Death Comes in Threes
Three things have recently converged on my mind that remind me of the grave danger we face every day by submitting our fate to the hands of “leaders.” First, I saw TimeLine Theatre’s magnificent production of Lee Blessing’s A Walk in the Woods playing now through Novermber 20th at Theater Wit. That experience reminded me of a ballet I saw several years ago at a Joffrey Ballet of Chicago performance. German Choreographer Curt Jooss’s The Green Table portrays the futility of negotiation and the triumph of death over sanity and humanism. Finally, I have been viewing a Teaching Company DVD entitled Transformational Leadership: How Leaders change Teams, Companies and Organizations.
Diplomacy vs. Negotiation
Certainly the production of A Walk in the Woods by TimeLine Theatre Company is what started me thinking about all of this. This is a two-character play, mostly dialog that takes place in an unchanging wooded setting populated only by stylized trees and foliage augmented by projected images and a single bench. U.S. negotiator John Honeyman is played by David Parkes and Soviet negotiator Anya Botvinnik is handled by Janet Ulrich Brooks. Both actors turn in spectacular and convincing performances. Parkes’ portrayal of the somewhat inexperienced and idealistic American is convincing; Brooks’ portrayal of Botvinnik is equally convincing and comes complete with a Russian dialect that never misses a beat for the entire production.
Honeyman, the American, keeps insisting that the two are “negotiating” and not engaged in “diplomacy.” A quick look at a dictionary will reveal that there is a substantial difference between the two words. Most dictionaries lead us to believe that diplomacy is the art of relationships that are treated with sensitivity, friendship and respect while negotiation is an attempt to reach an agreement between parties with an almost adversarial connotation. The Russian, Botvinnik, repeatedly uses the word diplomacy only to be corrected by the American who insists that they are in reality negotiating. This difference presents a telling attitude on the part of each of the pair.
At intermission my mind drifted toward what I know about conflict resolution and how one of the most important parts of any conflict resolution is the discovery of common goals and objectives. These shared objectives can become the basis for real ongoing conversation that ultimately results in a lasting resolution to seemingly intractable differences. Witness for example, the difficulties facing several major orchestras at this point in history. Recently, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and currently the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Louisville Orchestra face desperate financial situations. Given the adversarial relationship that exists between musicians and the governing boards and management it should come as no surprise that these “negotiations” are proceeding with more venom than shared values and objectives. While these adversarial proceedings suit the agendas of some critics and bloggers (what fun it must be to fan the flames of controversy in order to have something to blog about tomorrow) it does little to begin to repair the damage that has been done by decades of American-style labor relations. The “negotiations” take place; both sides feel as though they have given more than they have received; both sides grudgingly agree to a settlement with a firm resolve that “next time, I’ll get even.” Where is the diplomacy? Where is the sensitivity? Where is the understanding? Where are the shared values and objectives?
Ultimately, Botvinnik, the Soviet negotiator, triumphs in her attempt to introduce diplomacy into her relationship with the American Honeyman. Eventually, they discover their shared values and objectives. Will this discovery between two people impact the future of mankind? In point of historical fact there are many who will assert that the real events surrounding the fictional realization if A Walk in the Woods did in fact send a signal to the world that the United States and Soviet Union were at last serious about arms control. The conclusion of the play finds Honeyman and Botvinnik reaching agreement on a suggestion for a treaty, just as historical fact records. It must next be accepted by their respective governments.
Negotiate; Make War; Bury the Wounded; Negotiate
Kurt Jooss’s ballet, The Green Table, is so named because of the custom of conducting negotiations across a table covered with green felt. The dancers portray the negotiators. The grotesque and stylized movements of the negotiators are exaggerated by the masques worn by the dancers as they trade thrusts and parries across the negotiating table. Eventually, the negotiators draw pistols and fire them, signaling the declaration of war and the beginning of hostilities. There follows a number of sections such as The Farewell, as soldiers bid their family adieu as they leave for battle; The Battle and The Partisan depict the war itself; loneliness and misery is shown by The Refugees; The Brothel shows us the emptiness of “entertaining the troops”; finally, The Aftermath presents the psychologically wounded survivors. The ballet concludes with a repeat of the opening scene of “The Gentlemen in Black” around the negotiating table. Throughout the ballet the dancer that portrays Death emerges triumphant and the Profiteer rakes in his monetary rewards for the sufferings of others.
This is admittedly a severely cynical view of negotiating but given the origins of the piece, the Weimar Republic of Germany in 1932, it represents one artist’s concerns over the course being taken by his own country. From that concern he extrapolates the general futility of negotiating and the cyclical nature of the negotiating process: negotiate, make war, bury the wounded, negotiate again.
The similarities between A Walk in the Woods and The Green Table are unmistakable as are the similarities among A Walk in the Woods, The Green Table and some current labor negotiations at prominent American Orchestras. All three share the same themes of mistrust, lack of understanding, a failure to find common ground and a willingness to view the entire process as a zero-sum game. Well, perhaps Honeyman and Botvinnik eventually begin to see the futility of negotiation toward the end of their walks.
Leadership: An Incomplete View
I am interested in leadership because I am involved in nonprofit management. Although not unique to nonprofits, it is an especially important consideration given the nature of the nonprofit organization that lacks the profit motive as an instrument of inspiration and that depends instead on abstract notions of mission and leadership. The Teaching Company has always published material that I have found both informative and valuable, so I ordered Transformational Leadership: How Leaders Change Teams, Companies, and Organizations. I have only viewed the first three of the twenty-four half-hour lectures. The course has already proved to be both informative and valuable. Very early in the course Professor Michael A. Roberto, the course’s instructor, makes it plain that there is no correlation between character traits and our ability to predict success as a leader. Rather, it is skills and competencies that are the most valuable predictors of success as a leader. Despite this fact, investigated and researched many times by scholars who all arrive independently at the same conclusion, you will find countless internet websites alleging to counsel individuals on how to advance their career by developing certain “character traits.” There is absolutely no evidence to support any of this emphasis on things like “passion,” “an optimistic attitude” or “self-confidence.” Yet we continue to use these obsolete and disproved notions in our evaluation of others.
Ultimately, this course will examine the success of a “leader” as a combination of factors such as context and the implementation of a team leadership approach that really involves a group of individuals and not just the single “Lone Ranger” hero of the organization. In the long run, skills and competencies that can be learned and perfected are what determine the success of a leader.
The implications for this are enormous. As A Walk in the Woods portrays the agreement developed by Honeyman and Botvinnik was presented to their respective governments. But was the decision to accept or reject the agreement made by a single individual? Was there instead some sort of team effort that ultimately determined the course of strategic arms negotiations? The Green Table on the other hand treats leadership as though it didn’t exist and as though it were simply “fate” and a poorly conceived system of negotiations that results in the inevitable cycle of death and destruction faced by mankind. What about negotiations between symphony musicians and their governing boards? Is it really the absence of strong leadership—leadership that is skilled and competent—that results in the confrontational nature of contract negotiations?
These are complex issues that occur in a variety of contexts ranging from the truly horrific, such as nuclear holocaust at the national level, to the way you try to reason with your teenaged son or daughter who clearly entertains different standards of behavior than you do.
TimeLine; Time Out
TimeLine Theatre Company’s Board President Cindy Giacchetti makes the following observation:
A TimeLine play is not just 120 minutes in a dark theater. It is the conversation you have with others, or even with yourself, hours and sometimes days after the applause ends.
Ms. Giacchetti never claims that TimeLine will provide answers and indeed, in this case it has only provided a means for my own further explorations of leadership, diplomacy and negotiations.