to one’s self, one has to be able to separate out a self and to know one’s own values. Steve Waite tells us how early on he began to state his “truth” to his mother about things that seemed important to him. This early interest in religion he has sustained over his lifetime. For many abstract concepts like love or compassion are difficult to trace into lived out actions. However we can see his actions as reflecting his deeper vision lived out in his adult relationship with his parents and in his career path.
The death of his father helped him to re evaluate his goal and to alter it into one that reflected more of his values.
His father was able to be open with him about how he saw Steve’s life unfolding and this openness allowed Steve to reconsider his vision.
In the story he tell us about him relationship with his mother we can also see and feel the “love” that he experiences towards his mother as she makes a new life for herself.
In his work he has selected to stay on his own track with an emphasis on nanotechnology and ideas that can radically alter the way we live.
(2) The resistance to change in self and in any system: Steve Waite found himself in a lucrative career that did not match with who he was at a very deep level. This can happen to may people. The status quo often offers security and comfort. It is very difficult to face one’s self and to make changes more for self than to keep others happy.
If people change their career paths it can often wreak havoc in the family life. For these and many others reason it is rare to find individuals who, like Steve Waite, are willing to quite their job to write a book, and also change career paths.
(3) The ability to connect: Perhaps due to the fact that Steve Waite’s father had just died, I did not investigate much about his relationships with his extended family. He and his brothers seem to be sticking together to help out his mother. Sometimes in a tight nuclear family people can have more problems extending out into the extended family. This can become a problem in future generations if contact with the larger family is lost. However for many families it takes two or more years to reorganize after the death of
the family leader.
Since Steve Waite describes himself as an introvert, again it would be more difficult for him to build a large and close extended family relationship network. Often this kind of relationship job is given to the wife who is often more extraverted. Steve Waite seems to have no problems communicating well with a large number of people on an intellectual or musical level.
(4) The ability to be separate: For Steve Waite the ability to examine his values seems to be at the heart of his ability to be a more separate person from others. He seems to deal with this by developing deep compassion and love for others to deal with misunderstandings and conflict.
Sweetbird released their debut record, “Free Spirit Reflection” during the Summer of 2003 on Broadband Records, an independent Connecticut-based label.
Soul Fire was released during Spring of 2005 on the Broadband Records label.
Books of Interest Related to Topics Discussed in this Interview
Quantum Investing : Quantum Physics, Nanotechnology, and the Future of the Stock Market by Stephen R. Waite
Damn Right: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger by Janet Lowe
Poor Charlie’s Almanac: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger
by Charles T. Munger
The Investor’s Guide to Nanotechnology and Micromachines by Glenn Fishbine
Investing in Nanotechnology: Thank Small. Win Big by Jack Uldrich
Understanding Nanotechnology by Scientific American
Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street by William Poundstone
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil
The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life by Paul Seabright
The Evolution of Co-Cooperation by Robert Axelrod
The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of the Brain and Human Language by Terrence W. Deacon
Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity – Dean Keith Simonton
Models of My Life by Herbert A. Simon
Evolutionary Psychology: A Beginner’s Guide by Robin Dunbar
Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, Second Edition by David Buss
Adapting Minds : Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature by David J. Buller
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
by Robert M. Pirsig
Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals by Robert Pirsig