Saturday, March 31, 2012

African Elephant

African Elephant by CharlesRay2010
African Elephant, a photo by CharlesRay2010 on Flickr.


Curiousity by CharlesRay2010
Curiousity, a photo by CharlesRay2010 on Flickr.

Water Plants

Water Plants by CharlesRay2010
Water Plants, a photo by CharlesRay2010 on Flickr.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Establishing A Vision and Getting People To Follow You.

A great article from GovLoop, a social networking site for government employees at all levels, and those interested in being in government, on how to get people to follow. . . read more

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I Am Who I Am – Reflections of an African-American Ambassador in Zimbabwe

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.

In honor of Black History Month, the Zimbabwe-U.S. Alumni Association hosted Ambassador Charles A. Ray on February 16 for a discussion on “Being an African-American Ambassador in Africa.”  Ambassador Ray was inspired to write this blog following a lively discussion of cultural differences, preconceived beliefs and what it means to be an American.

I’m an African-American who came of age during the turbulent years of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, when the process of dismantling the legal and institutional barriers faced by minorities began.  It was a time when many Americans of color sought their roots in the culture from which their unknown ancestors came.  People adopted African names, wore what they assumed to be African dress, and listened to African music – all things that gave us a sense of self and identity that institutionalized discrimination and neglect had taken away from us.
It was a time when people spoke of ‘going home to Africa.’  Now, I want to be absolutely clear about this: I am intensely proud of that part of my heritage that sprang from the continent that is the cradle of humankind.  But, I must also be honest; as someone who for the past fifty years has lived on four continents and worked in or visited nearly fifty countries, I think of home as the place where I came from, not the place where my ancestors – known and unknown – came from.  That statement will, no doubt, not go down well with many, including many hyphenated Americans who mistake pride in the culture of their forebears for ‘belonging’ to that culture.
I have a rather strict view of culture -- I believe that you cannot be ‘of’ a culture unless you grew up ‘in’ that culture.  You can like it; you can even have a surface understanding of it; but, you cannot be of it in the way a person can who grew up in it and who takes its norms and practices for granted.  Imagine if you will an Asian child, adopted at birth and raised in the U.S. Midwest.  Even if that child is taught his or her native language while growing up, the first visit back ‘home’ will show that he or she is an outsider.  I’ve seen this many times in Asia, and I know that the same holds true in other cultures as well.
Often, I’m asked if, as a U.S. diplomat of African-American descent, I feel that I am at home in Africa.  Well, I’ve done two official tours of duty in Africa -- one in West Africa and one in southern Africa -- and have visited six or seven other African countries.  While I thoroughly enjoyed each visit, at no time have I felt a sense of home coming.  Why is that, you might ask?  Consider this:  unless an African-American is from the Gullah community of the Sea Islands off Georgia and South Carolina, or a recent immigrant from Africa, or, like our President, the child of a mixed marriage who knows where the African parent came from, he or she has no way of knowing from what specific place in Africa his or her ancestors came from.  In cultures where tribal and clan identity is well established, if all one has in common is skin color, the sense of difference -- of being an alien -- can be profound.  An African, upon meeting an African-American who doesn’t know the language or culture, and whose tribe or clan cannot be identified, must feel the same.
So, the sense of ‘coming home’ is just not there.  What I do have is a pride in knowing that my ancestors came from somewhere here.  In that way, I am truly Pan-African; not of any particular place on the continent, but of the entire continent.  I can’t speak for other ethnic groups, but I believe that deep down inside it must be much the same.  Maybe not so emotional for those who have not been oppressed or discriminated against, but there nonetheless.  Something like ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,’ who speaks the language, but who is not understood.
I am a number of things, but culturally I am an American.  More specifically, I am an American from the state of Texas, with all that it implies.  You can, if you wish, hyphenate me, but you cannot make me something I am not.  I’m comfortable in that skin.  I know who I am, and if those who meet me take the time to get to know me, that will be apparent.  It might not make them comfortable that I don’t conform to the stereotype they have in their minds, but I only ask that they exercise patience and take me for what I am, rather than bemoaning that I am not what they first take me to be.  I think if we all accepted who we really are, and did the same for everyone we encounter, the world would be a less hostile and more welcoming place.

Charles A. Ray has been the Ambassador of the United States of America to the Republic of Zimbabwe since November 2009.  Ambassador Ray’s prior diplomatic assignments include U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia from 2002-2005, in addition to positions in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Freetown, Sierra Leone; and Guangzhou and Shenyang, China.  During his 29 year career as a diplomat, Ambassador Ray has worked with kings, presidents, soldiers and human rights activists on a variety of issues.  He is also a 20 year veteran of the United States Army, retiring in 1982 with the rank of Major.  Ambassador Ray is a native of Center, Texas, and the author of 12 novels and two non-fiction books on leadership.  He and his wife, Myung Wook, have two sons and two daughters.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bargain eBooks: Bargain eBooks #485:

Bargain eBooks: Bargain eBooks #485:: Wallace in Underland by Charles Ray Genre: Urban Fantasy Price: $2.99 Where to Get It: Barnes and Noble Wallace Johnson is a lo...

Friday, March 9, 2012

LStriking the Right Lead-Manage Balance: The Secret to Effective Leadership

In his autobiography, My American Journey, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell defined leadership as “the art of achieving what the science of management says is impossible.” In my own books on leadership, Things I learned from My Grandmother about Leadership and Life, and Taking Charge:  Effective Leadership for the Twenty-first Century, and in my other writings about leadership and management, I say that management is the art of ‘doing things right,’ while leadership is about ‘doing the right things.’

The assumption that is quite correctly made from this is that leaders and managers are two different species.  Leaders determine the direction, and managers move the organization smoothly in that direction.  There is, however, a danger in taking this distinction too far.  While they are different, good managers must have some of the traits of effective leadership; and, the most effective leaders must also understand management.
The key for either is striking the right balance.

I’d like to look at it from the perspective of leadership.  Why does a leader, who is responsible for establishing and communicating the vision for an organization, also have to be a good manager? After all, if you’ve clearly communicated the vision, why can’t you simply step back and allow your subordinate managers achieve it?  One of the things I often say is that effective leaders don’t micromanage; so, isn’t it micromanagement for a leader to become involved in an organization’s management?
The answer isn’t a simple yes or no.  It’s a balancing act that the truly great leaders learn and practice.  Knowing when to insert yourself, and more importantly, when to withdraw, is a skill that you must, however, master if you’re to be an effective leader.

The management skills you need begin with yourself; time management being one of the most important.  Husbanding your time effectively is essential if you’re to move your organization in the desired direction, and have enough energy to sustain the level of effort that will be required.  Awareness of resource availability and capability is another skill that good leaders must have.  A vision is only as good as the capacity of an organization to achieve it, so the good leader either shapes his vision to accord with resource limitations, or finds ways to obtain the necessary resources.
Metrics is the mantra of modern management, and, while leaders don’t have to be the number crunchers that most good managers are, it helps to have more than a surface understanding of the key metrics of your organization.  As a leader, you should know how much will be needed to achieve your goals, and be able to assess how effectively those resources are being utilized.  And, by resources, I mean, material, money, and people.  Effective managers are skilled at mastering the details of charts, graphs, and ledger sheets.  A good leader doesn’t need to get ‘down in the weeds’ of these management tools, but he or she must be able to grasp their significance.

Good managers should know how and when to delegate, but effective leaders must be ‘super’ delegators, while at the same time being able to understand, and in some cases, perform, most of the functions of their organizations.  Not, mind you, at the same level of skill as those who are experts at it, but well enough to be able to tell at a glance when something is being done correctly or incorrectly.
While I was writing this, and image came into my mind.  An effective leader is like an expert juggler and showman. Not, mind you, like the expert manager, who is capable of keeping all of the balls in the air, never dropping one.  The effective leader can keep all the balls in the air, but he must also know when it would be appropriate to drop a ball or two, and the truly great leader goes ahead and drops those balls, but using his showman’s skills, convinces everyone in the audience that this was part of the performance all along.

We must all become comfortable with change; the one constant in life; but, effective leaders must be more than merely comfortable with change; they must embrace it.  In fact, good leaders cause change – anathema to most managers, who find their comfortable existences disrupted by too much change.  As a leader, you must be more than a change manager, you must be a change initiator, while at the same time, understanding how such change impacts the management environment, and introducing it in a way that meshes with management capability.
Leadership is, in essence, I have concluded, a balancing act.  Striking the right lead-manage balance, is the true secret to effective leadership.

ATA Annual US-Africa Tourism Seminar - March 16th in Washington, DC

The Africa Travel Association (ATA) will hold its 5th annual US-Africa Tourism Seminar on March 16th at the Washington Convention Center, 801 Mount Vernon Place, NW, Washington, DC.  This is a must-attend event for anyone interested in knowing more about one of the fastest growing commercial sectors, tourism, and about the potential of US tours to Africa.

For more information about this event, check out ATA's Website  Registration is currently open, to register, go here.  The keynote speaker at the event will be Ambassador Johnnie Carson, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Tribute to Congressman Donald Payne (1934-2012)

U.S. Representative Donald Payne (D. NJ), the first black member of the U.S. Congress from New Jersey, known for his work on human rights and on behalf of the poor, and one of the best friends of Africa in the House of Representatives, died March 6, at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, NJ.  Payne, a 12-term member of the House was undergoing treatment for colon cancer, but continued to represent his constituents in the House until his health recently took a turn for the worse.  Payne was 77 at the time of his death.

For those who follow African affairs, Payne will perhaps be best remembered for his efforts to restore democracy and human rights on the African continent.  A member of the House committees on education and foreign affairs, he served as chair of the House subcommittee on Africa, and was a frequent visitor to the continent.

I met Congressman Payne for the first time when he visited Zimbabwe in 2010.  I was impressed, not just with his encyclopedic knowledge of the countries, politics, and history of Africa, but most of all by his low-key humility and practical approach to life.  That he was an ardent supporter of basic human rights and dignity for all people was apparent in the way he interacted with everyone he encountered, regardless of their rank or station.  He was as comfortable with a cab driver as he was with a cabinet minister, and treated each with equal dignity and respect.

He was also, though, tough and uncompromising on the issues that mattered to him.  To him, human rights were inherent at birth, and no one had the right to trample on them.  He was not strident in his support of these rights.  He believed that engagement was the key to improving the plight of the downtrodden; not conflict, and for that I could not help but respect and be impressed by him.

Words alone are insufficient to express the true meaning of his loss.  The poor, minorities, and other dispossessed in America will miss him; the peoples of Africa have lost the best friend they ever had in the U.S. Congress; the world will miss his voice of reason and care.  

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Math Illiteracy is Killing us: Sometimes Figures do Lie

English: UNESCO International Literacy DayImage via Wikipedia
We often hear about the world’s problem with illiteracy; according to UNESCO, there are about one billion non-literate adults in the world; and in the United States, we often bemoan the fact that we have high school graduates who can’t complete a simple driver’s license application.  The numbers are, in fact, staggering. Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write for understanding, and those one billion illiterate adults account for nearly 30 percent of the world’s population.  Worse, two-thirds of them are women, who are the transmitters of culture, and 98 percent live in developing countries where there is a pressing need for people who can contribute to pulling these countries out of poverty.

The world has, though, another literacy problem that is just as devastating, and few pay it any attention; mathematical illiteracy.  The sad fact is that throughout the world, in advanced countries as well as poorer countries, people lack the ability to read and use numbers with any real sense of meaning.  Mispronounce or use a word incorrectly, and it’s instantly noticed, and often commented upon.  But, when otherwise educated people mangle numbers, no one seems to notice.

In his book, Damned Lies and Statistics, for instance, Joel Best tells of a dissertation prospectus by a PhD candidate that began with the following carefully footnoted quotation: “Every year since 1950, the number of American children gunned down has doubled.”  This dubious statement went unchallenged by the professors, and was from an otherwise reliable source.  Its problem is, it is absolutely ridiculous.  Even assuming only one child gunned down in 1950, by 1987, the number of murdered children would have been in the neighborhood of 137 billion; higher than the best estimates of the entire world population.

How this inaccurate quote came to be is less relevant than what it demonstrates.  Math is hard for people to grasp, and most people don’t consider this deficiency important.  But, math illiteracy is important.  Understanding numbers is as important in our daily lives as being able to read.  Math literacy is important to such things as deciding on which cell phone calling plan is the best offer to deciding on a mortgage.  Whether we know it or not, math plays a critical role in everything from picking foods and counting calories when we’re on a diet, to understanding policy decisions implemented by our government; decisions that are often supported by statistics and other numerical data.

In a test of the theory of math illiteracy, I recently conducted a little experiment.  The results are by no means scientific, but nevertheless instructive.  On my Facebook page I posted the following quiz:  “If I offered you one thousand dollars or one penny, promising to double the penny every day, which would you take?”  I was shocked at the number of people who opted for the thousand dollars.  When I later explained compounding, and even included a table to illustrate, someone shot back with “You didn’t say you’d double the sum of the penny.”  I was frankly perplexed, because this not only revealed a lack of math literacy, but a lack of basic verbal understanding as well.  I later tried the same experiment with my wife, who is the custodian of the family finances.  Her first reaction was the same; there’s no way a penny doubled daily could be more than one thousand dollars in a mere thirty days.  To her credit, she then retired to a corner with a pencil and notepad.  An hour later, she came to my study with a stupefied look on her face.  The fact that a mere penny had multiplied to over a million dollars in a short thirty days was something that the image of one cent versus one thousand dollars had blinded her to.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many people who will do what my significant other did.  Most people simply accept the numbers they’re given and assess them based on surface appearance, take them at face value, or make a judgment based on cultural or social bias.  Our schools aren’t helping either.  As far as I know, understanding the true meaning of numbers and statistics is not part of the secondary education curriculum – and, more’s the pity.  While we’re spending to reverse the declining trend in literacy, let’s not forget math literacy to help people make better, more informed decisions in their lives. 

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