The Wit and Wisdom of Michael Gelb

I am grateful to Monique Muhlenkamp (New World Library Publishers) for providing a Q&A in which Michael Gelb shares his thoughts about a remarkably diverse range of subjects.

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Michael J. Gelb is the author most recently of The Art of Connection: 7 Relationship-Building Skills Every Leader Needs Now, published by New World Library (September 2017). He has pioneered in the fields of creative thinking, accelerated learning, and innovative leadership. He leads seminars for organizations such as DuPont, Merck, Microsoft, Nike, Raytheon, and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He is the coauthor of Brain Power and author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci as well as several other bestsellers.

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You claim that business offers the greatest hope for humanity. Please explain.

For almost 40 years I’ve worked with corporations, helping them become more creative and human-oriented. This work is part of a growing movement toward sustainable, conscious capitalism. Business leaders are recognizing that they will be more successful and profitable if they care for all their stakeholders including the community, environment, workers etc. They make the world better by the way they do business, and the world responds by making them more profitable. This isn’t touchy-feely idealism; it’s practical, evidence-based reality.

Vulnerability is a hot topic – is it a weakness or a power?

In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown argues that “vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences.”

The V-word word has become popular, but it’s not the best term. Derived from the Latin vulnerare, “to wound,” synonyms include weak, helpless, defenseless, sitting duck, and sucker.

More helpful words to express this quality include Accessible, Approachable, Open, and Present Receptive.

When we are open and accessible, it’s much easier for others to connect with us. For example, at a recent seminar for construction managers in New York, the group engaged in a discussion about the importance of seeking input from work crews on job sites. Joe, a veteran senior project manager, asked, “Won’t my people think I’m weak if I ask for their ideas?” This led to a passionate discussion in which many of the younger participants shared their belief that when a boss asks for their contributions, they feel respected and included. As a result, they see this as a sign of strength. This is a big change in the world of work!

You’re known as a thought leader in Creativity and Innovation so why have you written a book about relationships?

My primary emphasis has been on teaching people the mindset and skills of creative thinking. It’s relatively easy to teach people how to generate new ideas. The hard part is getting support for those ideas and overcoming resistance to innovation and change. This demands skill in building relationships, and it often means managing conflict.

Many of my clients are champions of innovative change in companies, schools, non-profits and government agencies, and they seek help in overcoming resistance to new ideas. Whether you are championing innovation and positive change in your organization, trying to negotiate a fair deal with a collaborator, or dealing with a dispute with your spouse or child, your success and fulfillment will be a function of your ability to apply the art of connection.

You write that contemporary leaders need to be able to communicate like therapists? Are you joking?

Yes, but it’s also a serious point. In the 1970s managers were just managers. In the 1980s managers were asked to learn how to be leaders, something that has become more important every decade since. In the first decade of the new millennium, managers were also asked to develop the skill of coaches. Now if you lead in any kind of organization, in addition to knowing how to be a coach, it really helps if you can think and speak like a psychotherapist. The same thing is true for parents and spouses.

You have a whole chapter focusing on the notion that Emotions Are Contagious. Please explain.

This is ancient wisdom validated by contemporary science. More than two thousand years ago the Greek playwright Euripides noted “Every man is like the company he keeps.” More recently, “computational social science,” has demonstrated that our emotions are contagious, for better or worse, affecting everything from our weight and alcohol consumption to our sleep patterns and general happiness. Computational social science validates Euripides assertion: If, for example, most of the people you interact with are alcoholic, obese, or depressed, then you are more susceptible to those conditions, but if those people are healthy, happy, and fit, then you are more likely to be so too.

You state, “The current climate of disrespectful speech may be doing as much harm to our country as the disregard for the planet’s climate.” Please elaborate.

We know from decades of research that rudeness, incivility and verbal abuse are not only unpleasant but profoundly destructive. This is a national “teachable moment.” As Bob Sutton a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford emphasizes, “If you work for a jerk, odds are you will become one.” Prof Christine Porath of Georgetown U. surveyed more than fourteen thousand people from a wide range of organizations, and found that those who tolerate incivility suffer greater turnover and have trouble attracting and retaining the best people, are less creative and innovative, and lose customers and weaken their brand. Porath sums it up: “Incivility is expensive.” It’s not surprising that we are witnessing record turnover in the Executive branch and that the brand of America is suffering internationally.

You claim that The Art of Connection offers “the secret of health, happiness and leadership.” How do we know that’s true?

Research! Psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School Robert Waldinger is the current director of the world’s longest-running social science study. For more than seventy-seven years they’ve followed a group of 724 men, measuring the factors that most influence their mental and physical health. Waldinger and his three predecessors all found that most younger men believe that money, power, achievement, and fame are the keys to success and happiness. That’s certainly the impression one gets from contemporary media, advertising, video games, and reality television. But the results of the study are undeniably clear: the most important factor in a happy and healthy life is a positive sense of connection with others.

Waldinger’s conclusions are supported and extended by many other studies. The sense of positive social connectedness yields many research-validated benefits. It:

o strengthens immune function and reduces inflammation.
o prevents dementia, diabetes, and many other ailments.
o promotes longevity.

In a world where people are more dependent than ever on electronic communication is your book relevant?

It’s not just relevant, it’s urgent and critical. Children are growing up learning communication skills from Siri and Alexa. As The Onion proclaimed: “LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR PLUMMETS!” Through interviews and practical collaboration with successful leaders in different walks of life it’s vividly clear that the ability to connect, to listen, empathize and be compassionate is a distinguishing characteristic and that it’s more valuable than ever, now.

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Fun Facts about Michael Gelb:

He is the originator of a unique approach to teambuilding through the enjoyment of wine and poetry, as expressed in Wine Drinking For Inspired Thinking: Uncork Your Creative Juices.

A professional juggler who performed with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, he introduced the idea of teaching juggling to promote accelerated learning and team-building. He is the author of More Balls Than Hands.

A fifth degree black belt in the martial art of Aikido and an avid chess player, he is co-author with Grandmaster Raymond Keene, of Samurai Chess: Mastering Strategy Through the Martial Art of the Mind.

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Thank you, Monique!

To learn more about Michael, please click here.

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