Royalty and other icons II

12/05/2011 § Leave a comment

I have come up with a different way of thinking about people and organizations, to help explain why they behave the way they do. I doubt it is original but it is new to me. It is to do with icons.

There is a lot of talk nowadays about values in organizations. Richard Barrett for example has done some inspiring work comparing the values of individuals within an organization with the values of the organisation as a whole. He offers the results to the leaders of the businesses as a strategic tool, enabling them to bring the two sets of values in closer alignment, which has obvious benefits for the organization.

In general, however, I find values to have only a limited function when looking at an organisation. This is because values are invariably expressed in words. And words are so limited. As Neale Donald Walsch said “Words are the least reliable purveyors of truth.” (a humbling thought for a lawyer or a blogger).

I suggest it is more useful to think about “icons”, a far more holistic way of expressing what is important to an individual or a group of people.

What is an “icon”? In religious terms, these are images representing a saint or other holy person. Interestingly, through worship the image not only represents something sacred but becomes sacred itself.  More broadly, I think of an icon as a representation of something that we consider precious. Like a wedding ring, whose principal value is as an expression of the marriage, not because of the intrinsic value of the metal.

Just think what insights you get into another human being when they show you a collection of images that represent what is important to them – a photo of their cat, their wedding ring, a special plant, a photo taken on their favourite holiday.

I always enjoy admiring the little altars you find in Hindu or Buddhist homes, where the family worships on a regular, sometimes daily, basis. They usually have images on them, perhaps a photo of a holy man or an image of the Buddha or Shiva or Ganesh. Maybe, whether visible or not, we all have these altars in our homes or hearts where we carry images of what we hold sacred.

I believe this works for groups too. For the British, one of our icons is the Royal family.  They have a special place on our national altar – they have the highest authority in the land. They reveal, partially at least, what is important to us as a nation – tradition, continuity, a reluctance to express emotions publicly…  If we change as a nation, and the Royalty fail to change with us, or indeed vice versa, then tension arises. Royalty cannot become too different or distant from us or it loses its function.

Businesses too have their altars. My first serious job was in an old established law firm in the City of London. Their reception was filled with old books – case reports, some of them dating back more than 100 years. Perhaps not surprisingly, when I went back to visit the firm after a gap of 17 years, I found that I still recognised the majority of the partners’ names. This is not a firm where change happened quickly. At least they had refurbished the reception since my time.

The one icon shared by nearly all businesses is Mammon, the false God of riches and avarice. It is not that business people are intrinsically greedy – no more or less than other groups of people, in my experience.  It is just that the most common form of a structure for a business, the limited company, comes complete with its own set of icons, and Mammon is principal among them. Individual business owners or managers may seek to put Mammon at the back of the altar, or even to remove it from the altar altogether, but there is a remorseless logic about the structure, with shareholders at the top, that keeps putting Mammon back on the altar and pushing it towards the front.

What do you think of this analogy?  Am I onto something, do you think?  Can I go and sell it to Mckinsey & Co as the next big thing, something that they can turn into a quadrant and sell to their clients for £2000 per day? Do let me know.

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