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Leadership and Shifting Baseline Syndrome

The term Shifting Baseline Syndrome describes the acceptance of changes in baseline measures in a system over time. This syndrome masks or distorts reality. An ecologist who takes key measures of an ecosystem at one point and time and references those as her baseline for research, masks the prior deterioration or changes in the ecosystem. As new baselines are established over time, people become blind to the deterioration going on in the system.

I see a form of Shifting Baseline Syndrome manifest in leadership behaviors as well as in our personal and professional lives.

Instead of doing the right thing or the difficult thing, we shift the baseline.

It’s only 5 extra pounds. Until it’s 20. And then 40.

I have pictures of myself that are horrifying, yet I don’t recall worrying much about my shifting baseline (or waistline) while it was happening. I just bought larger clothes and continued merrily along on my path.

In our organizations, once an ethical gray zone is crossed, the baseline shifts to tolerate decisions and actions that previously would be deemed wrong or inappropriate.

The open-door policy is open for some people and closed for others.

A company’s values...

Courage, Integrity and Accountability at the CIA

The following is one of a series of chapters Government Executive is excerpting from a new book, Building a 21st Century Senior Executive Service, published by the National Academy of Public Administration and edited by Ron Sanders, vice president and fellow at Booz Allen. Click here for more information about the project.

Throughout my career, I have had the privilege of working  with literally hundreds of senior civilian leaders—members of the Defense Intelligence Senior Executive Service when I was Director of NSA; executives of the intelligency community’s Senior National Intelligence Service, which I helped create as Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence; and finally, executives of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service when I was director of CIA—through  some of our nation’s most challenging times.

The challenges facing our nation may have changed over time, but they are certainly no less difficult today. Thus, while those of us who were on the front lines of the Cold War may have confronted a world more dangerous than today’s, none of us have lived and led in a world more complicated or immediate.

What does that mean for senior leaders in government? What special traits will...

Drinking Four Cups of Coffee Is Probably Safe

“Bring it!”

That’s what a Los Angeles news anchor said earlier this month, in response to the announcement that “the world’s strongest coffee” is now available in the United States. The product is called Black Insomnia, a playful nod to a potentially debilitating medical condition that can be caused by the product.

The anchor’s tone took a dramatic decrescendo as she read from the teleprompter: “The site Caffeine Informer says Black Insomnia is one of the ‘most dangerous caffeinated products.’” Her smile faded. “Oh. I’ll have to have this one sparingly.”

Black Insomnia is actually in competition for the title of “world’s strongest coffee.” Another, similar purveyor sells coffee grounds called Death Wish. They come in a black sack with a skull and cross bones. On its Amazon page, Death Wish claims to be “the world’s strongest coffee” and promises its “perfect dark roast will make you the hero of the house or office.”

How much caffeine is required for heroism? At what point does the drug (known technically as 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine) actually become unsafe?

Caffeine occurs in plant leaves and seeds as an insect repellant and herbicide. It is used in hospitals...

Are We Having Too Much Fun?

Earlier this month, thousands of protesters gathered at Washington’s National Mall to advocate for an assortment of causes: action against global climate change, federal funding for scientific research, an empirical approach to the world and its mysteries. The protesters at the March for Science, as scientists are wont to do, followed what has become one of the formulas for such an event, holding clever signs, wearing cheeky costumes, and attempting, in general, to carnivalize their anger. “Make the Barrier Reef Great Again,” read one sign at the March. “This is my sine,” read another. “I KNEW TO WEAR THIS,” one woman had written on the poncho she wore that soggy Saturday, “BECAUSE SCIENCE PREDICTED THE RAIN.” Three protesters, sporting sensible footwear and matching Tyrannosaurus rex costumes, waved poster boards bearing messages like “Jurassick of this shit.”    

There was a time when irony was supposed to have died—when Americans, frightened and shaken and weary, worried that the world had robbed them of their constitutional right to laughter. They needn’t have fretted: Irony—satire—political discourse that operates through the productive hedge of the joke—have not only evaded death in past decades; they have, instead, been enjoying a...

Making Lists Can Spark Creativity By Freeing Your Unconscious

Listing, whether for practical or creative purposes, is liberating. When we write things down, our minds get organized, information solidifies, and from the murky depths of the unconscious emerges order.

But not all listing is ordered, strangely. The true magic of lists lies in their randomness, according to science fiction writer Ray Bradbury in his 1994 essay collection, Zen in the Art of Writing (pdf). He recommended writing random words and then learning to discern patterns in these seemingly accidental collections, finding connections and artistic inspiration.

Bradbury’s lists were simple. For example:

  • The Lake
  • The Night
  • The Crickets
  • The Ravine
  • The Attic

The writer triggered his unconscious by putting pen to paper and noting whatever nouns came to mind. He poked his intuition awake, discovering preoccupations hidden from him. The lists became seeds for stories and titles, and even when his conscious mind was unwilling to supply inspiration, Bradbury’s lists served as missives from an unconscious self.

He started making random lists in his 20s and it worked for him. Bradbury became one of the most popular American writers of the 20th century, and wrote every day. This method helped him to find his way semi-consciously through the...

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