Tag Archives: Texas

Spring has Sprung!

Rejoice. Easter Sunday. Wonderful weather. Fabulous flowers. The world feels fresh and new. Oh how I love Spring. (I wonder if my March birthday affects how I feel about the season?)

Cherry Blossoms at the Jefferson Memorial

Cherry Blossoms at the Jefferson Memorial

So often, I miss Texas. Every time I go back to visit, I want to move home — to Austin, Longhorn country. Then I fly back to DC, drive through the green parkways lined with flowers, commute to work each day in view of our Nation’s monuments…and I’m thankful I live here.

During this time of the year, I thank God for the little things here in DC — the daffodils, cherry blossoms, dogwood trees, and tulips. (Though, I could do without the pesky weeds that thrive in my yard.) ;)

Yes, it’s a WONderful life!

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In honor of Easter Sunday, I leave you with this:

1 Peter 1: 23-25

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For,
“All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord stands forever.”
And this is the word that was preached to you.

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Mike Boon’s Vuka! Wake-Up Call

Ancient African proverb: “A man without culture is like a zebra without stripes.”

South Africa: 1996

“Mike Boon, a white, was on the mean streets of Soweto photographing anti-apartheid graffiti when he was caught by the mob. About 1,000 supporters of the Pan African Congress – motto: one settler, one bullet – had beaten him, doused him with petrol and were preparing to burn him alive in a horrific spectacle known as necklacing.

“They had the tyre, although they never put it around my neck, and they were shouting for matches,” he says. Mr Boon only escaped a hideous death because he speaks fluent Zulu, and was able to persuade his captors that he was there to promote their cause.”

Paul Rodgers, The Independent, 20 October 1996

Yikes! Meet my buddy Mike.

Mike on his Game Reserve

Mike teaches us about animal poop on his Game Reserve

Mike, the multi-lingual ex-special forces peace-loving folk music guitar-picking minstrel, who founded a marketing company in the 1980’s in a rags-to-riches story. His vision: creating community-based, culturally-targeted delivery of product messages into the hands of people on the streets and in the townships of South Africa.

In order to understand an issue, Mike seeks to understand the root cause — the people, and how they view the world.

Under his leadership, Group Africa grew into a multinational organization of 7000 employees operating in over 25 countries in just 17 years. As he tells it, Mike grew tired of constant international travel and the burden of corporate leadership, and sold his business to an American public relations giant.

For his second act (or third, really, if you count his time in the military), Mike launched the Vulindlela™ Network to help bring about personal and organizational VUKA! — interventions to foster cultural and social understanding and shared vision. Mike’s work brings about reconciliation. Mike’s bio states:

“His work unashamedly acknowledges and deals with the inherent racism, prejudice, anger, fear and denial…”

Tuff stuff, the challenges Mike takes on. What can I say? He’s Superman. So, by now you’re probably wondering how I know Mike. Let’s take a trip back in time.

Texas: 1974

I met Mike Boon in 1974 at a Southwest Texas Rotary International meet ‘n greet for incoming and outgoing exchange students. Mike was going to high school in Gonzales, Texas for the year. I attended San Marcos High School, and had been selected to spend a year in Denmark. Mike and I hit it off immediately.

What I remember most about Mike? His to-die-for accent, easy laugh, and deep dives into the meaning of life. He taught me a bit of Xhosa, an amazing clicking language; and introduced my family to a more efficient method of left-handed eating — keeping the fork tongs-down and the knife in my right hand. We Americans tend to eat right-handed with the tongs facing upward, switch the fork to the left hand tongs-down to cut, then switch back to the right hand tongs-up to eat.

Mike faced a mandatory 2-year term in the military when he returned home to South Africa. I couldn’t imagine the soft-hearted, deeply thoughtful, easy-going boy carrying a gun. Much less shooting it. Much to my surprise, but not really because Mike always exceeded expectations in everything he undertook, Mike went into the military and earned a spot in the elite special forces. The letters he sent from active duty had sections literally cut from the pages.

Mike always wrote me about fighting injustice, opposing the forces of evil, standing up for what’s right, understanding the core of humanity. Deep stuff. Mike stuff.

Mike and I stayed in touch on and off through the years. Our lives took so many different turns. I knew Mike had written a book, and that he’d done well. I had no idea HOW well. We lost touch about 10 years or so ago when my Christmas letters started bouncing back. I kept sending them, they kept returning. Enter the age of the internet. Mike found me a couple of years ago through NASA. I’d spent a few years as Editor of NASA.gov. I’d left digital fingerprints everywhere.

Our friendship spanned decades and continents, yet we’d not seen each other for 35 years. Until this summer.

Summer: 2009

ZambeziCoverPageI learned so much about Mike, the man, during our visit to South Africa. I had really only ever known the boy. Spending time with Mike and his family helped fill in the gaps. Ok, not gaps. Craters.

Reading both Mike’s books before our visit, helped remind me who Mike is — Mike, the philosopher. No depth is ever deep enough for him. He’ll always dig down and uncover another layer of understanding. We are alike that way. I really need to understand what drives things, what makes pieces fit together. I appreciate the way Mike approaches a problem and finds a way around an impasse.

Mike deals with culture in his ground-breaking 1996 book, The African Way: The Power of Interactive Leadership. Reading this book, I understood, for the first time, some of the cultural issues we face, even today, in the United States.

Mike describes the “Western” view of time as individually-focused — control is internal. For instance: “I missed the bus.” Yet the traditional African view of time is circular, where “the past is more important than the future.”  In Zulu, the expression would be, “The bus left me.” In Xhosa, “The bus died on me.” Both are externally-controlled. (p. 6-7) He notes that the pace of business based on an internal or external focus is fundamentally different. On the question of when it’s time to “move on” — forgive and forget — to order to repair the nation after apartheid was abolished, Mike offers this: “The ‘African’ view would be that a considerable amount still needs to be done to settle the damage done by apartheid.”

In a circular view of time, where the past is more important than the future, how long is long enough?

I absolutely have no answer, but at least I understand the context.

MikeBoonZambeziReconciliation seems the focus of Mike’s second book, Zambezi, The First Solo Journey Along Africa’s Mighty River. 1n 2002, Mike embarked on a solo expedition down the Zambezi River from source to sea in a kayak, which had never been attempted before. Missionary-explorer David Livingstone traveled by boat down the Zambezi in the 1850-60’s, and nearly lost his life. Others attempted the journey though the centuries, but never the entire river. Mike knew he would be traveling through war-torn countries and areas of civil discontent. His trip included: Northwest Zambia, Angola/Zambia border, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. The river itself has unchartered areas with unknown rapids and falls.

Mighty Zambezi @ Victoria Falls

Mighty Zambezi @ Victoria Falls

In his own words, here’s Mike’s assessment of his chances on the river:

“In addition to the political and geographic challenges, I had to prepare myself for any number of medical eventualities. Injury and trauma could be caused by assault or bites from snakes, hippos, crocodiles, and other animals. Possible illnesses included malaria, hepatitis, dysentery and infection. I needed to be able to self-administer any number of treatments, such as suturing wounds, setting fractures and carrying out amputations.”

Mike indeed encountered near-death in a whirlpool, abduction by military guards, close encounters with crocs, hippos, and elephants. His 99-day physical challenge brought emotional healing from Mike’s ‘military and corporate combat’ demons. The Zulus named Mike, Chunge,” which means “he who achieves even though the road be difficult and torturous.” Perhaps he needs to replace the word “road” with “river.”

Mike, Man of Many Years, at last reconciled with Mike, Idealistic Boy of Long Ago.

During our visit in South Africa, I learned more about Mike’s work through the eyes of his former employee, Doug, who accompanied us to the Soweto Township, home of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

Through Doug, I learned that Mike created the Lesedi Cultural Village for business partners to experience tribal life and better understand the people their products would reach. He recreated village life and brought in families to live and share their culture with visitors. He is no longer associated with Lesedi, which has become a successful tourist attraction, but he met his need to teach the “Western world” partners about African culture.

Primary School has new kitchen.

Primary School has new kitchen.

We visited an impoverished Township primary school. The school principal told us that the result of one of Mike’s VUKA! experiences, the bankers returned to volunteer with the kids and build a kitchen for the school. (They still need a regulation soccer field.)

Day Care has paint and furniture.

Day Care has paint and furniture.

We spent time at a pre-school day care in SnakePark, the poorest section of Soweto. Two mothers couldn’t bear seeing children without care and on the streets. They formed the Big Smile Little Faces Day Care. As a result of Mike’s VUKA! experience,  a business group returned to volunteer and provide essentials for the children — desks, chairs, rugs, book cubbies, and more.

VUKA! landmark

VUKA! landmark

When I wanted to take pictures of the painted towers in Soweto, not far from Nelson Mandela’s home, Doug pointed out the towers were painted for the community as a result of a Mike’s VUKA! program.

Mike mixes rich and poor, black and white, male and female, young and old  — drawing them together through a transformation process that strips away preconceived  cultural bias and builds bridges of shared humanity.

I saw evidence of his success whereever we went. Mike’s ground-breaking reconciliation/facilitation work is sought at the very highest levels of business and government, including Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama. Mike was flown to the Middle East to resolve settlement disputes between the Jews and Palestinians. Is there anything Mike can’t do? Slow down, maybe. Hardly likely.

Mike’s new challenge: an 8-month river adventure through even more dangerous territory than the Zambezi to draw attention to prejudice in all forms.

But, I’d like to give Mike a different challenge, as if the elimination of prejudice weren’t enough. I’d love to bring Mike to NASA, to challenge our entrenched, bureaucratic culture. I’ve only been introduced to snippets of Mike’s work to bring about reconciliation.

The more I see, the more I want Mike to bring VUKA! to NASA.

Just think, we have our very own whirlpools, rocky embankments, hippos, crocodiles, and infected thinking to offer a tempting challenge to Mike. We’ve had 50 years to develop ruts and dysfunctional business patterns.

Those of you at NASA know what I’m talking about. Folks at NASA field centers and Headquarters often mistrust each other. Organizations build walls to keep out competing other organizations. Power is not often shared well. Threat to power…well, I shudder at the thought. Many individuals and organizations operate under the fear of retribution — for thinking or speaking outside what is deemed culturally acceptable by individual managers. Sad, but true.

Not all of NASA can be described this way, of course, but enough exists to warrant at good look. Good news, though. We have a new leadership team at NASA. What better time to bring Mike in to wake us up, transform our thinking, ignite us for the future? We have much work to do.

Let’s VUKA!

Annie's Treehouse

Mike welcoming us to Annie's Treehouse, an aMAZing retreat he built for his wife!

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Want Change? Bring Your Ax!

“Do you not know, my son, with what LITTLE understanding the world is ruled?”

Pope Julius III

I spoke to a group of  University of Texas LBJ School graduates in Washington DC last night. The sky let loose like a water stampede the VERY moment I stepped to the lobby door at NASA Headquarters to catch a cab for my ride over 19th and Pennsylvania. Great. Nothing like showing up bedraggled (I love that word). Thanks guys for braving the weather to make it there!

For our discussion, I pulled together a list of the undercurrents that prevent progress in the federal government.  In my early years at NASA, I charged forward with starry eyes and idealistic plans, only to trip over unseen obstacles on my way to my grand scheme to:

Change the World for Good. 

I know, I know. Goody two shoes. Believe me, I’ve been called worse. ;)

In my idealism and enthusiasm, I made a good many mistakes. I failed to see all the unwritten rules that govern how work is done — the CULTURE of the organization. Often, people steeped in the organizational culture are blind to it. So was I, at first.

My biggest (and hardest) lesson over the years:

Change does NOT appeal to everyone.

Shocking, I know. But as hard as it was for me to conceive, many are QUITE comfortable with status quo…AND may have built their identities around the Here-and-Now.

Change = Unknown.

The unknown may appear dark and murky and unappealing to some. To others, the unknown is an intriguing, thrilling challenge.

Quick story: When my Mother came up to DC years ago, I suggested she hop on the Metro and explore what the City had to offer. Day after day I came home to find she hadn’t left the house. I couldn’t imagine all those missed opportunities, all the treasures left undiscovered — all within an easy 10 minute ride from the house. I mean, REALLY. WASHINGTON DC!!!!

When I pressed her, she made this comment:

“I don’t explore. YOU do.”

Wow. I’d never thought about it. I realized for the first time that I truly AM an explorer. I want to know what’s behind the unopened door. I look for new pathways, new approaches, new solutions. I want to know what I don’t know. My mother helped me understand why I was such a “pain in the backside” to my colleagues at work who dragged their feet with new projects or new approaches to old processes. They MUST have felt the same frustration with me my Mother did. They were perfectly content doing the same things the same ways as they always did before I entered the mix.

I began to reassess how I viewed those resistance to change. I needed a better understanding on how “the world is ruled” (Pope Julius IIII quote above). I offer a few “unspoken truths” I’ve gleaned about everyday behavior within change-resistant people and the organizations in which they thrive. 

Change-resistant Culture:

  1. Every new idea is an idea that didn’t work in the past.
  2. Don’t ask why. Do it because it’s always been done this way. 
  3. Activity IS the outcome.
  4. The answer is no, no matter the question.
  5. Hole-digging is easier than mountain-climbing. (Or, it’s easier to dig a hole than climb out of one.
  6. Ruts provide a narrow point of view. The deeper the rut…
  7. Comfort in process can mean discomfort with change.
  8. Bureau-train on autopilot. Conductor need not apply.

None of these are solutions. They simply give me a starting point to understand where we get stuck and how we might inch forward from here.

For example, look at #3: Activity=Outcome. I firmly believe this as the #1 reason the government resists telework/telecommuting initiatives. “Managing by Activity” means we measure success by how busy someone looks. We create “activity reports” and spend time filling them — which is “activity” in and of itself. We list the number of phone calls we make, or meetings we attend. Whew! Full day indeed! Yet, what did we accomplish? If managers measure performance by watching employees “be busy” rather than produce results, then how can a manager allow the employee to work outside his/her line of sight? “Managing by OUTCOME”…now that’s a scary thought to a culture steeped in activity-based success. We’re not good at giving employees a project with clear goals and deadline (OUTCOME), then setting them free to make the magic happen. If we were, we wouldn’t care where they got the job done — telework.

Here’s another example. Let’s look at #6: the dreaded rut (read habit). If we’re stuck in the rut and want out, what tools do we need? Maybe it’s as simple as a rope or a ladder. Perhaps we need blasting powder. What next? Do we fill in the rut to prevent backsliding or retreat? How do we fill the rut? Sand bags? Dump truck? Shovel? Now what? Where do we go from here? What new path do we want to forge? Do we need a compass? Do we face barbed wire? Forest? Desert? Sea? Whichever direction we take will require different tools. You get my drift. 

Unspoken “givens” in an organization influence how we get the job done, whether we know it or not.  

I haven’t even TOUCHED the topic of change in a toxic organization, which can represent a direct assault on the power structure. Those in power will resist change with all available resources to preserve even the smallest appearance of authority. But, alas, I’ll leave this for another blog-post.

Kudos to all of you out there COMMITTED to CHANGE in governmental process. Yay! You won’t be at all surprised to learn this:

 the Federal bureaucracy moves at glacier-speed.

Think about it. Have you EVER tried to stop a creeping ice mound? We have MUCH work to do, so GET OUT your PICKAX! But when you do, ALWAYS remember:

“If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.”

Hyman Rickover

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