We are all traumatised

24/03/2014 § 2 Comments

I knew a little boy (let’s call him James) who would constantly measure things in monetary terms “Have a look at my football gloves, they cost…”. “I have £xxx in my bank account”. In a 7 year old, this was impressive but also a bit disconcerting.

James had a hard time in his early years – his parents separated when he was 5, a very messy separation of mutual accusations and a court battle. Before that he had years of unpleasant arguments at home, often being caught in the middle. Such experiences can be extremely unsettling for a young child.

James was very good with numbers – no doubt he was a bit precocious. He was certainly bright, intellectually, for his years. But it occurs to me that his strange fondness for measuring things could be explained also by the tough time he had. One way of dealing with his trauma was to hold onto numbers, giving him some certainty in an uncertain world. Numbers are lovely in their predictability – one plus one always equals two. And it is possible to use numbers as a universal measure, creating apparent order in a messy world (“my mummy loves me because she spent this much on me.” Or “I am safe because I have £xxx in the bank.”)

James is not alone in suffering trauma and in finding strange ways to deal with it. Life is, by its nature, traumatizing. A friend of mine, a physchotherapist, tells me that we are all traumatised in some way. This doesn’t need to be by death of a loved one, or suffering violence or hunger or illness. It can be traumatizing, as a 17 year old boy, to ask a girl out (I remember). It can be traumatising for a young child to undergo exams, to see their parents arguing, to move house or move school. It is traumatizing to live in a society that behaves as if it cares nothing about other forms of life, a society that seems to place financial gain above beauty, compassion and peace.

If we stay open to change, open to life, we can move through our trauma and grow. “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” said Nietsche. But at different stages of our growth many of us need props to hold on to – computer games, alcohol, drugs, sex, money, TV, newspapers, excessive work, all come to mind. In James case it was numbers. There is nothing wrong with this except these props can stunt our growth if we hold onto them too long.

I find this helpful when I think about our society and its obsession with money and mathematical measures. So much of our behaviour seems to be driven by the assumption that more money is always better, no matter how it is earned or used. Virtually all the political parties subscribe to this bizarre notion – indeed for most it appears to be the starting point for all their policies. It infiltrates education, health, war (sorry, a slip of the pen, I of course meant defence), energy, welfare and so on. 

If I can see George Osborne, the UK chancellor, as traumatised (rather than making him evil or stupid, or blaming him in some way), it helps me to forgive him for his heartlessness and his simple minded approach to our nation’s finances. If I can see corporate executives as traumatised (and goodness knows, working within a large corporation can be traumatizing in all sorts of subtle and not so subtle ways) than I can be more understanding when they take actions that don’t serve themselves or don’t contribute to a more peaceful world.

Viewing people as traumatised doesn’t mean I pity them – pity doesn’t do any good. In fact when I pity someone, all I am doing is distancing myself, raising myself up and considering myself superior. Rather I can feel empathy and compassion towards them. I may still want to educate them, to oppose them, to challenge them, but I do so from a place of love, not fear.  

Of course the same applies to me. If I view myself as traumatised I can forgive myself for all my fears and inadequacies. And forgiveness is the start of growth.

Will James grow out of his fixation on numbers? Will our society? Yes – I believe so. Life is extraordinary in its ability to heal, to re-create, to renew. But then, maybe that is just my misguided belief, an unfounded optimism that I have developed out of my need to deal with my trauma. Life is complex isn’t it :-)

In praise of wildness

20/02/2014 § Leave a comment

A thought came to me while strolling this morning through an orderly, well managed village in the Rheinland Pfalz area of Germany where my “schwieger-eltern” (parents-in-law) live.  Most of the plots are carefully controlled environments where no plant can grow without permission. Paths are neat and run in straight lines. Concrete predominates. There are few trees, but bushes grown in carefully mulched borders.

It seems to me that our efforts to manage and control our environment, to keep wildness out, are mirrored by our efforts to control our own inner wildness. We are scared of what we might unleash if we let our own tiger loose. So rather than risk it, we keep our inner tiger, our inner rain forest, tightly leashed.tiger_face1

I have noticed as I have got older and have chosen to follow my heart more, that my own inner wildness is expressing itself more. This might be in subtle ways such as allowing the curls in my hair to grow rather than maintaining a “short back and sides” look, or in being bolder with the colours I wear. I find this blog is a place where I can express some of my slightly wilder thoughts freely. And gradually I am giving myself permission to bring myself fully to my work, trusting that I can contribute with my slightly off-beat, unpredictable thinking.

In wildness is danger, chaos and uncontrolled energy. At the same time, without it there is no life. In our over-managed, over-safe, fear-ridden lives, we could all do with a bit more wildness. Couldn’t we?

PS. Microsoft Word has its own wild ways too, I am finding. I recently updated my version, and it now guesses what I want to write. I thought I typed “In praise of wildness” yet instead “In praise of writing” came up on the first published version of this blog. Yet you can’t do anything about Word’s wildness – it is a highly controlled, not really wild, type of energy. It just drives the user wild!

Small truths, big lies

10/02/2014 § 1 Comment

“Did you clean your teeth, Lucas?” “Erm, yes.”

 “Are you sure?” “Erm, no”  “Go and clean them please.”

My son, I’m glad to say, is a pretty poor liar. It is written all over his face. It is also, in general, pretty easy to test if he is telling the truth. If we suspect he did not clean his teeth, we can simply check his toothbrush, and the mere suggestion that we will do this tends to make him admit the truth.

His lies tend to be small lies – the sort that most scandals in our society are about.  “Did you sleep with her?” “Did you tap those phones?” “Did you say such and such to so-and-so?” When people with power tell little lies, we get very excited. If it can be proved that they told a lie, they often lose their post (Bill Clinton was threatened with impeachment for lying about having sex in the White House.  It wasn’t so much the sex that got him into trouble, it was the suggestion that he had lied about it).

It is similar in the world of large corporations. There was a big food scandal in the UK recently where it turned out that food labelled as beef or pork was in fact partly horsemeat. It is not in fact of earth-shattering consequence – the meat was just as safe to eat as other processed meat – it is just that we don’t like being misled. So politicians queued up to be outraged and huge numbers of minions in the food industry were mobilised to sort the situation out.

Because small lies are relatively easy to spot, politicians and corporations tend to be fairly rigorous about avoiding them. They are truthful almost to a fault, but only in small things. It is the big lies they are much more bold about.  This is, in part at least, because they are much easier to get away with, much harder to disprove.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThink of some of the lies that are commonplace in our society. “Invading country XXX will bring peace.” “Economic growth is the most important thing“. “We have to pay our CEO £5m in order to motivate him/her.” And the favourite one “Everything is under control”.

Often the biggest lies aren’t even spoken. The deceiver simply act as if something is true, making us feel obstructive or unreasonable for questioning something so obviously true.  Thus it becomes perfectly normal and right for a company to make profits out of selling alcohol and tobacco, and to take pride and pleasure in “growing the market”. In a society where obesity is the major health threat, it is considered normal and respectable for supermarkets to spend huge sums persuading their customers to eat sugary confections of no nutritional value.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, understood this dynamic well: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

These big lies are therefore far more dangerous, subtle and powerful than the little lies. That’s why the deceivers are able to act so brazenly, simply continue with their behaviour as long as they can get away with it.

Part of the reason they get away with it is that the deceived are often subtly complicit in the deceit. We want to believe we live in a true democracy (demos – people, kratia – power) because then we don’t actually have to fight for anything, we don’t have to stand up for what we believe in. It’s a convenient lie. In a similar way, we like the consumer goods and cheap titillation that are freely available in a society bent upon growth above all else, and so we allow ourselves to be deceived about the downsides (devastation of the planet’s life-support systems, rising inequality and, perhaps worst of all, lives lived without meaning). Thus a friend of mine can tell me “I don’t believe in climate change” when what he really means is “I choose not to look into this question too deeply because the truth might scare me.”

So what are we to do if we spot the truth? It can be easy to despair – after all, when so many people go along with these lies, and when those in power seem so good at maintaining those lies, it can all feel overwhelming. Joseph Goebbels again:  “The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

For “state” we can just as well read “large corporations”. We have to be willing to tell the truth, our truth, no matter what the consequences. We may be considered crazy, we may at times feel crazy, but we have to do it if we wish to retain any self-respect, any sense of our own integrity. We have to allow life to speak through us, in order to save the only life we can save.

What is the truth that you would like to speak?

Building a community of hope

21/01/2014 § 1 Comment

There’s a lot of work to be done, isn’t there, in this age into which we are born. We have to re-imagine, re-think, re-design and re-build the way we do so many things – make things, move about, provide energy for our daily activities, feed ourselves, organise ourselves, relate to each other.

We don’t always do ourselves favours. Too often we work in silos, when so much of the work can be done better when shared. We allow ourselves to get discouraged when we could be empowered through cooperating with others.

So a big part of our work is also to build communities, communities that are bound together by shared values, by a shared and inspiring purpose, and by hope. In dark times hope is sometimes all we have to hold onto. As Vaclav Havel put it: “Hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

But how do you build such communities? How do you find the time and the courage? Where do you get a chance to practise? There are some really excellent short courses, lasting a few days, where you go to a wilderness or a foreign country and find yourself through encounters with others. Leaders Quest, Embercombe, Natural Change, vision quests,  all these can be powerful transformative experiences that draw on the power of community.   But what do you do when you get home, when you return to the daily grind? How do you foster that spirit of community when you are back in the belly of the beast?

That’s the question I set out to address last year when I set up Mastery in Sustainability with Debbie Warrener.  We wanted to create our own community of hope in the heart of London. It was an amazing experience. 15 of us came together in 10 sessions over 6 months. We supported, inspired and challenged ourselves. Through truly meeting each other, we found ways to express our whole selves, and then to take that back into our daily lives. “One of the most healing trainings I have ever done” as one participant put it.

This year we are running the course again, starting in a week’s time, and there are still spaces. If you would like to be part of this journey, if you would like to start 2014 by joining an emerging community of hope, then you can book on the course here. We even have a special offer if you sign-up today. Or go back home, or back into your workplace, and start one yourself. There is no more important work in this age.



On lawyers, power and Nelson Mandela

14/12/2013 § Leave a comment

I have, not surprisingly, been musing about lawyers, after the death of one of my heroes.

MandelaNelson Mandela was, of course, so much more than a lawyer but he did practice law for many years. And I notice that several outstanding individuals who fought for social justice previously practised as lawyers. Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela, Fidel Castro (!), Thatcher (oh no, forget that last one…). Is this just chance?

It seems to me that it is, in part at least, to do with power. As a lawyer you get to see how power dynamics play out in society. This has a couple of consequences – it gives you power in your own right (the power of knowledge) and it obliges you to make a choice about where to place yourself – on the side of the oppressors or the oppressed.

Admittedly it is a bit simplistic (OK – very simplistic) to see our society as divided into the oppressed and the oppressors, the haves and have-nots, the powerful and powerless. Yet it can be illuminating. And if it is good enough for Paolo Freire, it is good enough for me (if you don’t know it, I recommend his book “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”).

From this perspective, most key political events – new laws, privatisations and nationalisations, strikes, wars – are a playing out of the on-going struggle between the powerless and the powerful for supremacy. Law is one of the principal arenas where the battle is waged. In a healthy society, the law is a codified version of moral standards of the people. It elevates them from nice things to do, making them enforceable by the state or by one person against another. It is a powerful statement about what is important to the people, and is backed up by the whole apparatus of the state.  Lawyers hold the key to the law – they are the gate-keepers to power. From this vantage point they get to see what lies behind the paraphernalia that power often adopts to justify its exercise.

Inevitably (particularly in these days of ever-reducing legal aid budgets) the haves find it easier than the have-nots to get the backing of the law – they can afford the best lawyers. What’s more, they have better access to the law-makers too and are able to shape it in their own image. So over time, until it is overturned in a revolution, the law becomes less about the moral code of the people and more about the means of domination by one group by another. Indeed these days, as Polly Higgins (another ex-lawyer) has pointed out, the law is among other things used as a means and a justification for humans to exert their domination over the non-human world.

In such a society, lawyers can easily end up as instruments of the powerful. Some seek to make up for this by doing some free work on the side, by giving some of their earnings to charity or finding some other way of holding onto their integrity. Others don’t resist – they happily adopt the trappings of the powerful. Some even change roles and openly seek power (a disproportionate number of British MPs are ex-lawyers).

Others, though, make a different choice. They choose to serve higher laws rather than man-made ones, and take up arms with the oppressed. They offer up their skills, their knowledge, their own personal power, pursuing justice with all their hearts. They may not get rich, or fat, or comfortable this way. Indeed, they often go through considerable sufferings, financial and other hardships, or may even be put in prison for standing up for what they believe. But in the end they are usually vindicated. History is kind to the Mandelas, Gandhis and Lincolns while those who tamely went along with the oppressors are long forgotten.

You must have surely spotted by now my deep admiration for these individuals. I don’t seek to compare the work I do with the work of these remarkable individuals. I simply note that the drivers that pushed them to take massive risks, to make astonishing sacrifices, are the ones that motivate me too – a passion for justice, a sense of fairness, a belief in the underlying equality (but not sameness) of all, human and non-human.

And I take great joy in it. Joy, as it happens, is one thing that often marks the individuals who have taken such a step. Many who met Mandela or Gandhi talk about this quality of theirs. And is it so surprising? What could be more meaningful, more essentially joyful, than to do something worthwhile with your life. As George Bernard Shaw put it: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognised by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

Nelson – I salute you.

A spaceman went travelling – a parable

26/11/2013 § 3 Comments

A wandering spaceman one day came across a blue planet. Awestruck with its beauty, she approached and saw how it teemed with life, holding billions of creatures of marvellous beauty and diversity. Filled with joy and delight, she decided to pay a visit.

Landing on earth, she soon encountered creatures called humans, walking around on two legs. These were the most extraordinary creatures she had ever come across. They were beautiful, complex, mysterious, creative, capable of great courage, wisdom, compassion and nobility. Yet equally, she observed, they could be selfish, dull, brutish and capable of great cruelty and wilful ignorance. They had produced great works and yet had fought each other and wantonly destroyed each other and their cultures.

At the time of this visit, there were an awful lot of these humans on the planet and this was causing more than a few problems. The humans simply weren’t very good at sharing. They had got used to dividing up the planet into pieces, staking claims to parts, using up all the resources and then moving on to claim more. In recent times they had become particularly fond of a dark liquid, the remains of ancient sunlight that had been buried deep underground for millions of years. Strangely, it seemed, they weren’t actually eating this (it didn’t appear tasty anyway), Instead they used it to move themselves about rather aimlessly, to make playthings or status symbols that they quickly threw away, to grow food for animals that they then ate (a highly inefficient process, the spaceman observed) and to preserve their bodies at a constant temperature when their bodies were anyway well able to adapt to changes in temperature. All very mysterious, the spaceman thought.

It appeared that in the past there had been humans who had managed to live in harmony with the planet but somewhere along the way the knowledge had been lost. The spaceman was struck by the contrast between the unity of the planet from space, with no boundaries visible, and the numerous social boundaries created by humans on the planet itself.

Being very clever, the humans had invented complex ways to organise themselves. The most complex and impressive were called corporations, which were used to manage the processing of the planet’s resources – the digging up, refining, distributing and converting into (largely useless) items. These corporations also disposed of the waste, burning it or burying it in large holes in the ground. Yet the humans were not so clever are all. They had applied the same principle in the design of these systems as they had when exploiting the planet’s resources – the principle of domination. Some humans, the majority in fact, were viewed as simply more resources, to be processed for the benefit of others, a small and powerful minority. These privileged few, bizarrely, were treated as “owners” of these human systems. The owned were thus, the spaceman noted, robbed of their essential humanity.

By design the corporations served their owners and those who the owners had appointed to run them, their foremen (the so-called “board of directors”). For example, they paid staff as little as possible in order to maximise what was paid to the owners, and they viewed the planet in all its richness as something only fit to be converted into abstract figures known as money. The planet burned for the rich man’s pleasure.

Meanwhile these “owners” were able to deny any responsibility for the actions of their corporate slaves, through a clever device called “limited liability”. Nothing to do with me, they said.

So powerful had these corporations become that they had taken over, in mostly subtle ways, the governments which had been set up to represent the mass of people as a whole.

The spaceman was for some time very critical of these owners and their foreman. How could they behave in this way, she wondered? Yet, looking more closely, the spaceman realised that her initial judgments were erroneous. They were not, she observed, any worse (or better) than other humans. They were not, for the most part, evil or willfully bad. They were simply blind, ignorant, unable to see the big picture – and this applied to the oppressed and to the oppressors alike. Both parts colluded, unknowingly, in maintaining this unfairness, this fundamentally unjust set-up. They all lost out through their inability to see the whole.

The spaceman went to a quiet place and sat for a while, in sadness at the waste she had witnessed. The poisoning of oceans, lakes and rivers, the despoliation of grasslands, pristine forests, the relentless destruction of life. The waste, above all, of human potential.

She touched despair. Could nothing be done to help these remarkable creatures to help themselves, she wondered.

After a while, she got up and created a space. It was a beautiful space, peaceful, calm, inviting. She sat down in the centre and waited. In time, a human came and sat in the space. One by one, others joined her. There came into the space rich and poor, black and white, young and old, tall and short, male and female. Eventually, when the space was filled, the spaceman got up and started to talk.

“Listen” she said “If you can only learn to get on with each other, to share this beautiful planet, then there is more than enough for all of you. And to do that, you need to learn to sit together, to think together, to be together without strife. You need to learn not to judge, yourselves or others. You need to learn to listen to your hearts, to the innocence of your children, to the wisdom of your elders, to the rocks and streams and trees. To the planet.”

The people listened and sat quietly. After a while, one spoke “We’ve heard this all before.” he said. “Some have even tried it. But it doesn’t work.” “We can’t do it.” continued another. “It is our nature to fight, to be greedy, to seek to dominate each other and the planet. We know in the long run it doesn’t serve us but we can’t help it. We can’t change our nature.”

Silence returned for a while. Then an old woman spoke. “It is also our nature to be kind, loving and generous.” she said. Why can’t we simply choose that?”

A child piped up. “My granny is right. Can’t we listen to her? Please!”.

Eventually a tall man spoke, quietly but clearly. “What can we do?” he asked the spaceman.

The spaceman was about to answer and then stopped herself. “You know what”, she said. “I think you have to work that out for yourselves. I think that maybe that is why you are here. You have everything you need to get yourselves out of this mess. You all have the capacity to make a positive difference. Use it. And in doing so, simply in the attempt, you will find riches untold.”

“You live in a world of abundance and beauty, filled with wondrous creatures, of fabulous life in all its forms. If I could give you one gift it would be to see the world through my eyes. Your world is perfect – it is just your vision that is faulty”.

There was nothing more to be said. It was time to go. The spaceman wished the people well and took off, heading back to her home in a distant galaxy. She smiled to herself as she sped home at thousands of times the speed of light. “What a crazy bunch of mixed up people” she thought. “I wonder what will happen to them…”

An integral approach to organising

13/11/2013 § 5 Comments

- organise – “form into an organic whole” (Oxford Dictionary).

For many years I have been interested in, nay fascinated by, organising and organisations. I feel I have something in common with Sisyphus who, in the Greek legend, was fated to spend eternity rolling a large rock up a mountain, only to watch it roll down again every time he approached the top. Likewise, just when I think I am on the verge of making a profound breakthrough in my understanding, I learn something that humbles me, that makes me realise how little I really know.

I am in good company. Great management writers including Peter Drucker and Charles Handy have acknowledged the awesome complexity of the subject. In the words of Handy: “The meeting of self and others, of individual, or individual institution, and the community, is probably the most complex issue of our time.”

So with that in mind, in all humility, I want to offer up here my integral model of organisational regulation. I call it integral because it draws together multiple ways of looking at organisations, and because it draws on the work of Ken Wilbur, who developed an “integral model” which he shared in his book “A Theory of Everything.” Without further ado, here is my model (click on it to see an expanded view):

Picture 2

The idea is that you can use this model if you want to make sense of, or seek to influence the behaviour of, a group of people. By looking at each quadrant in turn, you can form a picture of the organisation that is multi-dimensional. So for example if you want to understand why the UK banks have been behaving in the way they have, you can start by looking at the top left quadrant. This will lead you to enquire into the values, the inner drivers, of the individuals in the bank and particularly those at the top. Many people never get beyond this enquiry. But we have only just started.

Moving down to the bottom left, you might then enquire into the culture of the bank. What are the shared values, the shared norms? What world view predominates? What does the organisation as a whole consider most important?

In the top right I have placed governance (it is externally visible and it is about relationships between individuals). What rules, procedures and structures are in place? How does the bank make decisions, and how are they implemented? Who is involved? What checks and balances are in place? Who is accountable to whom? How does communication flow within the organisation?

Finally there is the bottom right: relationships with stakeholders, such as its investors, customers, suppliers, society and the planet. What systems does the bank have to engage with stakeholders, to listen to them, to understand their needs, to account to them for its behaviour?

The model can be quite revealing. One of the first things that is apparent is how people tend to get drawn into just one quadrant and disregard the others. People will insist that the banking crisis in 2008 was because of poor leadership. Others will talk only about the prevailing culture in the banks at the time, or about the need for better corporate governance. Our model is a reminder that life is more complex than that, and that we need to pay attention to all the quadrants. There are consultants who build entire careers specialising in leadership, or governance, or stakeholder engagement, or cultural work, and never understand where their part fits in, or even that they are only looking at part.

Using the model, it is possible to make general observations about different types of firms and where they tend to be more developed. Professional practice firms, for example, tend to be well-developed in the top part (the “I) and particularly the top left, leadership, while paying insufficient attention to the culture they create or their relations with their stakeholders, including their junior staff. Cooperatives are strong on “We” – culture and relations with stakeholders. They are much less well-developed in leadership and governance.

In small companies, the left hand side, the “softer” stuff of values, tends to be more significant than the right hand side. Key individuals can make a huge difference to the way the organisation behaves. By contrast in a large plc, the right hand side becomes very significant, particularly the bottom right where the power dynamics between the board, investors, customers, government regulation and wider society come into play.

For those of us with more than an academic interest in the behaviour of organisations, this model can be powerful tool. It can help us to make informed choices about where to intervene in the system. If we want to influence an organisation, should we seek to introduce leadership training? Or is cultural work more pressing, or perhaps some tweaks to the governance? Perhaps all of this is required, plus some attention to stakeholder engagement.

Using a variant of the model, we can even map the state of evolution of the organisation, and chart a course of development:

Picture 7

You don’t have to agree with my labels. You can adopt your own preferred model of what an evolved organisation might look like, drawing on Maslow’s hiearcarchy of needs, or spiral dynamics, or whatever.

Finally, there is one more overlay, a spiral (I won’t attempt that here – it is beyond my modest design skills). spiral

I want to add a spiral partly because I like spirals but mainly because it reminds us that each quadrant is closely related to, and interdependent with, the others. Improve the quality of leadership and you are likely to get better governance. Work on the culture and you will enhance stakeholder relations and raise the standard of leadership. And so on.

I will leave you with a couple of beautiful thoughts. Firstly, it doesn’t matter where you are on the spiral, life is about working with what you have and where you are. Secondly, the spiral has no end…


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