Michael J. Muldoon

Anyone can talk a good game about emotional intelligence. But when they pass away, and the line for their wake goes out the door and around the building, it’s a sign that they knew a little something about the subject.

Mike Muldoon was a marketer, corporate leadership coach and one of my professors at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He died this past Saturday, aged 63. He was an insightful and demanding instructor, with an irrepressible sense of humor drier than the Mojave. He famously talked through a set of clenched teeth about the things that fashinated him. His students performed loving imitations of his mannerisms. He signed his emails with the tag line: “Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when I know there are footprints on the moon.” Confidentially, I always thought it was a touch cheesy until now.

He talked about his family constantly, and I met them for the first time at the service. They instantly gave the impression of a warm, close-knit, church-going midwestern family. His son, a tall man with a strong presence, was just married the previous weekend. His daughters, both lovely people, were bearing the receiving line duties with poise. One of them is to be married in less than a month. They had the support of an endless host of friends, family, and well-wishers.

Mike was fashinated by social psychology. As a leadership coach, he was constantly reading the latest books about emotional intelligence and productive workplace dynamics. His specialty was generational differences within the workplace, a subject about which he put together a highly-demanded corporate education program. I approached him after my first class with him – strategic thinking – and showed him some of my own blog writing. We became fast friends and started exchanging source material: Daniel Coleman, Dan Pink, Susan Cain, Daniel Kahneman, and others. He engaged me to do some research for his programs, and that research made it into previous blog entries on subjects like Limiting Beliefs. He encouraged my writing, and referenced this blog in his classes as a student resource. He was even kind enough to write a scholarship recommendation on my behalf just two days before he died, and I never got the chance to thank him.

I had a great deal more that I’d been meaning to ask him about. I felt like I was just starting to learn from him, and I would go on learning from him for a long time.

In our time, business education and practice is, by and large, arrogant. The best selling corporate memoirs are written by gamblers and job-slashers with huge, cult-inspiring personalities. Hiring managers worship at the alter of school prestige and pedigree. Investment bankers clamor over one another to see who can most effectively co-opt characters like Gordon Gecko, and Alec Baldwin’s Blake from Glengarry Glen Ross. A workforce, we are taught, is an expense burden that curtails one’s ability it maximize shareholder value. And through all this noise, through all this Machiavellian crap, a man at a little-known business program in Illinois tries for 23 years to get his business students to consider for a second how they might actually engage and embrace those around them.

It reminds me of a bittersweet quote from David Mamet’s The Untouchables: “In some part of the world, someone still cares what color the kitchen is.”

It falls now to us, who can no longer learn from this excellent teacher, to take away what lessons we can. His essential ideas are valuable to anyone and everyone. We will try to put his methods into practice, like Watson attempting to do some deduction on his own and knowing that, without Holmes there to instruct, it will be comically inept.

The first idea that I take from Mike is the value of clear critical-thinking skills. Mike used case study analysis enthusiastically in his classes, in order to emphasize lucid problem-solving: identifying the true problem, researching the alternatives, building a case for a course of action, and creating a specific action plan. I perhaps value this teaching most because it comes least easily. I’m a person who has a rather muddy sense of what to do next, and am constantly hedging my bets. I mentally re-litigate decisions over and over in my head and no action gets taken.

Critical thinking doesn’t take brilliance, just mental discipline and work. It has value not just for business strategy; most coaching and mentoring begins with helping others to see the true problem in a given situation, which may be latent or disguised. These skills tend to get downplayed in modern business, in favor of adopting the ideas of the loudest or most charismatic contributor. It’s stunning how much can be fixed by simply – at long last – making a clear, well-reasoned decision and going with it.

Another major lesson I take from Mike is the value of engaging others in the workplace, rather than simply assigning tasks. It is very tempting to put one’s head down and become totally task-oriented. It takes time and energy to structure an environment and an employee development plan that encourages the best results. That time and energy, not directly devoted to accomplishing tasks, can easily be construed as wasteful. Such structure is another kind of work, added onto the work we already have to do, and we can forget to care about it. This in spite of modern research suggesting that traditional stick-and-carrot motivational thinking is growing more ineffective.

Mike had cultivated an ability that executives, coaches, and even actors all need, but usually fail to grasp: an instinctive understanding of situations and dynamics. With that understanding, he showed others how to get past interpersonal difficulties and get the most out of team members.

Mostly, though, I think about Mike’s striking family and the army of friends who came to say goodbye. I thought about how he was so obviously comfortable with, and grateful for, all the relationships in his life. I think he had such great relationships in part because he was so grateful for them. Something fundamental to Mike’s nature made him a grateful and giving man. In that, Mike’s most important lesson to us may be something that he never taught.

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