Leadership Challenges in Cat in the Hat America

Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss, 1950s

My position is this: Our security challenge today is as much about leadership, trust, and accountability across diverse teams as it is about growing technical expertise.

I make my case today riffing off the well-known Dr. Seuss book, The Cat in the Hat - a tale that begins with boredom (with children passively looking at a kind of screen) and ends with an ethical question about team trust.

In between, the author immerses us in an adventure story about the guilty pleasures of anarchism at the far edge of accountability. The fictive Cat in the Hat is a DIY (do-it-yourself) kind of guy who shows up with toys to make things happen, and domestic chaos ensues; he is a con man offering “fun that is funny”. The story’s dramatic tension builds until the mother returns home, and in that “Oh No!” moment, in the blink of an eye, the Cat in the Hat magically restores the surface sense of order. The mother returns home and asks the boy (who narrates the story) and Sally (who never speaks) what they did while the mom was away? Dr. Seuss implies that the narrator will reply ….. “nothing.” And so the book ends with the question to the reader: “What would you do?” (If your team leader asked you? If a woman in authority asked you?)

The Cat in the Hat originally was written to engage children’s imaginations and promote literacy in 1950s America. The book was wildly popular with Baby Boomers in training, and a demonstration that learning could be fun. No more “Dick and Jane”! The book has gone on to become a beloved American classic and the beguiling Cat in the Hat a cultural icon of American values valorizing the eternal-child fantasy of individual freedom to act as one pleases and hands-on irreverent freedom from authority.

Why is The Cat in the Hat, a 1957 children's book, relevant to the audience gathered here at Northeastern’s Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute for New England Security Day, 2017? Hear me out, for I suggest it is directly relevant to two urgent conversations taking place.

First: How to creatively reimagine computer science, engineering, and security education as vividly as Dr. Seuss overcame reading literacy ‘s “Dick & Jane” phase - with the similar goal of connecting diverse Americans with newly necessary skills in a changing global world?

Second: How to urgently align the nation on why cybersecurity is not a game but a shared risk where we need everyone to contribute as one team?

The Cat in the Hat is a simple, accessible story that can help us separate these two different problems. As a genre-changing prototype, the book's informal rhetorical style is a case study of an engaging pedagogy to expand literacy by welcoming experiential learning, design thinking, and gamification. That is, fun that is funny.

But now as then, holistic change requires a whole person education. The book ends with a leadership team challenge question: “What would you do?”

How can academic technology curriculum, enterprise and startup workplace culture step up and embrace this collaborative leadership challenge as a core part of their mission? Our security challenge today is as much about building leadership, trust, and accountability across diverse teams as it is about growing technical expertise. Effective diverse teams require new models of leadership to walk the talk of trust and accountability.

This fall, I heard a policy analyst urge us to look ahead to the America we will wake up to in January 2020, after the next election. He cautioned: there will not be any possible reset to 2016 - but rather graver challenges in a more dangerous world. Pandora [a Thing 1 cousin to the Cat in the Hat] is out of the box. For security education to yield its full potential in a still-unscripted 2020 America, let's talk urgently about trust, accountability, and leadership as core curriculum, too. Bring the conversation to your teams in the academy, in business, among the citizenry, and across talent.

Ask questions:

How do we grow the workforce with fun experiential learning, and mature as an undivided 21st century digital nation?

If The Cat in the Hat is a Baby Boomer playbook, what is a Millennial’s answer? What are some alternate versions from Sally’s point of view?

Where are we as a nation? Where do we want to go? What kind of people do we want to be when we get there?

The time to act is now.

About: Nancy Austin is a certified professional coach and the founder of Leonardo Coaching - delivering transformational coaching excellence to global clients: vision, values, action, accountability. LeonardoCoaching.com

Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss

[November 27, 2017 revision of a proposal for New England Security Day conference at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, held September 29, 2017.]

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