Sunday, November 29, 2009

Feelings do not replace Fact

There is a pretty common issue that crops up in the Pagan community that I think needs addressing. The problem is when someone spouts off an uninformed, usually wrong, piece of information as if it is truth without taking the time to check its accuracy for a variety of reasons ranging from, "I read it in a book" to "it feels right." What's worse is that there are some who, when called on this, react by claiming they are being "persecuted" or that they don't need your "negative vibes".

I call bullshit on both accepting such things without question and at the whole attitude that allows that to continue.

First off let's examine this kind of blind acceptance.

One thing I learned and have seen reinforced time and time again is that part of being Pagan is NOT simply accepting something without question. "My Karma Ran Over my Dogma" is a VERY common sentiment I have seen, heard, and believe. It was always my understanding that part of what makes Pagans Pagan is that we are, as a community, willing to challenge and question ideas and beliefs, not accept them blindly as articles of faith. I've heard quite a few Pagans express their opinion that people who do are obedient sheep being led to the slaughter.

So why should we tolerate that kind of behavior and thinking from our own when we challenge it in others? The hypocrisy and inconsistency is jarring to say the least.

Remember, just because it is in a book doesn't prove anything. All that says is that a publishing company somewhere decided after reading said book they could make some money off of printing, distributing, and selling it. Publishers don't take the time to fact check every single thing an author puts in something they publish, they don't have the time or inclination to do so. There are quite a few Pagan authors who prove this by their published works including inaccuracies or outright fabrications.

One of the most infamous I've seen was one describing the Celts as an idealized New Agey civilization where everyone played musical instruments all the time and were psychic. The only thing said author didn't say was that they drink green tea. Said book was published by Llewellyn, the biggest Pagan-friendly publishing company in the world.

None of this portrayal comes even close to matching what I learned about the Celts while I was pursuing my Bachelor's in History. From what I learned, based on multiple credible sources backed up by period sources and archaeology, these were a people who regularly sacrificed criminals and prisoners of war, used the entrails of Roman soldiers for divining the future, and preserved heads taken from fallen foes as trophies. These were the same people who sacked Rome and most of Italy in the 4th century BC and fought many long, bloody wars with the Romans and each other. Hardly the navel gazing, lyre-strumming New Age utopia that the author of the work in question purported them to be. True, the Celts did have a very beautiful spirituality and belief system. This does not mean that in holding up that spirituality as your belief system you should completely ignore everything that contradicts what you believe your spiritual forebears ought to have been like.

If an author of a book puts up something as the truth in their work it practically begs for you to do some research and fact-checking on your own. Just because someone put it in a book you bought at Barnes and Noble doesn't make it true, check the references they used and reputable sources to be sure. Doing otherwise is both intellectually lazy and hurts the community by letting it fly as "truth". There is a difference, after all, between spiritual truths and truth that is derived from objectively verifiable facts. What constitutes spiritual truth is something that is up for debate certainly but if something can be read, weighed, measured, observed, tested, and verified or discarded it should be held to a much higher standard than "it feels right to me." Just because it feels good or someone says so doesn't make it so.

Almost as bad are the people who swallow such ideas without consideration and attack anyone who raises legitimate questions. If you are reading this essay and you are already starting to feel steam coming out of your ears then I'm willing to bet you probably fit this category perfectly.

Just because someone questions or challenges inconsistencies, misconceptions, or faulty reasoning you have does not mean they are attacking you personally. Challenging an idea is not the same thing as attacking a person. I would recommend if someone is questioning what you are saying and you don't have an answer to do a bit of digging into the questions they raise. There is nothing wrong with admitting you don't know the answer to a question or the particular facts about something, in fact that is the best way to learn more and gain a greater understanding of the subject. If it turns out you were wrong, then so what? Life is not about being right all the time. Life is about learning from your mistakes and becoming a better person in spite of them. Don't let your pride get in the way of the truth.

Ultimately it is up to us, as a community, to ensure we have a community that has a solid understanding of who we are, what we do, and why we do it. Allowing proven fictions to stand in as beliefs is the most dangerous thing we, as a community, can do to ourselves.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Some Thoughts on Good Leadership

For a good third of my time as a Pagan and my entire adult life thus far I have been involved in a leadership or planning position of some kind or another. I have a pretty good idea of how difficult it is to herd cats having been a cat-herder myself. In my professional life working from a bag boy to a CS Lead now as far as what I think are good and bad examples of someone I would want to follow or model my own style after. I'd like to share some of my thoughts on that based on my experience both as someone who has been on both sides of the desk.

The First Duty

The first duty of any leader is to put the goals of the group they lead ahead of their personal desires. A good leader knows this both on an abstract and practical level as the right way to go.

On the abstract it is the proper, honorable thing for a leader to put their group and its goals ahead of themselves. This kind of selflessness is worthy of great praise and is seen by many as a great sacrifice. After all, the purpose of leadership is to see to the good of the group being led. Indulging of personal desire at this expense is a gross abuse of power and trust.

On the practical level they know that, ultimately, they will share in the credit for success and blame in failure on some level anyway. Excessive squandering of credit and rewards can also lead to division within the group. This can be caused by any number of things from hurt pride to greed, envy, or ambition seeking an opportunity. Such behavior often leads to conflict either of members against each other or members against the leadership.

Ensure the Chain of Succession

This probably sounds medieval to be including and very patriarchal but succession of some kind is the second great duty of any leader. No one is immortal or indispensable. For this reason a good leader must always have an eye out for people with a knack for taking charge or have serious drive. This way when the current individual in charge can no longer, for whatever reason, run the show there is already a group of very fit individuals who have been given opportunities to build trust, proved themselves, and learned the ropes.

There are some who fear this idea and try to cling to control for whatever reason. In most cases the period during the transition to new leadership when a person like that passes on is very messy. Sometimes these transitional periods, without a group of ready successors on hand, can lead to the complete undoing of everything the leader created. Why hang on to what you have now so tightly that it can't survive without you?

This doesn't just mean ensuring someone will fill your shoes when you're gone, it also means making sure they'll have what they need. Why make all the effort of preparing a second generation if you don't give them everything you can to face the challenges of what may come? If you want to ensure the longevity of your group you need to be sure that the group is left in the best condition you can possibly leave it for who is coming up next.

Lead by Example

Above all things to be effective a leader must command respect. One of the best ways to do this is to lead through personal example. By walking the walk you show everyone you are sincere in what you believe. It shows that you are someone who can be trusted to adhere to your principles.

On a practical level it keeps a person in charge from becoming isolated from their people. It can be very easy to stick to business, stay close to your advisers and supporters, and focus more on the business of action but in so doing can make yourself vulnerable. If you do not truly understand the needs of your people, not just the ones in charge or influential positions, then you will lose their trust. Leading in a situation where you are not trusted by your own followers results in very counterproductive situations where often the most one can get is the bare minimum.

Sound the Horn, Swing the Hammer

When entering a new position of leadership the new occupant needs to establish both their objectives so everyone knows what they intend to do and show their strength.

The first is a bit more abstract in benefit than the other, but are equally essential. By declaring your objectives and intentions it gives the people a sense of security and direction. When people have direction they are much easier to motivate because they will have a sense of their actions having greater meaning.

The second is not as macho as it sounds. This doesn't mean throwing your weight around or making people do what you want because you can to show off your authority. What this means is showing that you will be strong when it is most needed. People will often follow a strong leader, even if they are wrong, over a weak one, even if they are right.

One way of doing this is in dealing with potential threats to the group. If there is something or someone who is a genuine, known, and proven threat to your group then what is best is to move quickly and by confronting them directly if you know you can beat them. By proving not only that you will lay down the law when necessary and then doing so very effectively you will have a much easier time convincing your people to trust your judgment in tense situations.

Another way is in resolving internal conflicts. If you are in a situation where someone genuinely deserves what is coming to them be it a lecture or removal what is best is to give it to them. However, if there is a situation where someone who caused the problem is genuinely remorseful and wants to help fix it punish them by putting them to work. This shows both that you can be hard when you must but also merciful when it is sensible showing people that you are reasonable in your decision-making process.

Listen to Your Followers

As was mentioned earlier the first duty of a leader is to their group. It is for this reason a leader should always pay attention to the goals and hopes of their people as well as their fears and doubts. Some might see this as moving to control opinion. Rather it is utterly essential to know what your people want and need to effectively lead. Without the voice of the people the leader is deaf to the world.

Compromise on Things, Not Principles

A good leader must have a solid ethical compass. This gives their followers and people a strong sense of security and certainty along with other rivals or leaders. By showing that you have principles that you will not compromise on and anything that threatens that will not be up for consideration what is realistic to expect.

Instead compromise on things. Things, provided they are not essential, can be easily recouped later on. Look not at the immediate cost but the long-term gain. If you have to go forward two spaces then go back one so that in your next move you jump forward four then by all means take the harder road initially to reach your ultimate goal.

Be a Realistic Idealist

Effective leaders need vision, aspirations, and dreams to fulfill both their own and their followers'. A leader without vision is nothing more than a glorified caretaker. At the same time the leader must not be blinded by their vision. To only see things in ideological terms is very dangerous and can lead to ideologically pure yet highly ineffective solutions to problems. The bad examples of the Soviet and Maoist systems where doctrinal orthodoxy was more important in getting a job than competence shows the pitfalls of excessive ideological focus. It can also hamper the ability to see long term and take in all the facts.

Effective leaders have to work with what reality gives them which probably will not fit any ideological idea of perfection. They also need to remember that the ideal is not something that will come immediately but is a process that, fast or slow, takes time. Sometimes it is better to move at a steadier pace, gain some ground now, then come back later and improve what you have than to lose it all.

Most importantly put competence and skill above ideological loyalty. Having ideologues under you can hamper both flow of information up and implemented of necessary action going down. Above all competence must be the rule of the day, not ideological orthodoxy.

Be Consistent

Reason is necessary for any effective project to happen. This is related to not viewing things ideologically but applies more to personal conduct. Handle situations as reasonably and consistently as possible. If you act in an arbitrary, unpredictable fashion people spend more time trying to figure out how not to upset you than they do sharing ideas or getting things done.

Use Carrots and Sticks

The real emphasis in this one is the AND along with how it should be done. Use whatever rewards you can to entice people to aim high and strive to do their best. This gives them a reason beyond the usual to push hard and do better. When it comes to punishment use it very sparingly. People should not be running away from you when you act, instead they should be chasing after you. Only punish people when they really screw up or knowingly are trying to sabotage your group's aims.

If You're Damned if you do and Damned if you Don't, Just do It

Sometimes you'll run into a situation where you will be damned if you do and damned if you don't. If you're stuck in a situation where no matter what happens you're going to catch flak, it is often the better idea to move ahead and do it anyway.

For one, regardless of what you do your critics are not going to cut you any slack no matter what happens. By refusing to act because of what might happen if you do knowing the same will happen if you don't it will make you appear weak and undermine people's confidence in your ability to lead. It is always better to err on the side of strength and decisiveness when you are facing such a dilemma.

Some Closing Thoughts

There are always good, practical reasons for taking principled, ethical stands and leading in an ethical, aboveboard, and transparent fashion. Never assume that leadership from a principled place is not pragmatic, as I see it pragmatism and principle are not mutually exclusive and many principles ultimately have their foundations in realistic solutions to problems. Remember, above all else your first duty is to those who follow. A good leader remembers this, a bad one ignores it at their own risk.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Elections, Bellweathers, and the Idiot Punditry

Alright here's my opinion on the elections yesterday and what it proves more than anything else:

Pundits don't know what they are talking about and the Beltway politicians have their heads up their collective posteriors.

Let's first look at all the media circus and political spin that was leading up to the elections that took place yesterday. It was loudly touted, especially by the GOP but by the media in general, as a "referendum on Barack Obama." It was spun as if these local contests would somehow give us an idea of what the people in the United States as a whole feel about Obama, the Democratic Party, and the direction our government is taking us in.

Funny that no one ever told the voters that.

In fact, in spite of the pronouncements of the punditocracy, the fears of the Democratic Party, and the pre-victory gloating by the GOP, these elections had very little in fact to do with Obama as the previous poll indicated.

In Virginia Democrat Craig Deeds, by all accounts on the ground, ran a terrible political campaign. He made multiple bone-headed mistakes including distancing himself from Obama in a state Obama carried in 2008, attacking his opponent's social conservatism while failing to offer an effective message regarding jobs and taxes the way his opponent did. Virginia also has a long tradition of electing a governor who is not of the same party as the current President; case in point being the consecutive elections of Mark Warner and Tim Kaine both Democrats during the Bush administration with Warner being elected in the shadow of 9/11. It doesn't matter how popular the president and standardbearer of your party is if the candidate you have running to fix state and local issues doesn't effectively speak to said issues and can't seem to run a campaign period. People when they go into the polls aren't just voting based on the issues, they are also voting for a person to handle the position they are being elected to. Running a campaign on your opponent's position on the social issues when the main concerns of most voters are jobs, jobs, and jobs is a good way to guarantee your political defeat.

In New Jersey the incumbent Democrat was running with a poor approval rating, an economy that tanked hard thanks to the crash, and the bonus points of being a former Goldman-Sachs CEO when anti-Wall Street sentiment among the average voter is running high. The state Democratic Party was also battered by multiple scandals under Menendez and McGreevey tarnishing their reputation. It's a miracle he even had a shot with all of what was running against him and no surprise he lost.

In NY-23 we had a real circus with the Republican who was running as the incumbent temporary appointment get ousted by conservative members of her own party then watch as last week she dropped out and endorsed the Democrat running in the election. Owens, the Democrat, would end up beating Doug Hoffman, the insurgent Conservative Party candidate who received backing early on from Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck who all touted this election as the sign that they would come out on top and the conservative revolution was on its way. Shame that no one told the voters in the NY-23, a district that has been Republican for 138 continuously, about the revolution. What likely did Hoffman in was that the bulk of his money and support, not to mention his own residence, were from outside the district making it very easy to portray him as an opportunistic carpet-bagger.

Now that we have gone over what really happened that the pundits do not want to talk about:

They were dead wrong on all accounts. Virginia and New Jersey, elections that were part of the alleged barometer on Obama's first year in office, based on the exit polls were decided based mostly on local issues and the voters still approve of Obama himself even if not for the Democrats running in their states. Note that in New Jersey said Dem was an incumbent facing a political perfect storm that he couldn't beat while in Virginia Deeds was running to fill the seat held previously by Democrat Tim Kaine effectively making him the incumbent in political terms1. In NY-23 it was the insurgent candidate supported by out of district and out of state interests and money who lost to the local candidate.

The real meaning of this election is two-fold: first that the political analysts, pundits, and spinmeisters don't know what they are talking about and second that the people are fed up with business-as-usual inside the Beltway thinking and politics. Both the pundits and the big party bosses projected their opinions, wishes, and conclusions onto races in spite of that the data from the elections themselves doesn't substantiate the hot wind they've been blowing. The elections yesterday, more than anything else, prove that the punditocracy and the partyocracy in Washington DC don't know what is really going on outside of the Beltway.

Ideologues, incumbent candidates, and parties beware of 2010, if your voters are not happy with the job you're doing or think that you're taking them for a ride your political future will be over. The political dynamic active right now is not one of left vs. right; it is of the people vs. Washington. And the punditry and political bosses, who can plainly see the writing on the wall, have no idea what it means.

1. In Virginia Governors cannot stand for re-election to two consecutive terms as Governor.