A Man
Overboard

 

 

August interview with Carl Griesser


So What Makes Carl Griesser Tick?
Carl Griesser, MKP’s Executive Director, is a self-described “complex critter.”

Fortunately for our organization, this “complex critter” keeps things simple for us organizationally. If you’ve ever had any kind of business dealings with MKP, you’ve interacted with Griesser - and you know he has a straight forward way of getting things done.

We can’t all be extroverted certified leaders traveling the world to do NWTA weekends. Somebody’s got to mind the store. That’s where Griesser comes in.

“I bring a balance of energies to this work,” he began. “In the Project we talk about a dichotomy or paradox between men with charisma and those with organizational skills. I think of it as a continuum where the training leaders tend to be more outwardly passionate and act from the heart. Then there are people skilled with dealing with organizational detail in a corporate non-profit world. I tend to blend the two of those energies well. I think in both those realms.”

In conversation, Carl does not very often “shoot from the hip.” He is meticulous in the use of his words, methodical in his thinking process, and even slightly dry in his delivery.

It had just finished raining in Arizona, where Griesser lives, when we talked by telephone.

“July and August are the monsoon season in Arizona,” he said. “The humidity rolls in from down south, from the Gulf of California. We get these recurring thunderstorms, small, very localized, that go ripping through and dumping water wherever they happen to be. And not five feet away it’ll be dry. The contrast gives us some incredibly beautiful skies.”

During the summer months the Arizona crowd, “the Zonies”, pour into the more temperate climate of San Diego. Griesser had recently returned from a trip to Pacific Beach with his 16-year-old daughter.

“It was a very good time … we had four days of kicking back on the beach,” he recalled. “My daughter was a cave dweller until about noon. So, I worked in the mornings until she woke up. The cloud cover would usually abate by noon and we’d enjoy the sunny days together.”

In 1997, Griesser was initiated into MKP from the Northwest Center. He came to the attention of MKP’s Executive Committee when he authored a letter outlining ways the Project could improve its safety systems.

“Safety was a big part of my getting deeply involved in this organization,” he stated. “After I went through the weekend I staffed 3 or 4 times within a year and a half. Based on those staffings I wrote a seven-page letter outlining ways I thought the Project should clean up its act regarding safety. One of my recommendations was that the Project form a Safety Advisory Council. Chuck Heisinger, the Executive Director at the time said, “Sure, why don’t you lead it?” [Chuckling] I try to use that technique on others now … if they come up with a good idea, I get them to do it.”

If anyone knows about safety, it’s Griesser. He is an MD who was boarded in family practice and experienced in emergency medicine. He went to medical school in 1980 when he was 30-years-old.

Before that he worked for Outward Bound in Texas, North Carolina, and Ontario. He moved to Tucson in 1977 and ran the wilderness program for Vision Quest, a large residential treatment program for troubled youth.

“I went into medicine largely out of fear that I couldn’t support myself doing what I was doing in outdoor education,” he said. “I was good at what I did in medicine; the patients liked me a lot because of who I am, but it wasn’t something I was called to do. I was called to growth work in the wilderness, but not to medicine. I spent a lot of time in medicine trying to make it my bliss. I never succeeded. There was never a day I woke up glad that I got to do medicine.”

So when Chuck Heisinger announced in the fall of 2000 that he was stepping down as Executive Director, Griesser thought it was “an intriguing possibility.”

“I’d been looking for ways out of what I was doing and for awhile I thought I would become a therapist,” Griesser noted. “Initially I thought I didn’t have a chance of being selected, but a couple guys in the Northwest community convinced me to apply. So I did.

For two years Griesser supplemented his income by working occasionally in the ER at a local hospital. Two years ago he walked away from medicine. “The Project needed all the energy I could give it, and I decided it was time to let go of the financial crutch,” he said.

From his vantage point, he’s seen the maturation of the organization in recent years.

“I haven’t been around long,” he said, as a bit of a qualifier. “Yet in my judgment, I’ve seen a gradual steady improvement in our councils; Leaders, Centers, and Project. The process has been cleaned up a little more each time. We’re maturing as a group and as individual leaders. Certainly you don’t get better group process without getting better leaders.”

As Executive Director, Griesser initiated much of the “better group process.”

“Three years ago I started asking for feedback after every Glen Ivy meeting,” he said. “We’ve then taken the feedback and used it to try and make the process better. That’s one of my passions. I like to think of MKP as a learning organization. Before these efforts, the Project had not been very good at gathering and using the feedback in meaningful ways. I’ve been championing this process as a way of improving our leadership.”

Griesser said he doesn’t think of MKP International as a “community” but as a “bunch of communities.”

“To a large extent the community that gets created is at the Center level,” he explained. “There is a sense of community at the Project level, but it’s a more tenuous kind of community. The real sense of community comes from rubbing shoulders with somebody week in and week out. For me, I have a tight community with the International Executive Committee. Even still, we only get together every three months.”

The Center Council also creates a form of community but it is also less connected than the local Centers, he added. Griesser said there is a concentrated effort to build bridges between communities with phone calls and list serves, but they’re not the best ways to create community. He has championed the use of “open technology” discussions at our conferences, which is another way of bringing us together.

“I don’t get any traction around community until I’m face to face with somebody,” Griesser stated. “I can’t answer right now how we’ll look as one large community. I think it will look like a whole bunch of different experiments that grow out of the creativity of each Center. Houston doesn’t want to do what San Diego wants to do. They each have there own ideas about what community means to them, and they’re going about it in their own ways.”

Carl’s outdoor educational training gave him experience in working with smaller groups.

“I have tremendous trust in what small groups of people can do,” he related. “And for me, within this organization, that’s a huge paradox because I believe in the small group model, yet I’m the guy who gets identified as ‘Mr. Top Down.’ I deliver the policies that a lot of men in the Project love to hate. I see the reality around that. The paradox is that the ExCom is in some ways just another small group which has been empowered to look at the big picture of MKP. We work intensely thinking about what the best process is for what we do. That can mean a lot of different things, from reconsidering our minimum age requirement (Which was changed at Breckinridge.) to wrestling with the legal and ethical issues or what we do. So the ExCom is my small group context, and we sometimes have the arrogance to say that what this small group has decided must apply to all the other small groups.”

Griesser related a story from a book edited by Deborah Ajango, of the faculty of the University of Alaska Anchorage, entitled “Lessons Learned: A Guide to Accident Prevention and Crisis Response.” (Griesser recommended it for anyone involved in MKP leadership; it’s available through Amazon.com.)

“There are a lot of parallels with what their outdoor educational program experienced and what we’ve been experiencing in MKP over the last 20 years,” he said. “What happened there was a horrible accident. A group of 12 inexperienced climbers and two instructors from the school was descending a snow filled gully. They were roped up, but weren’t protected in a way that was up to current standards. So when one man began to slide down the 1,000 foot snow field, one by one all 14 were pulled off. They ended up in a pile of ice axes and crampons. Two students died and many of the others were seriously injured. The folks running the program there, to their credit, decided to take on the process of figuring out what went wrong, and they put their findings into this book. It offers many perspectives on what went wrong, not just with the accident, but more importantly, with the outdoor program which had outgrown its communication systems.

I think what happened with their program has close parallels with how MKP has changed over the years.”

Griesser said he learned valuable lessons from this event.

“In the beginning they only had a half dozen instructors that did the outings. When the instructors and students got back from their climbs they’d have dinner together and talk about what had worked and what didn’t work. It was a great feedback system right there in a bar or restaurant over a beer. As the program grew, they ended up with dozens of instructors. They were very skilled, but they didn’t have close connections with each other anymore. They were too big to sit with each other face to face, and they didn’t realize what was happening. As time went on, the safety systems became looser, and eventually a serious, potentially avoidable accident happened.

“The parallel with MKP is that we are no longer a group of a dozen leaders who not only lead the weekends but also lead our communities. We’ve become a very large organization with over 120 certified leaders and co-leaders, plus lots of Center Directors and Administrators. Some of the leaders get together on a regular basis, but nowhere near all of us. So the opportunity to talk over best practices has become stretched really, really thin. This story is part of what drives me and it guides how I think about policies. I want us to create systems which will minimize the chances of a serious physical or emotional injury. I believe it’s possible to do that without compromising the heart and soul of our trainings, but I know others think this kind of structure is killing MKP. I don’t think these are contradictions; we need both.”

Good advice from a doc.

So what does Griesser do on a day to day basis? He said he liked the “multi-faceted” aspects of the job that keep him on the phone nearly 20 hours a week. When we talked he had other bridge calls he was anticipating that day.

“Today I’ll be on a bridge call with two lawyers and two insurance people clarifying issues related to our insurance policy, then, I’ll be on a call this afternoon talking about the center administrator software system created by Philip Baker from Northern California. It’s a data base system for managing trainings and Centers. This data base allows weekend coordinators to make a lot of organizing decision related to schedules and who’s in what role and who’s in what I-group.”

All of a sudden, I’m not sure I’d want Griesser’s job. But he seems to enjoy it.

“This is definitely a calling,” he declared. “I continue to be excited about doing it. It’s fun to deal with so many different things and be associated with such a high caliber of men. The leaders that I work with are phenomenal – with their dedication and passion to service. The greatest blessing is being able to work with groups of men who bring clarity through so many different perspectives. So many different issues get processed when we’re making decisions. It’s wonderful to be with men who are willing to listen to each other’s perspectives until the right action becomes apparent. This doesn’t happen enough in the world.”

“I think I’m most frustrated by a streak of grandiosity that shows up in our work. So many men in MKP want to be seen. I think of it as a sovereign wound, a need that grew out of not having been blessed as a little boy. There’s a constant need to be blessed as an adult. Sitting at the top of the pile, to a lot of men, I’m Dad. Some men are so desperate for blessing, and so blind to their neediness, that the way they go about trying to get blessed is almost always self-defeating.”

I claim some of that sovereign wound. How about you?

One of the Executive Director’s responsibilities is to visit local centers. Griesser’s trip to Europe in March and April was a whirlwind adventure.

“The visits were too short. I flew into Paris, spent a couple days there, met with men on their council, attended an NWTA graduation, and a very intense I-Group; then after each meeting I did what the French do, went out for dinner at 10:30 pm! Billy Hill, our International Vice-Chair joined me in Paris and we traveled by train to Hamburg, Germany. We spent a couple of days with the German-speaking men, joining an all-day staff meeting at their new training site. We then drove to Frankfurt and flew to London where we met with members of the UK Council, before flying to Ireland for the first NWTA in that country. I had a wonderful time connecting with the men in the different countries.”

“Part of what I do best, and what’s needed the most, is to help men find solutions to problems within their communities. It’s preferable to do it in person, but sometimes it’s on the phone just working with men who are wrestling with community issues. I get to make suggestions about things that have worked in other Centers, and that’s fun, partly because it’s their problem. I don’t have to settle it, but I can offer perspective. There are so many patterns that reoccur in MKP Centers. I can serve as a clearing house of information. I’m a network, and a networker. There are so many little bits of information that are funneled through me.”

As he spoke, going to Europe sounded like less of a perk than an enormous responsibility.

“Visiting Centers is part of what I’m supposed to do, and linking with centers outside of the states is especially important because of the distances involved,” he continued. “My sense is they have less of a connection to MKP. I think Centers in the U.S. have connections to other Centers even if they don’t feel very connected to the Project. Outside of the states, I think Centers feel more alone.”

At the July Conference in Breckinridge, Griesser seemed changed somehow from when I’d seen him at Glen Ivy. He seemed more relaxed and connected. I asked him about it. He told me that back in February, he was struggling through a difficult divorce. In December he moved from Ashland, Oregon to Tucson, Arizona to be with his young daughter.

“I was in a painful place in February. After ten years in Oregon, I had to accept that my wife wasn’t there for me in the ways I wanted her to be. My understanding has come slowly and mostly through work in my I-Group. Like on Friday night Accountability, they asked me ‘What are her actions saying to you?’ The message wasn’t what I wanted to hear, because I have tremendous respect and love for her. I was also dealing with the loss of my I-Group. I don’t form friendships easily, and I was grieving both of those losses deeply.”

There must have been some healing since Glen Ivy.

“People have said they appreciated my humor in Breckingridge,” he responded. “And I think we’re listening to each other better. I think we’re listening with our hearts.”

So what makes Carl Griesser tick?

“I like to take adventurous vacations,” he intoned. “My deepest connection to spirit comes through being in the wilderness. Pretty much every day I do a 45 minute walk in the desert, right outside my door. The arroyo is pretty wild; I’ve seen Gila Monsters, some beautiful big snakes, coyotes. It keeps me grounded and it’s food for my soul. It’s where I do a lot of sorting out. I come away from the walks with clarity for what needs to happen on lots of levels. And when I’m able to take longer trips into the wilderness, it’s like diving into a deep well. I also do some yoga and some sitting meditation. I did Hollow Bones a couple years ago and value that practice.”

I asked about what it was like living in Tucson.

“I’m enjoying the men I’m getting to know here,” he said. “My Nordic blood isn’t real fond of Tucson summers, so I’m looking forward to the weather cooling down. I recall that happens sometime in December.”

Getting to know Carl Griesser has been a blessing for me. The New Warrior Journal is his brainchild. He called and invited me to edit the publication almost a year ago.

“I believe the Project needs a vehicle to talk to itself and to hear itself,” he commented. “In particular, I’ve wanted to create a way to bridge the schism between men who are involved at the Center level and men who are working at the Project level. There are men who don’t have a sense of what the ExCom does. They ask ‘Why do we give them money?’ I’m hoping The New Warrior Journal can help them see the bigger picture of our passions and help us understand their perspectives. And, if possible, deepen everyone’s understanding.”

So, many thanks to Carl for allowing himself to be da man for September. It also happens to be his birthday month. Wish him a happy one.

© 2007 Reid Baer

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The fame you earn has a different taste from the fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria Vanderbilt

Reid Baer, an award-winning playwright for “A Lyon’s Tale” is also a newspaper journalist, a poet with more than 100 poems in magazines world wide, and a novelist with his first book released this month entitled Kill The Story. Baer has been a member of The ManKind Project since 1995 and currently edits The New Warrior Journal for The ManKind Project www.mkp.org . He resides in Reidsville, N.C. with his wife Patricia. He can be reached at E-Mail.



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