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 / Winter 2006 / Issue 45(originally published by Booz & Company)


Masters of the Breakthrough Moment

Toolkits for Democracy
It’s a few days after the “Working with Differences” workshop, and Edie Seashore is recounting the breakthrough moment to Charlie in their kitchen. They live in a penthouse apartment in Columbia, a planned community conceived in the 1960s as a mixed-use, racially diverse D.C. suburb. Being with the two of them is like spending time with a pair of highly intelligent stand-up comics who couldn’t look more different from each other, but whose routines and timing have been perfected over the years. Edie is smartly dressed and vivacious, with the quick wit and rapid-fire speech of a New Yorker (she grew up in northern New Jersey). Charlie, at 74, is tall and rumpled, with tufts of white hair standing on end, a slow-burn Midwestern pace, and a mischievous desire to constantly provoke a laugh. Earlier today, he stopped at a deli with a female visitor who ordered a meatloaf sandwich. Charlie turned immediately to the teenage waitress. “According to my research,” he said good-naturedly, “only 12 percent of women ever order meatloaf. Would you say that’s what you find here too?” An impromptu mock-academic colloquium ensued, with customers and other staff members getting drawn into a discussion of gender and lunch preferences, until everyone in the restaurant realized the absurdity of the situation and joined in the laugh.

Now, back at the apartment, Charlie recounts a mentoring session he conducted with a student at Fielding Graduate University — a school for mid-career professionals seeking advanced degrees in the behavioral sciences, on whose faculty he has served since 1985. The student had misinterpreted an assignment. “She said, ‘That was a terrible thing I did!’ And I agreed, yes, it was terrible. It was so bad that I wouldn’t be surprised if you ended up going to jail. But please don’t be too worried, we’ll help you find the best lawyer. In the meantime, is there anything I can do?”

Charlie explodes into laughter. Edie rolls her eyes. “Can you imagine, 45 years of this?” Pragmatic and down-to-earth, she is prone to quick retorts and sharp, incisive comments, whereas Charlie — who spent much of his early adulthood performing as a unicyclist, ladder walker, juggler, and clown — is more apt to draw out the absurdity of a moment in improvisations that operate, as he puts it, “at the edge of goofiness.” In his serious moments, Charlie’s relaxed and deliberately informal manner immediately puts others at ease.

“His gift is for asking those real-time questions,” says Cindy Miller, a Ph.D. candidate at Fielding who is training director at a major California biotech company. “Charlie will say, ‘This is what I think is going on, but I’m wondering if I’m just imagining it?’ It sounds simple, but it’s the hardest thing to do because you have to be aware on a moment-by-moment basis. Most people don’t take time to do that in complex organizations where everything is moving fast. But without that quality, most so-called leadership development is merely coaching for behaviors. Being aware of yourself and how you affect everyone around you is what distinguishes a superior leader.”

When visitors join them in their Maryland condo, Edie is quick to ask about their personal lives — marriages, children, the personalities of family members. Charlie is likely to leap into a long and thoughtfully detailed discussion of how attitudes toward groups have changed over the last half century. During this same afternoon at the kitchen table, for example, he begins diagramming the cultural history of group dynamics. There was the upsurge of interest in small groups following World War II, when people were wary of hierarchy because of fascism’s legacy; the fear of small groups as Communist cells during the Cold War; the flowering of group consciousness in the 1960s and early ’70s when grassroots activism took hold and people made a point of questioning authority; and the growing suspicion of small groups in our own era, provoked by public fear of terrorist nodes. Threading through Charlie’s graph is the trend of individual empowerment; the use of small groups, in the Seashores’ view, has made individual decision making more competent and helped organizations become more open to it.

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  1. Gary Heil, Warren Bennis, and Deborah C. Stephens, Douglas McGregor, Revisited: Managing the Human Side of the Enterprise (Wiley, 2000): Overview and update of McGregor’s classic work on human beings as interdependent co-contributors.
  2. Art Kleiner, The Age of Heretics: Heroes, Outlaws, and the Forerunners of Corporate Change (Doubleday, 1996): Includes a more detailed history of NTL and the Seashores’ role in it.
  3. Charles N. Seashore, Edith Whitfield Seashore, and Gerald M. Weinberg, What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback (Bingham House, 1997): The Seashores’ guide to conducting difficult conversations in a way that does not offend, provoke, confuse, blame, or overwhelm other people.
  4. Marvin Weisbord, Productive Workplaces Revisited: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century (Pfeiffer, 2004): The history of organizational development, tied directly to the realities of the high-performance workplace.
  5. National Training Laboratories Web site, Overview of the institute’s history and current courses offered in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
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