JIM WALSHA former advertising executive who moved to Hawaii in 1986, Walsh is the owner of Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate. He is dedicated to producing the world’s finest cocoa using a process that begins with genetics and proceeds with love of trees and a growing environment unequaled in the world.
The people I interviewed for this book could be said to fall along a spectrum in terms of how they tell their stories. At one end of the spectrum are the abstract thinkers who can step outside themselves to relate their histories, analyze their experiences, and assess their impact. At the other end are individuals, like Jim Walsh, who can describe the details of their lives in such a compelling, intimate way that you can almost taste and smell their experiences. He shows us how a strong commitment to self knowledge leads to commitments to the well being of family and the larger community.
Walsh has had many adventures that set him apart from the average person, and he has deep memories of the details of his life that he tells in captivating vignettes. Few people can recall events from a very young age much less see how these events have shaped their later lives. But Walsh does. His mind is very open and so it was easy to enjoy the complexity and coherence of his story.
AMS – One hallmark of a leader is the ability to be separate from others and think your own thoughts while still communicating with the others. I am always curious as to how people first experience being separate from others.
JW –When I was very young I had a sense of the sunshine, a golden sense of unity with the sunshine that made me feel like I was one with the universe. This is a very early sensation and memory that I can return to. Then when I was two and a half or so I had my first realization that I was separate. I was outside with the other kids playing, and did not want to do what my Mom wanted me to do—help her with the garden. So I went back to the house to play with the cat. I had my own agenda, but Mom sent my older brother to get me. When I told him I was not going back there, he said again, “Mom sent me to get you.” I said, “Okay, I’ll go with you if I get to ride on your bike.” He agreed, but on the way my shoe fell off. When I got off the bike my foot got caught in the spokes of the wheel and my toe was cut off. This created the realization in me that I was different, separate. I had to go to the hospital and have the toe put back on. This was the beginning of noting how different I was from the others.
At five I realized that I looked different from my siblings. My hair was a different color. Then when I was in third grade and bragging about my family and my Dad being a doctor, my best friend said, “You are not a Walsh, you were adopted.” I went home and after my snack told my Mom that the strangest thing had happened—my friend had told me I was adopted. My Mom was putting a glass on a shelf and froze when she heard this. I knew it was true, that I was adopted, and that my entire identity, who I thought I was, was wrong.
My Mom said. “We were going to tell you when you were older.” But after that life was very different. My relationship with my parents turned troublesome, and I was the only kid at home. I was wrongly accused at age eight of stealing. I can still remember sitting on the steps outside my house and promising myself that I would never let anyone else be in charge of my life again.
AMS – Would you say this last experience solidified a direction that had been building about the importance of being more independent from others?
JW – It was all part of trying to figure out who I was. I also recalled the early experience of the Dominican nuns who would come over to our house. I am not sure if they were somehow involved in the adoption.
AMS – But naturally you were curious?
JW – Yes. When I was in high school my friends and I decided to search my father’s records for my birth certificate to find out more about who my parents were. We found a record that said a baby boy had been born to Ann Smith, with my birth date on it.
AMS – Did you ever meet your biological mother?
JW – I did not pay much attention to my biological family until my wife, Marie, was pregnant with our oldest daughter, Ashley. Then I was curious about the genetics of the family health. I asked my Mom to arrange a meeting with Ann Smith, which she did. But then my biological mother backed out. I decided to do it on my own. I found out where she lived, went to her home one afternoon, knocked on the door, and said, “I am Jim Walsh.” It was 3 o’clock, school got out at 3:15, and she had seven other children whom she had never told about me. I pushed her to tell me who my biological father was. She refused to tell me. So I left.
My adopted mother did not want to tell me either, as the families were friends. No one wanted to tell on anyone, or put anyone in a bad light. My adopted mother is now 96 and I still do not know who my biological father is. From all that I know, when my adopted mother dies my biological mother will be free to tell me more information on the situation. My adopted mother is an intellect, she thinks about things, and so there is still a secret that she is afraid of. She is not ready for it to come out.
AMS – I can hear the fear families have about issues they consider too difficult to be deal with openly. Often families would just rather hide the information. This may make them feel better over the short term, but over the long run it makes things more difficult and closed. It can sever family connections, and it denies family members the opportunity to use their innate abilities to deal with difficulties.
What happened with your siblings in your adopted family after it came out that you are adopted? Did those relationships and the relationship with your parents change?
JW – I had three older brothers—one eight years older, Tom, one five years older, and one three years older, Mike. After it came out that I was adopted, I was treated differently. My Mom would make two cakes on my birthday, one from my biological family and the other from my adopted family. There was a very real schism there. My brothers were sent to boarding school and I was alone with my parents for a few years before I, too, went.
My mother had a difficult struggle. She was very involved in her identity as a small town’s doctor’s wife. And perhaps she had fewer opportunities to develop her own self because we lived in a semi-rural community. On many levels, she never really wanted to know what was happening. She was depressed for a while but recovered. I do not think she was happy in her marriage. She used to say that the happiest time for her was when she was in high school and thinking about being a nun. My parents were married after Dad finished medical school, and at first she was happy.
My reaction to both their attitudes was to try to understand how things worked. And of course I wanted to be self-reliant and survive the tension in the house. I developed the ability to engage with others using my sense of humor. My Dad was also funny, and in the best of times I could play off of his sense of humor. Throughout my life my dreams have been very powerful helpers, too.
After high school I went to the University of Wisconsin and took pre-med. I wanted to follow in my Dad’s footsteps. But, really, I had always been an entrepreneur. I was always involved in selling things. When I was 11, I helped run a grocery store. In college my brother and I became involved in setting up musical events. He needed me to set up a club on the university campus so we could rent the University of Wisconsin’s Field House auditorium. I was 19 when we decided to organized our biggest event. The dean of admissions was my uncle, and so I asked him how I could do it. He answered that I had to start a music club sanctioned by the university, and that then I could rent the field house.
My brother and I had built up a war chest by putting on smaller events. Now we wanted to go to the next level and have a band from England come over. To make this work I needed $25,000. At the time I had been dating Marie for about six months. I really liked her family and decided to ask them for the money. And, God bless her parents, they agreed. Her father went to the bank and borrowed the money on their house. The first concert of the national tour we were promoting was sold out. Marie and I drove up in the limo knowing we had made $60,000 on the first of what was to be 12 more concerts. I am telling her, “This is easy.” Then in come the problems. We see a mushroom cloud in the middle of the auditorium: The sound system has blown up. We try to patch it into the house system, but the tension mounts. The audience taunts and the lead singer throws a mike at a woman in the audience and knocks her out. She goes to the hospital. We tell people we will refund their monies the next day, and then try to get the band to realize they have to pay for the woman’s treatment. The band quits the scheduled national tour and goes back to England.
Now here I am at 19 owing my future in-laws $25,000. I realized there was no medical school in my future. I needed to pay the money back as soon as possible. I knew I was good at marketing, so I got into the land business and paid them back in three years.
AMS – Blame is a big, complex issue. Often parents are really just trying to make things happen right for their kids. They are over-anxious more about the children than about what they themselves are doing. So they push the children and blame them in an attempt to get the kids on the right track. It is often very challenging for parents to look objectively at their own behavior.
What is your Mom’s sibling position?
JW – She was an only child. Her Dad was a grocery store owner, a big deal in the Knights of Columbus, and a Sergeant at Arms in the State Senate. He was married to Maggie, the oldest of three sisters. Talk about tough as nails, that was Maggie. Even my Dad was afraid of her. She lived with us for the last six years of her life. She had a knobby old cane, and when I would bring a tray in to her she would beat the bed with the cane and say, “Get out of here you devil!” I would run out of the room. But the sisters were always a very close family. My Dad and his uncle-in-law built a house so that the kitchen faced the way Maggie wanted it to face, even though the house was to be my mother’s home.
AMS – That is a funny story! But you can see the threads of each generation being afraid of upsetting the others, and sometimes with good reason. Family loyalty is definitely a double-edged sword. It asks individuals to give up a lot of self to accommodate the dominant force—and that can be dangerous over the generations.
Can we refocus on your strengths and how you used them at work?
JW – Getting into land development got me interested in organizations and made me want to see how they worked. So at 23 I found a recruiter and told him I wanted a job with lots of exposure to other companies. He found me one—with an incentive company out of Minneapolis. After I worked there for a year and a half, one of their competitors recruited me. He said I could take over the company since the owner had no children. I enjoyed being with him and leaned a lot, but then my mentor left and went to work for Green Stamps. This altered the dynamics. I decided not to wait, and went out and formed my own company.
J.P Walsh & Company was a peer-recognition company. In many very large companies, the top salesmen would win trips or other kinds of awards. I had good relationships with many of the top German companies, like Volkswagen and Mercedes. My overall goal at the time was to create a cash flow business so that I could buy a lot of other companies, kind of like Howard Hughes. By the time I was 30, I owned seven companies in Chicago.
Another turning point came about when I was interviewed by Ken Darby of the Sun Times. I told him that since I had met my goal of becoming a millionaire by 30, my next interest would be how to feed the world’s population using the oceans. It just came off the top of my head. But it stayed with me. About a year later, burned out from work, I decided to go white-water rafting with my father-in-law in Chili. There I suffered a serious head injury. The doctor on the trip thought that I would never make it out of there alive, and encouraged me to write up my last thoughts to my family. I, too, knew I was between life and death and that it would be grueling to get out of the Andes.
At that time I had been married to Marie for 12 years. I knew she would be fine and I could let her go. Ashley was three. She had a personality and was also fine. My brother-in-law was the number-two man in the company, and I could write him my ideas about what to do. Then I thought about choosing life. Marie was seven months pregnant with my daughter Camryn, a child I had never met, and I knew I had to live to see this child.
Now it so happened that my brother Bill had been doing some work with creative visualization, and I had just read a book about how to do it. So I realized I had a choice. I could die on the river or set things up so I could live. I started to visualize the injury. It was a big ball of blood, and if it leaked into my brain I would be dead. So I visualized a wall around it so it would not jar lose as we traveled out of the mountains.
We made it back, and then I was in intensive care for a month. It took another year and a half to restore my cognitive abilities. Part of this was looking at how I consciously wanted to live my life. I wanted to give something back to the Boy Scouts who had helped me. I wanted to live somewhere warm where I could see my children every day. So that meant I would spend hours putting a Lotus spreadsheet together spelling out all my options. Marie was able to step up and sell some of our companies, and by 1984 I was back in the game again.
I had decided that I wanted to be in the food business, and did a survey to see what kind of food business I could add value to. I was still an entrepreneur wanting to solve my own problems. By chance I met the chairman of Hershey’s and asked if he grew cocoa beans in Hawaii. He said no, but added that he would like to since Africa was a politically unstable country. I asked if he would be my technical partner, and in 1986 started a cocoa bean farm in Hawaii. Growing these trees is a 25-year process. But I had my dream: the warm weather, being with the children, and a natural crop that would give people energy.
When our youngest daughter graduated from high school, Marie, who is a four-seasons person, wanted to come back to the mainland. So we came back home to the U.S. I had a successful business, Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate, so what would be my next step?
I needed to do some deep thinking about it. I took a year, and I found myself getting depressed. But what came out of it was another entrepreneurial investment—using Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate’s technical knowledge to make functional food. It would be delivered in the form of an easy-to-eat bar that is healthy, but still tastes good and delivers energy. We licensed the name SOBE from Pepsi. It was a great idea, but it took too long to get to the marketplace. We discontinued that bar in favor on one we called Z-Bar, for Zero Carbs. Now we are developing a full system of nutritional foods.
Hawaiian Vintage was the chocolate for people who have everything, the one you have to have. Clinton gave it to the head of China in 1995. The Dali Lama loved it. One day I got a call from this guy, Mark Hopkins. He told me he had been to a conference and met a shaman who said he had to find the American who was raising cocoa trees in Hawaii. This man had to do a lot of digging to find me, but he wanted to deliver the message. The shaman said that the trees had a message for me. The trees say, “It is the cacao tree’s role to heal the human heart and you have a role in that mission. Keep at it.” Now, I have always had a special feeling for trees. I think that the trees are healing for me. We get this gift from the trees in a diminished form, chocolate. If you eat the bean itself you get more energy, more life.
My investment banker, who had had a heart attack, came out to Hawaii and decided to use the cocoa bean to reduce his pain. This was an amazing incident for him and just further proof that I was on the right path.
I am sure there will be many twist and turns in the years ahead, but the overall goal will be to give nourishment to the people and life back to the planet.
AMS – I know you have to go. I’ve enjoyed talking to you and look forward to continuing the conversation in the years ahead.
Jim Walsh’s Mindful Compass Points
(1) The ability to define a vision: As a very young child, Walsh experiences himself as being one with the sunshine and the universe. This is a powerful vision that he has returned to, built on and used to focus his life goals through challenges and transitions. A painful injury to his foot when Walsh was barely three years old was the shock that forced the realization that he is, indeed, separate. Falsely accused of stealing at age eight, he fiercely determines to be self-reliant. Yes, it is possible to hear an edge in that last story, but self-reliance is a powerful drive that can be harnessed. And by the time Walsh entered college, it had been. He was clear about wanting to be in pre-med and follow in his father’s footsteps. When another challenge slays that dream, Walsh is able to recalibrate his compass and, with faith in himself and a strong sense of self reliance, find a way to earn the money to repay his debt.
(2) The resistance to change in self and in any system: One of the deeper resistances we may encounter in our lives occurs when we are forced to choose between life and death. There have been stories of terminally patients delaying death until all the relatives have had a chance to say good-by, or until a child graduates from high school, for example. But not many of us have had to face an almost certainly fatal injury and decide whether to accept death or fight for life. There is a degree of peacefulness in accepting death as inevitable, and a degree of resistance to accepting the idea that our lives are shortly to be over. Walsh systematically lists the pros and cons and decides that he must live to see his unborn child come into the world. He creates a mental vision to help him resist the threat of death, and focuses on what has to be done to get himself well. He also writes to his loved ones to explain to them, and to himself, how he came to this turning point. Perhaps this exercise, like writing a last will and testament, frees people from a deeper level of fear and enables them to live. One lesson is that resistance is always there, but one does not have to make a big deal of it.
(3) The ability to connect: Walsh tells us of being determined to make contact with his biological family. On a spiritual level, Walsh’s early memory of feeling that he was part of the sunshine and a part of the universe is reflected in his desire to live and connect with all of life. On a business level, he enjoys selling things to people and connecting with them in that way. The obvious problem for a person who naturally connects with others is to learn to be separate enough to know and be true to his or her own values. Walsh seems to have established an enviable balance here.
(4) The ability to be separate: Walsh had two painful wake-up notices that he was indeed separate and different. The first occurred when his toe was severed, and the second when he learned that he was adopted. People can break or make their futures, either by a negative focus on how different and unfortunate they are, or by a positive focus on how to use that separateness to make one’s mark in the world. A person like Walsh who has separated well from his family is not likely to become polluted by psychological energy from others. Such a person is also able, at the highest level, to let go of the anger and disappointments that often accompany any realization that we are different and unique.
The significance of being with others and being separate from them weaves throughout Walsh’s life story. This creates the sense of a man who has learned to be self-reliant so that he can be productive in a highly value-driven way, while remaining a part of his family and society.
Gary Resnick, Ph.D. Gary Resnick is Bioscience Division Leader, Bioscience Division, The Center for Homeland Security at the
Los Alamos National Laboratory.
As a scientist, he understood the importance of considering various ideas without becoming overly positive or negative about the assumptions, hypotheses or theories presented. And as a scientist, Resnick was the logical person to question some of my premises, based in Family System Theory, that underlay the interview. For example, he was skeptical of the idea that there might be a link between his early relationships and his later leadership skills. This was especially intriguing to me, because in trying to establish a connection between relationships, life events and leadership ability, one needs well-qualified but open-minded skeptics. In this regard, and in many others, it was a gift to be able to interview and be interviewed by Gary Resnick.
Gary is not the first son who, according to standard theory, might be expected to inherit a leadership position. He has both an older and a younger brother (who died early), and became a leader by choice.
I was introduced to Resnick by my friend Norman Johnson, who was working with Resnick on various security issues after 9/11. The first thing I noticed about Resnick was that “the boss” was an observer. Since he had leadership/management experience, I was somewhat surprised that he did not insert himself more forcefully into the conversation. There was no trace of a “boss man” in our small group conversation.
Both Resnick and Johnson are internationally recognized scientists in the area of chemical and biological defense. At the time I met with them, they were working on modeling different reactions to disasters, while I was trying to figure out how to communicate information to individuals without making them anxious. We had a common interest in understanding how large groups and individuals react to information. Resnick and I both understand humans and microbes as self-organizing systems operating in dynamic ways. We know that successful organisms learn and adapt to changing environments, and understand that all living species must predict what strategies will work—or else!
When I asked Resnick if he would participate in a formal interview as part of an effort to understand the bridge between early relationships and leadership ability, he graciously agreed. He added the reservation, however, that he might be a disappointment since he was not sure how or even if his family had enabled his leadership ability.
Curious, I asked him, “How did you become a leader?”
GR – Even as a youngster I had no real interest in leading. Instead, I was seen as a leader and asked to participate as a leader. This may have had to do with my ability to solve problems. In fact, I even resisted being a leader, especially when pressured by a group.
Later on, when I started to study ethology (which involves the concept of leaders and followers in other species), I began to form a concept about what humans are about. I knew what activities had to occur and what was needed for a social system to exist. I saw that even in ants there are leaders and followers, and most stay in their positions with some movement back and forth. I was interested in what roles were needed and how they were assigned.
My first real job came when I was in my early thirties, after my post doc. My work was headed down a very scientific path that did not involve humans, but somehow I picked my head up and noticed that there was a social system around me. So I began to figure out how to use that social system well. Then I was promoted up and up. I started reading books on leadership at that point.
When I was about 36, in one of the leadership training courses I took, I was able to notice how the group influences leaders. In this case, a training group was put together with no rank being used; all individuals there were to be equals. After a while, individuals were called into the middle of the group and given feedback on how the group members perceived them operating. Partially because I had not been given any feedback, when I was asked to go into the circle, I was surprised by the anger of various members towards me. They were mad, as they said I was tuning out during lectures.
“So what?” I said. “My job is to get the point. After I get the point, I tune out until the next point comes up.”
The group members said, “If you tune out, you diminish the perceived value of what is going on.”
In my interpretation I saw that Resnick immediately understood that the group wanted him to act as a leader, in spite of the ground rule stating that all members should be equal. Resnick objected to the pressure the group was putting on him. **********
GR – I called them on it and said, “How can I be a leader, or have that role, when we are all to be treated alike?” This was another awakening moment for me. The pressure was on for me to behave differently, as they “needed” me to be a leader. It was clear that the group had expectations that I would assume a leadership role. When I did not comply with their expectations to act as the kind of a leader they needed, they were critical of me—until I pointed out this entire sequence to them. ************Listening to Resnick, I realized that this was a clear example of how the group mind can easily over-influence individuals, often to the detriment of both. It is good to be able to clearly see these kinds of reciprocal relationships in which group members assume less responsibility by forcing one susceptible individual into an overly-responsible position.
**************GR – A leader needs cognitive smarts. Leaders also need to be able to solve other people’s problems. I am a bit unusual in that I have the ability to solve problems to meet others’ needs. I can give people good sets of advice. This attitude is close to what is described as the abundance mentality: “There is enough for everyone. I can work hard and always get what I need.” This is in stark opposition to the scarcity mentality that says, “There is not enough. I have to beat other people out. Someone is going to lose.”
***********It’s interesting to speculate that this “abundancy” attitude enabled Resnick to maintain a broad viewpoint, both intuitive and detached: It allowed him to resonate with an individual’s dilemma, and yet deliver rational advice.
Resnick noted that when he advises people about career choices, he often sees many sides of an issue, many ways for everyone to win. His approach is, “There is an institutional need, and here is how you might fit in to the future of this organization. And we can also consider your personal need and what might be in your best interest.”
This is a good example of a leader increasing an individual’s personal responsibility by allowing him or her total access to information. Individuals treated this way are going to develop their brainpower to think broadly about their decisions.
Learning by Identification, or Learning to be DifferentAs we turned to his family dynamics and looked at the types of influences that might have enhanced Resnick’s leadership ability, he said, “I don’t see how my family influenced me; my family was not communicative.”
I responded that some people learn by identification, while others look at what’s happening around them and learn what not to do. Family research demonstrates that individuals often find other ways to mange self rather than follow strategies that do not appear to be working. Children, in particular, often see that their parents’ coping mechanisms are not working, accept that as a fact without blame, and move on. When there is no blame, the individual has more opportunity to build coping mechanisms that are rationally based.
Resnick considers personal information in an objective way, without defensiveness. For example, he listened to my ideas and tried on a few. He was able to think scientifically about how past family events often influence one’s current life in indirect ways.
After listening to my thoughts about the ways people learn within the family, Resnick said, “What does fit is that when I give my analysis of why I am doing what I am doing, I probably over-communicate. And it may be that I do this because my parents did not communicate very well. I am making sure that you cannot say to me later that I did not give you every opportunity to do what you needed to do to succeed. I think my job is to let people know what they are up against. In my way of doing it, I am giving them personal responsibility for their own salvation. I’ve given them many pictures of the situation so they can make an informed decision and take responsibility.”
He added, “I grew up in a family where there was not a high level of communication about major changes in the family life.”
I responded, “You may have grown up with a bit of an advantage in that your older brother might have had been more pressured to continue any family tradition, even non-communication. As the second son, you might have been freer to grow up in your own way.”
Resnick agreed, saying that he did feel free to grow up in his own way. He added that in his family, people simply did things, saying only that those things “just had to be done.” There was little discussion about how and why things were done.
Because I knew that Resnick had a younger brother who had died early, I wondered aloud if this lack of communication might have been influenced by the early loss. I also noted that Resnick was 27 before he began thinking about the importance of relationships. Perhaps, I added, when Resnick discovered novels (which he did later in life than most), he picked up clues about how relationships work at a subliminal level. Everything we do counts, after all; we are just not sure how much weight to assign to any one variable. After college Resnick went on to do graduate work. He then spoke about that time.
GR –Doing my Ph.D. in Rhode Island in microbiology was an exciting time. This whole world of analysis, of cause and effect, was opening up. It was about how you interact with everyone.
AMS – We know that you had a big change then in terms of thinking about relationships, but let’s take a broader look. How would you account for such a shift in your thinking? What was changing in your family and in society? It was 1976 and the Vietnam War was over. Your brother had been in Vietnam and he comes back. What impression did you have of your brother when he returned?
GR – I did not have much contact with him. It took him a few years to settle down. He was obviously affected by what had gone on.
AMS – Could his going to war and his return have influenced you in some subtle way?
GR – I don’t know. Just to give you a feel for how out of tune I was, I got my bachelor’s in 1971 and did not take a final exam at Cornell until my senior year. This was because the protesting students would shut the school down. During this time, the shut-downs, I would just go bass fishing. There was no interest in the war.
AMS – Could it be that, since your younger brother died, your interest in exploring or thinking about relationships was essentially shut down until your older bother returned from the war?
GR – I don’t recall a triggering event. I was not part of the social network. The change was abrupt. I just started noticing other people and how they interact. I changed my reading habits. I read voraciously, Dune, The Hobbit. Until then I had only read science books. I became enamored of the idea of consilience, the convergence of knowledge from both the hard and soft sciences.
A problem that I see with the concept of leaders is that an effective leader might get people to walk off the cliff. Society rewards effective leaders, not mature leaders. Nevertheless, there are a few elements about mature leaders that we can try to convey. Society often rewards efficient leaders who might encourage people to walk off the edge of a cliff to save the organization money.
AMS – If we go back to your family to understand the kinds of leadership traits you developed, how might your father’s career have influenced your career decisions?
GR – My dad had an escapade with going into business with my mother’s relatives, and the business failed. He had left the construction trade in Connecticut to try his hand at retail in New York City. When the retail business failed, he returned to the construction trades, but was forced to take a lower job as a helper, which is under a mechanic. It took him years to regain his old position.
When I think about my mother, I see her as having talent, but as being born at the wrong time and place. Because of the way society was structured then and her family’s financial status, there was little chance for her to have a professional career. She would have enjoyed being able to contribute in the workplace at a leadership level. She would have liked to have been an accountant and to have been successful.
AMS – There is a theory that states that if a woman’s husband does not live up to her hopes and dreams in his career, these expectations will go into the son and he will become more successful than the father.
GR – That makes sense—that the mother can displace her hopes onto her sons. I may have some of my mother traits. For example, my mother has motivation; she cannot go to sleep until everything is right with everybody. I may have incorporated her attitude by always looking out for others. But to continue being a successful leader, you need a very strong feedback loop about what you are doing. You need that to keep on striving to be a top-level leader.
Transferring Knowledge from Your Business to Your FamilyGR – There was a fellow who was a very effective group leader. Then he was promoted so that he had three groups under him. Instead of seeing these as three groups that each needed relatively autonomous leaders, he tried to treat them as one group that he would lead. If you cannot delegate authority and power, and instead treat several groups as a “one,” there will be too much complexity to manage.
I can see this dynamic and apply it to my family situation. I can choose to intervene and solve my son’s problems by dealing directly with his teachers. But if I treat my son like a subordinate leader, I override his ability to handle his own problems. On the other hand, if I coach him to deal with people who are creating problems for him, he will do better over the long run.
Building Brain-ComplexityAMS – I wonder to what degree knowing your grandparents and their stories influenced your ability to be analytical. You know the story of your grandparents in Russia. (Knowing one’s family roots is evidence of a person who is better connected to his or her family and is a less cut-off individual.) You may not know the details of the family story back three or four generations, but most well-connected people know something of their family over the generations. The hypothesis is that you learn something from the failures and successes as related in family stories, and the more you know the greater the complexity that your brain can handle.
GR – I can see the motivation to not fail coming out of my family.
AMS – You may also have a motivation to help younger people, since your younger brother died. And you may have a strong motivation to help women, since you saw your mother as worthy of many opportunities.
GR – Yes, I can see that, as I was given an award for enabling women to do well.
But if I do not see a good outcome, I cannot lead. If I do not believe in what I am doing, I will leave or turn it over to someone else.
I would say it is still hard for me to make a bridge between the family influences on one’s leadership ability. But there are three things that I hear that could contribute to my leadership ability. I would agree that these traits may have been influenced by my family: (1) that I over-communicate, (2) that I will strive to do well as I may have a fear of failure, and that (3) I do enjoy enabling others to do well.
AMS – This has been an interesting interview, and we will see what each of us gets out of it on reflection. I know there are many ideas here to think about. Thank you very much.
Gary Resnick’s Mindful Compass Points(1) The ability to define a vision: Resnick talked about two aspects of his leadership vision. The first was how he as a leader needs to have an “abundance mentality” so that he can give individuals access to the information they need to make good decisions. The second relates to the idea of consilience, the convergence of knowledge from both the hard and soft sciences. This idea allowed him as a leader to investigate various ways of understanding people and to maintain a more accurate view of human nature. Overall, Resnick’s vision is to increase knowledge based on his principle of understanding people, and as a leader to be a good communicator.
(2) The resistance to change in self and in any system: One reason I enjoyed this interview with Resnick is that he had an easy, non-defensive way of explaining that, for him, the connections between early family relationships and his actions later in life were missing. By the end of the interview, however, he was able to move past this resistance and see that there were some connections. He was able to listen to his doubts and give them space, and then overcome those doubts when a greater connection appeared to make sense to him.
(3) The ability to connect: Resnick saw his father struggle with his work, and he saw the unfulfilled potential in his mother’s life. Because he did not have to deal with blame and anger associated with these two situations, he was free to explore other ways to connect and work with people. He discovered that people value his problem-solving ability, and was able to use these cognitive skills as a leader early on. He could connect with the generational stories in his family, even when he was not sure they were grounded in total reality, and he had an understanding of the trials and successes of the past generations. Later, he became curious about how humans and other species work together and discovered that successful organisms learn and adapt to changing environments. All living species must predict what strategies will work, and Resnick has been very good at doing just that.
First Born: Advantages and Disadvantages
We have heard from two leaders, Gary Resnick and Jim Walsh, neither of whom is an oldest child. Now let’s listen to Arthur House, who is. Individuals who are the first born are often said to be natural-born leaders. After all, traditionally they inherit the family farm and title, and are often pressured to “manage the farm well” for future generations. Many oldest can fold under this kind of pressure, and for many reasons. Sometimes they have parents who were not oldest or who did not do well themselves; and sometimes there are added outside social pressures that can derail a so-called natural-born leader. But Art House does not fall into that category. His family expected him to become a leader in the community and in the family, and encouraged behavior that would serve him well in that capacity.
ARTHUR HOUSEArthur House is Managing Director, Public Affairs at Webster Bank, the largest independent bank headquartered in New England. He has worked in the academic world (Assistant Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University), and in government: at the World Bank (1971 – 1975); as a White House Fellow (1975 – 1976); as Special Projects Officer at the National Security Council; and in the U.S. Senate. He has also worked at several corporations.
AMS – It’s been interesting to me, after giving my interview subjects the list of questions about relationships affecting leadership ability, to listen as their different experiences unfold. It has almost been a Darwinian process. Many questions go unnoticed, drift into extinction if you will. Other questions seem to live on, as they prove to be relevant. People hear something. A light bulb goes on, an idea builds and becomes a theme that is part of that individual’s life experience. But that theme is also interesting for the rest of us.
Dr. Bowen used to say something like, “The wisdom of the ages is in each individual. You just have to create the right environment to allow the person to explain it all to you.” This has to do with the way the person is with the other, and how the person thinks; it is not just about the questions that are asked. Anyway, right now, I’m interested in any thoughts you have about leadership and the impact that your early relationships had on you in that regard.
AH – When I was in graduate school, one of my professors said that a good predictor of leadership, in terms of world leaders, was a talented individual from a prominent family whose mother had married below her station in life. The child, he said, would often live up to the expectations that the mother had known in her own family. She would inculcate the leadership expectation in her son. My professor had a long list of historical figures who fit this description, but it did not really apply to my family. I think of leadership not so much as success or triumph, but rather as trying. Leadership to me is the effort, the will and the work done to accomplish something—which can be inspired by either parent.
AMS – Yes, I agree that inspiration can happen with either parent. The child becomes the subject of the mother’s or the father’s investment. And sometimes the marriage might even benefit. It seems to work out as long as the parent’s expectations fit well with the child’s natural talents, desires and capacity to be disciplined. One of the big issues is that the parent must be able to maintain his or her own identity and not become confused about who is who.
AH – There was a somewhat subtle example of leadership that came from my father. He was a very good public speaker, ran for elected office and won. After becoming a State Senator, he went on to become a judge, and later was the Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court. He was a recognized public figure, a modest and a self-effacing man. He did not trumpet his accomplishments in any way. Leadership in the sense of effort was kind of a given. And therefore I was aware that public accomplishment was possible. That was the setting in which I grew up.
My mother’s family was well educated. She went to Wellesley College and became a career person after graduating. It was unusual to do that in the 1930s, but she wanted to go to work and was professionally accomplished. She had one sister who worked in state government and three brothers: a medical doctor, an educator and an economist. There were a lot of Ph.D.’s in the family.
And there was a sense of security in my family. The overall idea was that it was okay to go out and try things. Venturing out was fine if you were serious about something, and you always had the family to fall back on.
One particular situation helps explain why I was determined to lead in my own way. I come from a rural area where everyone knows everyone. As a youngster, I enjoyed the outdoors and sports. Then my family and I decided I should go away to prep school, but I quickly discovered that I just did not fit in. I found the school to be arrogant and elitist. I gave it a try, but just did not blend with the culture. I was a bit hurt about this, but I simply did not like the values of the place and was not going to change mine to be a popular person and fit in. That was profound experience at age 14.
In my senior year the school made a serious mistake and sent the wrong grades to the colleges where I had applied. I was rejected everywhere, including my “safety” schools—which is how I discovered the error. The school at first lectured me about being an underachiever, but when confronted they admitted the mistake and agreed to sort it out after a rather tense meeting with my father. Ultimately I was accepted at Tufts—which turned out to be a stroke of unbelievable good fortune. I instantly liked the culture. There was a large, diverse group of people and a healthy rather than elitist atmosphere—a complete contrast to my prep-school years. I was class president a couple of times and eventually headed the student government. I helped establish a program in Africa and led a group of Tufts students to West Africa one summer. I also won some leadership awards as an undergraduate.
After that I went on to an outstanding graduate school and was pleased to be able just to study—nothing to prove or vindicate.
I think my family provided a subtle but powerful influence by being encouraging and supportive. By surviving the experience in prep school and then thriving in college, I learned that I could make it in a difficult situation and hold on to my core values.
AMS – This is one of the better stories about being a strong, separate self and why it is so important.
AH – I can still recall very vividly going out one night my freshman year at prep school to sit on the bleachers and sort things through. I was clear within myself. I did not like their values and was not going to become one of them. I should have told my parents at the time and just gone home, but I was not able to do that. I just decided that I would do all that I could to remain different from this culture. It was a very lonely thing. It was a trial. Years later, my parents expressed great sadness when they found out what I had gone through. They felt I should have told them.
AMS – Often that is more difficult if you are an only male or identify strongly with your father who is a strong man. Tell me about your own family and your parents’ families.
AH – I have two sisters, an older and a younger one. My mother was the second oldest of five siblings. My dad was the middle child between two sisters.
AMS – The pressure can even be unspoken for the oldest boy to be a strong silent man who does not complain. Oldest often follow the parents’ wishes without complaints.
AH – I can say there was an expectation to do well and not take the easy path. That was especially true with my mother, leaving Wellesley to become a professional woman. She worked at a corporation in Boston, while a friend of hers helped start a program for women at Harvard Business School. This was in the thirties. Later a “headhunter” recruited her to be personal assistant for Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr. She lived in New York City before marrying my father. Dad had graduated from Harvard Law School and evidently had a challenge in convincing my mother to leave the bright lights for Manchester, Connecticut.
Our family dinner table was fun but also an institution unto itself. The conversations there were inviting but challenging—they were a formidable part of growing up. You had to discuss and defend your view. My parents encouraged us to read the newspaper, and we had to pick a subject and say something that made sense about it. We also learned to respect others’ opinions. We could tell jokes and have a good time, but diversity of thought and interesting conversation were highly valued.
I say this because later in life I became a Democrat (as did my two sisters) while our parents were Republicans. What was most important was to have a rational argument for defending a viewpoint. It was perhaps strange that all three children became Democrats—coming from a family that was “Rockefeller” or liberal Republican. Years later, when I ran for elected office, a reporter asked my father how the son of a prominent Republican had become a Democrat. He said, “His mother and I taught the boy how to read, and he has been on his own ever since.”
The influence of the dining room table was very positive. It was not pressure, but rather an expectation that you know and be able to discuss, in a rational way, the current events in the world.
AMS – Promoting diversity of views is crucial to families, nations and businesses. You were allowed and encouraged to think for yourself, and that is something that certainly should be part of an ideal family environment. But I am not sure how much of this can be taught or encouraged.
How about your grandparents?
AH – My maternal grandfather was the middle child of seven. He was the headmaster of Harrisburg Academy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for 28 years, helped develop the faculty and brought students in from overseas. There were always people visiting the school, so my grandmother both managed the family and entertained visitors to the school. She was an only child, and I remember her from my childhood as very kind and loving. My grandfather died before I was born. My paternal grandfather was an only child born in Manchester, Connecticut, and the first in his family to go to college. He was a Harvard engineer and worked for the New York Central Railroad in Pennsylvania. My grandmother, also an only child, came from a prominent business and real estate family in Pennsylvania. After they married, he decided to return to join his father in the family retail business in Manchester, the oldest and largest store in the town. He was also head of the Chamber of Commerce. My grandmother died when I was a youngster. She was a warm and gracious woman, as I recall. My grandfather was very sharp and prospered in difficult times, but was warm toward his grandchildren. He enjoyed seeing my father thrive in politics. He always insisted that we come together as a family for holidays.
AMS – You still have contact with your aunts and uncles?
AH – My father’s two sisters have died. My mother’s older brother and one younger brother are alive. The older, Philip, was my Dad’s roommate at Harvard, which is how Dad met my mother. Philip received his doctorate in economics and served as an intelligence officer in World War II, then subsequently wrote for the Washington Post and set up his own economics consulting business. He is extremely well read. Now, at age 97, Philip still reads three newspapers a day and occasionally plays squash. I used to spend hours talking to him when I lived in D.C. He is very tolerant and genuinely interested in what others are doing and thinking. But if you ask him about his life, you have to draw him out.
Philip recently told me about long conversations he had with his grandfather, who fought in the Civil War and was a prisoner at Andersonville. When his grandfather returned home to the family farm in Ohio, the family did not recognize him because he had suffered so considerably. There are not many people alive today who have talked to people who fought in the Civil War.
My mother’s younger brother was in the Pacific during World War II and returned to earn his doctorate at Yale. He spent his career as an educator and became provost of a college in Pennsylvania. He has been a mentor to many educators, including my older sister, encouraging her to get her Ph.D. and pursue her career as a professor.
AMS – Families that place a high value on supporting one another can often tolerate and even promote a greater diversity of ideas within the group. Family support between the generations enables people to do far better when difficult times arise. In general, they do not cut off from one another. This provides what you have talked about as a feeling of security. People are able to go out and try new things, knowing there have been generations of people who have been supportive of one another. I think this builds a stronger overall family group.
The same principle works for religious groups and even organizations. People tend to support others who share most of their deeper values. Of course, there is always a balance between getting along by embracing the group’s values, and being able to explore and be slightly different from the group.
AH – Yes, but there can be too much security, too. Security is one thing, but a family also has to demand accountability and seriousness of purpose. I thought of that when I spent an evening with President [George W. Bush] while he was running for Governor of Texas. We had plenty to connect on. My father as an attorney had represented Prescott Bush, the President’s grandfather. And I had worked with the first President Bush when I was at the National Security Council and he was head of the CIA. George Bush and I talked about the people we knew in common, and he was clearly secure within his family background. But he was also clear that he was very much his own person. He felt no obligation to be consistent with his grandfather’s or father’s political viewpoints. He seemed to be saying that they were great men, but that he was his own man, going his own way to fight his own battles. He showed almost no interest in the issues of their day. I got the sense that the only tradition he seems to want to uphold is to run for office and win. Has he had too much family security?
AMS – It’s always difficult to evaluate how much, in terms of current behavior, one is reacting to the past. It’s tough to tell to what extent there is an agenda with an undercurrent of psychological edginess, and the degree of vulnerability that comes from trying to prove something new. The ideal is to be thoughtful about the various alternatives and the costs/benefits of going this or that way. For political people, the judgment of history may be more meaningful than the current polls.
AH – I have three children, all girls, and each of them has a willful streak. My sisters, who are both psychologists, say, “There you have it, leadership in the making.” For them, sticking your neck out, trying new things and even being headstrong is not rebellion but rather seeing how well they can make decisions and discover the consequences. This is real trial-and-error learning.
AMS – Often it seems that the dialogue between the parents and the children is the important ingredient. People who stay in good contact and listen to different ways of thinking seem to learn and respect more about one another. How do you and your wife communicate about your daughters?
AH – My wife is the intelligent one. She is a medical doctor. The children call her the “real” doctor while I am “Dr. Dirty,” specializing in splinters and scrapes and things like that. As for communication, it really does take a team to rear children. I listen to my wife, and her insights usually make good sense to me. She has been more intensely involved with the girls at most stages of life to this point, but I try to find areas where I can be close. We tend to agree and work well with each other. I am amazed at how very different three individuals in the same family can be. I try to stay as involved as I can and talk to each of them about what is going on in their lives.
AMS – How did you and your wife meet each other?
AH – My wife and I met in 1984 when she was starting medical school and I was running for Congress in Connecticut. Her brother is a very good friend of mine, and she volunteered to work on my campaign. I lost in the Reagan landslide but probably won something more important.
AMS – That seems a similar pattern in the way your parents met?
AH – Yes, brothers can help, but this one certainly did not go to any extremes to let me know about his sister. It was actually my campaign manager who brought us together. Rita, my wife, is the youngest with two older brothers.
AMS – And you have a younger sister. Your sibling positions fit very well and your families are friends. That is great combination for a good marriage.
I am curious also to know if there have been other mentors who helped you learn about leadership skills.
AH – There have been two, Abe Ribicoff and Mike Walsh. For me, the most important aspect of leadership is seeing what needs to be done and having the courage to do it. Doing what you think is right can often cost you the disapproval of a lot of people. I was Chief of Staff for former U.S. Senator Abe Ribicoff, a man who was true to his moral instincts. He had the courage to make the tough decisions and see them through. I have never met a man with a better political sense and more guts to do what he thought was right.
Another person I became very close to was John Gardner’s protégé, Mike Walsh. They worked together as the founders of Common Cause. Mike became a CEO at an early age. He revolutionized the Union Pacific Railroad, changing it from a utility to a deregulated, competitive transportation company. Then a large conglomerate called Tenneco crashed and the Board of Directors hired Mike to straighten things out. Mike convinced me to move to Texas to work with him. He set up adjoining offices, and we quickly became close friends. Mike was one of the most compelling leaders I have ever witnessed, and he faced a massive challenge. The company had about $13 billion in annual revenue with six businesses ranging from aircraft carriers to gas pipelines to tractors and plastic bags. Mike had to figure out what went wrong and bring it back to prosperity.
Mike also went with his instincts, but he also set explicit goals. He believed that a good leader makes himself or herself vulnerable and gathers others in to share the vulnerability and then win. He was a remarkable example of leadership. He understood people well. If you are to be a leader, he said, “Tell people where you are going. Plant the flag. And then once you get a team assembled you can rationally figure out how to get it done.” He was a powerful speaker and motivator. He was loyal and also demanding. I had seen leadership in the public life, and now I was able to see it at the corporate level. He would set a goal emotionally and rationally and use his powerful intellect to get where he needed to go.
Unfortunately, Mike’s life was cut short by a brain tumor. He believed that he had exhausted himself in this hard work and that this state of exhaustion had allowed the brain tumor to take over. We were together for two years, and for the last six months he was dying. But in both his living and dying I learned a great deal about life and values.
AMS – I have found that the people who are important to you and who die often live on in various ways. Some people tell me that such people will come and sit on your shoulder and talk to you and keep on encouraging you.
AH – I think that is accurate.
AMS – There are probably at least seven factors that go into aggressive cancers. I look at how many people have had cancer in the family, the genetics, the emotional atmosphere, the burden people feel they are under, etc. If someone feels he or she has used up their life energy—well, that has to be one of the big factors.
AH – My experience with Mike underscored both the promise and vulnerability of life. And you are right. Mike’s influence will be there forever.
AMS – One other question I had about leaders in general is to wonder how accurate they are at predicting future events. How are you at that?
AH – In certain areas I can do that, and in others, no. My predictive ability is strongest in areas in which I have both an educational background and experience. Examples are international affairs and the media. Frequently I feel confident in seeing where something is going to end up. But there are a lot of areas where I am simply ignorant or inexperienced.
I sat on a board with Elliot Richardson, the Attorney General who refused to comply with then-President Nixon’s order to sack the Watergate Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Richardson understood the public sector so well. After all, he had four Cabinet positions. I once asked him, “What makes a good President?” He replied that one thing any President needs is a thorough understanding of history; the other is the ability to understand and predict what might happen if a particular decision were made. I thought that was a remarkably insightful set of criteria. None of us is as good at this as we need to be. Anticipating what might happen has to do with your understanding of the past and of the circumstances affecting you in the present.
I wrote a piece about Iraq before the United States went to war in which I expressed great trepidation that we would end up exactly where we are, isolated from our allies and bogged down in an area of the world that has been subject to brutal dictatorship, is not prepared for democracy, and faces profound internal divisions and chaos. Unfortunately, that was a pretty good prediction. There are other areas where I have no idea what is coming next. I do not understand nor have any sense of where rap music, tattooing or body piercing as social trends are headed.
AMS – Another question is about being strategic versus being authentic. As a therapist, I have to challenge people to look at their behavior, behavior they cannot see. Then, even if they do see it, it is often difficult for them to change. Therefore, I have learned to coach people by thinking strategically. How will my interactions with this person be experienced? This approach requires that I understand the others and what it is they might be able to hear. If people get stuck, I often make paradoxical statements, or do or say absurd things to make some kind of difference. Some people say I am being manipulative, but I say it’s thinking strategically. Political and corporate leaders, too, have to think about how to deliver a message that makes sense to people. So I was wondering about political strategy, balanced with the need for transparency.
AH – The authentic individuals without guile are few and far between. Who are the people who are there for you no matter what? Often your old friends are always there. They know you (and often all your mistakes), so you have nothing to prove and nothing to defend. But that ability to accept another completely and totally, without condition, is rare. You need people like that in life, and I am blessed with a few such friends. But they are remarkably scarce.
AMS – Yes, it very difficult because as soon as you need people to approve of you, or at least not to react negatively, you will be taking a risk if you say or do anything controversial. This is a constraint on openness. But on the other hand, if the main fear is upsetting the others then this skill, being strategic, is something that people can practice. Gregory Bateson, a scientist and biological philosopher [1904 – 1980], used to say that information could be thought of as like a grain of sand. A small amount given to an oyster can create a pearl, whereas a large amount just gets spit out.
AH – Yes, I agree. Even in your family, where people generally love you, you have to raise the question about the cost of openness, and your have to set limits. Parents often face this with their children. In many areas we know there are issues that might be difficult, but you still have to raise the issues and then manage the reactions.
AMS – I have really enjoyed this time with you and will look forward to thinking about all these ideas and hopefully seeing you in the future.
Arthur House’s Mindful Compass Points
(1) The ability to define a vision: At a young age, House was forced to define his values and stand by them. He saw himself as an open, accepting person interested in the differences between people, not as an elitist determined to embrace an exclusionary, discriminatory attitude. This view of himself was based on deep values that he later applied to the public and private work he undertook. In order to live out his vision, House had to learn to tolerate being alone—not an easy task in the prep-school years. Living his values and allowing others to live theirs, without trying to change them or allowing them to change him, was his first lesson in becoming a leader. Knowing that he could stand by his principles without flinching allowed him to emerge as a leader in college. There he became class president, headed the student government, and helped establish an exchange program in Africa.
His early experiences around the family dinner table, where conversations were based on rational argument and respect for others’ opinions, very likely prepared him to defend his ideas and to respect the viewpoints of others. Throughout his career, House has valued diversity of thought.
As House noted, a mature leader must be true to his or her moral instincts and have the courage to make the tough decisions and see them through. To maintain the courage of one’s vision, one often has to be tested emotionally. House’s story is one of the best examples of how the coercive power of any group can undermine leadership potential or ability, and how resisting that power can lead to emotional growth and strength.
(2) The resistance to change in self and in any system: There are two important lessons in House’s story. His ability to embrace his vision and to maintain it is the primary lesson. The second is that one can sometimes ask for help, even when it makes one vulnerable. As an adult, House says he wishes he had told his parents of the difficulties he was experiencing at school. But it’s easy to understand the reluctance of someone just 14 years old to open up to his mother or father on such a sensitive subject. However, he was able to learn a great lesson from that reluctance: He saw his parents’ sadness when they discovered what he had been through, and knew that he would do it differently, be more open, next time. Being open with parents and other authority figures is not always seen as the best thing to do. It takes a different kind of wisdom to realize that talking to important others about difficulties is not a sign of weakness, but rather of willingness to handle challenges in a transparent manner. Many people are concerned that if they tell others about anxious events, they will have a hard time handling the others’ reactions and maintaining their own decision. It would be better if, instead, these little sparks of fear led people to the emotional gym where they could learn to deal with the anxiety, rather than to a short run around the anxiety in the form of avoidance. It is almost always worthwhile to go to the emotional gym and practice being open with those who are important to you.
(3) The ability to connect: The family that House grew up in had been very well connected for generations. Because his father was an important figure in the political landscape, all kinds of fascinating people came to his home and talked about interesting things. In addition, his family stories were well known to him, and his contacts with his extended family very significant and meaningful. Given this setting, it was natural for House to feel at ease with important people and to make others feel equally at ease. In fact, it is reasonable to predict that those families that maintain a wide and open relationship network will have a strong legacy going forward. Someone for whom it is natural to maintain a complex network will not have to spend as much effort doing so as will those who read that they should have a large network of family and friends and then set out to make it happen.