The world is full of elders. There are more and more remarkable and talented people who are active into their 80s and 90s, and that has a tremendous mentoring effect on us youngsters in our 50s and 60s. This is a personal tribute to five elders who passed away in 2013, who I worked with or wrote about, and who affected me profoundly, through what they said, through what they did, and as role models. I am hardly alone in commemorating them. Douglas Engelbart, Edie Seashore, Charlie Seashore, Red Burns, and Chris Argyris were all famous, beloved people at the center of broad communities of practice. They set powerful examples in the way they operated, continually striving to surpass their own achievements while helping others expand their horizons.
I met Douglas Engelbart in 1997 at the offices of his then-enterprise, the Bootstrap Institute (now called the Doug Engelbart Institute), with his co-director and daughter, Christina Engelbart. They were writing an essay for a book I edited (The Dance of Change: The Challenges to Sustaining Momentum in Learning Organizations, by Peter Senge et al.). He demonstrated the chorded keyboard he had invented, which allowed him to type effortlessly with one hand. I gathered he did this for most visitors. Gesturing animatedly with his other hand, he reminisced about the companies he had seen fail, and described the potential for organizations that might, as he and Christina put it, “help networks of committed people bootstrap their collective capabilities.”
I remember being struck by his modesty. He was one of several accomplished visionary scientists I have met who have a straightforward and quietly self-effacing mode of speaking; it’s their way, I guess, of adjusting gracefully to the fact that most of the world has not caught up with them. A Silicon Valley electrical engineer since the 1950s, Engelbart devoted his life to what he called “augmenting human intellect”: designing machines and organizations that could help people think and act more effectively. He has been richly and rightly honored, not just for his many technological inventions (which include the computer mouse, the bitmapped display screen, and groupware), but for his influence. Throughout his life, before he succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, he helped technologists realize that it wasn’t enough to build great machines—they also had to come together in ways that helped them develop their human skills.
Edie Whitfield Seashore was being honored for her role as a founder of the field of organizational development when I met her in the early 1990s. I was researching my book The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management, and she invited me to visit her and her husband, Charlie Seashore, at the birthplace of organizational development: the National Training Laboratories (NTL) in Bethel, Me. (It has since been sold.)
Every summer, starting in the 1950s, leaders in the field had met to study group dynamics. Among NTL’s many alumni were Douglas McGregor, Warren Bennis, Chris Argyris, and Edgar Schein. It was also the original source of most group dynamics innovations used in organizations today, including the flip chart. Edie and Charlie, who met each other there, were young participants in the 1950s. Later, in the 1970s, Edie co-led NTL’s reorganization into a center for organizational diversity practice. She was a sharp-witted, vivacious, empathetic, and iron-willed counselor to CEOs (and everyone else). Charlie was a brilliant social psychologist and a proficient juggler with the mien of a genial cowboy—he was one of the warmest men I’ve ever met. Together, they established an informal intellectual and social center for their field, aimed at fostering what they called the “breakthrough moment,” a phrase Sally Helgesen later used to name her profile of them in s+b. To know the Seashores was to have an instant common bond with everyone else who knew the Seashores.
Then there was Red Burns, the founder and chair (until her death in 2013) of New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, part of the Tisch School of the Arts. Red’s vision from the beginning—in the 1970s, when video cameras were still considered “alternative media” and almost no one knew what a computer was—was to bring together programmers, designers, users of technology, social scientists, social experimenters, and media theorists in a freewheeling program where the curriculum changed constantly, but the theme remained the same: that these tools should enable a better, more creative, more equitable world.
Every year, somewhere between 70 and 150 graduate-level students showed up for courses that have ranged from participative video, social media (a field that dates back to the 1970s), and software design, to digital fabrication, neuroscience, media business, all forms of digital fine art, and much, much more. I showed up in the summer of 1985 to interview some faculty members for an article I was writing on the emerging Internet for the Whole Earth Catalog. Red met me and in her characteristically abrupt fashion, invited me to teach. I’ve been connected with her program ever since.
Chris Argyris, like the Seashores, honed his understanding of the world and his skills at intervention at National Training Laboratories, but he took that understanding and skills in a very different direction. I was first introduced to his work through Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and the follow up Fieldbooks. The entire organizational learning movement is built upon an insight that Chris and his colleagues (such as Donald Schoen, Diana McLain Smith, Robert Putnam, and Phil McArthur) articulated: That one can learn to take apart a conversation on the fly and put it back together as a vehicle for challenging and improving the assumptions hidden within it. There are many teachers, and many practitioners, of this craft, and Chris was one of the rare individuals who are both.
In The Age of Heretics I compared him to a bird of prey, waiting to pounce on any little piece of hypocrisy in a conversation and tear it apart. I had interviewed several people who still seethed, years later, when they remembered how he had done this to them. But I also saw the great core of love in the man and in his work, which consisted of looking for the “theory-in-use,” as he called it, at the heart of all human endeavor. We are what we believe about the world, and if we want to change for the better, we must hold that belief up to the light. Chris taught two generations of his fellow practitioners how to do that.
Doug, Edie, Charlie, Red, and Chris could not help but be aware of the impact they had on many lives; they were reminded of it every day. But they never took it for granted. Our world is catalyzed by the kinds of meaningful conversations that they engendered. They will be missed by many people for many reasons—but the chance to conduct and be part of such conversations, with those individuals in the room and in the picture, is what I’ll miss the most.
(Adapted from a blog post at strategy+business.)