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Thursday Complexity Post
December 12, 2013

A Fraught View of Leadership Has Deep Roots


We're hard wired for stories, and classical scholar Daniel Mendelsohn says the myths and dramas of ancient Greece are so embedded in our consciousness that we can't help but revisit them as we interpret contemporary culture. One example, he says, is our obsessive need for anniversary replays of film footage and commentary on President Kennedy's death and the days of shock and mourning that followed. Our conflicted desire to marvel at charismatic leaders and to witness their fall, he says, is rooted in Greek tragedy.


In a New Yorker essay J.F.K, Tragedy, Myth, Mendelsohn, a professor at Bard College, says Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963, and the many other traumatic events and deaths in generations of the Kennedy family, reflect elements in Greek tragedy. In many tragedies, including the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, he writes, the all-knowing gods are "pulling the strings unbeknownst to the mortals whose lives they control; works like Oresteia and Oedipus, (whose hero learns to his horror that he cannot escape the plot the gods have written for him), seem to confirm an invisible but palpable order of things."


These ancient stories distill certain vibrant narratives in an elemental way that animates all cultures, Mendelsohn says. In fact, he writes, we have a desire to find a plot "in the hodgepodge of events we call history." And he says our impulse to make sense of events, to expose past secrets, and to present evidence of past deeds to present-day audiences, helps fuel elaborate conspiracy theories about the assassination. Tragic thinking, the way Aeschylus thought, he writes, encourages us to seek dark patterns behind events, and to suspect all happenings are connected to the past, and that the sins of the fathers are connected to the suffering of their children and their children's children.


We're a visual society, he continues, and the horror and shock of Kennedy's death was intensified because it happened before people's eyes and was captured on film. Spectacle is at the root of drama, he notes, and the need to keep watching replays is part of the Kennedy trauma. And he adds that we watch the whole spectacle-the horror, the mourning, and the ceremonial conclusions-also important in Greek tragedies-that reassure us order can be restored. He speculates the equally traumatic assassination of Abraham Lincoln may have been less obsessively replayed because it wasn't visual in the same way.


In a New Yorker podcast, Mendelsohn says it's no accident that democracy and tragedy flourished in partnership in 6th century Athens. We want great leaders, but our democratic anxieties make us distrustful of them, Mendelsohn observes, so the mythical and tragic stories of leaders brought down help us work our way through our competing attractions and suspicions. One recurring theme in Greek mythology is that the most beautiful, brilliant, remarkable humans do things that invoke the envy or wrath of the gods, who cut them down. It's a theme that has to do with a boundary that needs to be maintained between human excellence and the divine, Mendelsohn says, and one that people grapple with as they contemplate greatness and ordinary lives.


In the podcast, Mendelsohn speaks of other news events that evoke myth. The sinking of the Titanic, a ship that was too grand, too beautiful, too glamorous, and lost in man's struggle against nature, is one example. The difficulty of finding a burial place for Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the accused Boston marathon bomber who was shot by police and run over by his brother, replays the ancient and culturally fraught issue of what to do with the body of an enemy, and the definition of what an enemy is. Refused burial in Massachusetts, Tsarnaev was eventually buried quietly in Virginia. Read Mendelsohn's enlightening and provocative New Yorker piece here and listen to his podcast here.



Remember PlexusCalls!

Friday, December 13, 2013 - 1-2 PM ET

Innovation and Resilience in Leadership  
Guests: Martha Johnson and Sharon Benjamin 


In her new book, On My Watch, Leadership, Innovation, and Personal Resilience, Martha Johnson, former administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration, tells of the strategic innovation that characterized her tenure before her abrupt resignation in the wake of a scandal regarding an internal training conference held in Las Vegas. The GSA influences all of government and can model desperately needed innovation, Johnson says, adding that the scandal headlines and political jokes shouldn't be the only public picture of GSA. Johnson's book details cutting edge improvement strategies she promoted, and the systemic challenges of leading a large agency-working without complete information, the distortions of scale-and the constraints of government service. She also reflects on her highly public resignation and the lessons she believes can help leaders advance innovation and shoulder risk.


Martha Johnson is leadership speaker and writer who draws on the lessons learned as an executive with a more than 30-year career in public and private organizations. Her focus is "Sensible Leadership" which reflects today's need for leaders who are strategic, resilient, pragmatic, and resourceful. She was nominated by President Obama and confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate to be the administrator of the GSA, a post she held for two years. She also served eight years with the Clinton Administration and was appointed to two commissions with the British Government. Her private sector career has spanned information technology, architecture, strategic consulting, and the automotive industry. In addition to On My Watch, Johnson has also published a novel, In Our Midst, which placed in the semi-finals of the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition. Johnson earned a BA from Oberlin College and an MBA from the Yale University School of Management. She is married, has two adult children, an elderly father, and lives in Annapolis, Maryland.


Sharon Benjamin, PhD is principal of Alchemy, a Washington D.C. based management consulting practice. She consults with multi-lateral, NGO and healthcare organizations. An adjunct at NYU, she teaches the leadership capstone course for MPA students. Her work supports leaders seeking to effect profound transformation -- within themselves and their organizations, pioneering innovative methods such as Positive Deviance. Her previous positions have included Vice President for Marketing for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Washington, D.C. and Director for Major Gifts for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge MA. She earned her doctorate in organizational behavior from the Union Institute and University in Cincinnati OH, where she has co-taught three leadership seminars. She has been active in the non-profit community, serving as Treasurer of the Board Earthworks, Chair of the Board of Directors of, and a member of Oceana's Board of Governors.



Healthcare PlexusCalls

Wednesday, December 18, 2013 - 1-2 PM ET

Increasing Access to Healthcare for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders  
Guests: Tuyen Tran 



We often think of Asian Americans as a well educated and high achieving population, and that is true of many. But many others are immigrants with limited English proficiency, living in poverty with little access to regular healthcare services. From 2007-2011, the number of Asian Americans living below the federal poverty level increased by 38%, a rate higher than most other ethnic groups. They are also the only racial/ethnic group whose incidence of breast cancer increased from 2000-2010. 


The Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations, AAPCHO, is a national association of 33 community health centers dedicated to promoting advocacy, collaboration, and leadership that improves the health status and access of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiian, and other Pacific Islanders (AANHOPIs) in the US. AAPCHO's member community health centers provide quality primary health care services that are linguistically and culturally appropriate for AANHOPIs. Together, they serve about 400,000 patients. 


Tuyen Tran, MPH, is the Program Coordinator of Technical Assistance & Training at AAPCHO. She works/assists to increase the capacity of community health organizations in providing culturally and linguistically appropriate health care services.  

Audio from all PlexusCall series are available by searching the iTunes store for plexuscalls. Or, visit under Resources/Call Series. 


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