Monday, September 9, 2013

Organization Politics - This post is the first chapter in my new book, "Leadership Basics for Frontline Managers". This book was published by CRC Press (Taylor & Francis) in March, 2014.  To see the book, click here  then click on the Google Preview button to browse the first 25% 
Find me via email: info(at)ascentassociates(dot)ca or visit my web site or blog 


Imagine what your work would be like if the fear bred by organizational politics did not exist.  Imagine workplaces in which employees were encouraged to tell the truth, no matter how unpalatable this truth might be for their executives.  Imagine what coming to work every day would be like if integrity was the primary operating principle.

Any organization that is dominated by extreme levels of organizational politics can become toxic and fail.  When I worked for a company in the financial industry, I was hyper-concerned about conforming and getting ahead.  I wore the right clothes, worked the right amount of hours, contributed during meetings in appropriate ways and in general did my best to fit in, to be highly valued and to get promoted. Or so I thought. 

When my firm began to take imprudent business risks, the rumor mill ran wild.  I remember being told by a colleague that someone in accounting had said, “You just wouldn’t believe what the executive team is telling us to do with the books!”  The numbers were being manipulated to hide the true picture from shareholders, yet very few of us were willing to become whistle blowers.  Very few of us dared to challenge the directions that were coming down from the executive suite. The company’s share price gradually slid from over $20 to below 50 cents.  Terminations became the order of the day.  Eventually the company was sold.
The corrosive fear that undermines organizational success has a long history.  Writing shortly after the end of World War II, Admiral John Godfrey, the former Director of Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division, in analyzing ‘Operation Mincemeat’, a highly successful wartime deception conducted by British agents, identified two major weaknesses of the Nazi’s espionage establishment: ‘wishfulness’ and ‘yesmanship’.  These words are strictly the good admiral’s concoctions.  Yet wishfulness and yesmanship have changed the course of history.  And they are still with us today, every day of the week, at work and at home.

As definitions for wishfulness and yesmanship do not appear in any dictionary, I’ll use my own.  Wishfulness is that tendency among individuals and organizations to believe information that supports their own view of reality while simultaneously rejecting all contradictory information. Godfrey believed that the Nazi high command, when presented with two pieces of contradictory information, was “inclined to believe the one that fit in best with their own previously formed conceptions”.

Yesmanship is the tendency of those with less positional power to agree with those who have greater power, mainly out of fear. Yesmanship feeds on fear of authority; the greater the fear, the stronger the tendency toward blind yesmanship.  Yesmanship is an enabling behavior for wishfulness.  Wishfulness, particularly in organizations in which there are dire consequences for insubordination, can give rise to deadly levels of yesmanship.
Milder forms of yesmanship occasionally take a seat at almost every corporate or government boardroom.  Fearful employees learn instinctively to deliver the news they believe their harried bosses want to hear.  Wishing to avoid an argument, employees will spin information for each other by hiding in yesmanship.  “Don’t make waves”.  “Tell her what she wants to hear and you’ll be fine”.

In the Nazi military command hierarchy that Godfrey analyzed, lower ranked personnel would deliberately distort information in order to crawl higher in Hitler’s estimation.  Yesmanship became integrated into strategic decision making at the highest levels of the Third Reich. In this rigidly hierarchical military structure, no one dared say “no” to the powers above.  Wishfulness and yesmanship ultimately destroyed the Nazi war machine.
What power does wishfulness and yesmanship have in your organization today?  Who could give you an honest answer?

We all know what organizational politics can feel like.  We all know the almost imperceptible sense of caution, of carefulness, of not wanting to communicate the wrong message.  We all know the importance of maintaining a professional image, or being seen to be a worthwhile contributor, of being perceived as someone who is ‘onside’ with current directions and plans.  All of which is not to say that by being careful, considerate, conscious of one’s image and messages we are somehow sabotaging our careers.  Far from it.  But it is a question of degree.  How careful do we need to be?  We all know the cost of not being careful enough.  But do we understand the cost of being too careful?

The costs of allowing these forms of organizational cowardice to become the norm could be immense.  What can we do to ensure that wishfulness and yesmanship do not distort our business planning and operational decision- making?   How can we encourage people to speak their truth?  How can we build an organizational culture of high integrity?

·                     Everyone, from the CEO on down must, to paraphrase Ghandi, be the change they want to see in their colleagues.  If you want the truth, you must speak the truth and be the truth
·                     Encourage debate and dialogue.  Welcome challenges, welcome questions, welcome demands for explanations and above all, welcome alternative ideas that conflict with your own assumptions
·                     If you are a leader, make a point of hiring people who are likely to disagree with you on business issues.  Conflict can yield creative resolutions that would never see the light of day had passive politeness been the name of the game
·                     Instead of arguing with dissenters, ask for explanations of their thinking.  “How did you come to that conclusion?  Please walk me through your thinking process.”  Listen first before fighting back
·                     Treat everyone according to a set of explicit and worthwhile values.  This is not about posting flowery vision statements everywhere.  This about your behavior, or more accurately, how you treat people, all people, every day
·                     Build a culture of trust by demonstrating trust.  You must believe in the people you work with.  You believe that they have the best of intentions and that they fully deserve your trust
·                     Show your commitment by demonstrating everything you believe in through your own behavior
·                     Developing a culture free of wishfulness and yesmanship does not depend on the oratorical skills of a Barack Obama.  Developing such a culture depends on being conscious at every moment of the messages you are sending through your every action.  People learn much more about you as a leader by watching your actions as opposed to listening to you or reading your words
·                     Beware of ‘Groupthink’, that creeping sycophantism wherein people to try too hard to fit in.  Cherish your dissenters and critiques.  At times they may be frustrating to deal with, but you can always count on them to speak their truth

Remember that conflict can, up to a point, be a sign of organizational vitality.  If people really care about their work, conflicts will sometimes happen.  By all means do your best to resolve these conflicts, but don’t prevent them from springing to life.  They could be a healthy sign.

  • AS A LEADER, MODEL THE CHANGE you want to see in others
  • ENCOURAGE DEBATE and disagreement; cherish dissenters
  • EMBRACE CONFLICT; ask dissenters why they disagree with you
  • TREAT EVERYONE with an explicit and worthwhile set of values everyday
  • BUILD TRUST by demonstrating trust
  • BE SURE to practice what you are preaching
  • BE CONSCIOUS of the messages you are sending through your actions

Falling School Enrollment - This article appeared in the June 25, 2013 edition of the Peterborough Examiner.  Edited versions of this piece also appeared in the Hamilton Spectator and the Orillia Packet & Times

My new book, "Leadership Basics for Frontline Managers", was published by CRC Press (Taylor & Francis) in March, 2014.  To see the book, click here  then click on the Google Preview button to browse the first 25%.  Find me via email: info(at)ascentassociates(dot)ca or visit my web site or blog 



Across Canada public school enrollment is dropping.  The Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board is considering the closure of a number of facilities, including South Monaghan Public School.   During the 2006-2007 academic year, South Monaghan had an enrollment of 152 students.  This year that school’s enrollment dropped to 110, a decline of 28%.  The Board believes it has no choice.  This scenario is playing out across the country, with the exception of high-immigration areas such as Toronto.

For education planners and school boards, this means excess capacity and an opportunity to build more efficient alternatives.  The conventional wisdom is to close half-empty schools.  The preferred term for “school closure” is “school consolidation”.  Small neighbourhood schools with falling enrollment are being closed with their students being bused to much larger, consolidated schools.  Busing kids to school is seen as a worthwhile trade-off in order to provide more modern facilities that can offer a larger range of courses.   School consolidation is assumed to be a way of creating greater efficiencies while providing enhanced opportunities for students.  Both these assumptions are wrong.  As the following research shows, closing schools  
doesn't save money and the resulting large, bus-fed schools produce inferior academic and behavioural outcomes.
U.S. researchers have shown that the cost savings touted by proponents of school consolidation rarely materialize once the small neighbourhood schools are closed.   Why do Canadians steadfastly refuse to learn from U.S. mistakes?  Recent U.S. research ( shows that the cost savings from school consolidation are not born out in fact.

“• In many places, schools and (school boards) are already too large for fiscal efficiency or educational quality; deconsolidation  is more likely than consolidation to achieve substantial efficiencies and yield improved outcomes
• Financial claims about widespread benefits of consolidation are unsubstantiated by contemporary research about cost savings …  The assumptions behind such claims are most often dangerous oversimplifications.   School closures often result in extra costs due to more mid-level administration, added expenses of transportation, management, and the like
• Claims for educational benefits from systematic statewide school and (school board) consolidation are vastly overestimated and have already been maximized. Schools that are too large result in diminished academic and social performance…
• Overall, state-level consolidation proposals appear to serve a public relations purpose in times of fiscal crisis, rather than substantive fiscal or educational purposes”

. Allan Lauzon, a researcher at the University of Guelph concludes. "The literature has highlighted a number of issues that need to be considered in the context of …. school closure and board consolidation.  First, there is little empirical evidence for cost savings that can be realized through consolidation …. The literature reveals that this is a contentious issue and that differences in outcomes are dependent upon on how administrators and politicians calculate the costs and savings. The alleged savings that can be realized at this point appear to have more to do with rhetoric and ideology than it has to do with the empirical realities of what we currently know.” (

If school consolidations do not save money or provide better learning outcomes for students, why are they unfolding with such disastrous regularity?   Why are we wasting tax dollars on solutions that we know will not work? Are there any policy alternatives to school consolidation? School boards everywhere maintain that the easiest solution is to close small schools with declining enrollment. While closing schools is indeed the easiest solution, it is not necessarily the best solution. A better solution, albeit a solution requiring more work by school boards, would be to seek partnerships with other education institutions, social service agencies and appropriate community groups to share the use and costs of school facilities.  Keep small neighbourhood schools open by sharing building space with others.  Make more effective use of technology to provide enriched curriculum in smaller schools.

South Monaghan P.S. has a capacity of 210.  With a current enrollment of 100, there would be lots of room to share with a community library, seniors recreation program or other community group.  The school board would earn much-needed rent revenue, the local community would keep its school and young students would not have to spend hours riding buses every week. The board has reviewed one of these research reports and concluded that "Teachers, not school size, make the difference in optimal student success.  There is no single outcome to indicate what makes a school better or best when it comes to size." 

According to Dr. Kenneth Leithwood of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, "Smaller schools are generally better for most purposes.  The weight of evidence provided by this review favours smaller schools for a wide array of student outcomes and most organizational outcomes as well." (

Are government and school board leaders aware of these research findings concerning negative cost savings plus inferior academic and behavioural outcomes for large, consolidated schools?  Why do school board administrators choose to ignore these research findings?  Is the Minister of Education aware of these research findings? Or do these findings clash with an outdated ideology?  For more information, please visit 

Arctic Canoe Trip - This article appeared in the October, 2004 edition of the Canoe Journal.  Longer versions of this piece also appeared in the Canadian Geographic Journal, River Runner magazine and Cathay Pacific's in-flight magazine

My new book, "Leadership Basics for Frontline Managers", was published by CRC Press (Taylor & Francis) in March, 2014.  To see the book, click here  then click on the Google Preview button to browse the first 25%.  Find me via email: info(at)ascentassociates(dot)ca or visit my web site or blog 


On Captain Back’s Route: Retracing the First Descent of the Back River in Canada’s Northwest Territories

We had been preparing for this trip down the Back River for a year.  The logistics of getting six paddlers, three canoes and close to a thousand pounds of gear all the way to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories had been formidable.  We wanted to retrace the route of Captain George Back; his was the first expedition to run the full length of the river in 1834.  So the Captain Back’s Journal became required reading.  Once we finally got on the river we found many echoes of our own experience in his words.  

"I had escaped from the wretchedness of a dreary and disastrous winter...from wearisome inaction and monotony....Before me were novelty and enterprise; hope, curiosity and love of adventure were my companions...In turning my back on the Fort, I felt my breast lighten and my spirit, as it were, set free again..."

With these words, Back and his crew of nine left Fort Reliance on Great Slave Lake on June 7th, 1834, bound for the Arctic coast along a completely unexplored river. A similar lightness of heart overcame me as our Twin Otter floatplane droned out of sight, leaving us on the shores of Musk Ox Lake -- the headwaters of the Back River. Over a century and a half had elapsed since the redoubtable captain and his hardy crew set out on this epic voyage but my sense of overwhelming relief at finally getting on the water was the same.

Our journey could hardly be described as an exploration epic. We had good equipment, state-of-the-art survival gear, a generous horde of freeze-dry food, a VHF rescue radio and best of all, highly accurate maps based on aerial photography, all impossible to even imagine in 1834. Back and his crew didn't know where they were going. Surely one definition of courage must include, as Back wrote in his journal, "heading off across the Barrens in a large row boat with nothing but aboriginal legends as a guide."

The Back River has a formidable reputation: Back’s route was not repeated until 1958 when a group of Americans ran the entire 600-mile length of the river. There have been several drownings since then.  We were all competent paddlers but none of us had tackled a river with such a treacherous reputation.  Although we has all paddled together as Outward Bound instructors, none of us had been north of the 60th parallel.  And none of us had ever been so far away from outside help. 

Our minor discomforts were trivial compared to the hardships on Back’s expedition.  We drove to Yellowknife from Toronto in seven days; it took Back almost a year to paddle up from Montreal.  Once in Yellowknife we were able to fly to the headwaters of the river in 90 minutes; Back and his crew had to drag their boat across lakes and upstream through rapids for 20 days to reach the same point. Once at our put-in, we were able to back all our gear in three 17-foot ABS canoes.  We didn’t have to depend on food drops along our route.  Back had to employ local hunters to go ahead of him to leave caches of caribou and pemmican. These food caches covered less than one-fifth of the total distance his team was to travel.

Even the weather favored us.  On July 19th, 1834, Back and his crew were trapped by ice on Pelly Lake and were forced to drag their boat for miles to find open water. They were frequently battered by rain and snow squalls.  We never saw lake ice during our trip; for the first two weeks we basked in T-shirt weather.

As we paddled out of Musk Ox Lake we began to run the first of 83 sets of major rapids before reaching Chantry Inlet on the Arctic coast.  Our new canoes proved to be responsive and stable in whitewater,  good at tracking on flat water and forgiving of the occasional scrape over a hidden rock.

Back’s crew, by comparison, traveled in one 30-foot boat built from local scrub pine.  This wide-beamed boat had a 23-foot keel, masts, tiller, oars and a hull coated with tar.  Although Back could boast that “considering the knotted and indifferent material of which (it was) constructed, (the boat) did much credit to the builders”, we cringed to think of running those heavy rapids in a large wooden rowboat.  Field repairs were not an option for Back’s expedition; their entire route lay above the tree line. 

Two weeks into our expedition the summery weather gave way to bitter, wind-swept days that had us wearing most of our clothing.  But for the fact that the interiors of our tents remained dry, Back’s journal entry for July 26, 1834, could have been written by us for the same date over a century and a half latter:

The men, with great resignation, making the best of their damp lodgings, looked about for the most sheltered place to lie down; some wrung out their blankets while others, as a last resort, put on their entire wardrobes in the hope of a little warmth.”

Although we were chilly at times, we were infinitely more comfortable that Back’s crew in their wool, hides and furs.  With synthetic clothing – polyvinyl-coated nylon, Gortex, polypropylene, nylon bunting and pile—we could keep warm and dry.  Our footwear varied from neoprene booties to laced rubber boots.  We all agreed that it would have taken a very special kind of fortitude to endure icy water in the bilge of what surely must have been a leaky boat for up to 14 hours a day in wool socks and frayed moccasins. 

Part of our comfort was due to our superb tents.  No matter how miserable the weather was outside, life inside our domes remained snug and dry.

Often during the last two weeks of our expedition – two weeks of stormy weather, strong headwinds, aching muscles, lack of sleep and frayed tempers – we marveled at the fortitude of Back’s crew.  Despite having superior equipment, much better food and a far greater chance of surviving an upset swamped in the rapids – we were all strong swimmers and wore life jackets—we were still itching for the comforts of home.  Imagine the terror those explorers had to face at each rapid: Life jackets had not been invented yet and few of them even knew how to swim.  In our canoes we could ferry back and forth, pick our lines and avoid stopper waves and bus-eater holes.  Running rapids in Back’s rowboat must have been the 19th century equivalent of rafting minus all the floatation and most of the maneuverability.

Our respect for Back’s crew extended beyond their courage in whitewater.  Our rotating menu meant never having to face the same dish more than three times every two weeks.  Our bland lunches (crackers, cheese, trail mix, dried sausage and on rough days hot soup) included a different chocolate bar every day.  Back’s crew lunched on far rougher fare:

“The meat had suffered considerable mutilation from the wolves.  The cache was most consisted of deer and musk ox, both very poor, and the latter impregnated with the odor to which it owes its name.  This was so disagreeable to some of the party that they declared they would rather starve three days than swallow a mouthful; ...I thought it right to counteract the feeling, and ... impress upon their minds ... the necessity of accommodating their tastes to such food as the country might provide.”

Who were these men who endured so much while travelling down the river we were on?  Back came to Canada with four Englishmen – Dr. Richard King, the expedition surgeon and naturalist, and three others.  In Montreal, Back accepted three volunteers, all British soldiers stationed in Quebec.  In Norway House, an outpost en route to Great Slave Lake he recruited two Metis from the Hudson Bay Company.

In the evenings we would read Back’s Journal to know what the river would be like during the next days.  We were eager to get to a chain of mountains that Back described as being “formidable summits of Alpine grandeur”. When we arrived at the point on the map where these peaks should have been, we were amused to discover that Back’s lofty mountains were just a cluster of low hills. The tallest of these – perhaps 200 feet in altitude above the shore – he named Mount McKay, in honor of one of his crew.  We strolled up this hill in less than 10 minutes after lunch. Back had applied a generous dash of hyperbole to his journal in order to impress his sponsors back in England.  In the 1830’s the Royal Family could have hardly ordered their Auditor General to verify Back’s claims by dispatching a mission to fly to Yellowknife then rent a floatplane to inspect the river.

On August 13 we arrived at a small island in the mouth of the Back River where it emptied into Chantry Inlet on the Arctic coast.  A motorboat was supposed to meet us there and take us across to Gjoa Haven, a hamlet on King William Island, from where we could catch a flight back to Yellowknife.  Our boat captain was not there.  We hunkered down to wait, assuming our boat was held up by bad weather.  Two days later we started broadcasting requests for help.  No reply.  We sent messages that our boat was overdue and the crew possibly in trouble.  Again, no reply.  We switched frequencies, attempting to make contact with high-altitude commercial aircraft.  No return calls.  During our 35 days on the river we had seen aircraft on average every four days.  Now the sky was empty.   

We were in no danger.  We still had enough food for a week and our two fishermen were at last catching huge trout and Arctic Char.  We made ourselves comfortable by erecting a large windbreak made from the wreckage of an abandoned nursing station.   We knew that if we did not arrive back in Yellowknife by August 22 that our families would alert the authorities.  Still, we were marooned. 

At last we made contact with a cargo plane.  The pilot knew where we were from our description of the land and the river.  He relayed our message to Yellowknife.  It turned out that our boat captain had been trapped by sea ice and was unable to leave his harbor. Two days later a Twin Otter droned over the horizon, circled three times and landed at our beach.  In minutes we had loaded our gear and were en route to hot showers and cold beer in Yellowknife, five hours away.

In late August Back and his crew began their return journey to Great Slave Lake.  It took them over a month to row back upstream to their base camp. 

We arrived just before dinnertime in Yellowknife; we were soon settling into motel rooms, flipping through surreal TV channels and squabbling over which restaurant we should go to for a final feast.  Back arrived home to a very different set of circumstances.

“Late in the forenoon (of September 27) we arrived at Fort Reliance, after an absence of nearly four months; tired indeed but well in health, and truly grateful for the manifold mercies we had experienced in the course of our long and perilous journey.  The house was standing, but that was all; for it inclined fearfully to the west, and the mud used for plastering had been washed away by the rain.  Nothing, in short, could present a more cheerless appearance for a dwelling, and after three hours’ rest, the men were set to work about the necessary reparations.”
Information Overload - This article appeared in the March, 2011 edition of the Durham Business Times

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No matter what we do for a living, all of us face an avalanche of distractions each day that can throw us off our game.    We must constantly keep asking ourselves, “What do I have to pay attention to right now, what can wait until later, what might be good to know but not essential to my success and what can I safely ignore?”

According to a recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly on information overload (, the challenge of staying focused in midst of an excess of information pre-dates the Computer Age.  Writing in 1967, management guru Peter Drucker recommended that executives reserve large blocks of time on their calendars for thinking, not answer the phone and return calls only once or twice a day.  While Drucker’s readers in the 60’s didn’t have to deal with digital technology, his admonitions nonetheless ring true today.

Those with leadership responsibility at any level face a torrent of email messages, phone calls, text messages, Tweets, Facebook postings, blog comments and messages on other social media platforms that might contain useful customer feedback or information about competitors, new products and business trends.  How can we avoid being buried by this information tsunami?

Many of us believe that if we excel at multitasking, we can stay on top of this wave.  Research cited in the McKinsey article reveals that multitasking is an ineffective coping mechanism leading to lower productivity, lower creativity and impaired decision-making.   The reality is that multitasking slow us down.  The human brain does its best work when focused on one task at a time.  Individuals may dispute this conclusion, but the evidence is in.  For example, why is it now illegal to text while driving? 

The inefficiency caused by multitasking is due to the brain’s inability to let us perform two actions at the same time.  While multitasking may allow us to cross off simpler tasks on our to-do lists, it rarely helps us resolve more difficult problems.  Multitasking can become simple procrastination. 

Multitasking can also make us anxious.  People required to multitask show higher levels of stress.  The information overload associated with multitasking lessens job satisfaction and can disrupt personal relationships.  And multitasking can become addictive by causing specific ‘emergency’ hormones to be released in our bodies.

So if multitasking doesn’t work, what can we do?
·                     Be highly disciplined in how you use your time
·                     Constantly set and update your priorities
·                     Be focused on what matters most.  Beware of cruising through information that may be nice to know, but not essential for the tasks at hand.  As one CEO said, “You have to guard against the danger of over-eating at an interesting intellectual buffet”
·                     Encourage your colleagues to respect your priorities.  One colleague of mine used to place a “Focus Time” sign at her work station.  She made it clear to all of us that unless the business was in immediate jeopardy and her input was critical to resolving a crisis that we were to leave her alone.  She only posted this sign a few times a week, and usually only for a few hours, so we respected her wishes
·                     Filter the information as it comes at you.  Know what you can ignore, what you can skim, what you must read in detail later and what you must deal with right now
·                     Give your brain down time during the work day to solve problems and reset your priorities so that you are focusing on the right things. A quick walk, a short workout, and a set period of time away from all communication technology can all help the brain to do its best work

Accept the fact that multitasking is not heroic.  Understand that it is really counterproductive.  Instead of doing a half-baked job on five tasks at once, then be forced to take additional time to fix your mistakes, work on one task at a time but get it right the first time


·                     Pay attention to how you use your time
·                     Constantly refresh your priorities
·                     Focus on what matters most
·                     Make sure your colleagues know and respect your priorities
·                     Filter the information coming at you
·                     Give your brain some down time every day
·                     Stop multitasking.  It’s counterproductive; it wears you down
School Reform - This article appeared on the Save Local Schools web
2012.  To browse my leadership book, click here then click on the Google Preview
button. Find me via email: info(at)ascentassociates(dot)ca or visit my web site or blog 



During the 1980s, when many of our current school board administrators were university
students, school consolidation was touted as the ultimate strategy for maximizing cost-savings,
enriching curriculum and creating optimum learning outcomes for students.  In the U.S. and
across Canada, school board administrators advocated the building of large high schools
capable of accommodating between 1000 and 2000 students. Hundreds of these “big-box”
factory-sized schools were built.  During the 1980’s, demographic trends supported these big
schools; there were enough students around to fill these schools without excessive bus
transport.  Not so today.

The 20th Century Solution: Ontario’s Ministry of Education is still mired in the last century when
it comes to the promotion of big box composite schools as the optimum facility for delivering
the Ontario Secondary School Curriculum.  Of course the Ministry does not impose such a
policy on local school boards; these boards, like our own Kawartha Pine Ridge District School
Board (KPRDSB), are independent corporations mandated to operate their schools in
accordance with the Education Act.  However, the Ministry maintains funding formulae that, in
effect, controls the actions of school boards.  Suppose a school board like our KPRDSB has 4
city high schools, total capacity of about 4000 students.  Suppose the current student
population of these 4 schools adds up to about 3000 students. Suppose the students are
distributed this way:....

As this article is rather long, please see
Older Parents - This article appeared in Maclean's magazine, April 5, 2004

To browse my leadership book, click here then click on the Google Preview button. 
Find me via email: info(at)ascentassociates(dot)ca or visit my web site or blog 


I'm Dad, Not Granddad

As a father over 50, I worry that I have so little time left with my kids

AS I WAS GOING through the checkout at our local supermarket with my daughters, aged 4 and 8, a friendly young cashier grinned at them and said, "Wow, it must be fun going shopping with Grandpa!" The girls stopped bantering with each other and looked up at me. "Well, I could be their grandfather," I offered. "I am old enough. But I took up this sport very late in life. I'm their father." The cashier beamed at me and said, "Really? I would have never guessed!"

At 60, I am mistaken for a grandfather every few months. But am I really that much of an anomaly? David Letterman recently became a first-time father at 56. And probably even more men over 50 have young kids from remarrying after being widowed or divorced. Paul McCartney, 61, who has a five-month-old daughter with his second wife, and CNN host Larry King, 70, who has two sons aged 5 and 3 with wife No. 7, come to mind. But while there's anecdotal evidence that the incidence of late fatherhood is increasing, there are few statistics. Given the peripheral role fathers play in reproduction, this dearth should perhaps be no surprise. But it would be comforting to know how many others are over 50 when embarking on this existential crisis called fathering. Or would it?

During my bachelor years, none of my male friends talked about ever wanting to become fathers. Fatherhood, unplanned or otherwise, was something to be dreaded. Few, at least in the tribes I travelled with, even mentioned their own fathers. Women, even those who eventually decide they don't want kids, seem to approach motherhood quite differently. My wife, Trudi, knew by the time she was 12 that she wanted to be a mom at some point when she grew up.

After dating for two years and living together for one, we were married when she was 33 and I was 49. It was the first time for both of us. We talked about having children; or rather she stated her position and I mumbled in cautious agreement, privately hoping that luck or waning fertility would save me. Two years later, we had our first child, a girl. Another girl came along four years later, when I was 55. I used to tell a bad joke about a man facing a greater chance of being kidnapped by terrorists than becoming a father over 50. But that was then.

Now, the euphoria of new parenthood has been replaced by an aura of impending crisis. I want more time with my kids and I do not know how to get it. Not just time to play games. Time to live together. Time to see them grow to full independence and find their own way in life. This is not about pity; it is about consequences.

So I parse the Deadly Arithmetic. Assuming the stars smile favourably on us, I will be 76 and Trudi 60 by the time our youngest turns 21. So I work out every day, do my yoga, quaff green tea, gulp down vitamins, drink a little red wine, eat tofu, munch raw veggies and avoid trans fats, as if these actions improved my eternal credit rating with the Royal Bank of the Gods.

When I contemplate all my neurotic health practices, I realize that there is much for me in T.S. Eliot's words, These fragments I have shored against my ruins. In the end, my ruins will crumble. But can I hold off my own Waste Land long enough to get my kids launched safely into adult life?

Like the rest of my generation, when I was young the passage of time was to be ignored. Consequences denied. I lived as if I was immortal. Now I am a very mortal father. Last year, I lost two old friends, both of them fathers in their 50s, to aggressive cancers. One was a marathon runner. He complained of fatigue, checked himself into the hospital and died three weeks later, leaving behind two adult sons. I used to cope with death better when it was something only other people had to confront. Now I hide the Deadly Arithmetic from my girls. A few months ago, my four-year-old looked up at me and solemnly asked, "Will you always take care of me and be my daddy?" I lied.

There may be an immense loneliness to facing old age without children. I don't know. Now that my daughters are here I cannot imagine their absence. Being their father is my most important job in life; the things I do for money, even the things I do for my own fulfillment, are sidelines.

But sometimes I wonder what life would be like without them. Would my life be elegantly serene? The endless drudgery would certainly disappear. I sometimes crave more personal time and resent their intrusions. My heart does not seem big enough to hold my love for them and my unfinished agendas for the rest of my years.

There is so much I need to do to prepare them for life, and so little time left. Good parenting demands a supreme level of unselfishness; on many days I just don't have it. Yet when I come home, the girls jump into my lap. Resentments vanish. I hold them. For a moment, I stop calculating the Deadly Arithmetic.

Bill Templeman lives in Peterborough, Ont.
9/11 Terror Attacks 5 Years After -- This article appeared in the September 11, 2006 issue of the Hamilton Spectator

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On September 11th, 2003 I made five judgments in this column about the War on Terror.  On this 5th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks it makes sense to re-visit those judgments and test their validity against recent history.  My comments from 2003 are italics. 

There will be a continuing role for decisive military intervention in the on-going War on Terror. Police and intelligence services everywhere will need to strengthen their efforts to track and diffuse terror organizations.  But on this 5th anniversary of 9/11 government leaders in Canada and around the world need to re-engage with the complexities of terrorism and address its root causes, not only its brutal manifestations.

The military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq are being simultaneously celebrated as victories and condemned as failures. The campaign in Afghanistan has become a chronic guerilla war in which a revitalized Taliban is proving to be a stubborn enemy.  Canada’s General Rick Hillier has said that our country has to be ready to make a commitment of at least a decade to achieve the goals of the mission:  An Afghanistan with a democratically-elected government free of outside tyranny.  The campaign in Iraq, outside of official Washington, is reported to be on the cusp of failure. 

The supporters of U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration claim that the entire world must engage in a titanic battle against the evil of international terrorism. International co-operation in the fight against terrorism has had a number of important successes recently (the diffusion of the airline bombers in Britain and the arrest of terrorists in Ontario). While the armies of the free world have not flocked to support Bush’s foreign policy strategies, it would appear that police and intelligence services around the world are working in a much more integrated – and effective – way than even 3 years ago on tracking and preventing terrorist activities.

Those who oppose this battle analogy (the professional anti-Americans, according to the Bush supporters), claim that the American response is making the world situation worse, not better. Terror groups using Muslim fundamentalism to further their own ends are increasing in strength, not diminishing (two attacks in Jakarta, two in Bali, attacks in Madrid, London, Mumbai, and the thwarted attacks in Ontario and on transatlantic airliners). The protracted war in Iraq is inflating debt-driven defense spending in the US. Opinion is divided among mainstream economists as to the long-term capability of the US economy to sustain the current level of government borrowing.   Given the intensification of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a increasingly hideous civil war in Iraq, the Hezbollah war and subsequent devastation of southern Lebanon, plus Iran’s putative entry into the nuclear arms race it would not be entirely irrational to conclude that the stability of the Middle East has deteriorated during the War on Terror.  Increased stability in this region was one of the initial justifications of the 2003 US/UK invasion of Iraq. 

Instead of evaluating past U.S. policies sand researching sensible changes, the neo-conservative cabal in Washington continues to embrace the simplistic theory that terrorism is a military problem that has a military solution.  Limited by their own doctrinaire radicalism, they cannot entertain the possibility that terrorism, like guerrilla war, is the result of the confluence of a series of intractable problems that demand more complex solutions.  The Coalition forces cannot stop the mounting civil war that is consuming huge parts of Iraq and they have no viable exit strategy. At home the Republicans are reported to be facing an electoral backlash over Iraq in November’s mid-term elections.  Tony Blair has been forced to step aside by his own party.  In Afghanistan NATO, led by the US, the UK and Canada, has embarked upon a counter-terrorism campaign that is, according to Emmanuel Reinert, executive director of the Senlis Council, an international think tank, wreaking havoc among civilians in some Afghan provinces:
Huge amounts of money have been spent on large and costly military operations, but after five years southern Afghanistan is once more a battlefield for the control of the country.  At the same time, the Afghans are starving. …The US policies in Afghanistan have re-created the safe haven for terrorism that the 2001 invasion aimed to destroy."

In its report, Afghanistan Five Years Later: The Return of the Taliban, the council said swaths of the country were falling back into the hands of the Taliban.  There are between 10 and 15 refugee camps, with up to 10,000 people in each, in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, with little or no help from relief agencies. How many hearts and minds are being won with these methods? When the Taliban burns down schools and clinics then decapitates teachers and nurses, clearly there is a need for a robust military response.   But where have the aggressive, ‘take-it-to-the-enemy’ counter-terrorism tactics currently being applied in Afghanistan resulted in a victory over a guerrilla force?  Vietnam?  Gaza? Lebanon? Iraq?  Are there other options to the current strategy that would achieve the desired outcomes?  All the NATO participants in the Afghanistan campaign need to reflect upon this question. 

In Canada the least we can do is to have an open parliamentary debate on how to best bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.  Canada must use its international influence to persuade the community of developed nations that terrorism must be confronted on diplomatic, economic development levels as well as on a military level. We need to become intolerant of those who would sidestep democratic values to achieve their own ends. In its more lucid moments, Al-Qaeda has declared that it wants foreign troops out of disputed Muslim territories in Chechnya, Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. The West will never bow to these demands. But surely the decision-makers guiding the War on Terror should not take actions that make the global terror situation worse instead of better.  With the wisdom of hindsight, it is could be argued that the US/UK invasion and occupation of Iraq has exacerbated the threat of terrorism.  If the full weight of the US military had been applied to the pacification and reconstruction of Afghanistan, perhaps NATO would not be fighting a guerrilla war there today. 


Father's Day - This article first appeared in the June 17, 2004 edition of the Globe & Mail

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Shadows and sunlight on Father’s Day

Forget the easy cynicism about Father's Day. The arbitrary designation of the third Sunday in June as Father's Day may well be a marketer's invention to improve retail sales as shoppers abandon the malls when the first warm weather hits. But Father's Day triggers much more than shopping. It unleashes an emotional undercurrent of labyrinthine complexity. Why?

Mother's Day, albeit another marketing scam invented to separate us from our money, is a much more worthy occasion. Any father who has attended a childbirth will acknowledge that he got the easier job. It is easy to see what Mom has done for us. Therefore on Mother's Day we buy her cards, send flowers or take her out to dinner. Mothers deserve our thanks. At least this way we are reminded to do it once a year. With Father's Day, the issue darkens, taking on greater nuance.

Perhaps fathers come back to our memories more poignantly than mothers because we never really knew them. If you were born before 1945, chances are your father was a visiting celebrity in your childhood. If you were born in between 1945 and 1960, you may have more memories of him, but maybe not more involvement. After 1960, he was around more and began spending some time with you. After 1975, he might even have maintained the illusion of spending as much time with you as did your mother. Don't believe him. He didn't. Now he regrets it.

Dead fathers come back to us when we least expect them. A whiff of cigar smoke on a busy sidewalk. Old plaid shirts in a cupboard. Medals at the back of a drawer. Fishing rods, trout flies in a tackle box. His favourite beer. Living fathers tend to be older than their wives and less agile at adapting to the passing years. They are more brittle. Like tall trees in a cyclone, they are blown down sooner. We take them in our arms as we never tried to as children. Now they are so much smaller. The physical prowess we remember has melted away. Now they have soft middles and stooping postures. Warriors no more.

Fatherhood is a largely unconscious role. Ask any group of 11-year-old girls on the cusp of fertility about their life aspirations. Many of them will mention becoming a mom. Then ask their male classmates. No mention of becoming a dad. None. Sex, yes. In the pubescent male imagination, manhood and fatherhood travel in non-intersecting orbits. Fatherhood is not part of most men's Game Plans. They don't aim for it. Fatherhood often struggles into male consciousness only during an affair that is threatening to become a permanent fixture. This prospect often triggers the fight-or-flight response.

The unconscious is a very chaotic entity. Often, as a man lurches into fatherhood and holds his first newborn child, he is overwhelmed by deep feelings that have been crouching just beneath his skin, like patient terrorists about to wreak havoc. The responses to fatherhood cover the full repertoire. He may surrender to the love of his children the moment they are born. Or he may see them as encumbrances that he has to endure to keep living with this particular woman. Or he may run. Or any combination thereof. If he is lucky his wife will read his symptoms and help him interpret these feelings. If he is unlucky his wife will assume the worst, lower her expectations and let him slouch through fatherhood as if drunk, oblivious to what he is missing.

For anthropologists, fatherhood is a very ambiguous role. Apart from the biological imperative, children can survive and grow to maturity without the intervention of a father. True, such circumstances might result in guaranteed income for future generations of therapists, but so can families with abusive fathers. Or unfulfilled fathers who blame their lack of achievement on their families. Almost any sort of a mother is far better than none. Can the same be said of fathers?

Any job description for the position of father would be necessarily vague; the rules, roles and expectations of fathers are in constant flux. Think of any job that lacks clear rules, roles and expectations. How well are these jobs performed?

Fathers still feel their way through the maze, bumping into walls and bruising foreheads. Fathers talk more about fatherhood now than 50 years ago, but they are still woefully isolated compared to their wives when it comes to support for their emerging roles.

Clearly songwriter Leonard Cohen knows something about fatherhood. His own father died when he was 10. He avoided fatherhood for as long as he could. When one of his amours had two kids, he left. Consider the lyrics of Cohen's First We Take Manhattan:

Remember me? I used to live for music./
Remember me? I brought your groceries in./
It's Father's Day and everybody's wounded/
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.

What are the wounds of Father's Day? Grief for lost fathers. Resentment for absent fathers. Regret for thanks left unsaid, for embraces never given nor received. Fondness for times shared, precious to the memory due to their infrequency. Anger over old battles, loud voices. Strong hands. Throbbing scars. Old wounds. Father's Day.

On this Father's Day let us celebrate fathers who strive to become more conscious of the cold shadows or warm sunlight they can shed on the lives of their loved ones.

Bill Templeman is a writer and consultant in Peterborough, Ont.