Anna Deavere Smith on the Beer Summit

August 1, 2009

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith is best known for playing diverse characters in powerful, thoroughly researched, one-woman shows about events that shake us at the foundation such as the L.A. riots.  Smith is among the great observers of our time.  She holds a mirror up at an angle that always illuminates and sometimes burns.

I saw her perform last fall in Let Me Down Easy, a show that explores the presence and absence of grace.  The characters she channeled ranged from Rwandan genocide survivors to a horse trainer in Kentucky.  Some part of me was scared to be less than 20 feet away from her.  I wasn’t sure I could handle the truths she was about to reveal.  She let me down easy.  When I saw her the next day at a gym around Cambridge, it took all of my self-control not to interrupt her stretching and thank her for being gentle.

Smith weighed in on the Beer Summit this week in a blog entry on The Huffington Post.  She spends a lot of the post working through her own conflicted relationship with the police, and then lands with a strong challenge to the prescriptions being offered for making good use of this “teachable moment.”  She suggests that most of what we’re hearing is too soft, too 1998, a year that no one has examined like Smith.  We now need to pivot, she argues, from teaching and learning to action:

What concerns me about the “heated debate” is that as radio hosts and guests talk, I hear the same kind of language that I heard — and studied — in the ’90s. Talk of “safe places to have conversations,” for example. That’s not what we need right now. This is not about conversations and “learning about one another.” We don’t need salons. We need initiatives and resources to spark the work of building a stronger society, one with public spaces that allow for shared excellence.

Drew Dixon Williams on Michael Jackson’s Legacy

July 7, 2009

Our dear friend Drew Dixon Williams has spent her life in the domains of politics and music, plotting the ascent of voices with the power to move us on all sorts of levels. She weighed in on Michael Jackson’s impact this week, on a website she recently launched called Second Ladies. Second Ladies is designed “to harness and sustain the enthusiasm about our phenomenal First Lady in order to build and support a community of similarly empowered women.” The site is an exciting platform, an explicit mechanism for fostering leadership, particularly among women.

A parade of commentators has tried to articulate Jackson’s influence over the last week, but Williams brings new insight to the discussion of how he changed music and culture forever. And while she says that she is “not altogether comfortable opining on a regular basis,” we hope this post is a sign of things to come. A taste below and the full link here:

As has been said many times in the barrage of media coverage following his death, MJ broke down barriers. He was the first black artist whose videos got played on MTV. His records defied the long-standing precedent of segregated airwaves to get airplay on rock and pop radio stations in the eighties. Those milestones were significant to be sure, but in my opinion, the biggest barriers that he broke down were psychological. His gift was so great that he transcended race, not just in terms of format, but in terms of feeling. All across the globe men, women and children let Michael Jackson get under their skin, even as his own skin morphed towards an ideal image of beauty that he himself was in the process of obliterating.

Ellen DeGeneres on Truth

May 29, 2009

In a continuation of our series on commencement speeches, I wanted to share Ellen DeGeneres’s address to the “Katrina Class” at Tulane University this year.  DeGeneres is funny and playful, very funny at times, like when she reveals that she never attended college: “I’m not saying you wasted your time and money, but look at me, I’m a HUGE celebrity.”

She also talks about the costs and gifts of adversity, including her experience coming out as a gay performer. DeGeneres made a very deliberate choice to walk away from shame and fear, a choice that came at the price of her immediate career. For years she was considered untouchable by the Hollywood community. She spent this period learning to live without apology, and by the end of it she “had a purpose.” And a wildly successful talk show. And access to an extraordinary platform for impact.

Suze Smackdowns: High Standards, High Empathy

May 20, 2009

The NYT Magazine recently did a terrific story on Suze Orman, increasingly known for the tongue-lashing she’s willing to give viewers who aren’t taking full responsibility for their financial lives. Or as Oprah calls these very public rebukes, “Suze smackdowns.”  Suze — she’s achieved first-name-only status — is a worldwide phenomenon, and I think it has as much to do with how she communicates as what she communicates.

I also think there’s a leadership lesson in her success.  Suze doesn’t let empathy get in the way of enforcing high standards.  Nor does she let high standards get in the way of empathy.  If there’s any secret sauce to leadership, I think it’s this.  I think it’s learning how to deliver both simultaneously. A default assumption for most of us is that these positions tradeoff on each other, that you can be supportive or hold people accountable, but not both. The exceptional leaders I know are defying this tradeoff everyday.  They are demanding excellence from the people around them, while helping them achieve it with relentless support.

David Foster Wallace on Freedom

May 17, 2009

Graduation Speech Season is upon us, which may be my favorite season in American cultural life.  A whole army of amateur and not-so-amateur speakers takes the stage with the explicit task of helping to unleash the next generation of dreamers and doers. Unexpected magic can happen. And even when it doesn’t, we are still focused briefly on the challenge of our collective salvation.  

I want to honor the season’s start with David Foster Wallace’s advice to last year’s graduating class at Kenyon College in Ohio (thank you, Lyn). Wallace finally lost his life-long fight with depression last year, a tragedy on many levels. He may have been the most talented writer of his generation and probably many others.

I’m including a full version of the speech, which the Guardian edited, along with a preview:

…there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

On Authenticity (Or Should Susan Boyle Lose the Frock)

April 25, 2009


Susan got a makeover. TMZ (TMZ?) is outraged, claiming the transition from “grammy to glammy” has stripped her of her “natural charm.”

The story casts Susan as the innocent object of someone else’s plotting and scheming – the risk that a patronizing Diane Sawyer warned her about on Good Morning America — but this is a women who climbed up on the biggest stage in the world to take her swing. Susan will be fine.

The reaction also speaks to our sometimes tortured relationship with the idea of authenticity. Authenticity is a leadership trait we’ve come to admire, but the pursuit of authenticity can sometimes get in the way of real leadership. When it keeps the leader at the center of the leadership story, when it directs his or her energies towards personal goals, authenticity misses the point that leadership, at its core, isn’t about us. Leadership doesn’t particularly care if we ever find ourselves. Leadership asks that we get over those selves, that we abandon many of our needs and fears and insecurities to advance a larger mission.

That mission may require losing our “natural charm.” We may be more effective by discarding the identities that worked for us in the past. Susan Boyle created a persona that thrived in a small, Scottish village. But her goals have changed radically. She now has a chance to inspire millions with her courage and audacity. If her staying power goes up with a good dye job and a leather jacket, then I’m all for it.

The Triumph of Susan Boyle

April 17, 2009


One of the assumptions at the center of this project is that there is often someone extraordinary lurking underneath the watered-down, apologetic version of ourselves that we choose to offer the world. A leader’s central task, we believe, is to create the conditions for those extraordinary selves to thrive.   

Imagining that possibility can sometimes take a leap of faith. If you ever find yourself doubting it, join the the 20 million people (and counting) who have watched Susan Boyle’s audition for Britain’s Got Talent, the UK’s version of American Idol.  In a single, transformative moment, Susan stops apologizing.