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Interview with Heidi Gehman

HLC Int18.003

Stephen had the pleasure of talking about self leadership with Heidi Gehman, a higher education administrator and former colleague of Stephen’s at Oregon Extension, where she was teaching college courses in the Humanities. Stephen talks to Heidi about more humane leadership here.

Topics discussed in this interview

    • Hope
    • Impeccability
    • The moral life
    • Iris Murdoch’s concept of “intentional attention”
    • How to get the ego out of the way of truth

Transcription:

SBS:
Will you introduce yourself, please?

Heidi:
Yeah, I’m Heidi Gehman and I have a PhD in Religious Ethics, and I’m interested in the idea of humane leadership.

SBS:
And where did we meet?

Heidi:
We met at the Oregon Extension, which is a tiny off-campus college program in the Cascade Mountains of Southern Oregon that is focused on a holistic educational process that has some similarities to the idea of being whole persons, no matter what context you’re in, whether it’s work or school or just being part of a community.

SBS:
Is that experience at Oregon Extension what makes you interested in humane leadership?

Heidi:
I think the experience of the Oregon Extension has confirmed my feeling that we need spaces to be completely who we are instead of being compartmentalized. Seeing the educational process of students who live and work and read and talk and think together has made it clear that when you’re engaged on all those different levels, there’s a lot more creativity and energy that happens. Regular jobs in the business world don’t necessarily lend themselves to a humanistic or holistic way of being. How can we make it more integrated into human life? That’s very interesting to me.

SBS:

You mentioned in a prior conversation that you had done your dissertation on somebody named Iris Murdoch. Can you introduce us to her and some of the questions that you asked of her and that she was asking of life?

Heidi:
Most people might know of her as a British novelist because she wrote thirty to forty novels, but she was also a moral philosopher and wrote some moral philosophy. There is in fact a movie called Iris that is all about her life, but unfortunately it’s primarily not about her philosophical life but about her life married to a British literary critic as she descended into Alzheimer’s. It’s a very gripping life story.

She’s an interesting philosopher because she was arguing against the very rationalistic approaches to ethics that she felt were antithetical to how we actually operate as human creatures. In some ways she took a phenomenological approach to human morality which is to say, she wanted to look at how we actually work as human beings and then talk about the moral life from that perspective. Her argument was, whatever we say about human morality, it has to resonate and be true to how we actually function as moral creatures. She took that approach to ethics.

She had a couple of very distinctive claims about the moral life. One was that it is incredibly difficult for human beings to change, in particular to change to be morally better than they are. But that’s what she was interested in, so she wanted to take seriously the fact that we all have what she called the fat, relentless ego. For her that meant most of our motivation is driven by self preservation and self enhancement and that we’re naturally geared to be self protective in that way. That makes us see the world in a skewed way, that is to see the world– any situation, any relationship, any workplace environment– from the perspective of how am I going to protect myself here, or how I’m not going to get what I want and need?

She said the primary moral work for human beings is to try to see the world outside of that egoistic perspective, and that required what she called “attention,” which is a very basic normal word, but it’s been used by a few other philosophers, for example, Simone Weil, a French philosopher. Her idea of attention being that we have to actually try to see the world. It doesn’t naturally come to us because again we have these filters on. She’s felt that if we can attend to individual realities outside of ourselves and really see them just as valuable in and of themselves, that is the true way to see them. Distinctively so, she said, we have to focus on individual human beings, because each individual human being is a unique creature. We can’t just go around looking at everybody saying, I know who these people are, they’re driven by their own motives and I’m going to treat them as competition.

You have to notice individual human beings in their own right and value in order to be able to treat them morally correctly–in order to be able to really respond to them as a human being. She spent a lot of time talking about how our consciousness works and how we need to focus our energies on stripping away egoistic impulses and really seeing human beings for who they are, and that would allow us to treat them properly. It’s a claim that vision or attention is the primary moral act.

SBS:
It’s like intentional attention.

Heidi: Exactly. That’s the primary moral effort.

SBS:

Where does the intention come from?

Heidi:
That’s really a tough call with Murdoch, because she doesn’t have a huge role for the will because again she’s just very negative about how we are driven by either external forces or our own internal sense of self preservation. She says it’s small incremental efforts to shift our vision towards reality that get us there. It’s a lifelong moral project. She also says we have an internal motivation toward perfection in our effort to see the world. She said the drive is not necessarily like will in the sense of, I must see properly, I must understand this person properly, but more, I want to and I want to get past the things that are preventing me to see and understand what’s going on around me.

One of her many great quotable phrases is the simple phrase: every moment counts. Every moment, wherever your attention is directed counts. Every moment shifts you in either the direction of being more honest and clear-sighted or being more driven by motives that you know will put a shutter over your sight.

So that’s pretty dramatic, that every moment counts in the moral life. We normally think about morality as oh my gosh, I’m faced with this tough moral dilemma. You decide, and then you go on with the rest of your day. She’s saying no, every moment is a moral moment.

SBS:
The implications of that are massive.

Heidi:
They are massive.

SBS:
So much of what I think about leadership and self leadership is about the intention to move towards good. You were talking about moving towards perfection and away from this fear of the ego. If we’re deep in our own ego, we’re going to project onto the universe that everybody else is just out for themselves. Therefore I must protect myself, therefore I must withdraw another behind another layer of walls and that’s not the path forward. But that perfection reminds me of the impeccability that we were just talking about. If we choose to move in that direction, I can’t imagine another source for that besides some positive warmth and affinity–you could use the word love if you were that kind of a person–it’s moving towards life with some love towards other. Saying, I’m interested in you, who are you?

Heidi:
Yeah. Another quotable phrase from Murdoch is that you you only see the things you love, you can only truly see the things you love. She is a philosopher who talks about love as a necessary component of understanding reality outside yourself.

SBS:
So is a humane leader a leader who loves the people, and the things that we can do together?

Heidi:
I think the word love is a little hard to use in that context, but if you think about it in a more universal sense of wanting to be a person in a world where connections and relationships enhance the good, then you can think about love coming out of you towards everything without saying yes, I have to love my co worker. That sounds a little strange.

SBS:
Right. I’m talking about that deeper, more philosophical level. It could turn into loving your co worker or at least loving the values that you share. The “start with why” idea is, let’s talk about what we value and why we’re doing this at all. If you go back down to economics, business is about creating goods and services. We’re just trying to make something good in the world whether it’s a phone or a glass of water or criminal justice it’s just trying to make something good happen. Leadership is just two people trying to make something good happen. If you have a criminal mind if you’re a criminal leader, you think it would be good to steal from people, so let’s do that effectively. Of course, they’re not doing that out of love for their fellow humans, they’re doing it for love of money or for love of power.

Heidi:
Many ethicists and in the twentieth century did not necessarily want to make any kind of argument for an objective good towards which we were supposed to aim our moral life, because they wanted to say it was more individual. Then you get into the problem of, what about the good gangster? Murdoch is somewhat of a neoplatonist because she believes in the objective idea of the Good, which she capitalizes, as somehow out there and beyond anything we can really even understand or see it in the sense of actual vision. We only see glimpses of the good in concrete individual reality. But because the good is there, she said, there’s a magnetic force to the good and it’s linked to this internal drive to perfection. If we want to become fully and truly human, we’re going to be guided by certain ideas of the good that are out there and that are distinct from what we decide to construct as our own.

SBS:
That’s beautiful, and it reminds me that as humans we have to find what works. We’re going towards what works for us as human beings. Will we ever come to an agreement about whether or not Plato was right and that good exists outside of us or outside of our own judgment? I’m not sure it matters. I am a neoplatonist as well, avowedly so, and proud of it, and happy. I think that believing in good outside of ourselves works for human beings, so that we can find a set of shared values. People who can work from that set of shared values, that perfection is possible and exists, and that we should work towards that, I’m totally willing to live my life in a relationship with them. The other option is to end up in a fairly dark, lonely universe if you follow the thinking all the way down. I don’t want to live there. We only have so much time together. If you think of the universe in the materialistic way, that we live in a dark, cold void and we’re just a little pale blue dot in the middle of that, there are some humans who want to gather around a fire in the night and tell each other stories that make it possible for them to sleep at night and get up in the morning, and work together to feed the children. Those are the humans I want to work with, not the ones who are always pointing to the dark.

Heidi:
Again, that is linked to the idea of hope, and where that resides, and how that not only motivates but creates a certain energy and possibility for working together.

SBS:
Is that energy and possibility and hope actually possibly very close to the heart of what a humane leader holds in their role in the organization?

Heidi:
I’m not sure. I’m going to attend the conference and find out!

SBS:
That is one of the great questions we will ponder. Just so everybody’s very clear: I know I don’t have any answers. I don’t know if we will ever will have any answers, but my hope is that we get together, we have a wonderful stimulating time wrestling with these questions, and finding experiments that we can try in our own lives that make our own lives better, more effective, more satisfying, and more fulfilling. Maybe if we do that, others will see and start gathering around, start contributing their ideas, and say, hey, guys, you want to try this experiment? Yes, let’s try it this way, and we’ll all start sharing our our experiences, and our experiments and our questions, and we start spiraling upwards.

You were talking earlier about how either you’re going up towards this perfection or not. It seems that we have, when it comes to self leadership, this tipping point we live in in every moment, where one side says, here is my intention, here is my attention, here is my goodwill and my impeccability. I’m going to do just two percent more than I did a few moments ago, and that leads to this spiraling upward of empowerment and possibility and hope and energy and connection. The other option is, I’m gonna have the extra cookie, even though I know I don’t feel good after that. And then you start spiraling downward into cynicism and lack of faith in yourself towards a much darker place. This is a balancing point where we can transform our path in this moment or in this moment. It is just like what Iris was saying about attention.

Heidi:
Another component of that is the idea of creativity. At what you described as that tipping point, creativity is not possible when you’re just giving in and spiraling down. Murdoch, in fact, compares art and the moral life, because she says in great art a person isn’t just creating a piece of art out of nothing and connected to nothing, a great artist is trying to represent reality in a unique and creative way that gives us insight into truth or reality. Again, she’s always focused on how we need to see clearly, we need to see the truth, we need to try to connect with reality. She describes great art as doing that. The moral life, similarly, is not just about plodding through life and doing what’s required or barely living up to things you’re told to do, but it involves attention and therefore then creating a vision of what it means to live the good life. A moral act– to steal or don’t steal–that’s not very creative. Really attending to another human being and thinking creatively about well, maybe they’re behaving this way because of x or maybe if I responded in some totally different way they would respond back and there would be some kind of energy created. That creativity, for her, is part of the process of attention. It’s not separate from it. The idea that we’re at a tipping point and leaning towards really engaging, and trying to think, and pay attention, you use the word impeccable, trying to do something different, or bring something more to the table in a way that’s connected to and gives insight into what’s going on is part of the moral process for her.

Maybe part of being a humane leader is allowing creativity into the mix and sometimes creativity is antithetical to business goals. It can be a risk.

SBS:
Yes, it can be. That’s the leader’s job, to balance all of that. I agree with you. I think creativity is at the core of leadership, and at the core of what we uniquely can do as human beings.

Heidi:
Yes, and for her, creativity again is responsible to reality. Creativity doesn’t have to be a crazy messy process–it can be–but the end result is supposed to be responsible to reality, to bring something to light where you go oh, I never saw it that way before. Works of art can do that, a brainstorming meeting where somebody says something that seems to just perfectly click, that’s the sort of resonance that Murdoch thinks we feel when we are really paying attention and we’re creatively trying to understand a situation. Those kind of ah ha moments are signs that we’re doing it right, that we’re being honest, that we’re being faithful to reality.

SBS:
Those are signs of great leadership–insight, creative solution, and aesthetic arrest, that experience you have when you see a piece of art or hear a piece of music and everything stops and you are touched at some deeper level you may not have even remembered existed. That to me is a sign that you are on the right path. Frankly, that’s what I’m after with all of this work: how true can be, how much time can we spend in that state together.

Heidi:
Yeah and the idea of that moment where you didn’t know something existed and it’s made visible to you, I think that’s important. There’s always more to be discovered. That’s where creativity comes in. A lot of these words that you’ve used are out there in the world of business and leadership. But how do you bring them all together and make it a dynamic process, dynamic leadership? It’s not an easy task, but if you continue to think we’re going to, we’re going to figure out something new and different that’s going to make the rest of us flourish here, that might happen.

SBS:
Together, we can try, and it will be a great process. Thank you, Heidi, for joining us here.

Heidi :
Thank you, Stephen.

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