What the Business World can Learn from the Black Panther

So many super hero movies make the bad guy very evil, and the good guy very good, so there’s no question of who you should root for. I thought the movie Black Panther (yes, there will be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to wait to read this) did a great job of making the bad guy very understandable.

I’m going to digress for a moment so no spoilers will show up in the beginning of this article. I was reading some Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends & Influence People, originally published in 1936) the other day, and his very first chapter is about how people we consider the bad guys consider themselves good guys. Apparently a then-famous bad guy called “Two Gun” Crowley shot a police officer for asking for his drivers license, but Crowley wrote in a letter “Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one – one that would do nobody any harm.” Carnegie’s point is that no one blames themselves, no one sees themselves as the bad guy. Crowley thought he was defending himself, even though to the rest of the world his actions looked reprehensible.

Likewise, Erik Killmonger in Black Panther believed he was doing the right thing. There is no question that there are Black people across the world being treated poorly. He believed that having better weapons would allow these oppressed people to rise up and destroy their oppressors, allowing them to be fully free. In fact, everyone loves a story of how the oppressed win freedom from the mean bullies in power – look at Star Wars. Everyone believes they are Luke Skywalker, no one thinks they are Darth Vader.

The thing is, how you do a thing matters. Giving people freedom is an important goal. Doing it in a way that kills people is not ideal. Killmonger wants to fight partly because his father was killed when he was a child – but now he’s lost his humanity. He is fighting because his heart was broken, but he’s willing to kill his girlfriend, his allies, his cousin, anyone standing in the way of his goal. In fact, it looks like he would end up as a dictator, rather than providing people more freedom.

The thing is, Killmonger wasn’t entirely wrong. He was right that there are people who need help, that he could help. He was right that Wakanda was standing by and doing nothing, even though they had resources available to help.

What would have happened if T’Challa dug in his heels and said it’s my way or no way? There could have been a victory, but it would have been hollow. It would have been two strong forces fighting to see who was mightier, with many more dead, and with no heart, no humanity left. But that’s not how the story ended. Instead, the king realized there was validity to his opponent’s views, and there was a way to incorporate Killmonger’s desire to help his people with T’Challa’s desire to protect his people. This was a much more satisfactory ending, because the promise was that many more people would be helped without killing others, and in the end heart and humanity matter as ways to be in the world.

That brings me to business. You knew I was going to get here eventually, right? I see many people in business trying to defend their ideas, unwilling to admit that their opponents might have some good ideas too. What happens? People nurse grudges, like Erik Killmonger, until they are strong enough to fight back. Or, people work against the goals of their organizations, like Okoye was helping the women escape from their captors in the beginning of the movie. (According to Gallup, 17% of American workers are working against their employers’ interests.) And instead of coming up with the best ideas, people fight for their way until there’s no one left to fight.

T’Challa had to change what his father had done, and his father before him, for generations – he had to open Wakanda to the rest of the world. This was not a popular choice. But it allowed him to accommodate the desires of Okoye, and Killmonger, and others who felt Wakanda wasn’t doing enough to help other Black people around the world. He had to be willing to stand for his belief that leading with heart was as important as protecting the country his ancestors had founded and kept safe from the world – and he did it because he knew they were strong enough to protect themselves should anyone want to take over. It wasn’t only heart, and it wasn’t only muscle, it was a combination using the best of both.

Do you as a leader listen to your people? Do you listen to your heart? Do you always do what has always been done, or are you willing to hear new ways? Can you be flexible and humble enough to incorporate new ideas into your own? I see T’Challa as a hero, not for being able to fight and survive, but for being able to find a path that can give everyone what they really want – a way to help the people who need help while staying whole themselves.

I haven’t given myself a plug lately – if you need help listening to your people, please contact me. I can help you be a hero too, without bloodshed and without revolution. I don’t have a heart shaped herb, but I do have tools that can incorporate all of your peoples’ good ideas, which leads to happier, more productive people, and better ideas to bring into the world.

Rummage Sale of the Brain

One of my strategies as an artist is to look for new input all the time. I look for new ideas, look at other artists’ works, go to galleries, go to open studios, and visit garage sales and places like the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse which have lots of random bits of things that can be crafted and art-ed with. I let these new ideas and materials and possibilities simmer on the back burner of my brain, and new ideas get cooked up.

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In other news, I was reading an article by Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” that was linked on LinkedIn. In it, he says:

The good news is that Adaptability, like each EI competency, is a skill leaders can develop. And, the EI competencies build on each other. Three keys to developing adaptability can be summed up as “Listen Inside,” “Look Outside,” and “Step Outside.”

  • Listen Inside means tapping into emotional self-awareness to recognize what you are feeling, how it impacts your behavior, and whether you are operating from habit.
  • Look Outside is shorthand for looking beyond your usual information sources, paying attention to data that contradicts your current thoughts. This means tapping into skills in organizational awareness, another EI competency.
  • Step Outside involves intentionally stepping beyond your comfort zone and seeking out new experiences, opinions, and environments.

– See more at: http://www.kornferry.com/institute/train-your-brain-for-change#sthash.Aw56QMBK.dpuf

This made me think about my artistic habits. It also made me think of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®. After all, part of what makes LSP work is that people think with their hands. Which means they need to have a big old pile of LEGO® bricks on the table from which to choose. The amount of possibility lets them sort through and figure out what they want to build, and say. Maybe something they never thought about before. Maybe something they never had the courage to say before.
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Sometimes someone will feel the need to sort the bricks before they start building. When this person is the boss, it worries me. It makes me think that perhaps this leader feels more comfortable in the position of being in control, and that perhaps they don’t invite in opposing views. They may end up in what the Harvard Business Review called  a CEO Bubble, or Daniel Goleman refers to as “feedback deserts.” They don’t really want a lot of ambiguity, possibility, chaos, new ideas, or additional information cluttering up the clarity of their desk or vision or direction. But this also means they are less likely to be flexible and adaptable when the inevitable need to change arises.
It is difficult to tell a leader that you think they lack the necessary flexibility and adaptability to change with the changing world. You may well end up changing jobs if you do. Some people crave poking through rummage sales, some people think it’s garbage and don’t want anything to do with the chaos and clutter. I don’t think that LSP will single-handed-ly change a person’s innate nature. But perhaps, maybe, possibly, introducing such a leader to more new ideas can open him or her up to a little more change. Maybe, it’s possible, that giving such a leader an article like this one can help them think about bringing in information from more sources, including ones that don’t feel comfortable. Possibly, maybe, perhaps, they can be convinced to water their feedback desert and get more options (with the corresponding lessening of clarity) to bloom.

Visual Stories

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What does a skeleton with a pink flag on its head in a treasure chest mean to you?

The person who built this was reflecting on the gifts that making friends with her own mortality could bring her. So many other stories are possible – uncovering the skeletons in one’s closet; or climbing out of the dungeon where others have gotten stuck; or facing the death of a loved one; or a transition of some sort, an ending and a beginning. In LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® we always let the builder do the interpreting, since everyone brings their own point of view to every story. Having a visual makes the person’s story easier to understand and easier to remember.

I’ve been challenged to think about my stories recently. My stories about myself have often had me in the role of victim, but there are so many other ways to tell the story.

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If this model were my story, I could be burdened with too much to carry. Or I could be a martyr holding up the world for other people to live in. Or maybe I am holding up my piece of the world just as everyone else does – a little crooked, but not more than I can handle.

In a LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® workshop, we only ask questions of the  models, not about the people telling the story. So we can ask what significance there is to the minifigure being split in half to hold up the tower. We can’t ask if the person has a split personality disorder, or if they feel powerless, or if their head is really that hard. We can listen as the person explores why s/he built it that way – sometimes they know, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s significant, sometimes it’s merely structural.

Our stories can make us miserable or happy. There is road work being done outside my house while I type this, and I have a choice between being irritated at the constant noise and difficulty getting in and out of the driveway, and being grateful that the gas lines are being upgraded to something safer so the whole neighborhood won’t go up in flames in the next earthquake. I can shake my fist at the men holding signs saying STOP and SLOW for keeping me from getting where I need to go, or I can be grateful they are keeping everyone safe while there are workers in the road.

Sometimes we don’t even realize there is another story available. I appreciate the visual aspect of story telling with LEGO® bricks because it helps us see more clearly what other stories are possible in the same situation. Sometimes just being asked about something we built can help us realize there is something we want to say about it, or that our opinion has changed about it. It can help us realize how much of our situation is our story about it.

 

Life Without Play

Does this sound familiar?

In a meeting, person 1 states position 1: “I think we should focus our weight-loss product on a way for people to track calorie intake.”

Person 2 states position 2: “I think we should focus on and track burning calories.”

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You are sitting there, disagreeing with both of them. You think: “Every time I try to track what I eat or how I exercise, I gain weight. The only way I’ve ever lost weight is when I focus on doing the things that most support me and make me happy, and then I naturally eat less and move more. But I don’t want to share this because I don’t know if I’m typical, and I really don’t want to make myself vulnerable in a work situation.”

Now everyone else at the table is either agreeing with and backing 1 or 2. A few people are quiet. Your boss asks if anyone else has anything else to add. This is your chance, if you want to take it. You could say that what people really need is a way to track what makes them happy, since people don’t always know. Or you could say that focusing on weight loss gives the impression that people aren’t okay the way they are, and adds to the epidemic of anxiety and depression in our society. But boy, that would put the spotlight on you. Do you speak up? Probably not.

Almost every meeting has people not speaking up. When people don’t share what they really think, the whole group suffers. But with all of society aligned in one way, how easy is it to offer a different opinion? Even if it’s actually only the people in the meeting, not all of society. Even if it’s really only the few people who are speaking up, not everyone at the meeting. It still feels like courting death.

Now, let’s picture something else.

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There is a bin of LEGO® bricks on the table. Everyone is asked to build an aspect of what they want their new product to be. You build that you want it to make people feel good about themselves. You build that it should support the emotional needs of the people who use it. Other people build that it helps people to live healthy lives, that it keeps track of things that are hard for them to keep track of on their own, that it increases connections between people. Everyone puts their own ideas together with other people’s ideas, and in the end there is a rich discussion about what will help people connect and feel good. You have the chance to offer ideas about letting people know they are okay the way they are, and people like it. You don’t have to speak up into the stark silence, people are asking you about the models you built (not about you) and you can elaborate in a meaningful way without making yourself super vulnerable.

This is why I love LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®. It fosters these rich discussions without leaving individuals at risk, and it gains access to all the diverse thinking available in the group. What group are you part of that could use some play?

Leadership and Play

I was talking with a friend while on vacation, and he told me about a TED talk he heard. It was given by someone from the armed forces who was trying to figure out what made a good leader. In his opinion, the number one thing that made a good leader was making one’s followers feel safe. When people feel rushed, or in danger, they don’t make good decisions. People need to feel safe to be able to take the time to think through the options – and to even have a calm enough brain to think of options. When people feel scared, our minds flood with all the fight or flight or freeze chemical reactions, and there is no chance for rational thinking.

I immediately thought about all my study of play at work. Play is imperiled when people don’t feel safe. People aren’t willing to take risks and try new things if they think they will be judged, or fired, or mocked. And people stop feeling free to be creative and playful starting around second grade! By the time we reach adulthood, it’s no wonder people are out of the habit of being silly or trying something different.

How do leaders in your organization help people feel safe? How do people in your family help each other feel safe? How can anyone come up with any sort of good idea, especially a creative, new idea, while feeling under pressure, afraid of being criticized, afraid for their safety? I believe that play is one way to set up a safe space. It’s one way to say there is no such thing as failing here, because there is no right or wrong way to play. We will not criticize or make fun of anything that happens in this play space. I believe this is a crucial part of a healthy organization, and if it can’t happen in the office or boardroom or house or classroom, let’s make space for it in the LEGO® Serious Play® room or the craft room or the foam block room.