We are so excited over the announcement of a new National Institute of Civil Discourse, affiliated with the University of Arizona in Tucson. (This is the city where the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, where six were killed and 14 injured, took place.)

We wanted to share this commentary from our friend Rush Kidder, who eloquently stated one of the dilemmas the Institute faces. How we use words is powerful, and until we own our own contributions to the divisive climate we have created, it will be impossible to begin to create a new future.

Here is Rush's essay:

"If you care about sound governance and social order, this has been a disconcerting week. Protesters took to the streets from Morocco to Yemen while bloody battles erupted in Libya. The Wisconsin legislature froze up as Democratic representatives fled the state to prevent passage of a much-contested union-busting bill. And there were thunderings of a federal government shutdown over a budget impasse.

Against that great wall of noise, a call for civil discourse might seem like a mouse squeak in a nor’easter. Instead, the launch of a new National Institute for Civil Discourse, announced over the weekend, is attracting surprising attention.

Part of the new institute’s allure is that former U.S. presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton are honorary co-chairs. Part of it comes from its affiliation with the University of Arizona, located near the site of the Tucson shootings that killed six and injured 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Part of it comes from the ability of the institute to attract board members from across the political spectrum, including bedfellows as odd as Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren and former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright.

But part of its appeal, I suspect, comes from a nagging suspicion that a culture of incivility had something to do with those shootings, and that the January 8 tragedy was a wake-up call to think harder about the relationship of words to actions. On that latter point, the new institute is straddling a paradox.

Fred DuVal, the organization’s principal architect and a former co-chair of Giffords’ finance committee, says he drew inspiration for the institute from President Barack Obama’s comments at the memorial event after the tragedy. “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized,” the president said, “it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.” The new organization’s website notes that “this Institute is a response to that call.” Yet the website’s Q&A page responds to the question, “Are you blaming heated rhetoric for the shootings?” with the assertion, “Absolutely not.”

And therein lies the paradox. You can see why the institute took that line. There is no forensic or sociological evidence connecting alleged gunman Jared Loughner’s actions to any specific piece of polarizing rhetoric. Any hint, therefore, that irresponsible public discourse might have motivated him enrages the talk-show tribe. A strong denial on that point allows the institute to attract conservatives as well as liberals.

Yet the president’s artful ambiguity opens the window onto another view. The verb “wounds,” as Mr. Obama used it, can be read as mentally harms or as physically damages. Given the grisly context of this speech, these two meanings merge. Obama didn’t go to Tucson because the way that we were “talking to each other” caused people to be mentally wounded. He went there because bodies were lying around a Safeway parking lot. Seen that way, the logic behind the institute’s founding is clear: Words can heal or wound, and in Tucson they wounded fatally. Our “sharply polarized” discourse has played a role in this wounding, and a new institute is required to address this problem.

That logic will be rejected by those in the media whose livelihood depends on attracting audiences through a discourse of rage and incivility. To survive that antagonism, the institute will need the moral courage to be both credible and relevant. Credibility requires it to talk not just in broad generalities about how incivility “wounds” us, but to speak in sharp specifics about what’s wrong with diatribe, invective, hate speech, and cruelly personal attacks. Relevance will require the institute to point out the problem that it is confronting — the connection between verbal attack and the ills that plague our democracy, up to and including physical violence and assassination. To do anything less will be to ignore the nation’s plea for help as it struggles to understand how public discourse creates action either for good (through Facebook on the streets of Egypt) or for bad (through Twitter in the hands of school bullies).

If the institute “absolutely” denies any possibility that a culture of “heated rhetoric” played a role in the Tucson shootings, it will find itself living with a proverbial elephant in the room. If, however, it faces up to that challenge and digs deeply enough, it will discover the core moral values that hold us together. It then will need to teach us how to shape our discourse around those values. Doing so, it may prove to be the mouse that trumps the blizzard, reminding us that even elephants are frightened off by mice."

Owners of henning-showkeir & associates, inc., and co-authors of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment.


“You want people to know one another,” says F. Mark Gumz, CEO of the Olympus Corporation and the Feb. 13 Corner Office feature in the Sunday New York Times business section. “If you pull people together and share how they do things, they work better.”

It is encouraging to read about leaders who understand the power of conversation, collaboration and knocking down organizational silos, so we wanted to both applaud and share his story.

Gumz rejoined Olympus after a long period away as an independent consultant. When the company approached him about the job, he was worried about readjusting to a corporate environment. But when he decided to make the leap, he was clear about the kind of organizational culture he wanted to create. One of his key strategies was tohelp people understand that a successful bottom line depends on seeing and effectively navigating the inherent organization’s interdependencies. He used their wallets to make his point.

“I made part of their compensation based on the company’s overall performance,” Gumz says. “And I focused on getting people to share processes from different parts of the organization.”

He also instituted a rule prohibiting people from eating at their desk, both because he understands that taking a break from work is re-energizing, and also because he knows that conversations in the lunchroom are a great way to learn more about your coworkers, what they do, and what they are working on.

Gumz clearly has a management strategy that emphasizes personal accountability for the success of the whole, something that keeps the focus on business results instead of self-interest. Because this is a strategy that is at the heart of our own work, we’re always grateful to see a high-profile leader living out those values.


Written by Maren and Jamie Showkeir

Owners of henning-showkeir & associates, inc., and co-authors of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment.


We have long been fans of the work of the Institute for Global Ethics and its founder, Rush Kidder. He has authored several books, teaches seminars on ethics and has done important research on the common ethical values that exist in almost every society and culture. As subscribers to his newsletter, we enjoy his weekly, topical commentaries and find they often have relevance to our work.

His January 31 commentary talks about talks about followership, an oft-overlooked corollary of leadership. People such as politicians, corporate CEOs, academics, and religious figures may be seen as “leaders” but they won’t be effective unless they attract followers who respect them enough to engage a vision. As Rush points out, the $50 billion leadership industry is thriving, but how is the return on that investment manifesting? Judging from people’s cynicism about many of the world’s foremost leaders (and for that matter, the leaders we work with every day), the dividends aren’t always visible.
One of Rush’s questions in particular got our attention: “Have we so undernourished our sense of followership that [people] equate “we-ness” with weakness?” We have a related question: Are the skills for effective collaboration required to create a preferred shared future being lost in the obsession to look out for No. 1? Kidder argues that ethical leadership must take good followership into account because “if we teach leaders to respect followership only so that they can become even better at controlling others, we’ve missed the point. Followership isn’t a means to somebody else’s end. It’s the essence of community-building.”

This is a concept that is baked into our notion of authentic conversations, which calls for setting aside self-interest in favor of working toward the success of the whole. It means shifting the perspective of “if you win, I lose” (and vice versa) to an understanding that cooperation and collaboration help us maximize the success and well-being of all.

The notion of effective leadership shifts from getting others to do things your way to encouraging people to coalesce around a greater, defined purpose. It means that people share values and a vision for a preferred future and work together to develop the roadmap and necessary tools for getting there. In that sense, we are all leaders and followers.

Authenticity demands forgoing to the manipulation of others to serve our selfish interests and instead engaging each other transparently and with goodwill. As our friend Ira Chaleff writes in his wonderful book The Courageous Follower, followers don’t orbit around a leader — leaders and followers both orbit around purpose.


Written by Maren and Jamie Showkeir

Owners of henning-showkeir & associates, inc., and co-authors of Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment.


Brené Brown is a self-described “researcher storyteller,” with a PhD in social work. She has spent the last decade studying and doing research on vulnerability, courage and authenticity.

“Connection is why we are here,” she said in a recent TED speech, which was recommended to us by a friend and fellow traveler on the road to authenticity. “[Connection] is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” And connection requires authenticity, Brown’s research shows.

Here’s why: One of the main qualities that separate those who have a strong sense of love and belonging from those who don’t is a willingness to be truly seen. These are people who can let go of who they think they should be and be real about who they are. They have learned to embrace vulnerability, which Brown says is absolutely essential for connection.

Embracing vulnerability is also essential to having authentic conversations. Enduring relationships characterized by trust, respect, acceptance, and compassion begin with willingness to be vulnerable. To achieve true connection, you have to live without guarantees. You must invest in relationships that might not work out.

Brown also connects her research to the vitriolic nature of our public conversations, particularly in politics and the media, because the fear that gives birth to vulnerability tends to get cloaked in desperate uncertainty.

Our need to wall off fear and vulnerability inspires us to transform uncertainty into certainty, whether it’s about religion, politics or personal philosophies. Blaming others becomes the easiest way to discharge discomfort. We retreat into mindsets of “I am right. You’re wrong. Shut up.”

The antidote to this requires developing an appreciation of our vulnerabilities and the courage to snuggle up to them. Truly connecting with others — colleagues, children, partners, and friends — require most of us to develop new skills, Brown says.

The price we pay for our lack of authenticity is steep, because we shut ourselves off from what is real. We scurry to find ways to numb ourselves to painful emotions. But because it is impossible to selectively shut down emotions, we also disconnect from our compassion and joy. In the worst cases, we turn to destructive habits and unhealthy addictions.

Everyone shares a desire for clarity around who they are, and the confidence to share that with others. It is one more reason to develop the skills and commitments required for authentic conversations.

“When we work from a place that says, ‘I am enough,’ we stop screaming and start listening,” Brown says. “Because we are kinder and gentler with ourselves, we can be kinder and gentler with other people.”