The Roommate

Thomas J. Rice

 

My college roommate drowned the day we first met. 

He was just 18, tall and blonde, with a shy smile, bright blue eyes, 

and a bone-crushing handshake. “I’m Bjorn Karlsson, Sioux City, Iowa,” he blurted. “Gotta run; swim test.” 

We were both freshmen, assigned to the same big double on the first floor of the ivy-covered dorm, taking the requisite test before classes started. “I don’t really know how to swim,” he tossed over his shoulder, laughing. “Just want to get the damned thing over with.” Then he bolted.

 He promised to meet up afterwards at the student union. 

But he never showed. Back at the dorm, I found out why.

  He dove in the deep end and never came up. 

 Seems no one noticed. But how could that be?

Oddly, I still dream of his fierce handshake and shy smile.

And I’ve always wondered how they broke the news to his parents.

 

 

 

Havel on Hope

HOPE

 

Either we have hope within us or we do not.

 It is a dimension of the soul and is not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world.

 HOPE is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. 

 HOPE in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy that things are going well or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not because it stands a chance to succeed. 

 HOPE is definitely not the same thing as optimism.

It is not the conviction that some thing will turn out well, but certainty that something makes sense

regardless of how it turns out. 

 It is HOPE, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually try new things. 

 

Vaclav Havel

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rites of Passage(an excerpt from novella)

 Six hours on a cramped red-eye from Boston had Donovan in a foul mood—jumpy and irritable. He’d resisted this journey for 18 years; never thought he’d find himself back in Ireland with this mission. Still, he reasoned, if things worked out, this would be the first and last time he’d have to make the dreadful trek. For a man who hated to travel, once was plenty. All the more reason to make this one count. 

            He’d been jerked from a semi slumber by the screech of the landing gear on the Aer Lingus jumbo jet, slicing through the dense fog over Shannon airport. His wristwatch—which he’d set five hours ahead—showed “5:45 A.M., February 3, 2005,” as he vaguely tuned in the faux-British accent of the young stewardess prepping the passengers for landing.

            Strapped pertly in her seat outside the cockpit, her short, green skirt showing off a pair of long, sexy legs, the stewardess rotely issued a litany of commands: “Please secure your tray tables and be sure your seats are in the upright position for landing.  Check the seat pockets for personal….” Donovan tuned her out, reflecting on the pitiful irony of native social climbers still trying—and failing—to mimic the upper-class accent of their former British colonizer, fifty years after independence.

From his window seat near the front, Donovan smiled grimly at the familiar mosaic of green fields, brown fences, and silver streams decorating the luscious landscape of the Limerick dawn. As they came in for landing and taxied down the runway, he retraced—for the umpteenth time—the chain of events that led him to this ‘homecoming’ moment.

 

It was the image of Archbishop Flaherty on national television, prostrating himself on the altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, that gave him the first cosmic nudge. He never thought he’d live to see a member of the Catholic hierarchy come forward like this—admitting the truth: “Today I stand before you as a sinner to take responsibility for the abusers in our midst, to offer an apology to all who’ve suffered as a result, and to commit to making amends.”

Tears welled up in the anguished, gray eyes as the Archbishop raised his open palms toward the crucifix, struggling to gain control, before going on: “The abuses happened on my watch, in our chapels, in our diocese. I make no excuse, for I have none; I should have known.  It was my responsibility to know, to protect  the innocent. In that I failed. I failed myself and I failed all of you. I am guilty of willful ignorance, at best. No less a sin, no less abhorrent in the eyes of God.  So today, I beg your forgiveness and ask Almighty God’s forgiveness, as I pledge to do better, to be a more worthy servant, not just for today, or for a year, but for the rest of what time God grants me on this earth.”

 

With that, the old man fell on his knees, bowed his head, and prostrated himself fully on the altar, arms extended toward the granite crucifix above his head.

When Donovan saw the news coverage of what was dubbed  “The Spectacle at St. Patricks ” by the media, it was as though he was being offered a new lease on life, one without the shame, panic attacks, and loneliness—hallmarks of his existence since that awful May morning so long ago . 

He still remembered—as if it were yesterday—the stained glass ovals and the crucifix bopping up and down through the fog of pain and terror. 

Now here was the Archbishop of Dublin, one of the most powerful men in the Catholic hierarchy, offering a genuine, contrite apology.  This, after everyone, from the Boston Archdiocese to the College of Cardinals in Rome, had closed ranks in ferocious defense of their pedophile brethren.

 Donovan’s next-door neighbor, Jimmy Brennan, put it best: “Jesus, Billy, those sonsabitches weren’t only guilty of harboring known child molesters in their ranks, they were  feeding ‘em fresh meat,  rotatin’ ‘em around to new, plum posts, keepin’ ‘em one step ahead of the posse.” Jimmy was just giving salty voice to what was now common knowledge in every Catholic community from Ballydehob to Buenos Aires. Donovan had not responded. He didn’t trust what he might have said, or how it might have landed.

That was before the rage took hold, propelling him across the Atlantic, like a guided missile, only to find himself once again moving at a snail’s pace through the customs queue. 

A suspicious official pulled him out of line for a pat-down.  Donovan groaned at the thought of another delay and the tedium of answering yet another set of questions designed for terrorists.  He was tempted to blurt out, “ What the hell is this! Do you think I’m the freakin’ IRA?” Instead, he stood mutely, watching the old man—his hands arthritic and shaking—rifling through Donovan’s faded shirts, slacks, underwear, and shaving kit. 

After closely inspecting every nook and cranny of the luggage, the official finally turned to Donovan’s passport. He stared at the photo taken almost ten years earlier and, with a slight stammer, asked, “How long have you been away?” Donovan, in no mood for civility, snapped, “Well, as you can see, it’s been 18 years.” “Right, I see that Mr. Donovan,” the official replied evenly, “And what brings you home at this time of year, business or pleasure?” 

“Oh, pleasure for sure,” Donovan said flatly.  “Pleasure it is. Isn’t that what Ireland’s famous for?  Can’t wait to get out of here to get started on the pleasure.” The sarcasm was not wasted on the customs agent, who nodded and decided to let it go. “Well Mr. Donovan, I hope you have a grand time of it and welcome home. Don’t leave it so long next time.” With that he smiled warmly, exposing a mouthful of blackened, rotting teeth, and Donovan suddenly felt ashamed of his own rudeness. 

(Excerpt from Rites of Passage, a novella published in Rites of Passage: Five Irish Stories (2016), available on Amazon and Barnes & Nobles. 

 

 

For The Common Good

A review by Thomas J. Rice

For The Common Good; Redefining Civic Leadership, by David Chrislip and Ed O’Malley, is a singular contribution to the leadership literature, a genre that churns out over 2000 volumes a year and shows no sign of waning. With that kind of volume cascading off the press, I’m aware that it stretches credulity to claim singularity for such a slim volume. Still, I’m not alone in seeing something special here: For The Common Good has already won three highly coveted awards in this crowded field.

Why is this book so special?  For openers, it is a direct challenge to an orthodoxy that has dominated a field that was first established as such in the late 60s and 70s.  Even a casual review of this daunting body of work cannot fail to notice that, for all its variety, there is one dominant carrying beam, a mostly-unspoken premise, at the center of this literature:  Leadership resides in the individual in a position of authority with a followership dependent on the leader for vision, strategy, and inspiration. Sometimes charismatic, often not, the leader is always at the center of the action. His character and intellect—and it is typically a man —is the main determinant of the fate of his followers, be they organizations, cities, regions, or nation states. 

Others have broken with this “great man” theory  before, but no one  I’m aware of has prosecuted the case so explicitly, with such theoretical elegance and empirical clarity as have Chrislip and O’Malley.  This is a breakthrough book, destined to become required reading for anyone seeking grounded theory and practical guidance—not to mention inspiration—on the leadership challenges facing their communities and regions.

Ostensibly, Common Good is a case study of the Kansas Leadership Center(KLC), which, in 2007, took as its mission “…the creation of healthy communities in Kansas more capable of and willing to address their most intractable issues by nurturing the quantity and quality of civic leadership” (p. i). And while it does justice to the fine work of the center, it proves to have not just a local application in Kansas, but a global application which translates well across a broad array of cultural challenges around the globe—poverty, global warming, pollution, unemployment, infant mortality, terrorism, etc.

Those who’ve followed Chrislip’s work will know that Common Good is his third book on civic/collaborative leadership, which has been his passion for over thirty years as a stalwart practitioner and disciplined scholar of the civitas. His collaborator, O’Malley, has had first hand experience with the challenges of state politics in Kansas and bridge-building across the great divide of partisan bickering. Together this unlikely duo have produced not just an inspirational statement on why this new model of leadership is imperative, but also a highly accessible theoretical framework that has already passed the practitioner’s test in the field. The result is an exemplary act of civic leadership worthy of Gandhi’s adage that “…we must be the change we want to see in the world.”

The book is organized into three parts: The state, the practice, and the heart of civic leadership.  A foundational essay lays out the history of thinking about civic leadership in the U.S., including a linkage to the four great social movement dating back to the 60s and 70s: civil rights, grassroots, environmental, and women’s—all with common themes which “…threatened traditional power structures, radicalized and mobilized unheard of or disenfranchised voices and, at times, menaced the country with anarchy when institutions failed to change …”(p. 21).

Part of the historical context  Chrislip and O’Malley would have us appreciate is the pioneering work of three pillars of insight into the nature of civic leadership: James McGregor Burns, Mary Parker Follett, and John Gardner. The authors’ review of these three giants of civic thought is a stellar contribution all by itself, a stand-alone gift that broadens and enlivens the civic context in the ways that only great classics—e.g., Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism—can do.
Following this erudite foundation, the authors introduce the notion of “Adaptive Challenges”—which they’ve adopted from the work of Professor Ron Heifitz , who is on the faculty at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government .  They distinguish adaptive from technical problems—which can (usually)be solved by relevant expertise. For example, appendicitis—expertly diagnosed problem; expertly provided solution.   How about gun violence? Not so clear, on either problem or solution. And certainly not in the domain of experts. The authors argue that almost all our 21st century challenges are adaptive in their complex nature, and cannot be addressed by the traditional 20th century paradigm of top down, hierarchical, authority-centered leadership.

To make headway on our adaptive challenges, the authors argue, we need a “provocative” new approach, based on a set of principles and competencies designed for the multidimensional challenges we face at every level of society. Rather than lay out their theory  in the abstract, Chrislip and O’Malley select five civic leaders—Kansans all—as exemplars of the struggle. These are real leaders who had the courage to step outside their comfort zone, shifting from life-long habits of the heart to the risky business of adopting a new set of principles, and learning the new competencies required by the challenges at hand.

The five exemplars’ stories are the heart of the book.  What could have been a ponderous theoretical framework ( five guiding principles and four competencies) becomes a riveting drama as  the authors skillfully demonstrate the pragmatic value of the principles they’ve used to guide the work of KLC.

The four competencies follow from the guiding principles. They rely on citizen activists’ ability to: diagnose the situation, manage the self, intervene skillfully, and energize others. These are spelled out in detail in four chapters, each followed by a set of reflective questions at the end, designed to embed the learnings and promote the ongoing growth and development of civic leadership.  After more than three decades in the field, I can attest that I have seen expensive leadership workbooks in glossy, bound volumes that are not nearly as complete or useful as the four chapters that comprise Part II of Common Good.

The book closes by coming full circle to a spirited advocacy: a shift from individualistic thinking to a “much more appropriate view for the 21st century…leadership as sharing responsibility for acting together in pursuit of the common good”(p.159). They harken back to the great social movements, the great thought leaders—Burns, Follett, Gardner—and the four competencies all citizens are urged to cultivate. 

For frustrated citizens of a democracy faced with a gridlocked Congress, a “dysfunctional” parade of elected officials posing as leaders, a gaggle of presidential candidates displaying their naked self interest, and scant familiarity with the four competencies detailed here, Common Good could be a lifeline. We could, of course, continue to play the waiting game, cynical bystanders one and all, waiting for a charismatic hero to gallop to the rescue, only to dash our hopes all over again.

Or, we could take heart from this gem of a book. We might insist on choosing leaders who’ve demonstrated their commitment to the common good, who have the competence and courage to challenge us to take a risk, to become the leadership we’ve been waiting for, worthy of our precious democracy.

Chrislip and O’Malley have done their work, and given us an extraordinary gift: A choice, when we thought we had none.

The rest is up to us.

¹ 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Award;  IndieFab Book of the Year;  finalist in University of San Diego Department of Leadership's Outstanding Leadership Book of the Year award, 2014 .