We’re All In This Together

18 05 2018

Today I’m completing the second year in the M.Div Program at the Meadville Lombard Theological School, a Unitarian Universalist seminary. My second year of field study at the Humanist Hub is drawing to a close for the academic year. Because of the contextual education model, I have learned more about leadership development in two years of divinity school than I did in two years of business school.

The Humanist Hub is  a community of atheists, agnostics and allies. Non-theists, empiricists and religious naturalists. We were founded as a Harvard University chaplaincy that also spoke to the world. We became a community of town and gown and world. And now that our Executive Director, Greg Epstein, serves as Humanist Chaplain of both Harvard and MIT, our gown is of many colors. Pale blue, like our pale blue dot. And Harvard’s crimson. AND MIT’s cardinal and grey.

As student minister, working directly under Greg’s supervision, I’ve had an inside view of how we serve the Hub mission. All my work with Greg and our community seems to revolve around some kind of leadership development.

Leadership development is the common denominator of everything we do:

  • In community, we educate each other on how to lead our best lives and create containers where we can connect with like minded people, act together to make the world a better place, and evolve as human beings.
  • Through our outreach to the media we educate the leaders of today.
  • Through our work with university students, we educate the leaders of tomorrow.
  • And we also educate aspirants to secular humanist ministry, like me.

I want to share the key learning from my two years under Greg’s mentorship. There is no one right way to do humanism.  “Humanisms,” he says, “Humanisms.”

The Humanist Manifesto is a guideline.  Humanism, like aloha, is practiced in community.  With other people. The people you don’t necessarily agree with.  Because we’re all people.  And this makes humanism intrinsically messy.  Like life.

Sometimes I really want to take sides.  The year I entered the Sloan School of Management at MIT, for example, MIT hackers blew up the 50 yard line of the Harvard-Yale game. There was an explosion, and a large weather balloon floated up out of nowhere, painted with the MIT logo. Many of us thought it was awesome. But other people were super irritated with MIT.

When I return to the Humanist Hub in the fall, I’ll begin my third year of field study right on the MIT campus. Only one thing is certain. It is going to involve leadership development. And there is no one right way for this to happen. In my own ministerial formation, Greg has encouraged me to work with all the humanist organizations.

Meadville Lombard is the epicenter of religious humanism. I am also enrolled in the Secular Humanist Studies program of the American Humanist Association’s Center for Education. A dean of the American Ethical Union serves as a member of my Internship Committee. I learn from the religious humanists at First Parish in Cambridge. I learn from the student leaders of the Secular Society of MIT and from the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists, Agnostics and agnostics. From the Greater Boston Humanists.  And of course, from my Hawaiʻi ohana.

But most of all, I have learned from the Humanist Hub community leaders.  I have worked on mutual leadership development with the Internship Committee, and the Committee on Humanist Celebrations.  And I’ve watched the development of the leaders of the Discussion Groups, the Values In Action Committee, the Ambassadors, and the Healthy Humanists.  I’ve learned not to judge myself by how messy my ministerial formation feels at any given point in time. We must all find this patience with ourselves and others as our lives unfold. We are ALL developing our ability to lead lives of good both individually and in community.

Where do we go from here?  Greg always reminds me that there is no one right way to do humanism.  No one size that will fit all.  But we’re all here together on the pale blue dot. We are the ones making meaning of our lives. We are the ones creating the organizations and institutions that shape our society. So, however we’re doing our various humanisms, we’re all in the human project together. Whether we are people of faith or people are no faith, we’re all in this together.  May we find the eyes to see our interdependence.  Aloha!


Fossil Free MIT Sit-In Ends with Progress

3 03 2016

Let the bells ring out and the banners fly! After almost 4 months peaceful protest, the student-led Fossil Free MIT (FFMIT) has reached a meeting of the minds with MIT VP of Research, Maria Zuber, on some real world changes MIT can make!

The agreement focuses on three areas:

  1. Aspiring to reach climate neutrality ASAP, a grand challenge to our community
  2. Establishing a climate action advisory committee that will aid the implementation of MIT’s industry engagement strategy
  3. Convening a forum aimed to explore the ethical dimensions of the climate issue

As a proponent of engagement who has been engaging with Fossil Free MIT on a daily basis – roughly 90 of the 115 days – I have developed an enormous admiration for the vision and character of these principled young leaders. I am also amply aware that engagement is not their preferred Theory of Change. I give them enormous credit for being willing to remain open minded and hang in there negotiating until they achieved a comfort level that “engagement with teeth” is worth a try.

I also give MIT’s administration enormous credit for being willing to engage meaningfully with student protesters. I happened to be on the Yale campus last year just after 19 students were arrested for calling for a conversation on divestment. Quite the conversation topic for Admitted Students Day… Smooth move, Eli!

Administrative engagement with the protesters does not end today.  Far from it!  “FFMIT will be involved in the new climate action advisory committee, as will many other members of the MIT community,” reports The Tech. By rising from the floor, Fossil Free MIT has a won seat at the table and brought about broad input and oversight for climate action at MIT.

I pledge to do everything I can to rally the Sloan network – faculty, students and alumni – to engage with the problem that threatens us all, and to provide ongoing mentorship to the skeptics in the ranks of Fossil Free MIT.

For two reasons, I am also eager to engage with the ethical discussion. First I believe that it is logical for the Institute to engage in moral reasoning before taking ethical action.   Second, I believe the ethical discussion will give people like me a fair chance to be heard.

I believe that ethics significantly derive from identity. When the Rockefellers divested from the source of the family’s wealth, it sent a highly credible signal to the investment community. This is morally wrong. When the Pentagon and Zurich Insurance declared climate change a clear and present danger, the world took note. If MITIMCO is not aware of this, I would be surprised.

MIT has a different identity with respect to fossil fuels. For better and for worse, MIT scientists helped create the means to locate, refine and transport fossil fuels. MIT contributed to powering the people. As an unintended consequence, MIT has also contributed to endangering our world. Hence, I believe the MIT community has an ethical obligation to align around cleaning up the mess and straightening out the system.

The world knows why we need to change. The world does not know how. This is where MIT comes in.

The MIT community has the scientific and business knowledge to accelerate system-level change toward renewable energy. As the world’s leading university with an alumni network in positions to make change happen, MIT has a unique identity in climate action. We can innovate AND act – creating AND realizing solutions.

Given our can-do on the how-to front, my personal belief is that it would be irresponsible to disengage. For example, if we don’t help coal country to change its ways, who else can?

I am asking the entire MIT community to connect with our shared humanity and work together to change hearts and minds, assumptions and business models.

I am calling on the entire MIT community to be as big and brave and determined as Fossil Free MIT. Step out of your the familiar habits of mind, engage with us, and let’s get the whole system into a new gear.


Thank you, Fossil Free MIT for great strides forward in energizing the entire community!



MIT Celebrates the End of the “Me Generation”

10 06 2014

As MIT Spectrum puts it, “music resounds at MIT.” Around 70% of recent undergraduates arrive at MIT with musical training. Half of the undergraduates take music classes or participate in performing groups.

Every year since 1896, The Boston Pops orchestra has entertained the MIT community as part of the commencement and reunion celebration, playing classical favorites and showcasing MIT’s homegrown musical talent on the Symphony Hall stage.

Glancing over the program as I settled into my seat on June 5, I smiled as I saw the music chosen for the different reunion classes – everything from On The Town and Theme from a Summer Place to Livin’ La Vida Loca and Hey Jude.

At first I was puzzled to see Danse Macabre on the program. I knew the Camille Saint Saens piece only as a staple of Halloween concerts.

Was this a nod to the recent classes, to the generation that wears the skull as a fashion motif?


Or was there more to it? On my trusty smartphone, I stealthily googled The Dance of Death, which I vaguely remembered as an allegory from the Middle Ages.

Eureka! Thanks to Wikipedia, I could see that the Tech Night at the Pops programming made perfect sense: no MIT gathering is complete without mathematical wit.

As then, so now; death is the constant in the equation of life.

I settled into my seat with the smug feeling of someone who has just seen through the trick question on a test.

And then, as the music played, I felt its spirit. I felt a shift inside me, a personal decision confirmed, a weight lifted.

The Danse Macabre was playing in the English tradition of marking a major shift by saying:

The King is Dead. Long Live the King.

The “Me Generation” is Over

I am a member of what novelist Tom Wolfe called the Me Generation. I graduated from MIT Sloan in the spring of 1984. Later that year, Madonna’s Material Girl hit the charts and remained there for 17 weeks. In the spring of 1986, Ivan Boesky said this to the graduating class at Berkeley’s business school:

“I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”

Boesky may have been fined $100 million and subsequently imprisoned for insider trading, but his words reverberated on in business culture, and in the popular imagination. Boesky’s Berkeley commencement address was adapted by Oliver Stone as the basis for Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech in the film, Wall Street.

Today’s public discourse is re-examining the role of greed in capitalism. Atlantic Magazine makes the distinction this way: although greed can do good, greed is not intrinsically good.

Back in the 1980s, it was still accepted wisdom that the purpose of the firm is to maximize profits. I looked for the exceptions, and found them among the entrepreneurial technology companies. In March of 1982, Dun’s Business Month quoted Computervision Corporation Chairman, Martin Allen, as follows:

“I want to do something for mankind, have some fun, and make a profit at the same time.“

Why were the technology firms so refreshingly different back then? As I recall, tech companies were the first to “get” the network effect. Starting with the telephone and the fax machine, technology products follow this rule: the utility of the product increases with the size of the installed base. So the technology business was always about growing the profits by growing the size of the pie.

It’s Time for the “We Generation”

Today, the magic word, “and,” has permeated the mission statement of the modern firm. Sloan Professor Zeynep Ton, author of The Good Jobs Strategy, has this to say:

“Some of the companies I admire, like Costco and Mercadona of Spain, do not have profit or shareholder maximization as their objective. They put customers, employees, suppliers, and society ahead of profits and believe that by doing so they will create more value in the long term.”

I was pleased to see new thinking featured prominently at the MIT Sloan 100th Anniversary Symposium, held the Saturday of Reunion weekend.

MIT Sloan at 100

In the mid 1980s, we had Dean Abraham Siegel organizing and incenting Sloan Students to follow the golden rule. Today, should you wander into a classroom, you’ll likely see this on a poster:

“The Mission of The MIT Sloan School of Management is to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world and to generate ideas that advance management practice.”

When I entered Sloan in the 1980s, I already felt connected to MIT because my father had attended MIT in the Navy V-12 program shortly before the end of World War II. From the first moment I laid a hand on a computer during the first week at Sloan, I was captivated by technology. At the time, I felt a personal magic in the synergy between the business school and the Institute.

At the Sloan 100th anniversary symposium, I realized how broad that bizno-tech synergy truly is. In the words of MIT President Rafael Reif:

“MIT has always been a wellspring of innovation, with many faculty and alumni entrepreneurs. But today, innovation and entrepreneurship have a new urgency – as a vital source of jobs and economic growth, as the key to accelerating progress in fields from clean energy to biomedicine, and as a pathway to deliver the fruits of our research to the world.”

And as MIT Sloan School Dean David Schmittlein puts it:

“Our partners at the four schools within MIT are developing solutions to the world’s greatest challenges such as cancer, energy independence and climate change. Critical, groundbreaking research occurs at MIT daily. Yet these advancements only lead to positive change when they are taken out of the lab or classroom and brought into the world, through successful, innovation-driven enterprises of the kind we create and develop at MIT Sloan.”

“Mens et Manus,” or head and hands, is the motto of MIT. The Sloan School of Management at 100 certainly does reflect this core purpose. After 30 years out, I see that MIT has a humanistic heart as well. The “We Generation” is here. And I am glad.

Leadership lessons from Arbella Captain John Winthrop, first governor of Massachussets Bay Colony

15 01 2014

The great captains of open-ocean voyaging have one thing in common. They saw leadership as a moral responsibility for common welfare.  They fostered a value system that created shared wealth.

The great leaders of the open-ocean voyaging set standards by which today’s business and political leaders can be evaluated.

John Winthrop aboard the Arbella bound for the New World

What is true of the Polynesian voyagers who settled the Hawaiian Islands and Black Bart, the most successful captain in the Golden Age of Piracy, is also true for the John Winthrop, captain of the Arbella and the first governor of the colony that became our country.

  • All had the very lives of their shipmates in their hands
  • All led from the values of inclusion
  • All created thriving relationships that led to rewards for all

Winthrop led the first large wave of migrants in 1630, and served as governor for 12 of the colony’s first 20 years of existence. His writings and vision of the colony dominated New England colonial development, influencing the government and religion of neighboring colonies.

During his voyage aboard the Arbella in the summer of 1630, Winthrop wrote his famous sermon, A Model of Christian Charity. He ends the sermon with practical tactics for the shared endeavor to be a success, not a shipwreck:

“We must be knit together, in this work, as one man.

We must entertain each other in brotherly affection.

We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities.

We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality.

We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.

So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

Winthrop’s intent was to sustain the people on a long and dangerous voyage, and to prepare them for planting a new society in a perilous environment, but his practical wisdom is timeless. “Unity of the spirit in the bond of peace”took the country quite a long way.

The phrase, “city upon a hill,” is used to this day to symbolize certain essential characteristics of what Americans expect in their leaders.

John Winthrop rallied people around a common weal. This notion has applicability today in government and in business.

According to President Obama, debates about, say, healthcare, are about “more than just numbers on a page…..It’s about the kind of country we believe in.”  In the 50th state, where Obama grew up, values-based leadership is the societal norm and is understood to be multi-faceted.  On the mainland, a high-level debate about values can be quickly devolve to one polarizing issue.  Thinking about values, plural, is difficult but necessary.  To forget what sustains our interdependence as citizens is to forget who we are as Americans.

In the business realm, companies forget the common weal to their financial peril.    To forget the customers’ and business partners’ welfare is to forget what made a company successful in the first place.  If you believe you’re the master of the universe, you’ll find yourself with fewer and fewer friends.  IBM proved this in 1992, with the largest loss in US business history.

John Winthrop concluded his sermon with a warning to those seduced into a worship of material profits. To forget values such as justice and mercy is to forget the common weal. To forget the common weal is to forget the source of prosperity.  And to forget the source of prosperity is the kind of pride that inevitably leads to a fall.

Leadership lessons from Black Bart, the most successful pirate ever

14 04 2011

What can one pirate captain learn from another?

Pirate captains, the really successful ones that is, had something in common with the ancient Polynesian voyagers, arguably the best navigators of the open ocean. In the worlds of the late Micronesian Navigator Mau Piailug, successful leadership requires three qualities:

  • Fierceness
  • Strength
  • Wisdom

You don’t normally think of pirates and wisdom in the same sentence. But the really great pirate captains did indeed have their share of wisdom.

The top-earning pirate captain of all time

Bartholomew Roberts, sometimes known as Black Bart, was the most successful pirate of all time. Roberts was a Welsh pirate who raided ships off America and West Africa between 1719 and 1722.

The most successful pirate during the Golden Age of Piracy, Black Bart left Captain Kidd, BlackBeard and BlueBeard in the dust!

Two years after Black Bart was made captain he had:

# Accumulated over 51 million pounds worth of treasure

# Taken close to 470 ships throughout the Americas, Africa and Europe

Accounting for two centuries of inflation, this would be a pretty good track record for a self-made man even by Silicon Valley standards.

Black Bart was strong, fierce, and apparently pretty wise too.

The wisdom of mandatory goodwill to fellow shipmates was well understood by most pirate captains. Essentially, pirates had their own version of Aloha, part of the value system that held ancient Polynesian crews together on voyages of exploration around the Pacific in the days of celestial navigation.

Pirate captains had a strict code of conduct for their crew, and exceptions were not tolerated. Here is an example from The Pirate Code of Conduct – Bartholomew Roberts Shipboard Articles of 1721:

ARTICLE VIII – None shall strike another on board the ship, but every man’s quarrel shall be ended on shore.

As with Polynesian voyaging captains, so with pirate captains, no fighting amongst yourselves during the mission.

In the enterprise computer systems business, vendors sometimes forget that customers depend on a group of vendors, using substitute as well as complementary products together in a large system that supports the business.  When vendors compete against each other in ways that compromise the customer’s business continuity, it’s not pretty.

I believe that uber-Pirate Black Bart and legendary celestial navigator Mau Piailug would advise vendors the same way;

  • Be strong enough to think big picture.  Accept the nature of the system.  Compete for a greater joint outcome, not to cut the legs off a rival.
  • Think wisely about the right and wrong people to fight.  Collaborate on creating a level playing field for competition. Compromise with competitors on the rules of play with the best interest of the customers at heart.

Be strong and wise as well as fierce.

A wise leader doesn’t suddenly say to customers and partners,

“I’ve made an arbitrary decision in my own self interest: obey or walk the plank.”

Enterprise systems is an interdependent web of existence. Mindful of this, a wise leader provides incentives to make certain choices and provides adequate time for change.

More Leadership Lessons from Open-Ocean Navigation

28 03 2011

As quality of leadership, aloha is an attitude and a value system that helps create thriving relationships that endure. If you are in the type of business that can benefit from repeat customers and long-term partners (and who isn’t?), you may want to read the last post. But there is more to aloha than good manners. It is part of a larger value system.

Native Hawaiians will be the first to tell you that aloha is much misunderstood and certainly doesn’t stand alone. Aloha is one of many values and guiding principles passed on as part of cultural knowledge taught by Hawaiian Kumus, cultural practitioners and teachers. Hawai‘i residents will tell you that the traditional Hawaiian values play a large role in the thriving multiculturalism of modern society and business in the 50th State.

I’ve studied the value system by reading books, attending conferences, consulting with Kumus and kūpuna (elders) whenever I get the opportunity, and participating in the local economy as a business owner.

Obviously, there are greater authorities on the Hawaiian style leadership than I: those of native Hawaiian descent and kama‘aina, or longtime Hawai‘i residents, who grew up in the multicultural social and business environment of the Hawaiian Islands. And, as would be true anywhere else in the world, the right list of values for leadership is open to discussion. People in Hawai‘i love to discuss what is truly the right thing to do, what is pono, under any circumstance. For example, Hawai‘i is the only state in the Union with its own Wikipedia page on etiquette!

For those interested in more reading about on the values of Hawai‘i as applied to the business and financial world, I recommend:

I offer my own explanation of the leadership style of the Polynesian navigator because I believe it is a message that the world outside Hawai‘i needs to hear, and to hear very strongly.

I explain leadership as I see it with only the greatest respect to Hawaiian leaders and navigators. I have the indigenous sensibility to see to the heart of the matter and the Western education and conditioning to “net it out” for the malihini. So, friends, permit me, and help me with your feedback to rectify any misapprehension.

Aloha is necessary; Kuleana is sufficient

The Polynesian navigator was essential to the life and health of his ‘ohana, or extended family group. From the fishing and trading to long-distance voyages of exploration, the navigator had the lives of his community in his hands. A leader could not gain and retain followers without demonstrating tremendous wisdom, personal integrity and responsibility for the long-term welfare of the community.

It is the personal responsibility, or kuleana, of the leader to take right actions in the long-run best interest of the community. So, in my opinion, there is one critical Hawaiian value to understand along with aloha. And that critical value is kuleana.

Kuleana is what activates and links the other values, such as pono, (doing the right thing), kākou (we are all in this together), ho‘ohiki, keeping promises, ‘imi ‘ike (seeking knowledge), mālama ‘āina (stewardship of the earth, or sustainability) and all the rest you could read about in Ku Kanaka, Stand Tall: A Search for Hawaiian Values, by George Hu‘eu Sanford Kanahele.

Just as yin and yang balance each other in Eastern philosophy, I have observed that aloha and kuleana balance each other in Hawai‘i.

Put another way, aloha for the ‘ohana is table stakes for a navigator’s leadership. The leader is, literally, finding the way into the future for everybody. A leader’s kuleana, responsibility for the welfare of the ‘ohana is how that leader is judged.

So what’s the point for global business leadership?

In Western business, we have financial incentives that complicate leadership in a way that Polynesian navigators never had to contend with.

Corporate CEOs who want to be judged successful by Wall Street must keep an eye on quarterly results and stock price appreciation. If a CEO doesn’t handle this well in the short term, that CEO won’t be around to provide wayfinding and stewardship for the long-term interdependent relationship with customers, suppliers and channel partners. So it’s a difficult balancing act.

That said, some Western business leaders have lost the plot.

In business today, leadership is both a financial and a moral responsibility.

Business leaders need aloha and kuleana for the long term AND financial success in the short term.

In the quest for financial results, some leaders have forgotten their moral responsibility to customers and partners.

Oracle Corporation’s actions last week with respect to its Itanium customers are a particularly egregious example of this. As are Larry Ellison’s and Ernesto Bertarelli’s conduct during to the 33rd America’s Cup Race.

What happens when leaders fail to live up to their kuleana?

You won’t really understand how aloha works unless you appreciate that it has a “tough love” side as well.

Questioning somebody’s kuleana is strong stuff in Hawai‘i. It is not the same thing as stink-eye. It is not what Westerners would describe as calling somebody on his or her shit.

Questioning a leader’s kuleana is questioning a leader’s moral force.

Because Hawaiian traditions are passed orally, the Hawaiian culture is very sophisticated verbally. There are multiple levels of meaning in all the poetry and chants, and this gift for kaona, or hidden meaning, comes out in debate, criticism and verbal fisticuffs.

An often over-looked genre of Hawaiian poetry, hakukole explores issues of infidelity, inadequacy and revenge through chants, songs, proverbs and gestures that publicly ridicule and deface their chosen victims. Hakukole is derived from the Hawaiian words, haku (to weave, compose, create) and kole (raw, red, irritated).

(Incidentally, I have a category in this blog called Haku Kole, where I question the moral force of some of the leaders in my industry. It is intended for haole eyes, and spelled incorrectly so it will not be confused with the Hawaiian real thing.)

Kumu Keali‘i Reichel leads the Halau Kealaokamaile on Maui, is the recipient of multiple Nā Hōkū Hanohano Hawaiian Music Awards and has been a Grammy nominee. In addition to his work as a cultural practitioner, Kumu is a patient advocate against outworn stereotypes of indigenous people.

Weary of the tourist fiction that aloha is the alpha and omega of Hawaiian culture, Keali‘i Reichel has long made it a point to research, teach and lecture on the tough side of the Hawaiian culture. The rapier-witted verbal take-down, “hakukole, is an overlooked piece of who we are,” he says.

Short on aloha, kuleana, pono, lōkahi, mālama ‘āina ? Yes, there are consequences

Keali‘i Reichel opened his remarks at the Nā Hōkū Hanohano Music Festival 2010 with the question, “What happens when you need to get tough?”

The answer: elegantly phrased verbal confrontation. And not in private.

Hakukole must be must chanted in a public forum, so there is an emotionally charged shaming- and-blaming, bad-PR aspect to the ridiculing, manhood-questioning or sanity-questioning nature of the particular hakukole.

Moral responsibility in a material world

In a world where business leadership was judged solely by moral standards, moral outrage, bad press and the consequent ridicule would be sufficient to bring corporate miscreants to heel.

But that is not the world we live in. In this material world, financial shunning is required as well. With a threat of regulation thrown on top.

If somebody in Hawai‘i calls you a kōlea, it is not a compliment. They’re calling you a taker. As in, grow rich and fat from a relationship, then fly away.

Bad press, rants and flames can sound an alarm and perhaps raise some questions in the Boardroom. But withdrawal of business by customers and partners must be the first line of defense against egregious supplier behavior in the Western business world.

Some kinds of business relationships can be ended more quickly and easily than others.

Customers of products and services such as the information systems that support business, governments and institutions are particularly entangled with their suppliers. It is particularly important for large enterprises to look far enough beyond their software and hardware vendors’ financial performance to gain the distance required to evaluate their suppliers’ kuleana.

Customers, your relationship with your strategic suppliers cannot be summed up by a great stock price in the rear view mirror or a really great number this quarter. What is rewarded by Wall Street does not necessarily signify a good, responsible steward of your best interests for the next ten years. It may well be that a smaller-share, more humble player may be a much better long-term partner for your company than its current stock price would indicate.

Customers, it is your kuleana to make a wise long-term choice.

Leadership Lessons from the Best Navigators in Open-Ocean Sailing

27 03 2011

The discovery and colonization of the Hawaiian Islands by ancient Polynesian navigators is one of the greatest feats of open-ocean sailing.

How great a feat? Take a good look at the Pacific Ocean. It is the size of the surface of the moon. The Hawaiian Islands are like tiny specs. These are long distances to travel in a wooden canoe.

Navigating an area the size of the surface of the moon, tiny wooden voyaging canoes were the space-ships of our ancestors

The trans-Pacific voyages that are legendary in Polynesian cultures are now well documented by Western science.

Quoted in London’s Daily Telegraph, Dr. Marshall Weisler of the University of Queensland said that the journey between Hawai‘i and Tahiti “now stands as the longest uninterrupted maritime voyage in human prehistory”. It was “mind-boggling,” he continued, “how Polynesian settlers found their way from one speck of land to another and back again, colonizing the last uninhabited parts of the planet.”

The prowess of the ancient Polynesians has also been proven by the Hawaiians themselves. In 1976 a reinvented ocean-going sailing canoe, the Hōkūle‘a, successfully sailed from Hawai‘i to Tahiti without instruments. Since then, the Hōkūle‘a has sailed more than 125,000 nautical miles (equivalent to six times around the Earth), also without instruments. These achievements provided evidence for intentional two-way voyaging throughout Oceania, supporting a hypothesis that explained the Asiatic origin of Polynesians.

During the many voyages of Hōkūle‘a over the last 35 years, the Polynesian Voyaging Society has re-learned a lot about the ancient art of wayfinding — what it takes to navigate tens of thousands of miles under sail across the open ocean with only human senses, intelligence and spirit to find the way.

In so doing, they have arrived at a unique leadership style, which adds Aloha and kuleana to qualities typically admired in Western business leadership. I will talk about Aloha in this post, and get to kuleana, the tough-love part of Hawaiian-style leadership, in the next post.

This article is dedicated me ke aloha pumehana to the memory of Herb Kawaini Kāne, an inspirational leader by the standards of any MBA program, a light for indigenous people everywhere, and a friend to my ‘ohana.

Hōkūle‘a amazed the world when she arrived in Tahiti in 1976

The necessity of Aloha

What do I mean by a unique leadership style? Consider the words of the late Hawaiian leader Myron ‘Pinky’ Thompson, a leader of the Polynesian Voyaging Society during the 1980s and 1990s, as quoted in Ben Finney’s Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors: Reviving Polynesian Voyaging:

“What struck me about voyaging was that before you set out to find a new island you had to have a vision of that island over the horizon… Then you had to figure out how you are going to get there; you had to make a plan for trying out new things. Finally, you had to get out there and take a risk. And on the voyage you had to bind the crew to each other with Aloha so they could work together to overcome the risk and achieve the vision.”

Much of this description would be familiar to Western business leaders:

  • The need for a vision. Check.
  • The need for a plan. Check.
  • An appetite for risk. Check.
  • The ties of Aloha. Huh?

What is Aloha? Most Westerners know that Aloha is a precious word. As a greeting, it means both hello and goodbye, and conveys love or compassion. Easterners might equate Aloha to Namaste, or “the light within me greets the light within you.”

But that’s not all that Hawaiian language speakers and Hawai‘i residents mean when they say Aloha.

Hōkūle‘a has a lot of friends wherever she sails.

Aloha is a spirit

Have a look at the roots of the word Aloha in the Hawaiian language:

  • ’alo To be with, come near, go with, attend, escort, accompany, share an experience, endure
  • oha, thriving, joyous affection, joy
  • hā, life energy, life, breath

Parsing this with the rules of the Hawaiian language, many arrive at a translation that describes a spirit of “joyfully sharing life”.

The idea of a spirit of joyful sharing is a new one for Western business leaders. It is just about the opposite ruthless competition. But when you think about what it takes for a group to go the distance under dangerous, uncertain circumstances, you can see how this notion of Aloha would help sustain morale and eliminate the distraction of petty conflicts.

Another translation of the Hawaiian words ‘alo, oha and might be “a thriving relationship that endures.” This is a wonderful description of the relationship any business, government or institution would hope to have with its information technology suppliers, products and standards.

Hōkūle‘a is small but mighty. Here she is in Yokohama Bay, Japan.

Aloha is a set of values

Whatever you personally take away from studying the individual words, there’s more to Aloha than its definition. To Hawaiian speakers and students of Hawaiian, the word Aloha has an underlying meaning, what Hawaiians would call kaona. For Hawaiians, the power (mana) of a word or a chant lies in its hidden meanings.

For example, consider the kaona implied by the roots of the compound word Hawai’i:

  • hā, life energy, life, breath
  • wai, fresh water, vital fluids
  • i, word/ tone of the supreme god, the initial consciousness

The word Hawai’i literally means from the breath of life is derived from the water of life is derived from the universal consciousness. Whew! This is a lot to grok.

To me, the word Hawai’i means, “we are all connected to each other and the world.” And I believe this is something that business leaders would do well to remember.

So let’s get to the kaona of the word Aloha. Techies, you will love this, ALOHA is an acronym!

A-L-O-H-A are the first letters of the Hawaiian words for values that are dearly held in Hawaii. I am speaking of values held not only by persons of Hawaiian descent, but also by residents of the state of Hawai’i and the local business community.

As an acronym, Aloha stands for an attitude that values:

  • A, ala, watchful, alertness
  • L, lōkahi, unity, harmony
  • O, oia’i’o, truthfulness, honesty
  • H, ha’aha’a, humility
  • A, ahonui, patient perseverance

The kaona of the word Aloha is a thought-provoking for Western business leaders. Most business leaders I know would agree that these values are essential for a thriving relationship that endures.

If you are in the type of business that needs repeat customers (and who isn’t?), then thriving relationships that endure are required for long-term success.

Historian-artist Herb Kawainui Kane was the captain of Hokulea on her first voyage to Tahiti

Polynesian Wayfinding Lessons

During the Hawaiian renaissance of the 1970s, the Hawaiian community took action to regain the cultural knowledge they had lost during the process of forced assimilation. Some of this knowledge was out there to be rediscovered readily. Other knowledge had to be reinvented through iteration and experimental archeology.

Open-ocean navigation was a particularly difficult skill to win back. The basic leadership requirements for an open-ocean navigator were clear from those with living memories, but they were almost impossibly high level:

  • The need for a vision
  • The need for a plan
  • An appetite for risk
  • The ties of Aloha

As a first step, The Polynesian Voyaging Society reinvented the double-hulled Hawaiian voyaging canoe via a lengthy series of experiments similar (but for budget) to the development of America’s Cup yachts. To get an idea of the permutations and combinations of Polynesian and Micronesian canoe designs, check this page from the website of the late historian-artist Herb Kawainui Kāne.

Hōkūleʻa is a performance-accurate full-scale replica of a waʻa kaulua, a Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe.

The Polynesian Voyaging Society was able to sail around the Hawaiian islands, no sweat! But they didn’t have a clear vision of traditional, non-instrument wayfinding methods for deep-sea voyaging. They didn’t even know how much they didn’t know.

There was no way that a bunch of guys, however bright and fit, could just jump into the 62-foot Hōkūle‘a and find their way to Tahiti. They had an appetite for risk, not for death.

Accordingly, Polynesian Voyaging Society leaders set out to locate a teacher, or kumu. There was just one man left in the world who could help — Mau Piailug, a Micronesian navigator from the tiny Carolinian island of Satawal. Navigator Nainoa Thompson describes Satawal this way:

“Satawal is a mile and a half long and a mile wide. Population 600. Navigation’s not about cultural revival, it’s about survival. Not enough food can be produced on a small island like that. Their navigators have to go out to sea to catch fish so they can eat.”

Mau had earned the title of master navigator, or palu, by the age of 18, around the time the first American missionaries arrived in Satawal to begin the process of Western assimilation. Satawal has no natural harbor, and had not been an early target of colonization.

By the time the Polynesian Voyaging Society reached out to Mau, Westernization was far along. Navigators like Mau had long realized that unless they bequeathed their knowledge to someone, it would vanish with their last breath. Mau was generous enough to divert the next few years of his life into educating the Hōkūle‘a team, even though the knowledge of a palu was sacred to Micronesians.

Mau Piailug’s Carolinian navigation system—which relies on navigational clues using the sun and stars, winds and clouds, seas and swells, and birds and fish—was acquired through rote learning passed down through teachings in the oral tradition. As The Economist wrote in Mau’s obituary:

“Mau did not operate on latitude, longitude, angles, or mathematical calculations of any kind. He walked, and sailed, under an arching web of stars moving slowly east to west from their rising to their setting points, and knew them so well—more than 100 of them by name, and their associated stars by colour, light and habit—that he seemed to hold a whole cosmos in his head, with himself, determined, stocky and unassuming, at the nub of the celestial action.”

Avid mainland sailor Steve Thomas was a student of non-instrument navigation and also sought out Mau Piailug as a kumu. In the early 1980s, Steve journeyed to Satawal to learn the ancient technique of star-path navigation. Steve’s research resulted in the critically acclaimed book about Mau Piailug, The Last Navigator, published in 1987. (Steve Thomas then became host of PBS This Old House, which is why his name may sound familiar.)

Mau Piailug talked to Steve about the qualities of a navigator, or palu:

“To be a palu you must have three qualities: fierceness, strength, and wisdom. The knowledge of navigation brings all three.”

Nainoa Thompson, now Hōkūle‘a’s navigator, recalled the first thing Mau said to the crew as the canoe was about to depart for Tahiti:

“Today we go to the ocean. Today if you have any problems between you, leave it on the land. Commit to the sea. Hōkūle‘a is your mother; take care of her. I am your father; listen to my words. That is how we will find the island we seek. “

As Nainoa Thompson tells it, Mau saw the crew as an ‘ohana, or family, bound by the ties of Aloha.