Friday, December 6, 2019

Reflections on December 6, 1969

The link at the bottom of this posting takes you to yet another “death of the sixties” article on the 1969 concert at Altamont Speedway that featured the Rolling Stones and other bands.  Over the last 50 years, I can’t count how many of these articles and documentaries I’ve seen – the documentary, Gimme Shelter is the most well-known.  All of them focus on part of the story to make a point – which is often to juxtapose Altamont with Woodstock that had happened a few months prior.  The general theme seems to be that Woodstock was Aquarius rising, the coming together of a generation, the embodiment of the age of peace, etc., and that Altamont signaled the end.

My first reaction is that it really does stretch reality to claim the rise and death of any social movement in the short 110 days that separated these two concerts.  Rather, neither event is emblematic of social change.  In truth, both are separate snapshots of America at a time of social change.  The elements of the experiences of Woodstock and Altamont co-existed throughout the era, a complexity that is true of any moment.  After all, don’t forget that San Francisco’s 1967 “summer of love” two years before Altamont and Woodstock was also the summer of race riots in Buffalo, Newark, and Detroit.  In a truthful history, multiple experiences and perspectives exist simultaneously.  Seeing either Altamont or Woodstock as each or jointly definitive misses the complexity of that era in an attempt to neatly categorize the time and people.  It’s a mistake to see these events as providing any more meaning than the snapshot moments that they are. 

I was at Altamont.  I went with three other people, and we were in the upper bowl of the field that sloped down to the stage – close enough to hear the music and far enough away to miss the violence and chaos that surrounded the performers.  As we arrived, people around me passed around one-gallon jugs of Red Mountain wine and joints, a young couple next to us zipped themselves into a sleeping bag and had sex (which at least seemed preferable to the ones who were okay with sex in a rocking sani-can), and folks just sat around on the grass or danced energetically whenever music played.  So the event began as just another outdoor music experience like the many that preceded and followed it.  I arrived expecting something akin to the free concerts in Golden Gate Park that I hitchhiked to see before and afterward; or the free concerts that the collective I was part of organized on the other side of the bay from San Francisco.  Music, dancing, and people getting high in the open air. 

As all of the documentaries and articles I’ve read over the years have noted, though, there was something different at Altamont.  The event quickly felt noticeably dissimilar from all the others.  My experience there and all of the articles and documentaries point to a clear reason:  disorganization.  Nothing worked.  You can read how the Grateful Dead refused to play after Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane got knocked out twice by the Hells Angels who were supposed to be guarding the stage, or the other security issues, or the poorly designed stage, or the lack of food, or long lines at the toilets.  For someone who attended, that disorganization was palpable, and it generated uneasiness in the crowd.  Pauses in the music are part of an outdoor concert, as bands set up and transition.  But Altamont’s pauses highlighted the incompetence of a hastily mismanaged event.  Rumors about who was going to play next and who wasn’t coming circulated with each pause.  It was unclear whether there would be a next act whenever one band finished.  By the late afternoon, people in the area where I watched began leaving.  The harmony that pervaded all of the other outdoor concerts I’d attended was gone by then.  Not knowing whether the concert would continue, the person who had driven my group suggested we leave, and we did before sunset, the disastrous Stones set, and the mayhem and murder that followed at the stage. 

The disorder of Altamont was followed by other, less-publicized concerts that were managed with more care.  I attended and helped to organize many open-air concerts over the next year, and nothing changed.  People came, danced, listened to music.  The failure of Altamont didn’t carry forward into those other events.  That’s not to suggest that these events were trouble free.  At one concert our group organized that following summer, we had over 20 people overdose when someone passed around pills that were laced with PCP, a hallucinogen that caused both mental and physical convulsions.  Overall, though, the concert “vibe” didn’t change at any other events I attended in the year after Altamont.  And, truthfully, nothing changed as a result of Woodstock, either. 

What Woodstock and Altamont highlight for me is some of the diversity of my generation that gets lost in the attempts to make these two events emblems of anything.  The 58,220 American soldiers who were killed in Vietnam were mostly from that generation, as were the members of the Black Panther Party who fed hungry children and stood up to police violence against the Black community in Oakland.  The Hell’s Angels who were given the freedom to terrorize musicians and concert goers at Altamont were of that generation, as were the trust-fund-backed financiers who paid the bills at Woodstock.  I, a politically active, high school senior at the time, was there with a college-attending acquaintance and that friend’s brother, who worked in business.  Music brought us together for that moment, but the three of us were, and I imagine still are, very different people in our outlooks and perspectives.  People who attended Altamont with me were socially connected by the music, but radically different in the cultures that really defined us.  To say that that event signaled a cultural shift is to assume that we were all of the same culture, and that’s just not accurate.

I understand that it makes a good story to write about, or make a documentary about, how events are symbolic.  But the resulting images that comprise such a story are typically caricatures.  In order to highlight the story’s moral, it typically becomes a mixture of stock characters and readily accessible plot points organized to make a statement.  That’s what has happened with the Altamont story:  The evil Hells Angels destroyed peace-loving flower children and signaled the end of that era.  Such a simplified reduction of any story always misses what’s really happening.  On the surface, the “tribe” of my generation came together at Altamont and failed to have the experience it had before.  In reality, there wasn’t one “tribe,” and the event wasn’t anything more than the failure of promoters to organize – while ceding power and control to a group of bikers who didn’t have any interest in anything more than having a good time themselves.

Everybody’s heard a Hammond organ playing, even if they don’t know what they’re hearing.  A Hammond “tone wheel” organ is an amazing piece of technology that has driven the music of R&B, jazz, blues, and the sanctified church since the 1940s.  It’s not the organ you hear at high mass in a cathedral.  It’s the one you hear as you walk by a Pentecostal holiness church.  Or a blues club.  You’ve heard that sound.  It’s immediately recognizable for its pleading emotion.  If you play one, you know something about it that other people may not:  Each key on the keyboard can produce more than one note.  By pulling out any of nine drawbars, the player adds an additional note to the note being pressed.  If you ever have a chance to sit at a Hammond and hear this, you’ll be amazed.  Press any key (black or white) and then pull out one drawbar.  Pulling that drawbar while pressing the key will add a second note to the first.  Pull a second drawbar, and you’ll have the original note and two additional notes; and so on – up to nine, harmonious notes from one key on the keyboard.  A player develops a style where the drawbars are pulled in combinations to make the sounds that sing to heavenly angels or cry from the pain of mistreatment. 

The stories of the Altamont concert seem like a parallel to what most people hear when listening to a Hammond organ.  People hear a note, but they’re unaware that each single note can include up to nine notes, and each chord is made up of notes that use sophisticated combinations to produce a unique sound.  Similarly, a simplistic analysis of any one event like the Altamont concert cannot declaim the status of a generation of people, a movement, or a societal shift.  Besides, evidence that refutes “the death of the sixties” is overwhelming.  People of that era who tried to build harmony like people experienced at most outdoor music events went on to build social movements that spread across the country that range from Cooperative Homecare Associates in New York to Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon.  Those who were involved in political action, continued that action.  Those who fought against injustice continued their lives fighting injustice.  I know this because I’ve had the privilege to work in the trenches with people like this for over 50 years.  Their idealism didn’t die because of a poorly managed concert; it’s only deepened and become pragmatically stronger.  That idealism evolved into action which pervaded our social systems, our religious organizations, and even our businesses. 

What these documentaries and articles on the Altamont concert highlight to me is the folly of any simplification of the past which ignores the diversity of experiences that comprise any history.  Exploring complexities and the diversity of experiences are critical lenses to use in assessing the stories we tell about the past.  So let’s start by remembering:  Altamont was a poorly organized event that led to the deaths of four people.  No movement was born or died there.  And history is far too complex to be compartmentalized into a neat package.  Full stop. 

Friday, October 4, 2019

The Experienced Voice: A note on the value of my generation in leadership transitions

As I enter the last third of my 60s, and as I read articles that suggest my generation should exit the stage quietly, I’ve been pondering my role and the roles of my generational peers.  That pondering is coupled with the current election.  Some of the contenders for the 2020 presidential election are people in their 70s.  It’s interesting that of the first five U.S. presidents only one was barely older than 60 when he took the office (John Quincy Adams was 61).  We waited 227 years to elect someone initially in his 70s.  Overall, we’ve only had 10 presidents out of 44 before the current president who began office in their 60s.  It’s not surprising, then, that the more recent candidacies of Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren have begun conversations about how old is too old. 

Does age correlate to skill or level of contribution?  Of course not.  As I write this, Warren Buffet still ably leads Berkshire Hathaway, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg sits on the Supreme Court.  Both are people in their 80s and by all accounts remain skilled at what they do.  Even if these two examples are anomalies, people live longer and the lifespan of the average person’s career is much longer than it was in 1776 or even 1976.  So it makes sense that someone would be longer in a leadership role, right?

In truth, there isn’t a magic age or age range at which a leader is ready to step aside.  And stepping aside because of age actually isn’t the question at all.  Change to the next generation is inevitable.  That’s the case whether the current leadership in an organization is on the verge of moving on, or whether the current leadership is decades away from turning over control.  The most important question, whether we’re discussing the role of leading the nation or a local club chapter, is about the plans to bring the next generation into leadership.     

As we explore that planning, those of us nearer the end of our participation than the beginning need to ask what our role should be in the transition.  That’s important because the transition won’t magically happen.  While the technical skills of leadership and management can be taught in seminars, workshops, and degree programs, there’s more to leadership than the technical skills of how to manage personnel, organize a project, or generate a budget.  Those of us who’ve taken leadership and management roles in our lives had to learn the complexity required in those roles through experiences.  It’s in consideration of what we’ve learned and how we developed our skills and knowledge that we must find a role for ourselves in the transition to the next generation of leaders.  While our less experienced colleagues can learn from seminars and classes and workshops, they must also benefit from what we’ve learned. 

It’s the idea of being the experienced voice.  That’s being able to share knowledge and the perspectives that take years to develop – not as rules that have to be followed, but as a source of wisdom, a word that often gets forgotten when we think of management and leadership.  If an experienced voice is part of the ongoing mixture of ideas and discussions, it can help contextualize and add perspective – it can offer wisdom.  When all people hear is that experienced voice of wisdom, the danger is that they’re only hearing the past; so it’s important that the experienced voice isn’t the only voice.  The experienced voice can’t be dominant; but it should be integrated as part of any conversation about an organization’s purpose or actions.

Of course, that means colleagues need to be willing to listen to us.   However, in my experience, that’s rarely the issue.  I have long ago tired of the “how to manage millennials” or the “unmotivated Generation X” babble that seems to be permeating current consultants’ spiels.  You know:  the ones who tell us that younger generations are self-defining and unable to take direction because they were raised on a diet of getting praised for every childhood act.  In my experiences in managing and leading people, I find that defining colleagues by the years they were born is about effective as relegating them to personality type by their astral birthdate.  Instead, I’ve found that most people of any age listen to advice and direction if it’s carefully explained and rationally justified from someone they’ve learned to trust.  Therefore, building those trusted relationships is critical to being an experienced voice. 

That means leaders need to be aware of who our colleagues are and remain committed to their success as much as the success of the organization.  In truth, those two successes are symbiotic, with one not possible without the other.  If I work with my colleagues from a position of mutual connectivity and respect, they’re more likely to see my perspectives as worth hearing about.  Will that work for every employee?  Not all of them, since some people (regardless of their generation) are self-absorbed and unwilling to listen to any other voice besides their own.  But it will work with the majority, and it’s the majority whom you need to build an organization.

Also, being an experienced voice means contributing to the future without restricting it.  We need to give control to others.  Whether the people we lead are administrative assistants or other managers, we need to be giving them opportunities to independently develop projects that they initiate and complete.  There need to be processes where people at all levels are encouraged to see their ideas merged into the strategic direction of the organization.  That means allowing administrative assistants, for example, to develop onboarding training for new employees.  Or it means allowing mid-level managers independently to reorganize their units in more effective ways.  

This is where a critical component of being the experienced voice has to happen:  Succession planning isn’t about who’ll be next at the top of the organization.  Effective succession planning requires a culture of leadership development where all people in the organization see themselves as leading.  Not in the sense that they all go in their own way, but in the sense that they control their efforts and see their efforts as moving the organization toward its aims.  People who have freedom to manage their work and make it more effective will innovate and create; and they’ll become leaders.  Their innovations will lead others and create a culture of innovation around the strategic aims of the organization.  Once all people see themselves as leaders, then finding the next executive who manages and leads the entire organization isn’t as daunting.  It becomes a natural next step in the organization’s work of self-renewal.  The experienced voice works toward that daily.

In traditional communities, we with years of experience would be named “elders” who are part of the community structure.  In those communities, we would be given the tasks of teaching and counseling, even after the time when we were done leading and managing.  That’s one place where many organizations miss an opportunity.  The current process for many organizations is to have someone retire and leave the organization to successors.  That happens for directors of non-profits as it does for corporate CEOs. While we sometimes bestow titles in that transition (in my profession, it’s “emeritus”), those titles carry little value in furthering the work of the organization.  In an era when we live longer with vibrant cognitive and physical agility, that system becomes actually a disincentive for us to leave our leadership roles.  When leaders do finally retire, they typically disconnect and the organization loses their wisdom and institutional knowledge. 

 Both as we approach the end of our formal leadership and afterward, our most important work is to develop our skills to be the experienced voice.  We need to cultivate the leadership of others in our organization as we consider what comes after our departure.  We need to find ways to become a teacher and counselor after we leave formal leadership – in ways that support the new vision that new leaders will bring.  After all, new leaders will mean a new direction that will differ from the past.  Success will mean understanding the past and building on it.  But it can’t mean replicating it.  Ask Packard automobiles or Wang or Tower Records what happened to them when they couldn’t evolve.  The important value in leadership change is that it offers the opportunity for new directions and new energy.  So those of us who are transitioning away from leadership and management need to understand and support those changes in this new role as elders providing the experienced voice.  And those who replace us need to be wise enough to understand that. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

A Budget Change You May not Otherwise See

If you’ve looked at the president’s proposed budget for education and the news accounts of it, you’ll see lots of disasters.  For example, he’s proposing to give $5 billion away in tax credits to wealthy donors who create “scholarships” to send children to private schools.  And it gets worse from there.

What you may miss is a proposed 24% reduction to adult basic education (ABE) state grants.  Not many people keep up with the federal ABE funding outside of the ABE world.  You may not even know what ABE provides.  But it’s an important component of the adult education world as programs provide everything from basic literacy to pre-employment training to GED preparation to high school completion for adults.  It’s part of the nation’s educational safety net, and the current funding already isn’t enough to serve the immigrants and refugees needing to learn English, people who left school before graduating and need to develop pathways to economic independence, parents who want to be able to read their children a bedtime story, and many more categories of adults needing basic skills.

This initial presidential budget will go to Congress and not look anything like its initial version when they’re through.  Both houses will make many adjustments in the final budget that is due in September.  As the largest funder of ABE in the nation, the U.S. Department of Education’s state grants have a major impact.  A 24% reduction to already lean funding will be disastrous.  And while the K-12 world has many supporters who will advocate against the changes proposed in the budget, the ABE funding could easily get overlooked as people focus on K-12 issues.  I encourage you to become an ally to the ABE world and offer your voice with those of us who work in this area.  A reduction in this budget is just not acceptable.

To that end, I’m including a link below to ProLiteracy’s legislative update on the president’s budget.  Please read that document and consider sending your representatives a note about this.  And please share this message widely in your networks.