Saturday, 21 January 2012

Catch the Vision!

“So, you are taking a Humanities degree. What are you going to do with that?” ask your friends studying business administration and engineering. At first you are a bit lost for words. You think about the courses you took last semester on Renaissance Literature, Modern Philosophy, and Political Thinkers of Ancient Greece. It is shockingly clear to you that a lecture on Heidegger and the question of ‘what is,’ the Faustian spirit, or even the construction of the ideal Republic, will do nothing to justify your study in their eyes. It is not that the concepts cannot be applied practically, but rather that they operate in a different vocabulary than business and science, and they need some translation to be recognized as valuable. That is what I hope I can help you with here. By and large, studies in the Humanities are not professional training directed at a certain profession; unless you plan to become a university professor of course. Your friend studying engineering will become an engineer, your friend studying business administration wants to become a business leader, but you are generally not aiming at making your living as an artist, author, or politician. The Humanities are not vocational training programs. However, they do provide knowledge and skills that are both applicable and highly sought after in a modern economy. For no matter what area you choose to pursue your career in, you will always face challenges concerning the motivations and goals of other people. These are central questions in the studies of the Humanities, and I hope I can show you how the insights the Humanities provide can help you develop skills essential to leadership in any common or corporate venture.
In 2011 Google completed a 2 year research project called Google Project Oxygen, where they gathered large amounts of data back from 1998, when the company was founded, until today to analyze what skills made the most valuable employees and best leaders. They found that the most valuable skills were having a clear vision for your team, good communication skills, listening skills, being productive, and being collaborative (Davidson). Now, I could make a good case for how a study in the Humanities can help foster all of these skills. The Humanities seek to understand mankind by studying their writings, words, and actions, which definitely promotes good communication and listening skills. However, I would like to focus on defining and ‘catching’ the elusive skill of ‘having a clear vision.’

What does it mean to have a clear vision? One of the definitions you will find in the dictionary is “a vivid picture created by the imagination” (Merriam-Webster). To have a vision is to be able to imagine conditions and results which currently do not exist. It is the ability to create an alternate reality if you will, and to communicate that reality in a way that makes other people see it too. Artists have made visions come alive in paintings, in dance, in words, and these alternate realities have motivated human action, whether they were religious, philosophical, or political. As a student in the Humanities you know the power of a clear vision. In the following paragraphs I will be trying to make explicit some of the knowledge and skills implicit in your study, which will make you able to create and communicate a clear vision to the people you will be living and working with.

                                              Why We Need Vision 

First of all, you should know that the need for people with a compelling vision is perhaps greater than ever before. This is an excerpt from Robert A. Cialdini’s “Harnessing the Power of Persuasion,” which was published in the Harvard Business Review, outlining the greatest challenge for modern corporate executives:
[They] every day have to figure out how to motivate and direct a highly individualistic work force. Playing the ‘Because I’m the boss’ card is out. Even if it weren’t demeaning and demoralizing for all concerned, it would be out of place in a world where cross-functional teams, joint ventures, and intercompany partnerships have blurred the lines of authority. In such an environment, persuasion skills exert far greater influence over others than formal power structures do. (72)
So it is not only the strong individualism in modern Americans that resists hierarchies, the very methods of communication and collaboration in the work place today make bossing and dominating counter-intuitive and counter-productive. Human interaction today is increasingly coordinated through loosely knit networks. As Newman, Barabasi, and Watts write in The Structure and Dynamics of Networks, “Networks are everywhere. From the Internet and its close cousin the World Wide Web to networks in economics, networks of disease transmission, and even terrorist networks, the imagery of the network pervades modern culture.” The world of modern communication technology brings people together in organic network structures, but that does not automatically create a community. You have probably noticed that friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter don’t necessarily share your values or goals, even though you are loosely connected somehow. In the same way, a bunch of people working in the same place to earn money, or living in the same neighbourhood by chance, does not automatically form a community.

Creating a Community Out of Diversity
In “Search for the Great Community” John Dewey notes that “associated or joint activity is a condition of the creation of a community” (151), so it can be a starting point, but though association may be physical and organic, “communal life is moral, that is emotionally, intellectually, consciously sustained” (151). In other words, though human networks may form spontaneously, a community can only be created and sustained through conscious effort. As he goes on to say, “’we’ and ‘our’ exist only when the consequences of combined action are perceived and become an object of desire and effort” (151). The individual must be able to envision positive consequences from a community which he cannot achieve as an individual, and then work consistently towards those consequences. A leader must therefore be able to develop a vision, or help articulate consequences which many individuals would see as desirable, and then identify the processes and values which will lead to those consequences.

So how does one develop a vision, which can gather people with diverse backgrounds and experiences around a common aim? As we learn in the Humanities, it is a creative work to design a vision. You have to be able to see things which now are not; you have to be able to see how things could be different than they are now. What is King Henry doing when he rallies his soldiers before the Battle of Agincourt in Shakespeare’s Henry V? What is Winston Churchill doing when he announces the commencement of the Battle of Britain upon which “the future of Christian civilization” depends, calling for it to become Britain’s “finest hour”? What is Socrates doing when in Phaedrus he detects divinity and depravity within the methods of speech-writing? We here see examples of what Kenneth Burke would call the ‘spiritualization’ of an object. King Henry transcends the grim reality of facing a battle outnumbered by the foe by looking beyond it to the fruits of a glorious victory, almost melding his men with Saint Crispin himself and divinity. 
Churchill sees beyond the bombs and fires to a world of light and freedom if Britain is victorious and to a world of prolonged darkness if they fail. And Socrates looks beyond the practice of speech-writing to principles of divinity, truth, and divine love. The ‘broader view’ which leaders provide is the ability to see the particular instances of daily life ‘in terms of’ something greater, and this greater perspective then infuses the particular actions with meaning.

So it is with a community: In order for these ‘consequences of combined action’ to be a vivid and sustainable motivation for all involved, it must have a quality which transcends the differences of individual experience. They must be able to see the menial chores involved in any endeavour as more than useless labour. This can be done through what Kenneth Burke refers to as ‘dialectical transcendence.’

Dialectical Transcendence
As Burke writes in “I, Eye, Aye: Emerson’s Early Essay on ‘Nature’: Thoughts on the Machinery of Transcendence,” transcending is “the building of a terministic bridge whereby one realm is transcended by being viewed in terms of a realm ‘beyond’ it” (877), and “insofar as things here and now are treated in terms of a ‘beyond’, they thereby become infused or inspirited by the addition of a new or further dimension” (880). This can be done by ascending from “particular to general” (881). For example, ‘sweeping the floor’ can be generalized to ‘menial chores’ which again (depending on the context) can be generalized to ‘blood, sweat, and tears’ which are particular manifestations of ‘diligence’, ‘unfailing dedication to the cause’, or ‘service to God’. Burke claims, “When we arrive at this stage, the over-all term-of-terms or title-of-titles is so comprehensive it is simultaneously nowhere and everywhere” (881). If we see ‘service to God’ as this term-of-terms, all the lower levels of ‘blood, sweat, and tears’, ‘menial chores’, and ‘sweeping the floor’ are suddenly inspirited with the a divine touch. This may not change the nature of the physical act itself, but it changes the meaning of the act. This Upward and Downward way form what Kenneth Burke called “dialectical pyramids” (“Rhetoric – Old and New” 204). Such transcendence can serve as a powerful centripetal force for the community to keep the ambitions, desires, and efforts of the individuals centred in a common purpose.

Let us again take as an example Winston Churchill and his speech “Their Finest Hour” from June 18, 1940. Churchill had replaced Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister just a month before. France had been conquered by Hitler’s forces, and he had to prepare Britain for what would be years of bombings, battles, and suffering. Look at how he helps them ‘transcend’ the difficulties of the moment by creating a vision of two possible futures:
Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."

In this passage he does not provide the least abstract elements of realities of the Battle of Britain, but the people will supply that themselves with their individual experiences of ‘blood, sweat, and tears.’ However, he provides them a greater reference to give those experiences meaning. They are all a part of the effort of “standing up to Hitler” which again will cause Hitler to “lose the war,” and that will mean “all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.” The verbal pyramid he creates would look something like Figure 1.

In this pyramid all the efforts are subordinated to the God-term “broad, sunlit uplands” which stand for a bright future, and the terms on all the lower levels of the pyramid become infused with that meaning. You also have a second verbal pyramid developed, which shows the potential for a darker future. Here, inner strife, giving in to personal weakness, or seeking peace with Hitler are a part of Britain ‘failing.’ If ‘we (the British people) fail’ that leads to the world (defined as the US and ‘all that we have known and cared for’) sinking into ‘a new Dark Age,’ which would be the negative God-term of that verbal pyramid, as shown in Figure 2.

Churchill then takes us to the bright future after a British victory and views the war effort retrospectively as “their finest hour,” viewing the present from the perspective of the future beyond. Hitler believed that the divisiveness of a democracy would be Britain’s fatal weakness against the efficient, totalitarian war machine, but by Churchill’s leadership a formerly divided people (Conservatives against Labour) was able to gather under one banner and form an unyielding resistance which changed the tide of the war. The British were able to see beyond ‘working class’ and ‘leisure class’ to unite in their struggle for a future of ‘broad, sunlit uplands.’

Capturing the Vision in the Workplace
Ok, so now you know what you need to do if you ever get a chance to lead a country against a Nazi invasion. How does this translate into everyday life, into a work life team situation? Well, you may not be responsible for the future of the free world, but in a community both action and inaction have consequences. Think of a scenario where your team is supposed to be working on a project, but the individual contributions are late, sloppy, and everyone is just trying to get by with doing as little as possible. The deadline for the project is coming up. What do you do? Now you could crack the whip and threaten to report people or have them fired, but, as Cialdini notes, that is both demeaning and demoralizing. It would be more fruitful to ask yourself why these people are contributing so little to what should be a common cause. Do they actually see themselves as part of a community or are they only loosely connected by circumstance? This is where you can use dialectical transcendence. In a meeting you could lead a discussion asking how what you are doing individually connects together. That would lead you one step up showing what the individual efforts do together. Moving further up you can ask “why is it important that we get this done? What does it lead to? What is it a part of? What are the consequences if we do not contribute?” Try to lead the discussion towards a vision containing the meaning of the work and workplace which is vivid and compelling to every member of your team. Once you have been able to articulate the vision you can ask, “where are we now in terms of getting there?” letting them view current efforts in terms of the goal beyond. Then ask, “How do we get from here to there?” inviting them to participate in making plans and commitments to achieve a common endeavor; you are inviting them make a physical bridge to follow the terministic one. If their individual tasks are linked clearly enough to a desirable and shared vision they are likely to be more motivated to work towards its fulfillment. In “Rhetoric – Old and New,” Burke claims that “a rhetorical structure is most persuasive when it possesses full dialectical symmetry – or, otherwise put, dialectical symmetry is at once the perfecting and transcending of rhetoric” (204). In other words, the rhetorical structure will be most effective if there are clear steps and connections between the transcendent purpose and the particular actions of the individuals in the group

In Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games, Mitt Romney describes the task of leadership as “creating a vision of higher purpose and . . . offering challenges beyond normal expectations” (xix). He writes, “Our task was to identify a defining vision, communicate that in a compelling way, and provide the kind of focus that reinforces that vision as a living, breathing thing, not just lip service. And if we were to succeed, it would be because of the commitment to that vision by the entire team, and by the community” (xix). Through your studies in the Humanities you have been able to study many ‘visions of higher purpose,’ and you are acquiring the language to identify and communicate them in compelling ways.

If You Don’t Shape It, Someone Else Will
Journeys of dialectical transcendence can be found almost anywhere in human communication. In “Rhetoric – Old and New” Kenneth Burke claims that “we are continually encountering fragmentary variants of them” (204). This is because “the machinery of language is so made that things are necessarily placed in terms of a range broader than the terms for those things themselves. And thereby, even in the toughest or tiniest of terminologies . . . we consider things in terms of a broader scope than the terms for those particular things themselves” (“Transcendence” 895). Either the human mind or the instruments for communication are so constructed that they seek for meaning beyond the simple term. It is Burke’s claim that “wherever there are traces of that process, there are the makings of Transcendence” (“Transcendence” 895). This means that even if the leader does not help the group develop the desired vision whereby individual actions are endowed with communal meaning, some form of dialectical transcendence will develop. However, the individualistic inclinations in the group may construct a ‘dialectical pyramid’ which is subversive to the unity of the group and works as a centrifugal force driving people away from the centre. Instead of ‘service of God’ the tasks may be seen in the light of ‘capitalist exploitation’ or ‘slavery’. A chronically depressed person may see every aspect of her life as evidence that ‘God hates me’. These different perspectives will not only affect the communal meaning of individual efforts. Eventually it will affect performance, and may threaten the very existence of a group. Without a strong transcendent vision the centrifugal forces of individualism may very easily tear the community apart.

“So, you are taking a degree in the Humanities. What are you going to do with that?” I would say, “Pretty much whatever I want to.” Except for work in academia there is no one set career track for Humanities graduates, but in a rapidly changing economy that may be an advantage. One challenge you will face wherever you go is how to motivate people to work together for shared goals, and you know how to define and articulate a vision which can focus motivation. These abilities make you valuable as a leader. As a student in the Humanities, you are obtaining a ‘depth-vision’ which displays individual daily actions against a rich backdrop of human thought and actions throughout history. You may be able to see the culture of The Declaration of Independence behind your younger brother who refuses to do as he’s told, Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ behind the way your Mom brings back her shopping cart, or the Madame Bovary in the conflict between your ideals and your reality. You are starting to develop the instincts for and sensitivity to dialectical transcendence. Throughout your studies you move through a myriad of verbal pyramids, making it clear that an object or experience can be viewed from many different perspectives and paradigms, and can be infused with many different meanings.   

These skills and talents are not only useful in funeral orations or at 4th of July celebrations. The work of transcendence is not limited to the poet. We all need transcendence to avoid getting lost in the minutia of daily experiences and tasks, to help us to direct our individual efforts towards common goals, and to be able to see meaning in the mundane. For a community, it is essential that they are united by a shared vision of what can and should be. The vision also needs to be nurtured and promoted in order to preserve the community from the centrifugal forces of individualistic ambitions. So it was at Gettysburg, when Abraham Lincoln overlooked the field of battle in a war caused by individualistic ambitions which threatened to tear the community of the United States of America apart. He gave his audience the transcendent vision of a re-born United States of America, and nurtured the dream of a united nation of Liberty: 

It is . . . for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.