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In Honor of Star Trek's 50th Anniversary: Captain Picard's 10 Best Quotes

Did you know that September 8, 2016 marked exactly 50 years since the first episode of Star Trek was aired? In my world this is a very big deal, not just because I'm a fan but also because Captain Jean-Luc Picard is one of my leadership "gurus."
In honor of this momentous occasion, here are some of the Captain's most well-known and inspiring lines about leadership, humanity and life:
  1. "The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity."
  2. "What we leave behind is not as important as how we have lived."
  3. "It is possible to commit no errors and still lose. That is not a weakness...that is life."
  4. "If we're going to be damned, let's be damned for what we really are."
  5. "The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably."
  6. "There are times, Sir, when men of good conscience cannot blindly follow orders."
  7. "There can be no justice so long as laws are absolute."
  8. "I have never subscribed to the theory that political power flows from the barrel of a gun."
  9. "Villains who twirl their mustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well-camouflaged."
  10. "I will have as much tea as I damn well please."
All opinions my own. Photo via Wikipedia.

"Time Out"

The Washington Post has an article out about the pompous nature of over-workers. Yes, Silicon Valley startups, the lot of you are awesome. But the rest of us need to shower and sleep without buying an app to tell us how.
The truth is, it's good to be somewhat aimless half the time. As a kid I was always encouraged to be creative, and that "undiscipline" came precisely from wandering strange roads, exploring the county courthouse on the weekend, invading the library, constructing makeshift tents out of dining room chairs, stuffing swaths of old fabric with cotton, cutting off the hair of my dolls, running away from home and running back, and writing, writing, writing.
At summer camp nobody knew from insurance and liability. We had a schedule, sure, but the truth of it was that we were basically free to do drama club and Color War and tetherball and pottery. Of course, I ran around, broke my fingers one after the other, got dirty and ate blueberries right off the bushes they had growing wild by the woods.
It was heaven.
As an adult, and I don't know exactly how or when this happened, the downtime got less and less, and the requirement to account for every second of every moment of every day increased accordingly.
On a job interview for a pretty good job the guy said to me, "What's your favorite book?"
And I answered without thinking, "I don't read books."
We both realized how bad that sounded.
I beat myself up all the way home, but the truth was I knew I couldn't lay claim to that kind of uninterrupted time anymore. That time was over.
As my mind wanders back in time I really miss the good old days before the Internet in particular. We had one book and one book report to do at a pretty slow pace every month, so you had enough time to absorb it. The teacher would grade you briefly and insightfully, not with a mechanical rubric that drilled down to the littlest and frankly most irrelevant detail: "B-. You can do better - argument is superficial."
I feel pretty spoiled nowadays, too, by this idea that every weekend has to be entertaining. As a kid we didn't do anything. I mean by this that we slept late, read the cartoons and clipped coupons from the Sunday paper, went to visit the family, and maybe went to the mall.
It was considered your business and your problem what you did with your own time, and this was true from the youngest age. As an eight year old I got into a huge fight with this girl named George (!) on the playground. She punched me right in the face and knocked me out.
Somehow my father appeared and dragged me home, but after wiping the blood off and the snot I was left to go out there once again. That wasn't news.
Don't get me wrong, I don't mean to romanticize child neglect or to ignore the risks of minimal structure. But I do feel confident in saying that today we have definitely gone too far the other way. Because now, there is a bias against being alone at all - and without solitude your mind cannot develop properly.

  • In the work environment, many are expected to function totally out in the open - to concentrate with many other people around, with their noise. I don't know about you, but it is absolutely impossible for me to think under these circumstances unless my brains are covered in white noise.

  • As a parent, you are expected to engage your children constantly in some form of social play or learning activity. This pressure starts in the womb as the doctors tell you to play classical music, and continues and continues even into the college years.

  • You go to college to learn things, but the roster of campus activities is expected to be overflowing, and you as the student are supposed to be partying every Friday night and Saturday night (let alone dorming) or else you're somehow "isolated from the experience."

  • Outside of work, Facebook-worthy shares basically consist of social moments -- anything that looks good when anywhere between two and six happy people are smiling into a camera.

 Which reminds me of a moment just before last weekend. It was Friday afternoon.
"Any plans for the weekend?" I asked my colleague in the elevator.
The gentleman, about two generations older than myself, answered slowly.
"I'm going to sit on my porch with my dog," he said. "In my chair. I am going to do nothing."
Message delivered. This guy knew how to take a chill pill, and he knew that he could be ridiculed for saying so openly.
But I wasn't ridiculing him in my mind. The truth is, I was jealous.
So this is what I'm thinking, after a week of feeling blocked and then re-starting the creative process after some floundering. That "doing nothing" can in fact be a deliberate act of creativity.
For watering the soil doesn't make a flower show up right away. But it does set the stage for a rosebud to appear.

Later on, suddenly.
Almost as if by magic.
All opinions my own. Clip art by Jonathan357 via

It Takes A World To Support Our Girls

In an essay written for Glamour, "This is What A Feminist Looks Like," President Obama shares his views on women, gender and feminism. Long story short, we've come a long way baby, but we sure as heck aren't there yet:
"When you’re the father of two daughters, you become even more aware of how gender stereotypes pervade our society. You see the subtle and not-so-subtle social cues transmitted through culture. You feel the enormous pressure girls are under to look and behave and even think a certain way."
And though I disagree with the President about a lot of things, I will always admire his personal family values. As Yoda said in Star Wars, "do or do not, there is no try" and it is obvious to me how much work the President and the First Lady have put into raising two beautiful, high-achieving, hardworking and empowered young women.

Our President is a male, and he is a male who is deeply feminist.

A few years ago one of my daughters interviewed my mother for a school project.

Did she consider herself a feminist growing up? "Not really," you could hear her reply on the tape. "Everyone just did what they had to do. But the men made all the major decisions."

Growing up I remember that feminism was one of the topics we debated quite a bit. We talked about it almost like a visitor from another planet, one with some interesting but also frightening ideas that felt almost scalding when we really thought about them.
  • The idea that women don't have to settle for "just anyone" in order to get married, or might not want to marry at all.
  • The idea that women don't have to be mothers in order to be fulfilled.
  • The idea that women are entitled to pursue higher education and a high-powered career.
  • The idea that women don't have to be pretty or thin in order to be socially acceptable.
  • The idea that a woman might be better off partnering with or marrying another woman than a man.
The last two, of course, were not subject to debate. Nobody would openly say that you had to be pretty/thin, but then again the amount of energy we spent talking about trying to get that way was boundless. Conversely, the idea of women choosing a lesbian lifestyle was not a serious idea but more of an accusation, which we continue to hear today from some haters: "Feminists are just a bunch of man-hating b*****s."

As a graduate student I remember spending a lot of time studying feminist theory, and this was also the subject of my dissertation, Women and Soap Opera. The research emphasized that women feel empowered when culturally feminine behaviors are valued. But over time my understanding matured a bit, and I more fully grasped that "empowerment" can mean a lot of different things, depending on who you're talking to. We can all relate to the example of clothing; the point is not what women wear but the fact that the choices are ours to make.

As my kids got older, I went back to work in various government office settings in Washington, D.C. and its environs. The federal workplace is pretty strongly conscious of diversity in all its forms, and I've been fortunate to mostly escape sexist talk and treatment. Of course on leaving the area this is not necessarily true; it's pretty awful to visit Florid and see taxis with stripper ads on the top and T-shirt shops with degrading sayings that are supposed to be funny.

But on the whole, things are better. And now my girls are grown up, and going out in to the world themselves. It's a weird stage, the twenty-somethings; partly it's about holding on and giving advice and partly about learning to let go.

What's been amazing, interesting, enlightening and hopeful to me at this time is how much feminist support they are getting from men.

As a girl I remember my grandmother whispering to me, "Never rely on a man for your money." It was a given that the women had to sort of teach each other what to do to survive. But today I see men across the spectrum stepping up to the plate and advocating for the rights of women -- not as an extraordinary thing, but as a given.
  • My husband insists that the girls go to the best schools possible, get advanced degrees, learn to manage their money, and generally be able to stand on their own. 
  • My dad quietly advises that I make sure the girls are respected and not oppressed in marriage, particularly by religious demands that will be too much for their comfort level. 
  • Rabbis now draw up a prenuptial agreement as a standard part of marriage procedure, as a legal Jewish means of managing marriage laws that give the advantage to men.
  • Male executives, both industry opinion leaders and individuals I've witnessed at work, not only respect female employees but advocate for womens' advancement.
  • In the media and on social media alike, I watch as men are often the strongest advocates for the rights of women, particularly when it comes to the right to be free of sexual abuse.
Are we there yet? We all know the President is right when he says "of course not"; a colleague remarked to me the other day: "I wake up every day glad for the privilege of being a White, well-educated woman born to a fairly progressive upper-class family in urban America."

It is my personal belief, though, from a spiritual point of view, that the consciousness of humanity is changing -- it's growing. It's sort of like the Wizard of Oz, what we need to do is click our heels three times and declare that "there is no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home."

What we're seeing, in this spiritual shift, is that people are increasingly able to see past themselves and agree on the principles of equal rights, freedom and giving a helping hand to people who otherwise are too oppressed to do it for themselves. It's like a rustling in our collective souls is taking place, a drive toward universal justice and justice in the Universe.

When I read about the nature and extent of women's continuing oppression in less fortunate places in this world, the mass rapes and the beatings and the "honor killings," all of it, I sometimes imagine that I can hear their collective screams.

No, we're not there yet. It's going to take the whole world to save the women. But I believe that we will do it. And that when we do, we will think of this time as a time when ordinary people joined hands to accomplish an extraordinary feat: the day when the enslavement of one-half the world's population becomes such a distant memory that when the subject is brought up, we shake our heads at when we lived in such primitive times.


Photo by Vladimir Pustovit via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Branding to Transform Government Customer Service

The September 2, 2016 edition of NextGov ran a story on the 2016 edition of Forrester Research's Customer Experience Index. The report will cost you $499 to purchase but the article highlights what for me is the main point:
"The federal government finished dead last among 21 major industries, and had five of the eight worst scores of the 319 brands, leading Forrester to note that government has a “near monopoly on the worst experiences.”
Before saying anything about this study it should be noted that we don't have a clear sense of what its methodology was. Superficially we know that there were 122,500 adult respondents polled within the past year, asked for input on 319 brands covering 21 major industries. But when you drill down a little deeper, it's important to ask: What exactly were the questions? How were they asked? Was there an opportunity for respondents to expand on their answer? Why this odd number of brands? What constitutes a "major industry?"

Not just that: What is the definition of "customer service" when you're talking about the federal government as versus a private, for-profit company? Not at all the same thing, although the features of it may be similar in some ways. The principal difference of course is that the government is charged with both enforcing the law and serving the public, and so customer service in a government context means helping people to navigate a complicated system. The customer is bound to the government; it isn't a voluntary relationship. That person also may be responsible for paying money to the government or otherwise giving something up; it's not a situation where the consumer enters into a voluntary agreement to exchange funds for services.

One more caveat. There are many perspectives you can bring to any situation when you're looking at ways to improve it. A CIO, for example, will argue for better technology. A human resources professional will argue for better staffing and training. We can go down the list and name a range of professional support services that can offer best-practice expertise (public or private-sector) to improve customer service: All of them can be right.

But complexity messes up headlines. Obviously government and private industry are not directly comparable; obviously there are lots of ways to make things better. I want to offer just a few ideas about what branding can do, because I think this discipline is for some strange reason both deeply misunderstood and utterly neglected in the government, no matter how much money has been thrown at it.
  1. First, a definition. Branding is the professional practice of managing others' perceptions of you. It is not reducible to the specific things one does to try and create those perceptions—a name, a brand, a tagline.
  2. Second, a key point of confusion—a paradox. You produce a thing and call it your "brand." Valid. But the customer also has a perception and that perception is your "brand," too. 
  3. Third, the point of branding. You want to align whatever it is that you've created, to the customers's perception of you.
In my mind branding is not really rocket science. It simply requires you to think objectively about how to improve your customers' perceptions of you. It shouldn't cost a lot of money, either: any agency "tiger team" can reorient itself for improvement by asking these types of questions:
  • How does customer service fit into our identity? Are we a Wal-Mart type agency that everybody recognizes, and so we would do well by copying private-sector mass-market customer service practices? Are we mostly government-to-government and deal with other agencies? Businesspeople? Lawyers? How will we communicate our identity in every interaction such that they understand who we are and what we can do for them in that capacity?
  • Who are our customer segments? There will inevitably be at least the following: Internal leaders, employees at large, Congress, the media, and the public. But if we drill down further, who do we really need to satisfy? What is the spoken (legal) or unspoken (implicit) "brand promise" we make by virtue of existence?
  • What does "delivery" of the customer service promise mean? Is it that we've answered a question? Clarified a rule? Does the customer know what they can expect from us?
  • What is the preferred method of communication on the part of our customers with us? Do they want a formal letter, a quick email, or might they even be happy to interact via Twitter and Facebook? Do they expect us to be active on social media, or more quiet?
  • What entity does the customer perceive us to be a part of? Do we need to emphasize our own unique identity, or should we fold into something larger and simpler for them to recognize?
Of course this is not an exhaustive list.

The point is that branding forces you to think from an "outside-in" perspective, rather than solely "inside-out." This is helpful as government agencies tend to suffer from an extreme form of myopia, with not only the agency but also its individual parts and subparts thinking of things very much from a narrow perspective.

Branding, with its emphasis on cognizance of the perceptions of others, is a powerful way to reverse that dynamic.

All opinions my own. Photo by Torbein Rønning via Flickr (Creative Commons).