A Good Leader Is Also a Good Friend

By Mireia Las Heras and Esther Jiménez

We live in a fast-moving and ephemeral culture. It’s fashionable to invent new terms without thinking too deeply about their meaning. In this respect, leadership is described variously as visionary, transactional, lateral, situational, autocratic, emotional, resonant and charismatic─with more to come when these don’t deliver. In popular and academic literature, a leader is a winner and someone who enjoys power. 

Friendship is relegated to the world beyond work. In the workplace, it is a word with negative connotations, associated with influence peddling, string pulling, and, of course, nepotism. Sometimes this is based in reality. One only need look at the so-called “positions of trust” in the social and political life of many countries.

Let us look at the essence of leadership and friendship. Leading means, to paraphrase Salinas, bringing out the best in others. And friendship is, in essence, a disinterested relationship based on trust and affection between people, which is borne out of and strengthened by sharing common goals. As it was put in the title of a book written by one of our professors: to lead is to educate.

In every human enterprise, even one as important as a football team, it is essential that there are friendly relations between the various components in order to increase the chance of achieving one’s goal. It’s vital that everyone participates and contributes to achieve the mission. It’s not enough for everyone to score a goal, however useful that might be. What’s needed is for everyone to want to win the game even if that means not being the one who scores the goal. 

To be a leader who gives orders also means being a collaborator who obeys. And this mandate, if it’s going to be developed and perfected and bring out the best, is at the same time a service. And it only functions when someone is considered a friend, someone who shares a common interest. It’s a long way from the leadership of the list of the 500 most powerful men─or women, if only it was the same thing!─in the world. Leadership and power are not synonymous and, although they aren’t mutually exclusive, neither do they go hand in hand. Magnates and dictators have power without being leaders, while a mother or a teacher may be a stupendous leader without wielding power. 

Leadership and service require each other; they are manifestations of the same thing and are sustained by friendship. “When he pours, he reigns,” ran the slogan in the Tom Cruise film Cocktail. It’s a good phrase: a person is at the same time someone who serves and someone who governs, without seeking their own self-interest. 

A leader has to know how to see and evaluate. And this doesn’t just mean assessing qualities and defects, but developing and bringing out people’s full potential. In the current climate, where products have a short life cycle and where change is the norm rather than the exception, and knowledge rather than experience is what is valued, leaders need to promote friendship to foster the development of their fellow workers. That way, leaders and their colleagues will be able to make clear decisions and face challenges through constant evolution.

Mireia Las Heras is Assistant Professor of Managing People in Organizations, IESE Business School.
Esther Jiménez is Manager of the International Center for Work and Family, IESE Business School.
This essay was first published in the Alumni Magazine IESE, July-September 2011.

 

Is My Identity My Job Title?

By Erin Aldrich

We live in a society where people are often more concerned about what we do than who we are. If you don’t believe me, just think about how often you say something like, “Hi I am Erin Aldrich, Director of Metro Achievement Center” and then smile and pause expecting a similar sentence from the person standing across from you.

To constantly be identifying one’s self with a job title and place of work can take its toll. What if I don’t have a job or don’t have the position I want or am ashamed of where I work or work in what some people consider a lesser job? Since we often identify ourselves with our job, we can start to think our upward movement in a company is the same thing as an increase in our self-worth. Our value starts to become dependent on our position, making it easier to act in ways that might even go against our value systems.

For the past five years I have had the great privilege of getting to know hundreds of young professional women who volunteer weekly at Metro Achievement Center, each searching for happiness and fulfillment. Since these women are also constantly repeating their job title as what identifies them, they might easily begin to think that this is where happiness and fulfillment are to be found. But does this even make sense? Absolutely not!

Not many people stop to think about where happiness and fulfillment come from in the fast-paced world that we live in. Who has time after juggling work, friends, groceries, laundry, drinks with friends, and every once in a while cooking a meal? If we don’t take the time daily to reflect on what we want in life, why we want it, and how we strive to obtain it, it’s easy to fall into the habit of seeing the next promotion or the next pay raise as the key to happiness. If we keep identifying ourselves by our job titles, we limit our self-worth and potential for happiness. It would be very sad to allow our employers to dictate our worth and sense of fulfillment.

How serious are you about finding happiness and fulfillment? If you are serious about it, then I suggest you make time to reflect each day. People who reflect daily on their purpose and identity tend to be much happier. I don’t have any research to back this up, just years of observation. I encourage everyone to take time daily to think about the following questions:

What is the purpose of my life?

Am I trying to fulfill my purpose?

What is at the core of my identity?

Do I often remember this or do I define my worth based on other things?

What is most important to me?

Does the way I set my daily priorities allow me to make time for what is most important?

What are my values and beliefs?

Am I staying true to my values and beliefs?

As we reflect daily on these types of questions, it sets us on a path for success, happiness and fulfillment. 

And in a world where we hear and say many times a day, “Hi I am Erin Aldrich, Director of Metro Achievement Center” smile and pause, it is good to be able to remember while that is what I do, that is not who I am.

 

A Musical Life

By Janice Chik Breidenbach

Those of us who have a variety of strong interests often struggle with how to synthesize these into a coherent whole as we juggle schedules, psychological energy, and priorities. Janice Chik Breidenbach, who spoke on “Beauty Inside Out” at our recent Fashion Intelligence symposium, shares her journey along this path in the interview below.  Janice is currently Assistant Professor in Philosophy at Ave Maria University in Florida. The interview was conducted by Alice Trimmer, of the MHI Board.

You received an AB from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs while simultaneously majoring in Musical Performance.  What led you to pursue such a demanding double major? Did you have a clear idea of which avenue you would pursue once you graduated?

Music was my ‘first love.’ My mother is a professional classical Chinese opera singer and dancer, and my father, who was a computer engineer, also sang classical opera as a gifted amateur: so there was always music in the home. My earliest memories of it, however, are of Mozart records being played in the kitchen as my mother prepared dinner and did housework. My siblings and I owe our musical studies to her fondness for the violin, and her willingness to sacrifice much time and money so that we could have lessons. I began studying the violin at the age of five, at the MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis. I later took up the piano at age eight. In high school, I seriously considered musical performance as a full-time profession, but was held back by the reasonable consideration that I had much to gain from a liberal arts education. At the same time, my older sister was taking philosophy courses at Duke University with Alasdair MacIntyre, and she introduced me to philosophy for the first time. So I went to Princeton, joined the university orchestra, and promptly ‘fell in love’ a second time, with philosophy.

Music, then philosophy. Was that going from the frying pan into the fire in terms of career outlook?

At Princeton, I was immediately caught up in the general student consensus that a university education was a financial investment, a means to an end: that of maximizing one’s starting salary upon graduation. I started out intending to concentrate in economics and finance, but could not quell an uneasy question: ‘What is this for?—Is there a higher meaning than merely economic or material well-being?’ My uneasiness over this latter question led me to then pursue pre-medicine, then pre-law, eventually applying for and concentrating in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs. I was received into the Catholic Church my senior year, and almost simultaneously sensed a strong calling to pursue graduate studies in philosophy. Only philosophy, in tandem with my newfound faith, appeared able to answer the question of meaning with which I had struggled throughout my time at Princeton.

In what way, if any, has your prior music study benefited your current professional life?

In an important way, my appreciation for music always kept alive my sense in the absence of any substantive faith that there must be more to human existence than merely material life, material happiness, and material death. Before I believed in God, I believed in music: in its power to convey truths about goodness and beauty, to move the soul in sublime and mysterious ways, and as a sign of some other-worldly reality. My experiences in musical performance have also informed my recent PhD research, which defends an Aristotelian view of human action as integrating body and mind (‘soul’) against post-Cartesian materialist theories of action and behavior. Musical performance is, I think, a strong example of such unity between body and soul. What we have in video footage of Heifetz, for instance, playing some of the most technically difficult violin repertoire so coolly and apparently effortlessly offers a perfect demonstration of the body’s potential to absorb the complex commands of our minds, to the extent that the activity of the mind is no longer really needed (musicians call this ‘muscle memory’), and yet the mind is present throughout all of one’s complex movements. 

Do you play now? Do you find it challenging to keep up your musical skills in the midst of a busy career? What advice do you have for people who have abandoned their music studies after high school and would like to come back?  What is the best way to proceed? In such a case does one have to start all over?

These days, as a first-year university professor, I find it nearly impossible to keep up a regular practice schedule for the violin and piano. It is natural to feel frustration when one has certain skills and is unable to fully actualize themand I have struggled with thisbut I have also come to a peaceful resolution of the situation. I’ve had to accept that my main priority at the moment is teaching, scholarship, and service within philosophy: to fulfill my duties well and on time, while also cultivating friendships in my work and outside of it. These new responsibilities exclude the fulfillment of many musical desires, while of course satisfying other enriching pursuits. However, I have found that chamber music is an excellent way to build friendships and forge relationships that would otherwise have never existed. Meeting with friends to play music together on a casual basis, in a relaxed setting, is a wonderful way to refresh one’s musicianship without becoming overly stressed about perfecting technique. Technique will improve with time, often outside of our awareness or effort, when our main focus is the enjoyment of the music itself, as well as our friends.

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The Power of Authenticity

By Teresa Carale, MHI President

The cover of the January–February 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review magazine featured: “The Problem with Authenticity: When It’s OK to Fake It Till You Make It.” Is there truly a problem with authenticity?

It would be difficult to find anyone who disagrees with the power of image. As a picture is worth a thousand words, one’s image produces impressions on others that can be deep and lasting. For some, however, there appears to be a conflict between the two concepts: image and authenticity. Some argue that there is no need to worry about image if one is authentic. Certainly, authenticity bridges the gap between reality and image.

A strong, positive image can go a long way in enhancing the influence of a leader. If there is incongruity between the image and reality, the image generated will eventually fracture, and any influence a leader initially had will be lost. On the other hand, if one’s purpose is to enhance one’s image so that one’s best qualities are emphasized, or one puts forward qualities that are most important for the job or responsibility one has, then there is no conflict with reality, and no problem with a lack of authenticity.

There are various ways to enhance one’s image. Consultants work with leaders to enhance their executive presence, as Ginny Baldridge explained in one of the break-out sessions during MHI’s recent Fashion Intelligence Symposium. The best starting point, however, is self-knowledge, which consists not only in being aware of one’s strengths and limitations, but also in being aware of how one is perceived by others and how one relates to others. This goes well beyond “This is who I am—take it or leave it.” A leader is open to changing and improving not only one’s image, but also one’s character and values. A leader is open to striving to be a better person and thereby a better leader.

Authenticity is so important that we at Murray Hill Institute have chosen it as the theme for next year’s Fashion Intelligence Symposium: “Authenticity in Fashion.” We also support the concept of authenticity through our mentoring program, leadership seminars, and conferences.

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Small Spaces, Big Ideas

Jolene Streiff

An interview with Jolene Streiff, Founder of Designing Life, LLC

The transition from campus living to a grown-up life-style requires many changes─clothes, makeup, and not least, one’s living space. The young and sometimes not-so-young can often find themselves surrounded by a bewildering and disparate array of hand-me-downs, orphan furniture left by departed roommates, and well-used campus gear. And that first apartment─shared or not, is usually, well, small. We asked Jolene Streiff, Founder of Designing Life, LLC, for her best tips on living small, and on decorating your first home.

In a small living room (which may or may not double as a sleeping space), what is the single most important piece of furniture to replace?

The living room is a semi-public space where friends and visiting family gather to converse and relax. For this reason, the most important piece of furniture is the sofa. Proper seating for friends means a sofa, not a kitchen chair. The sofa alone can “make” the room. Nice hard wood floors, a great sisal rug, and a tuxedo style sofa are about all you need. Pull up a leather ottoman, add a serving tray to set your wine glass on and you’re set for visitors. If your living room also serves as a bedroom, you may want to invest in a sofa bed that has clean, modern lines. A good quality sofa is an investment, but it’s worth spending the money because it’s the piece that gets heavy use and it needs to stand up to many a party.

How can disparate styles of furniture be unified, if they cannot all be replaced at once? 

First of all, it’s important to have dissimilar pieces of furniture. How you mix pieces that may not perfectly match is where an eye for design is needed. The way you connect different pieces of furniture is not in the style of the piece per se but in the elements of that piece: color, texture, size and how it takes up the space in a room. Pieces that don’t seem to match can look perfect if the placement is spot on and the piece makes some connection with the accessories and artwork throughout the room. What will never look right are damaged, uncared for pieces that need to be dumped on the street. I wouldn’t be too concerned about matching furniture: just look at the rooms in any modern interior design magazine and you will see lots of unlike objects happily co-existing in the same space.

Should I purchase small furniture for a small space? Or is it better to have some larger focal pieces? How does one decide?

Every room should have a focal point and purpose. A great piece of furniture can be the focal point and give definition to the room. That particular statement piece should be noticeable—and that means it would be a good size. But generally, you would choose slightly smaller and fewer pieces in a small room. Measure your room, draw a room layout, and then figure out how big you can go with various pieces. Perhaps one big ottoman will be a better look than two small end tables on the side of the sofa. Be willing to experiment. General rule—go a bit bigger than what you think is appropriate.

How can one change the look of one’s living space to reflect the change of seasons without storage space to keep a lot of seasonal decorations and extra sets of accessories?

The easiest way to change the look to reflect holiday time or a special celebration is through a few accessories. Pillows on a sofa and a sofa throw can be changed twice a year: winter/fall and spring/summer. A collection of white dishes and serving pieces is a great “neutral” background for dressing up a table. A festive holiday centerpiece, and a few smaller dishes in accent colors can give the impression that you are celebrating something special. Pine cones in a big round glass vase could look great on the dining room or kitchen table, then toss the pine cones out and replace with pastel ceramic eggs for Easter. Decorating a mantle with a few sprigs of garland and a few shiny ornaments might do the trick. Hanging festive hand towels in the bathroom is another idea. Just make sure things are clean and in tip top shape. You don’t need much to have people notice there is something special going on.

Paper clutter can quickly overrun a small space. Aside from throwing out junk mail as soon as it arrives, what are your best tips for controlling, containing, and organizing papers?

I suggest a few nice wicker baskets with tops and a file cabinet in a great color. Spend a weekend preparing file folders and putting all those bills and important papers in their own file. I have one good-looking leather box for ALL my receipts. I keep all receipts for a year and then toss and start over. Everything needs a place, the trick is to have a system for getting things there!

Colors that I love but can’t wear, colors that are in style, neutral colors that “go with” everything (but I’m not a neutral kind of person)─how do I chose the best color scheme for my living space?

Don’t be afraid to paint strong/deep colors on your interior walls. Even black walls are very appealing in a home. The main point is to have continuity of color tones between the rooms so that the spaces and the hallways that connect the rooms have a unified color palette. In other words, if you walked around your apartment and peered in each room, would you see homogenous tones of color? Are the tones in the same family: warm or cool tones? Colors in a space should transition effortlessly room to room. If you are doing neutrals, you can do a striking deep taupe or mushroom grey—neutrals do not have to be light colors. If you’re into lots of fun splashes of color, a safe way to show your passion for color is with accessories: pillows or artwork.

I have lots of windows but not lots of money for custom window treatments. What is the best way to ensure privacy and “dress up” my windows on a budget?

Window treatments have come a long way. There are some great floor-length window panels at places like Home Goods, World Market, or Target that are lined and give a look of elegance as well as privacy. Install your curtain rod high—above the window molding and have the rod reach out beyond the sides of the window molding. Hang your drapery panel so it touches the floor and is not too short. The fullness of the panels should be about three times the width of your window. Make sure the curtains are pressed well. Another option is wooden blinds, which can give a nice finished look to a window. There are affordable custom-looking wood blinds at home improvement stores such as Lowes or Home Depot.

My apartment kitchen is small and unbeautiful, with older appliances. How can I make it look homey and bright?

First off, scrub the kitchen down. A good cleaning will make a huge difference. Re-tiling the floor will not cost much if it’s a small space, or get a good size rug to cover ugly flooring. Paint the walls, add a tiled back splash—again, inexpensive if it’s a tiny kitchen. Hang colorful, non-conventional art in the kitchen. Think about installing wall shelves to display a unique assortment of dishes. These accessory tricks will draw your eye away from the old and mundane.

I have one closet for all my clothes, and I can’t afford one of those expensive closet organizing systems. What to do?

 

If you can rearrange the poles in your closet that hold the hangers, install two poles, one higher, to hold your blouses and tops, and another, lower, one for slacks folded over a hanger. If you can’t do a double clothing rod, utilize a shelf or two above the closet pole. Plastic bins filled with scarves, handbags, and sweaters will look a lot neater than just piling your belongings on the shelf. If plastic bins will fit under your bed, load the bins with seasonal clothing or all your handbags. Hooks over the bedroom and closet doors are a great way to add additional storage.

Is it better to wait until I have enough savings to totally re-do my place, or should I do it little by little? What is the single best thing I can do now to make my place guest-worthy?

Don’t wait to do everything, although you should have a realistic budget if you are serious about redecorating. Before you start purchasing furniture, draperies, and more expensive items, have a fairly complete picture of what you want your room to look like, including paint colors. Plan the design, choosing the type of sofa, chairs, coffee table, bookcase, artwork, wall colors. Making a design board where all your picks are posted helps ensure that everything you are planning to buy goes together and works towards agood design goal. You can always start by painting the room, if it needs it. Then begin your purchases, perhaps starting with the sofa and adding the rug a few months later. Try to get your main pieces in the room first. Then, fillin with accessories from an inexpensive home goods store; these can be upgraded later on when your budget allows. 

The Quest for Self-Identity

By Teresa Carale, MHI President

In one of the most riveting scenes in the musical Les Miserables, Javert apologizes to Jean Valjean (disguised as Monsieur Madeleine, the mayor of the town) for doubting his identity. He informs the mayor that they have caught the escaped criminal, Jean Valjean, and that he is awaiting trial. The real Jean Valjean faces a morally pivotal point, as the song “Who am I?” articulates: “If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned!” What should he do? The song continues, “Who am I? Can I condemn this man to slavery; pretend I do not feel his agony. This innocent who bears my face, who goes to judgment in my place…”

Many go about their daily lives trapped in what seems like a never-ending succession of actions. What should I do next? We often forget why we do these things in the first place. To lead rich, meaningful lives, we have to stop and ponder Jean Valjean’s fundamental question: Who am I? Self-identity is more than mere self-knowledge─of my likes and dislikes, my personality, my strengths and weaknesses. All of these things are important, but they do not define “who I am.” And that is why we allude to it as a quest─of short or long duration.

In the seminar “Resisting the Mentality of ‘Total Work’─in Search of a Fulfilling and Integrated Life,” Dr. Margarita Mooney talked about the danger of defining ourselves based on the product of our work, instead of the process of our work. “We live in the era of what philosopher Josef Pieper called the world of ‘total work’, in which our identity is so tied up with the product of our work that we forget to nurture our contemplative, joyful, and vulnerable sides.” There is wisdom in focusing on the process─how we do our work, and not only the product of our work.  The “how” reveals values, priorities, interpersonal relationships, one’s vision of the world.

Sometimes it helps to ask “what do I want written in my obituary?” That question speaks to who I want to be. And the answer to that question guides our quest for self-identity, and frames our actions and decisions accordingly─in our personal and professional lives, in our families, in society, in the world at large. “Who am I” determines how I speak, how I dress, how I relate to others, how I behave in the workplace and in social situations. There is integrity and the consequent interior peace when words, thoughts and actions are consistent with one’s identity. Authenticity is a quality that is valued in all situations, just as duplicity is decried.

It is worthwhile to embark or continue on this quest for self-identity. Only thus can we be effective protagonists in transforming the world and making it a better place.

Review of Self-Esteem without Selfishness: Increasing Our Capacity for Love

By Alice Trimmer

Self-doubt, self-acceptance, self-esteem, self-loathingit is essential to have a good relationship with oneself in order to function well in life and to establish healthy relationships with others. But how does one develop self-esteem without going overboard and becoming an egoist? This is the question that is exhaustively explored in Michel Esparza’s book Self-Esteem without Selfishness, published in Spain in 2010, and recently made available in an excellent English translation by Devra Torres (Scepter Press, 2013).

This topic will be familiar to devotees of self-help books, but Esparaza’s solution is no quick fix. Esperza describes the balance between arrogance and the kind of false humility that saps initiative as “humble self-esteem,” and he makes it clear that the effort to achieve this balance is one that necessarily has to last a lifetime.

The book is divided into two parts:  Part 1 “Pride and Its Difficulties” explores the twisted nature of the situations we can get into through a misunderstanding of how to view ourselves. Part 2 “Towards a Definitive Solution” sets out in depth a way to develop “humble self-esteem” and in the process, enjoy a happy life. Esparza is a Catholic priest, so it is no surprise that his solution involves a deep spiritual journey. He also holds a medical degree and thus is well equipped to explore his topic from a wide variety of perspectives: physical, psychological, and emotional. One of the pleasures of the book is the wealth of quotations from literature and philosophy that he employs to illustrate his points. Although this book is written from a Catholic perspective, the author approaches his topic in a way that people of all faiths can understand, and all can certainly benefit from the insights offered. 

The subtitle of the book, “Increasing our Capacity for Love” gives a clue to the basic premisethat a rightly ordered love of self is the first step in enabling ourselves to give to others, whether in a romantic relationship or through the love of friendship. Drawing on classical philosophy, Esparza gives a lucid account of the different kinds of love as well as tips on how to navigate one’s way toward self-giving. His insights on the differences in communication styles between men and women, and the connection that these differences have with needs, understanding, and trust, are clear and incisive, and can be profitably employed in the workplace as well as in family life.

The search for the right kind of self-esteem is of particular interest to young people, as they seek to answer the question “What kind of person do I want to be?” At Rosedale, the educational center in the Bronx where I work, the Program Directors used excerpts from Chapter 1 as part of our fall volunteer training. Both the high school and college students found it refreshing, understandable, and engaging, and the readings led to many fruitful discussions.

Alice Trimmer is on the Board at Murray Hill Institute and is the Director of Rosedale Center for Girls in the Bronx.

 

Developing a Voice Through Assertiveness

Jenny Chen

By Jenny Chen

Recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella enraged the public by saying that women should not ask for raises, but let faith dictate their compensation. Though controversial, his statement serves as a wake-up call to the community that women clearly do not enjoy the same rights as men and more needs to be done to promote gender equality in the workplace. A previous Carnegie Mellon study on graduates with a master’s degree shows that despite a growing number of women graduating from college, women still make on average 7.6% less than men, in part due to their fear of speaking up. As I have learned from the MHI mentoring program, effective communication, especially assertiveness, is key to developing a voice and building a successful and fulfilling career. As a young, professional Asian woman working in a competitive, predominantly male industry, learning to communicate assertively has been a difficult, but necessary, challenge. A person with my profile is generally expected to obey authority, be polite, accommodating, and non-aggressive. While assertiveness is often confused with aggressiveness, the two differ greatly. Communicating assertively is neither forceful nor confrontational, but rather, direct, honest and respectful with the goal of a win-win outcome. Specifically, being assertive means actively managing my job rather than passively accepting all tasks which eventually result in excessive stress, burn out, and overall dissatisfaction with my work life.

To better manage my workload and my peers, I began to express my preferences, opinions and needs. I started speaking up during meetings, better setting expectations, and actively negotiating workload among my colleagues that had availability. Speaking up has opened up a communication channel between me and my team, and as a result, not only am I more relieved but my entire team is more successful.

While I still work the occasional late night and weekend, I am more prepared for them and feel better knowing that I actively participated in the dialogue. Part of the process was understanding myself and acknowledging my needs and limitations, as well as developing confidence and self-esteem to stand up for what matters. This also meant relinquishing the guilt of being selfish and not accommodating everybody's requests. To my surprise, my colleagues did not reject or criticize my needs, but rather, took them seriously and found the feedback to be valuable. I am humbled by their understanding, and realize that voicing my opinions and concerns is not about going against authority, but about promoting effectiveness on the job, a healthy work-life balance, and mutually beneficial relationships with my colleagues. A day after making his statement, Nadella recanted his words, and said that women should ask for raises. Whether sincere or not, statements like these help spark dialogue in the community and are beneficial for women as we continue to find our voice in the workplace. Furthermore, programs like the ones Murray Hill Institute offers will continue to equip women with the skills needed to better close the inequality gap. As long as we continue to forge ahead assertively and with greater confidence, we will continue to strengthen our relationships with our male counterparts and work towards gender equality for the well-being of all.

Jenny Chen is a diversified industries corporate banker.

In Praise of The Hobbit

By Gabriela Kustner

“Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.” So wrote C. S. Lewis in 1937 of his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien’s newly released book—and how right he was. Now, if you were to judge the merit of The Hobbit from the glimpses of the movie trailer you might have caught by an NYC subway entrance, you might have wrinkled your nose in distaste. I wouldn’t blame you, because the movie is chock full of digitally mastered, rip-roaring, big-boy fight scenes—and not so full of the whimsical storytelling that makes The Hobbit such a delightful read. In the book, Tolkien’s tone resembles that of an indulgent grandfather with a wicked sense of humor mixed in with a reverence for tradition and those old, ancient fairy tales and adventures which first open children’s horizons. Perhaps that is one of the things I enjoy most about The Hobbit: the way it makes you rediscover the child within you that loves dragons and elves and quests that might make you late for dinner. Bilbo Baggins’s riddle contest with Gollum, his audacious escape with the dwarves from the prisons of Mirkwood, and his general cheek and courage make for the best sort of storytelling that will never grow old, though its readers may. In short, put down what you’re reading, pick up The Hobbit, and read it with your loved ones: you’ll instantly find yourself whisked away on an unexpected journey that you’ll never be able to forget.

Gabriela Kustner, long-time Tolkien fan, is a recent Princeton grad with a degree in English who lives in New York City. 

Making the Mundane Meaningful

By Katie Robinson

Starting out in my career has often meant completing "mundane tasks"—making copies, going on coffee runs, ordering lunches, etc. Normally people would rather pass these tasks off to someone else than do them themselves, but I've always been able to approach these tasks with a different view. I owe that mindset to a college professor who planted a seed in my head. 

I remember one day when we were talking about internships during class my professor explained how coffee runs and making copies are actually important. They are a test. She went on to explain how if you can't make copies correctly no one will trust you with anything more important than that. Even the little effort you make when presenting their coffees with clean, non-dripping lids and the proper assortment of sugars laid out can illustrate your work ethic. If you take pride in what you do, then people around you see that you take your work seriously. These little details show your potential for future work with them. 

After my first full year of being officially in the workplace, that little seed my professor planted has grown into a little plant of hospitality. I've realized that every position has a sense of hospitality. I've come to describe my job as keeping people happy because of the amount of hospitality that is subtly involved in my position. It doesn't matter if I'm setting up for a small meeting or coordinating a large department celebration, the thought and effort that goes into the presentation makes a big difference.

I've seen the difference it's made in my career and on those around me. My so-called "thankless job" has become full of appreciation. The little details like remembering to have someone’s favorite soda on hand gives them the little energy they need to get through their next meeting. The neatly organized supply drawer allows people to quickly get what they need and move on. The clean workspace provides a calm environment to concentrate on the task at hand. 

The little loving improvements in hospitality create a happier and more grateful workplace. 

Katie Robinson is the Administrative Assistant for the Vice President of Production Management at Sesame Workshop and runs an advice blog called “Ask the Young Professional” where she gives advice to succeed, in and outside of work, as a savvy twentysomething.

Do you have an experience you would like to share about changing the culture in your workplace? Email us atinfo@murrayhillinstitute.org