Navigating Changing Times

A reading list for leisurely summer days.

In addition to the change each of us is going through in our own personal lives, we’re living in a rapidly changing world.

Perhaps this summer is a good time to kick back and get some perspective.  Here are some books to jump start those considerations.


Andrew Carnegie, by David Nasaw, Penguin Press 2006

Andrew Carnegie, an impoverished Scottish immigrant who became a famous steel magnate and business titan, rode a wave of economic growth to become one of the richest men in the world.  He then topped his career by basically inventing modern philanthropy.   His personal goal was to give his entire fortune away during his life mainly in support of education and world peace. He started our nation’s library system, supported higher education, and started the first pension plan for college teachers. He spent the latter part of his life working for world peace.

Carnegie amassed his initial fortune in large part by insider trading actions that today would be prohibited by the 1934 Securities & Exchange Act.   He was an intense and ruthless competitor in business, but was also remarkable for his “infectious geniality” and great generosity.   One of the first personal decisions he made after becoming wealthy, was to pare back his work schedule to less than full-time in order to pursue personal interests.

He was thus clearly an early proponent of having a good “work/life fit”. On the other hand, Carnegie also led the way   in   shifting   the   daily work life of the average American from small independent shops to highly standardized factory processes, with long hours, unsafe conditions, and the attendant great labor strife.

It was the emergence of the railroad industry in the late 1800s which propelled his career and transformed the American economy. The new national network for transporting goods allowed businesses to move product cost-effectively across the nation. The railroads thus helped America became a truly national market. The building of the railroads also powered economic growth by     stimulating ancillary industries, e.g. steel.  As Henry Adams reported: “[railroad building] needed the energies of a generation, for it required all the new machinery to be created together with a steady remodeling of social and political habits, ideas, and institutions to fit the new scale and suit the new conditions.”

In our times, the growth of global communication technology has brought analogous change to our lives. Because of advances in technology, fortunes are being made, the daily life of the average family is fundamentally changing, and a necessary reworking of business rules is also underway.

The juxtaposition of these two eras raises interesting questions: Is ruthless business behavior a precondition for amassing a great fortune? Should whoever makes the money be the one to allocate it to charity? What kind of person rises to the top when the economy changes? Does it take more than being in the right place at the right time? What is the right balance between rapid economic growth and justice?  How do you recognize fundamental turning points in the economy? Are these business titans our heroes?


Black in Selma, J.L. Chestnut, Jr and Julia Cass, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990

A second book portraying a period of great change raises different questions. J.L. “Chess” Chestnut, was the first black attorney in Selma Alabama. As an adult, he returned to his hometown to work with Martin Luther King Jr. on the frontlines in the civil rights movement. This was a violent period in American history, including the explosion of violence on March 7, 1965, the day that Governor George Wallace assembled state troopers in order to prevent a civil rights march for the black vote.

Chestnut’s autobiography is an illuminating essay on the interaction of power and change. He comments, for example: “As a lawyer representing the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the midst of a street protest movement, I was stretched between competing philosophies. King’s philosophy, that we had a moral right to disobey unjust law, ran counter to my legal training. I was trained to believe that you changed the system through the system. You didn’t go out and break the law. You went to court. King persuaded me we had no better choice but to make the case in the court of public opinion.”

Chestnut describes his coming of age “in an era when blacks in Alabama had virtually no legal rights, when they were subjected to violence and discrimination by the police, the courts, and the state.” He describes the tacit code of silence between races in a segregated society. He details the entangled interdependence of the black and white establishments in a segregated society and how those entanglements can prevent change.  And he describes “the strain of being part of and apart from the system at the same time” in his work as Selma’s first black attorney.

From his life story the reader better appreciates why the strategy of the civil rights movement was “based on the unfortunate reality that it took mass arrests and physical violence against nonviolent blacks, recorded by television, to move white America on behalf of black people.”

Chestnut has additional insights about power.   For example, he learned at the gambling table at age fifteen that “It’s far easier to beat a person who expects to lose than one who came to win because the former will give up somewhere along the line. I also learned that power is most effective when you don’t have to use it, when folk just assume you’ve got it. Every time you have to use it, you lose a little of it, which the white South was to discover during the civil rights struggle.”

In a radio interview late in life, he commented that the civil rights activists had actually started with very “small steps”, for example, simply trying to get the right to sit down in a public bus. But the small actions of an originally small group of people created the whole breadth of the civil rights movement, including passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

We face analogous issues in our own times in situations both large and small: When do you work through the system in order to create change and when do you need to break through the system?

What is the impact of just laying low and working the system for your own purposes? What does power, or lack of power, do to a person? How does an imbalance of power change relationships? How do you create change if you are the one with no power?  What is the value of taking small steps versus big steps? Who is it that creates the momentum for big societal change?


Crucial Conversations: Toolsfor Talking When the Stakes are High, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Sometimes the need to deal with change comes from personal relationships, not from societal trends. According to the authors, crucial conversations are ones in which “the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong.”

The authors point out that “when it comes to these risky, controversial, and emotional conversations, skilled people find a way to get all relevant information (from themselves and others) out into the open.”

But we’re not all skilled and we all have crucial conversations, both at home and at work. We have also all experienced having a comfortable conversation suddenly turn “crucial” and not having a clue about what to do about it.

The authors assert that dialogue skills are learnable and also essential to a good life both at work and at home. They offer a framework for improving your ability to navigate crucial conversations. They suggest that great communicators start by asking themselves:

–What do I really want for myself?

–What do I really want for others?

–What do I really want for the relationship?

–And most importantly: How would I behave if I really wanted these results?

The authors then lead the reader through a series of examples of how great communicators navigate crucial conversations with family, friends, colleagues, and teammates. The authors write in a way that is bright, fast-paced, smart—and dead-on accurate. It is no surprise that this book is a favorite in the libraries of counseling professionals.


Six Thinking Hats, Edward De Bono, Back Bay Books/Little Brown & Company, 1985

How many times have you been in a business or family meeting trying to address a problem?   Everyone pitches in with good or sometimes veiled intentions. Everyone has ideas, preferences, facts, and feelings about the topic. Words fly. But it seems like moving the earth to get to a decision. Edward De Bono has a proposal: try parallel thinking.

Parallel thinking is a system for thinking about a problem. It allows a group to be more in sync with one another as the group discusses facts and emotions, and brainstorms about what obstacles remain in the way and what unbounded success would look like.

The author uses the image of six thinking hats, each of a different color, and each representing a different kind of thinking.    He comments: “The value of a hat as a symbol is that it indicates a role.    It can be put on or taken off with ease, and it is visible to everyone around.”

With WHITE HAT thinking, objective facts are the focus. RED HAT thinking draws out the emotional parts of an issue. BLACK HAT thinking identifies   obstacles. YELLOW HAT thinking details the optimistic point of view. GREEN HAT thinking is for the abundant fertile growth of creativity and new ideas. BLUE HAT thinking is the cool, sky-above view concerned with the orchestration of other hats.

When groups use this system, people are not stuck in roles by their personality but instead agree to adopt first the role of one hat and then another. With parallel thinking in place, groups tend to make faster, more effective decisions. In these groups, you would hear statements such as: “OK that’s     enough red hat thinking, let’s consider the black hat point of view.” Or “Give me your green hat thoughts on this proposal.”

Sound goofy?   The author reports that this system has been used by NASA, IBM, DuPont, NTT (Japan), Shell, BP, Statoil (Norway), Marzotto (Italy), and Federal Express, and that it can also be taught with equal success to preschoolers.


Appreciative Moments: Stories and Practices for Living and Working Appreciatively Edward A Jacobson, Tenacity Press, 2008

There is a surge of attention right now on Appreciative Inquiry, a positive, strength based approach to personal and organizational change. Psychologists and coaches find it powerful and global consulting groups such as The Berkana Institute use the tools of appreciative inquiry to bring positive change to communities across the globe.

The author, a psychologist in Madison, Wisconsin, comments “From Appreciative Inquiry, I have learned that I function best when I am operating from appreciation and possibility—and with openness to (a) seeing the best in each person, in each situation, in the wider world, and in myself and to (b) building on that sense of possibility to create the best experiences, learning environments, and tangible outcomes I can.”

Appreciative Inquiry centers on the appreciative question. Questions can be framed in a way that opens possibilities, freezes possibilities, or shuts down possibilities.

Appreciative questions are intentionally positive. They open possibilities by drawing out high point experiences, strengths, successes, and aspirations.

Ed’s book offers stories, questions, suggestions, insights, and kindly reminders about the power of appreciative inquiry in matters both big and small.

The reader is left wondering: What new possibilities would open if I embraced this point of view and expressed it in the way I spoke and interacted? And what would happen if I embraced these changing times with a sense of possibility and promise?

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