Ideas To Action

How Understanding Your Family System Can Change Your Life

Introduction

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  INTRODUCTION –

LEADING AND FOLLOWING                                      

Basic relationship patterns, developed for adapting to the parental family in childhood, are used in all other relationships throughout life. 

The basic patterns in social and work relationships are identical to relationship patterns in the family, except in intensity.

Murray Bowen, M.D. 

 This book is about being a leader—either by default or by desire—and designing a compass to guide you as you implement your leadership goals. Along the way, you’ll also learn a bit about family systems theory and the man who discovered it all, Murray Bowen, M.D.

Designing Your Leadership Compass

Can you remember a time when you had no choice but to lead, when problems were cropping up left and right and no one was volunteering to take them on? If so, you are a leader by default. On the other hand, if you love to make things happen and often find yourself competing with others who share that passion, you are a leader by desire, born to the job. 

This book, which is designed to help you enhance your leadership skills, will discuss both types of leaders. Although they are different, both develop a personal vision of what they want to accomplish. They are able to foresee and deal with problems that might occur during the course of implementing their goals, and they can rally those around them to focus on achieving the target. They work well with the group, and yet they are not stressed by the need to stand alone as the decision-maker, the one in charge.  A leader’s vision and decision-making processes are linked to an internal compass that guides him or her to the resolution of a problem, or the implementation of a goal, or the successful creation of new idea. We all have some sort of internal compass that we use whenever a decision must be made. The question is how well does your compass work?  Another important question is, how much do you know about your compass? If the answer is “not much,” then you are in a good position to develop a truly Mindful Compass, and in the process develop and enhance your leadership skills. Or, you can simply choose to learn about the points on your existing compass. Just the effort of thinking about how your compass works will benefit you as a leader. Later in this chapter I will explain four key points on the Mindful Compass. These points summarize how I have seen people operate who have become competent family leaders. You, too, can create your own Mindful Compass based on your understanding of how you interacted in your first social system, your family.  Families are the original social system for us worker-bee humans and, whether you know it or not, you are still influenced by the rules you learned and used early on. The key is to bring those rules into awareness. If you do this task well, the Mindful Compass that you design will allow you to function more effectively in the morass of social systems that you, as a leader, must inhabit.  

What you bring forth out of yourself from the inside will save you. What you do not bring forth out of yourself from the inside will destroy you.  The Gospel of Thomas

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The Adaptive Compass

As I said, this book is about being a leader. It is also about individual leaders who have taken the time to think about and understand how to enhance their functioning in complex social systems. Thinking carefully is a leader’s job. Research suggests, for example, that it takes somewhere close to 10,000 hours of thinking-based “practice” to understand simple rule-based systems—for example, chess. However, individuals live in the messier world of nonlinear dynamical systems. How long does it take an individual to “see” the way these complex system work? Listening to stories is one way we become better at seeing and knowing how humans and human systems function. The stories told by leaders in this book are clear evidence that, after a story has been told, we can extract the illuminating points. Viewing those points using the Mindful Compass as a reference is further illuminating, and shows that such a compass can be a useful tool whenever a leader is involved in a thinking or decision-making process.  

After each leader’s story, I highlight my view of the person’s thinking in terms of the four points of the Mindful Compass. But you should know that these points are not carved in stone. Once you grasp the overall concept of the Mindful Compass, you may find that there are some points you want to eliminate for your particular compass, or others that you want to add. That is your choice. I simply offer this particular four-point compass as a mental model for your consideration and hope it will prove useful to you. 

In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous.In leading, try not to control.In work, do what you enjoy.In family life, be completely present.

Lao Tzu 

Listing to Stories in the Search for Facts

Our brains are shaped to learn from stories. Stories are universal, they captivate our attention and they teach us. In this book, the stories told by leaders highlight the building blocks of their leadership skills. When you begin the process of building your Mindful Compass, you will use stories from your childhood as a guide to developing more focused leadership skills. But right now, I want you to take a few minutes to think about the history of stories in human culture. 

Some of the earliest recorded stories, the Greek myths, helped people understand nature. They presented the Greek people with an entertaining, cognitive map that explained why the seasons changed. For example, Persephone’s story has great emotional power even  today.  The mother, Demeter’s grief at the abduction of her daughter is the explaination for the change of seasons. Winter appears when the daughter, Persephone, is lost for four months each year, and spring comes only when the daughter is released. As long as mother and daughter are together all is green and growing.  This story explained winter to primitive people who longed for explanations.Those stories may not have been accurate as to the why of it all, but they did help people calm down and prepare for changes in the weather. And they were accurate enough to give science something to build on.   

Bit by bit, science threw out the subjective (fun) part and saved the (boring) testable, repeatable facts. So, now we know that every year, winter will come and last for about four months. But to feel winter—to taste fresh falling snow, to smell the clean air, to enjoy the thrill of sledding down a hill, to enjoy the warmth of a fire—that is all subjective. The how of the earth’s movement is factual but again not a warm story.  

Many of the oldest stories give us guidelines for how to live: Be wary of false pride. Be thrifty. Take care of your neighbor. Seek wisdom. Then there are the characters— Alice, for example, whose story of her journey through Wonderland happily does not scare us. With
Alice, we fall down the well, meet the various strange characters, and try to figure out how to relate to them. With Alice, we withstand and learn from chaos and confusion.


 
Alice is a fictional character who makes us smile and gives us hope that in the search for who we are and how we can get to where we want to be, and the smiling Cheshire Cat will be on our side. In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), E.O. Wilson notes that stories can help us solve problems. His hypothesis is that the universal human disposition for art, religion and stories functions to allow the brain to cut loose from rigid, programmed instinctual behaviors. He gives us the following thought about the need for subjectivity as the brain copes with the challenges, uncertainty and confusion that come with problems. “The human needed to ritualize and express through magic the abundance of the environment, the power of solidarity, and other forces in their lives that mattered the most to survival and reproduction.” Stories are an art form, allowing us to communicate, all at once, many levels of knowledge. Known and unknown forces can be understood in a simulated reality. We infer deep knowledge from stories based on our experiences. Stories are also mental models that enable us to see new ways to solve complex and emotionally disturbing problems.   

Harvard professor Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct and Words and Rules, talks about stories as mental models. And there is a new field, evolutionary psychology, which David Buss’s book, Evolution: The New Science of the Mind, explores. It considers how evolutionary principles shape the mind, allowing for the adaptive function of imagination, including stories.   

On the psychological level, the life story, as reported by Annie Murphy Paul in her book The Cult of Personality, is far more reliable, at parsing out a person’s capacity than any of the many more popular personality tests. The life story has the greatest ability to predict what the future might bring for individuals. Plus, there is the stunning finding that there is a positive relationship between the coherence of one’s story and one’s psychological well-being. 

Some therapists interpret life stories in terms of themes, like redemption, while others understand the life story in terms of natural forces. Family systems therapists have the additional ability to help people understand any story as a function of how a natural system operates, and to enable motivated individuals to rebuild relationships throughout their family systems.   

In this book, which is not concerned with pathology, I hope to give you the ability to enhance your natural leadership potential by understanding your life stories. This is where your Mindful Compass comes into play. Your compass will change as you better understand your life story. The more adaptive you’re Mindful Compass, the more likely it is that your future will be open to constructive change. 

I am grateful to all the imaginative, adaptive storytellers who have come to me over the years and told me parts of their life stories. Their ideas and insights were invaluable in helping me sort out how people find direction and courage, and forge opportunities through talking risks based on some knowledge of social systems.  

I am also grateful to many great historical figures whose stories illuminate what it means to be a leader. The lives of spiritual teachers such as Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, Mother Theresa and others demonstrate the importance of principles in developing one’s Mindful Compass. Look at the lives of these people and you will see that their values were matched by their actions. And the principles that are communicated in their life stories have been used for inspiration and guidance for hundreds of years.  

Experience is not what happens to a man;it is what a man does with what happens to him.

Aldous Huxley 

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Sigmund Freud also began by listening to stories. He, too, thought that one day we will have a true science of human behavior. Freud was not put off by the subjective fiction in people’s stories. Instead, he was able to examine how stories give clues as to what might happen in the two-person relationship. Transference (the patient’s relating to the therapist as if he/she were a significant someone else—a father, for example) and counter-transference (the therapist’s relating the patient as if he/she were a significant someone else) are now part of our popular culture and have been used by many, such as Woody Allen, to demonstrate the confusion of seeing our love objects for who they really are. Freud’s bottom line was to interpret the meaningfulness within a person’s story to enable him or her to accept the ordinariness of reality. In summary: Look for the daily hero within self, not in the other. Accept the tension of failure and strive to be realistic. This is not bad advice, even for leaders.  

The study of human behavior will move slowly toward a more scientific basis as repeatable, testable facts lead to a better ability to predict the future. For the moment, however, stories allow the more abstract ideas about behavior to be highlighted. Hopefully, we will enjoy learning by listening to others’ adventures, and thus be better prepared for changes in our fast-paced world.  

 

So much information is presented to us that we have to have a way of seeing and separating what is significant from what is fluff. Therefore, I give you four dimensions (four compass points) for you to consider when analyzing any story. These four points are distilled from the knowledge I have obtained from studying Bowen Family Systems Theory and then listening to people’s stories. As a therapist, I have been learning by listening to stories for the past 30 years.

Family Systems Theory

Although the leaders picked for this book were certainly not patients and had no prior knowledge of Family Systems Theory, almost all knew that their families had been central to their successes. (And I knew that their stories would reflect profound knowledge about the human spirit.) These individuals also wanted to participate in a project that would have something good to say about families. While these leaders’ stories demonstrate a range of functioning, each adds something to our knowledge base about how an individual gains strength and becomes a mature leader. Just to give you a hint of one of the four points on the compass, the following is one of my favorite quotes from Murray Bowen, M.D.  

The solid self says, “This is who I am, what I believe, what I stand for, and what I will or will not do” in a given situation. The solid self is made up of clearly defined beliefs, opinions and convictions, and life principles. These are incorporated into self from one’s own life experiences, by a process of intellectual reasoning and the careful consideration of the alternatives involved in the choice. In making the choice, one becomes responsible for self and the consequences. ….  

The pseudo self is created by emotional pressure. Every emotional unit, whether it be the family or the total of society, exerts pressure on group members to conform to the ideas and principles of the group. The pseudo self is a pretend self. It was acquired to conform to the environment, and it contains discrepant and assorted principles that pretend to be in emotional harmony with a variety of social groups’ institutions, businesses, political parties, and religious groups, without self being aware that the groups are inconsistent with each other. The pseudo self is an actor and can be many different selves. 

A Spectrum of Leaders: Mature to Immature

At one end of the leadership spectrum are the immature bullies, while at the other we see mature, thoughtful individuals who have both the desire and the ability to reach goals more by managing self in relationships than by simply ordering others around. In the old economy there was more justification for leaders to control others so that the job would be done the “right” way. That is true no more. In the move toward viewing intellectual capital as a basic need of today’s economy, leaders must strive to enhance the functioning of more independent and responsible individuals. To do this, leaders today must have the wisdom and emotional maturity to see how relationships function, and be able to participate in problem-solving by managing self rather than by forcing others to do it their way. Yes, leaders must have basic organizational and business skills, but they also need to learn to interact in this new way.  

There are real risks when a leader does not learn to function well in a social system. Someone who is not emotionally mature may well interpret others’ behaviors too personally, for example. Such a person is likely to become caught up in assigning blame or in feelings of anger or sadness. When this happens, negative emotions come into play, anxiety runs through the group, or social system, and all sorts of symptoms and strange behaviors may appear.  

But a mature leader who uses his or her Mindful Compass can better predict how systems dynamics might play out and therefore be better prepared to take actions that are logical and thoughtful, not reactive and emotional. 

The realization of the self is only possible if one is productive,if one can give birth to one’s own potential.  Goethe  Nuggets of Wisdom from Leaders:  

  1. Human systems (such as a family system or a work environment) are wired; they contain past patterns of actions that influence individuals in the present.
  2. Those who take actions based on feelings rather than principles can find themselves walking down a dark and murky road.
  3. A leader who acts based on principle will be less caught up in taking sides, and can therefore be a calming influence on the group.
  4. People in a system are wired in such a way that only one can change at a time.
  5. It takes determination simply to hold on to your ideas as you work on relating well to the opposition. Keeping the system open while change takes place is good work for a smiling warrior.
  6. Less mature leaders often try to control others, discounting the others’ ability to participate in problem-solving. Such leaders end up controlling the group through fear. Such primitive force works—but not for enterprises needing intellectual capital.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.

Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi 

Responsible Leaders and the Emotionally Blind

Initially, I thought of the more mature leaders as visionaries, since they can see how systems operate. But then I began to consider how mature leaders do so much more than see. They take actions. They manage self. And they always consider the part they play in any problem.  I saw that mature leaders’ stories are primarily about personal responsibility, and what they will and will not do in terms of being true to their personal creeds. In fact, their willingness to assume personal responsibility is what sets mature leaders apart from those folks wearing emotional blinders.  Those who are emotionally blind are often hungry for love and approval, or for wealth and power. To get what they want, they manipulate relationships or systems—not for the greater good, but for personal gain. What makes these people particularly dangerous is that they are blind to their own motives and actions. So, who is a mature leader? Those I call mature leaders aren’t necessarily the men and women you see on the front pages of your newspaper. They are more likely to be your neighbors—the man who heads the local police department, the woman who heads a local law firm, the community activist who gets things done in your town, the Scout leader. Whatever they do, these are people who have learned how to mange self, to gain strength from relationships, and to give back to their communities. These leaders have created and sustained deep values in important relationships.  Mature leaders don’t necessarily have sky-high IQs. Certainly they are intelligent, but what is most important is that they are well-integrated individuals, open to others’ ideas, secure in their knowledge of self, and able to learn from their mistakes (and willing to admit to them). Others are drawn to these mature individuals because these leaders create space and time for others to mature and develop. My experience is that a leader’s ability to integrate his or her feelings with profound principles is often learned at a very young age, in the earliest family relationships. It also happens as the result of a close relationship with a mentor, such a teacher, coach or a school counselor, or anyone else with whom the person has an ongoing relationship.  

You can learn how to integrate your feelings and principles when you begin your story-telling process and start to develop your Mindful Compass. Being integrated means being able to understand problems of an emotional nature and still make and hold on to principled decisions—even in the face of intense opposition. Mature leaders can and do make errors, just like the rest of us. They can also over- or under-react to others. The difference is that they are better at learning from mistakes and moving on. Legitimate leaders know that any effort to understand others is central to communicating any vision. It is not just the vision, but also who the leader is and how he or she relates to others that are the bottom line.   Digging for Profound KnowledgeAs I noted earlier, for many years I’ve been listening to stories as a professional and investigating how families produce leaders. In the beginning, I saw each person’s story as a possible gold mine. I knew there was great personal value there for each individual, but finding an efficient way to dig it out required some thinking, reflecting and plain old-fashioned work.  

In the end, I found, the simplest approach was to locate the key areas where the gold was likely to be. And for that, a compass was needed. I was trained in a theory of human behavior that had eight concepts. So my challenge was to distill those eight complex ideas into four simple points on a compass. If the compass worked, I reasoned, individuals would be able to find their way through great difficulties to a personal gold mine of insight and information that could dramatically improve their lives.  

I developed the first point by wondering if leaders always rely on a personal vision of what they want to achieve. Is that vision the main component of leadership? Or is it just a helpful guide as a leader begins to formulate a personal mission? For the second point, I began to think about what a leader will do with his or her vision once it is formulated, and how he or she will handle any resistance that comes along.

What forces stymie people?

How much does an individual need to know about the natural forces of resistance?

If an avalanche of problems is approaching, how can a leader deal positively with those challenges (which are often unavoidable)?

And finally, since no one wants to see his or her life going down a rabbit hole (unless we are really, really well paid for the sacrifice), just how much do we need to know about the nature of the social forces that lead to regression? 

The third point has to do with making connections. Leaders, by definition, must work well with people.

To this end, I understood, as a therapist, that knowledge of social systems is an essential leadership tool. (I also understood that I could not take anyone in any direction unless I knew how to manage myself in relationship to others. So, to be a family therapist I first made a research project of my own family system. This allowed me to separate my life from my clients’ lives—and it also gave me lots of funny stories to tell them about my failures and partial successes.) 

Pondering relationships requires that one be alone—and that is the fourth point, the ability to be alone. Managing resistance from those near and dear or from those in a business system requires that one be alone to nurture or develop a deep commitment to what it is that “I will and will not do.” If you are doing whatever it is that you are doing for someone else, your self is lost or confused.  

 The four points on the Mindful Compass:  

1. The ability to define a vision.

2. The resistance to change in self and/or in any system, or, humorously, the avalanche of problems you will encounter on the road to defining your self or your vision to any group.


3. The ability to connect with others and the ability to understand the history of relationships in a system and how that history is affecting you now.
4. The ability to be separate, yet maintain contact with important others.

 

In my case, after a few years of stumbling first one way and then another I was fortunate to read Dr. Bowen’s ideas and to finally meet him. He was a paradoxical coach and did not mind if I stumbled and fell as I coped with various family problems. I can and do still stumble. But I saw a way through the social jungle in my family, using the ideas contained in Bowen Theory.  Finding common sense ideas that could be a reliable guide was a relief.

 

 

I saw how knowledge of systems made a difference in my family and in many others. Clinical evidence is compelling but not the final scientific word. But I had enough evidence of positive change to be more confident about passing these ideas on to my clients.

Now I have further refined the ideas into a Mindful Compass and challenge you, the reader, to see what they can do for you. I hope the ideas and stories in this book will be useful to those of you who are determined to be better leaders. 

The Compass and Real Life Stories

Over the years, I have learned that in addition to understanding these four compass points, there are two traits that mature leaders develop. The first is mindfulness, or the awareness of what is happening and how it might affect the future; the second is the ability to learn by trial and error without allowing blame for error to fester. Both are necessary to benefit from using a Mindful Compass to navigate through any social system.  

A systems theory of human behavior attempts to look at the forces that affect our lives as impersonal. Such an objective viewpoint can enable people to find a direction through relationship obstacles that have the potential to scare most sensible folks into cutting and running at top speed.

The goal is to get you beyond your ego’s investment in outcomes. I am not saying this is a simple process. We are all born into troubles beyond our choosing.

Some of us have the natural skills to play the good hand from the get-go, others have to learn the skills or fall by the wayside.

One approach, as you now know, is to develop a Mindful Compass as a guide. 

The stories in this book are from leaders who were gracious enough to enter into an open-ended conversation with me and courageous enough to share their knowledge with the general public.

 This kind of courageous openness is needed to make the study of human behavior more factual.

Because the information about human behavior that emerges in psychotherapy is and always will be confidential, we cannot use that as a source—we can learn the details only when they are disguised.

Therefore, we have to go beyond psychotherapy to collect stories that show us the human condition and allow us to move closer to a science of human behavior.   

 

The interviews are grouped into three chapters and set up so that the reader can discover the individual’s story plus consider the interaction with the interviewer. 

The first interview chapter introduces you to four men: one, an entrepreneur, the second an adviser in government and business, the third is in the homeland security area, and the fourth was a police chief who is now a mayor. 

The second interview chapter features the only couple to be interviewed plus the stories of two women: The couple has been in business and is now involved with serving the public sector. One of the women is a political adviser and other is a retired vice president of a large Internet business.

 

The third and last interview chapter tells the stories of a retired school supervisor and a hedge fund manger, both of whom had their family functioning position alter by the death of their fathers.  

I am indebted to the 10 individuals in this book who were willing to tell me, as factually as possible, about the relationship influences on their lives and careers.

  

1. Jim Walsh (see page XX), owner of Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate, is a former advertising executive who moved to
Hawaii in 1986. He is now dedicated to producing the world’s finest cocoa using a process that begins with genetics and understanding how to use an unequaled growing environment. Walsh’s story concerns the subtle, early loss of identity. How and when parents tell their children that they are adopted has a big impact on many aspects of the child’s life course. Walsh discovered that he was adopted when he was eight years old. He wanted to know the truth and found that by digging for facts about his adoption, he was able to build and use his new identity to be more himself and forge his own way in life. As he grew older, he often had to face parental authority and resistance as he worked to accomplish cherished goals. These experiences helped him hone his entrepreneurial skills. The ability to define a self, based on your own gifts, and to overcome resistance is still ongoing for Jim. Even as I put his story up on the Web, he has found himself dealing with legal matters resulting from maintaining his vision while resisting the pressure to conform to the desires and ambitions of a former partner.
 

2. Art House (see page XX), Principal of Meridian Public Affairs, a company offering strategic communications and public affairs services to U.S. corporations, was also the Assistant Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, an officer at the World Bank (1971 – 1975), and a White House Fellow (1975 – 1976). House was also a special projects officer at the National Security Council. House comes from a family that provided him with a road map to public service. It was easy for him to identify with and learn from his parents. Yet he was tested early in life by circumstances. Dealing with high-school peers who tried to force House into a value system he did not embrace had a profound impact on him as a future leader. Enduring four years of emotional isolation to protect his values gave him the emotional backbone he needed as an adult to sustain his viewpoint, even under mounting pressure, without falling into the trap of reactive revenge or anger. This is an essential lesson that any leader will have to live out if he or she wants to maintain a leadership position.

 

 

3) Gary Resnick (see page XX), Associate Center Director for CB Defense, The Center for Homeland Security at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, at first explained that he saw no connections between early family relationships and his later actions in life. Yet because he has a scientist’s open mind, he eventually saw a possible bridge when he considered that much of learning in relationships comes from understanding what does not work, and then forging a new path. His focus on openness and integrity speaks to a different kind of a leader, one who deeply understands the responsibility he has to those he leads.

4. Robert Duffy (see page XX), former Chief of Police in
Rochester, New York, and now Mayor of that city, tells us how he learned to stick to his guns—his mother’s advice. Duffy gives us one of the best descriptions of the nuclear family’s influence on a developing mind, and a great example of how important it is to see the three generations of influence.
 

5. & 6.  Both Ned Powell (see page XX), head of the USO, and his wife, Diane (see page XX), a former vice president at NBC, remarked on how family relationships sustained their wish to contribute to the larger community. Each of their families offered a few good challenges and even a mild retort or two if either veered slightly from the families’ wishes. (It is also interesting to see to how two people on the fast track manage their careers so they can maintain their marriage.) 

7. Ladonna Lee (see page XX) describes the importance of her relationship with her father in her choice of a political career, and tells us about a mild form of resistance that took the form of a momentary temptation to take a job outside that sphere. 

 

8.  Geraldine MacDonald (see page XX), retired head of Global Access Networks at AOL, tells how her father encouraged her to select science and math over popularity with her peers, and reinforces how important relationships are in defining a strong self that can use talents despite opposition. It’s interesting to speculate that her family’s ability to anticipate the changing political climate (during the late 1930s and early 1940s, when they managed to escape from Europe) may have made it possible for MacDonald to understand and forecast critical trends in her industry.

 

9. Bob DiFlorio (see page XX), retired school superintendent from Syracuse, New York, comes from an Italian family with strong family values. When DiFlorio was six years old and his youngest sibling was not yet two, his father died. DiFlorio shouldered the job of caring for his younger sibling, while the four older children worked to help out their mother. Family values helped this group survive some very hard times. His family’s value of direct confrontation also helped DiFlorio work with other school superintendents and the mayor to further his agenda.  

10. Steve Waite (see page XX), nanotech hedge-fund manager and music producer, explains that he was encouraged by his father to follow his passion rather than stay in a high-paying job that was not nurturing/sustaining him. His father’s death altered Waite’s life course, forcing him to decide what was really important to him as a more awakened individual. 

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I am most grateful and privileged to be a part of the story telling that may lead to the development of your leadership compass.

Related books for further reading:

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, By E.O. Wilson (1998)The
Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance
Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich, Robert R. Hoffman, K. Anders Ericsson

Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind, By David BussFamily Therapy in Clinical Practice, By
Murray Bowen, M.D. (1976)
Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature and Literature, By Joseph Carroll (2004)

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