The Genius of Maya Angelou

Greetings. Maya Angelou was a remarkable gift to all of us. A woman whose early life was filled with adversity, she would become not only a renowned and revered poet but a person of rare vision whose words and sense of humanity would inspire people of all backgrounds, ages, and beliefs. At the heart of her writing was a powerful understanding of the importance, meaning, and dignity of everyone. An understanding that is essential to reaching our full potential as individuals, communities, nations, and even companies and organizations.


Maya Angelou also understood the value and power of connecting with strangers and of being more open to people who are different than us. In writing the closing chapter of The Necessity of Strangers, which is about the “power of travel,” I was inspired by a quote from her 1994 book Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now:

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

And we might even become remarkable collaborators and innovators.

As humans we are so similar, yet all too often we decide to focus on our differences as the reason (or excuse) for not connecting, learning, and working together in remarkable ways.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t share one of her poems titled “When a Great Tree Falls.” It is a poem filled with added meaning this week as our family attended memorial services for friends whose lives ended way too soon…

“When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”

We win in life and in business when we see the value of everyone. And when we commit to keeping everyone’s memory and special gifts alive.

Leading By Example

Greetings.  I knew that it was bound to happen.  It was simply a matter of time before I actually saw a police car with turn signals.  And since I wasn't able to take a picture given the compelling need to remain focused–rather than distracted–on driving, I realize that some of you just won't believe me.  In fact, I'm still in a state of shock.  But there I was, driving home from one of our projects, when the police car in question had the audacity to signal before thoughtfully coming into my lane. An act of civil obedience that has challenged me to question my assumption that these cars lacked turn signals and my lengthy quest to figure out the reason why.  

At first I imagined that there was something about the nature of turn signals that made it more difficult to perform the duties of a police officer successfully.  Then I imagined that the lack of lane changing guidance was due to a deliberate attempt to make police cars more discreet when pursuing the bad guys.  And recently I've conjectured that given the current economic climate it was a visionary move that was intended to save money that could be better spent on more important police equipment.  In any event, I had convinced myself that police cars came from the factory without turn signals.  Even though one might expect police officers to lead by example when it came to observing our traffic laws and demonstrating the best possible driving behavior.  After all, there are a lot of drivers out there who could use a strong role model.  Student drivers.  Distracted drivers.  Drivers from other countries where it is even easier to get a license (if that's possible).  

Of course, even I could appreciate the fact that there were times when officers were in the heat of a chase, or racing to a crime scene, or in need of an extra large cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee after a long shift.  But most of the time they seemed to be driving along just like the rest of us–with no great sense of urgency.  Or, at least, driving along like the rest of us who need to have our turn signals repaired. 

And I started thinking about the times that we expect the leaders in our companies and organizations to be role models.  Talking about the importance of innovation, or building strong relationships with customers, or being remarkably responsive, or collaborating and sharing insight and information…and acting in a way that demonstrates their commitment.  Rather than ignoring promising new ideas or stifling initiative, or not making customers a priority, or not having an open door, or not sharing valuable information that would challenge and empower employees at all levels.  Because they didn't see the power of leading by example.  Or because they'd simply gotten out of the habit of using their turn signals. 

Police car

We win in business and in life when we lead by example.  And when we never forget that no matter how busy we are, impressionable minds are watching.


“Moving the Rock”

Greetings.  "Back-to-School Night" at Westland Middle School provided a great opportunity to think about learning, asking questions, problem solving, critical thinking, being prepared, collaborating and being totally engaged–all essential topics in the world of education and in the lives of companies and organizations. Because today's schools need to be able to produce students with a lot more skills than simply the ability to pass a math, science or English exam.  Even though that often seems to be their main focus.  And because today's (and tomorrow's) businesses need leaders and employees with a lot more skills than simply technical or domain knowledge.  "Not that there's anything wrong with that"–to quote our friend Jerry Seinfeld…but it's definitely not sufficient to enable us to compete locally or globally.  The present and future belong to the most inquisitive, creative and engaged people and organizations.

So as I raced through the halls of our son Noah's middle school and into each of his seven classes, I was struck by a sense of energy, hopefulness and possibilities. A sense that he and his classmates and teachers could have a brilliant year if they all got off on the right foot, worked together and were inspired to see the magic of learning and stretching their collective thinking rather than simply filling kids' heads with a bunch of well-meaning curriculum that didn't have the chance to come alive.  And in each classroom I looked for clues as to whether or not this was possible.  

  • Clues that learning would be challenging and fun.  
  • Clues that teachers also saw themselves as students.  
  • Clues that students might be encouraged to also see themselves as teachers.  
  • Clues that rules were designed to inspire each student's passion for learning rather than stifle it.  
  • Clues that learning was an active pursuit tied to the exploration of ideas and hypotheses.

And then in Mr. Wellman's science class the pieces came together when he shared a story about how he got excited about science.  A story about being an 11-year-old boy (the same age as his students) and going to a local stream with friends and an empty bucket.  A story about struggling to move the largest rocks in the stream to see what creatures and wonders would appear–including the largest crayfish he had ever seen.  "I want my students to move the rock," he concluded with a child-like sense of delight in his eyes.  And that's exactly what I hope Noah and all of his colleagues will do in the year that is beginning to unfold.

And what I hope all of our customers and partners in corporations, government agencies and nonprofits will do in the face of this challenging economy.

Move the rock in order to learn and create greater value.


We win in business, education and in life when we are determined to move the rock.  And when we are open to the magic of discovering and learning new things together.


Making Innovation Work

Greetings.  While most business leaders agree that innovation is the lifeblood of companies and organizations, there are differences of opinion about the best way to make it happen.  Should it be directed from the top down?  Or nurtured from the bottom up?  Can it be enhanced by a new generation of web-based tools for coming up with ideas, sharing knowledge, and collaborating?  Are outside experts a vital part of any successful effort?  In their article in the latest issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review titled "The 5 Myths of Innovation," Julian Birkinshaw, Cyril Bouquet and Jean-Louis Barsoux attempt to shed some new light on these questions and the very nature of successful corporate innovation.

While no one size or approach fits every company, their analysis could be helpful as you and your colleagues wrestle with the challenges of innovating consistently and turning your most creative ideas into real business and customer value.


We win in business and in life when we find a way to drive meaningful innovation that works for us.  And when we understand the imperative of bringing fresh ideas and perspectives to those we have the privilege to serve.