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Business Lessons from the AT (Appalachian Trail): Part 4

Left and right

Some people can use the best of both intelligences (crystalized and fluid) to surf the perfect wave whether they’re immersed in nature or navigating a city street and I mentioned pilots as being one cohort as flying is part technical expertise and part art form. I suspect Todd Riddle is one of those people. Todd is a USAF Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter pilot. The A-10 is affectionately known as the “Warthog” by its operators and is basically a flying tank. With a stall speed approaching that of a glider and great maneuverability, its unmatched for close air support (CAS), its electronics, wings, engines, and guns. After talking with Todd on other collaborative projects and reading his recently published book Faith, Family, and Fighter Jets, how to live life to the full with grace and grit, I came to a surprising conclusion, surprising because I hadn’t thought of it before.

It proved to me that Todd was not only an alpha left hemisphere thinker, but also a powerful right hemisphere person, and it had to do with the idea of faith. A devout Christian, Todd writes a lot about the concept of faith in his book, a word whose definition means among other things “a confidence trust and belief in something which cannot or does not need to be based on proof.” The idea, that Todd is in the one percentile of highly technical professions (very left hemisphere competencies) and held a strong belief in faith intrigued me. A belief in, and practice of faith can only come from the right hemisphere’s perspective. The paradigm of the left would never entertain much less tolerate the existence of anything which could not be physically proven, objective, defined, explainable, and manipulated. Yet here Todd, the pilot of a sophisticated 29,000-pound machine in a time when the mechanized model is humanities favored operating manual, believed in something he could neither control nor verify. In this left hemisphere dominant time in history, he also believes (has faith) in something which can’t be conclusively physically proven, at least not for the time being. Leaving open a space in the mind for possibility and what could be, embracing the unexplained, or the unexplainable, requires different cognitive processes than those required to command a jet, Todd uses both. I commend Colonel Riddle for courageously residing on the leading edge of evolving consciousness, reality, and cognitive thought.

So it’s important we know which hemisphere of our brain is providing its unique perspective upon our world as we travel through it. In a perfect world and in the perfect human, it would be a seamless integration of both hemispheres’ view, but few of us are that perfect. The best we could hope to achieve are moments of perfect, glimpses of brilliance and perhaps if we hit the marks often enough, that’s perfect. Like swimming in a pool on a summer day, maybe perfect isn’t floating with our head above water, nor swimming below the surface with our breath held, but instead sinking to the bottom, and then launching upward from the floor, breaching the surface thrusting ourselves into the open air for one glorious moment, and repeating the process.

We cannot solely afford to own reality, but we try. It is my daily challenge to forget myself and remember everything else. If we are to be in concert with both sides of our intellect, and the larger intelligence of others and the universe, harnessing collective wisdom, we must first consider the struggles we face within.

What should intelligence look like in a group, and how should it feel? Maybe it should feel like a partnership instead of a stalwart idea by an individual with others in captive tow.

Something residing outside of any one person, a collaborative best course for everyone, not the loudest, dogmatic, the boldest, or officially appointed. One sign of collective intelligence is accurately making sense of our surroundings in an inter-subjective way.

Sensemaking, and reality

You’ve been doing sensemaking your whole life but may not be familiar with the concept in an academic sense where it’s heavily laden with interpretation. Most extensively written about by researcher Karl Weick, sensemaking literally means “the making of sense”, in a process in which we continually interpret the reality around us. Weick once famously quoted the question of an anonymous young girl who asked “how can I know what I think until I see what I said” suggesting that we only know what we’re doing after we’ve done it and that making sense of things (the construction of reality) is a partnership between an experience, thought, and action, only when all three are done can we then settle on a reality. Interestingly, Weick also says any intellectually conceived object and action instantly becomes relegated to the past and is by this virtue unreal. I.e. the utilitarian and functional perception we use every day to make sense of our world is a form of memory, in the past, not real.

The closest to truest reality we experience is one we experience from moment to moment and is the moment of vision before intellectualization (thought) takes place says Weick.  So a “real” reality is one continual moment as we approach that moment, experience it, and then move past it. Reality as we characterize it is part what we experience, part what we think of the experience reflectively in our memory of it, and part the action we take on it in some peculiar way. It’s no wonder science relies so heavily on diagrams, theories, and maps, these are representations of the real world. The “representation” of something is not a direct presentation, it’s not the experience of its presence in real time but a re-presentation of it, a cognitive function of the left hemisphere.  Presence, on the other hand, that which is presented in real-time is the domain of the brain’s right hemisphere. Whether on a trail in the woods or the everyday trail of a city sidewalk, think about the hand you play in the “sense” making of our world.

Sensemaking is also never a solitary experience because everything we do is influenced by or contingent upon others. If you think about it even monologues (one-way communication) presume an imaginary audience and the monologue changes as the audience changes. Making sense of our world is also embedded in that unique world’s culture. What does this mean? Something profound that, if used correctly, can help you surf reality in remarkably successful, universally productive, and satisfying ways. In a now-famous story, Weick tells of a Hungarian army platoon lost in the Swiss Alps while on maneuvers. When an unexpected snowstorm hit, they feared themselves lost without hope of return. Not familiar with the mountain range, the soldiers became disheartened, until one of them produced a map from their coat pocket. Encouraged, they set up camp to wait out the storm and discussed the map, their orientation and reflected on their steps and the future actions they would take, they now felt confident they knew the way out. The next day, they marched out of the mountains and back to the fort. Upon return they told their story to the commandant of the fort, producing the saving map. After studying it, the commandant announced that this was not a map of the Swiss Alps but in fact a map of the Pyrenees mountains of France. They had used the map from a completely different mountain range to successfully find their way out. The map, albeit wrong, had provided the cues and sensemaking needed for them to create a strategic plan, and strategic plans, according to Weick, “animate people.”

Once people begin to act, they generate tangible outcomes that helped them discover what was occurring and what should be done next, proving that when you’re lost any map will do. What’s the takeaway? Data doesn’t have to be perfect; arguably, it rarely is. It’s never an end but rather a beginning. It only has to generate questions, and action, which lead to better answers.

Waffles

Herzwaffeln is a German word meaning “heart waffles.” Waffles was also the trail name of Maurice, a German hiker Anthony and I met on the AT. Waffles was accompanied on the trail by his hiking partner Jeremy “Space-pants” (named for his celestial stretch pants) who is a retired U.S. Army veteran with two tours in Afghanistan to his credit.

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I never asked Waffles how he got his name, but I could take a guess. How Waffles and Space pants became friends while hiking the AT wasn’t that much of a curiosity because random strangers often meet and form strong bonds on the trail. But what was, was how waffles, a SW engineer, could take so much time off from work to hike the trail. Maurice was able to take the necessary 6 months (minimum) sabbatical from work in part because his work encouraged it. As it turns out his company was not only okay with the idea, they also gave him a stipend to subsidize the trip with the request he share what he learned in a business sense from his experiences with the company upon return.

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Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski is a graduate of George Washington University in Human and Organizational Learning and has been researching and studying leadership, learning, and change for over 20 years. Eric has been on all sides of the leadership fence from leader and manager to employee and servant and has practiced leadership and served leaders in some of the most coveted and challenging places in the world. With an early professional history as a technical expert, Eric has gone from being a technical SME (subject matter expert) to being a people SME and considers the human mind, human behavior, and consciousness to be the next great frontier for discovery. It is in this realm where he combines his technical subject matter expertise with his human sociological and organizational expertise for the betterment of individuals, organizations, their processes, and humanity. With additional interests in emotional intelligence or "EQ", servant leadership and followership, neuroscience, complexity science, creativity and ambidextrous organizations, Eric has been driven to finding the right balance of qualities, efforts and behaviors in order to not only build better high performing and learning teams but also create a better world in which to live, love, and grow. Eric lives on the Western shore of the Chesapeake Bay close to Washington DC with his wife, daughter, and Chow dog Wamu. Eric is the author of The Rise of the Ambidextrous Organization and Leading Ambidextrous Organizations, Part 1,2,3 (E-Books).

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CONVERSATIONS

  1. Splendid, Eric.

    I felt connected to your story of the wrong map.
    If I can tell myself a story about why some people do something differently than I would, and that story is coherent and doesn’t conflict wildly with my values, I stop worrying about that they do their thing and I can do mine. It doesn’t even need to be the right story – it just has to make sense to me. (Obviously, I then have to check my assumptions even more because I know I made it all up but I might forget.)
    I was ready for the story being that the soldier had drawn the map himself to calm down his friends.

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