September 2012: Introducing TazoSeptember 1, 2012
Leaders are often too quick to trust first impressions.
Initial assessments are often influenced by unfounded beliefs related to age (older=wiser, younger=more impulsive), gender (women are more intuitive, men are smarter) or status (CEOs and physicians are mentally sharper than laborers or college students).
I do not subscribe to such generalizations, and actively resist thinking I can evaluate another’s maturity level with only minimal contact or information.
One notable exception is Tazo, an anthropologist who has become a treasured behind-the-scenes influencer of my recent thinking about leadership, and about life. I judge him to be among the highest maturity persons I have encountered.
I met Tazo by happenstance on Oct. 7, 2005 in Okinawa, Japan, where Dr. Ryuko Ishikawa had invited he me to present a series of leadership conferences at Tazaki Psychiatric Hospital. Tazo, studying the renowned pattern of longevity on Okinawa, stood outside a nearby ward when I literally bumped into him.
I was quickly struck by Tazo’s lively blue-grey eyes, strong, sinewy build and a worn, white bandana covering his head. His calm, curious observation of patients through a hallway window grabbed my attention. After a brief exchange, I invited Tazo to breakfast.
The next morning, over a meal of fish, rice and sea vegetables, Tazo immediately established his disdain for pleasantries: “What was your purpose in inviting me to breakfast?”
My off-the-cuff, friendly-and-feeble response failed to impress. He invited deeper thought, which unnerved me. As he pressed, I gave more genuine responses. From the start, it was clear that Tazo was a person to be reckoned with!
Later, I heard about Tazo’s interest in longevity, mental illness and the factors that contribute to each. (Okinawa boasts more centenarians per capita than any place on earth). He talked about the effect of “occupiers” on natives, a resonant theme from his tribe’s centuries-old history. He shared facts, e.g., “Thirty-eight USA-owned structures and a large military base still takes up a third of Okinawa sixty years after the end of World War II”. Tazo talked slowly and deliberately. I focused on absorbing.
Since that day, like the slow unfolding of flower petals in the morning sun, I have discovered more facts about Tazo’s personal history.
Tribal background and life pursuits
Tazo was born into a small Indian tribe, The Seri, in the Sonoran- Mexican desert bordering the Gulf of California. Home schooled by a Christian convert mother, his devotion to preserving his tribe’s language and culture propelled him into anthropological studies at Stanford, where he thrived.
For the past 42 years (he’s 66), Tazo has divided his anthropological pursuits between Okinawa, Japan and the coastal desert lands of his ancestry. Two universities cajoled him into visiting professor posts, but he prefers field observations to all other activity.
Tazo writes daily but rarely publishes what he writes. We have maintained an active seven-year correspondence: I email him, usually with a series of questions about my beliefs, or about situations I am encountering in relationships or inside myself. He responds in a way that usually takes my thinking to new places.
In Tazo, I have observed a rare combination of raw intelligence and wisdom, cradled in a deeply curious mindset, and a humble yet mischievous presence.
A skeptical, reluctant mentor
Though he would cringe at the label of “mentor” – “All must find their own way,” he says – that is the word that, for me, best describes our relationship. I have actually tried to strike up a friendship, but it’s as if Tazo cares more about the importance of what we discuss than about the emotional benefits of being buddies.
I’ve thanked him a hundred times for writing to me, and often laugh at his prickly one-liners, like, “What is it that you enjoy about mental slumber?”
Tazo’s vibrant skepticism keeps his thinking rigorous. He distinguishes: “Yes, it’s factual that people live longer on Okinawa, but attributing this solely to diet is mere speculation.”
I have found it difficult to think sloppily around this man.
“Becoming the one I don’t like”
Tazo’s recent emails have focused on his extraordinary ideas about leadership, drawn from his tribal roots, his studies of human and animal groups, and his unwillingness to accept sentimental views or pious platitudes.
In one exchange, Tazo defied the western leadership norm of superficiality: “To truly understand anyone, particularly those we differ from or dislike, it is imperative that we become them.”
“What do you mean by ‘become them’?” I asked
“I mean, climb into their history,” he said. “What is it like to be in their skin? Abort your filters, drop assumptions and enter into their world. See what happens.”
Tazo’s idea about “becoming them” got me imagining: What would it be like if every doctor became a patient and every teenager was thrust into the role of a parent for one week?
If bosses and employees switched roles for a day a year, would it lead to deeper understanding? If shack-dwellers and mansion-dwellers traded homes for awhile, would attitudes shift? Same with teachers and students, Israelis and Palestinians, sports team starters and sports team bench-warmers.
Passing on knowledge
Tazo has stressed that the ancient, group-preserving practice of passing on knowledge – from elders to children, from leaders to followers, from masters to apprentices, from guides to unseasoned explorers – requires more modern-day effort and attention.
In that spirit, as I continue to benefit from exchanges with Tazo, I will pass on more of his ideas in future blogs.