Harry Houdini and the Art of Breaking Free

Blair Forlaw

Isn't it amazing the way important themes emerge in different places, simultaneously? In late March, twenty of us were sitting at tables in the St. Louis Hyatt Regency talking about how to get out of the box, just about the same time that authorities in New York were deliberating whether to exhume the body of the famous escape artist, Harry Houdini.

Harry Houdini still makes headlines 80 years after his death because he appeared to be able to defy the limits that frustrate ordinary human beings. He did what the rest of us want to do but usually can't figure out how to do—to free ourselves from constraints (the exhumation notwithstanding, of course). Few have come close to matching what Houdini seemed to have been able to accomplish.

Back over at the Hyatt, our discussion followed this same theme, but with a significant departure. We had gathered to talk with Jim Kouzes, an author and lecturer on the topic of leadership development. Leaders are the people who help us get out of the limiting confines of our present situations and move purposefully toward a vision of a brighter future. But the ability to do so is not the private reserve of a select few superhuman men and women, Kouzes said. In fact, leadership requires a set of skills and abilities that can be mastered by almost anyone—given proper training and the opportunity and discipline to practice, practice, practice.

There went one illusion.

Here's another one that Kouzes and his co-author Barry Posner dispel in their 2006 publication A Leader's Legacy. "The future doesn't just belong to the leaders. It's not just the leader's vision that leaders are accountable for enacting. Leadership isn't about selling your vision; it's about articulating the people's vision."

"OK then," said one of the senior HR leaders in attendance. "But what do we do when we invite our people to participate in planning for the future of our organization, but they keep coming up with the same old ideas? It's like they are stuck in the box; how can we help them get out?"

Kouzes' response may be a little surprising-becoming forward-focused doesn't necessarily result from sitting through leadership development courses or visioning sessions, as we traditionally think of them. Our employees need a steady, sustained diet of things to read and opportunities to talk that expose them to different ideas and vantage points that stretch them and gently push them out of their comfort zones. A broadened view of the present leads to an expanded sense of the future.

In A Leader's Legacy, he puts it this way. "As counterintuitive as it might seem, the best place to start creating the future is by being more mindful in the present. Our failure at being forward-looking may result more from our mindlessness in the present than from any other factor. We operate on automatic pilot, not really noticing what's going on around us, believing we know everything we need to know, viewing the world from established categories, and operating from a single point of view."

This last bit about established categories and a single point of view really hit home with me, in part because of an experience I had immediately before the gathering at the Hyatt. Thanks to my uncanny knack for getting lost, I had gone to the wrong end of the hotel when I arrived, and I wandered the whole length of a concourse packed with corporate training sessions before confirming that I was in the wrong place. I'm not one to be deterred by an occasional blind alley, but by the time I made it out, my shoulders were scrunched inward and my gaze was fixed firmly on the floor. It weighs you down to try to decipher row after row of signs written in acronyms of bold capital letters, with hyphens and decimal points in unfamiliar places. Such is the language of people who talk only among themselves, labels on the boxes we put ourselves in. If you've ever been in a situation where everyone around you was speaking jargon that you didn't understand, you can probably relate to my incredible shrinking feeling.

This is one of the things we're working on through WorkforceStLouis2.0. We strive to bring business leaders together to find common language with which to articulate and communicate a shared vision of a bright future for St. Louis - a metro region competing in a global talent marketplace in which agility, flexibility, critical thinking, team-work, and leadership are essential tools for getting ahead. If Jim Kouzes is right, then the key to anticipating this future lies in a closer examination of where we are right now. It would be amazing if, like Houdini, we have everything we need already in our grasp-we just need to look extremely carefully to see it.

Blair Forlaw is the Director of WorkforceStLouis2.0, a program administered by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL). WorkforceStLouis2.0 supports business leadership to strengthen the regional human capital value chain by encouraging strategic investments in employee learning and development, enhancing the dynamic exchange of information, experience, and best practices, and building skills and competencies at all occupational levels in companies of every size and sector throughout the St. Louis metro economy. For more information, contact Blair at 314-623-6550 or bforlaw@cael.org.

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