Leadership is an inside job

consciousnessSo the world didn’t end on December 21, surprise, surprise.  Here we are in 2013, all systems still intact.  I have heard some speak of the Mayan December 21 end-of-all-things-prediction not so much an end of the world, but more of an end of one cycle and the beginning of another.  An end of things-as-they-were.  Let it be so.  Endings can be good and healthy.

I don’t do New Years’ resolutions per se, but I have resolved in myself to focus this year on health, from its broadest perspective.  I will endeavour to place attention on the health of those around me, the health of the organisations with which I work and the health of those within them.  I will place, firstly, attention on my own health, because leadership is an inside job.  We must be healthy ourselves.  I view health as an holistic phenomenon: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social and relational.  This is not merely the absence of dis-ease, but a progressive and thoughtful movement towards greater freedom and happiness.  This will come about, I believe, through greater consciousness: a journey, therefore, not a destination.  Becoming more aware, in moments, of what is going on for me and others and when it feels unhealthy or unnatural, to seek to do something different.  Striving to live this moment freshly and not relying on old default responses.

Often, I suspect, this will involve taking a Cynical approach, though not from the modern understanding of cynicism (disbelief in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions), but coming from the ancient Greek philosophy of striving to live a life that is in tune with what it means to be naturally human.  It seems the time is right to adopt a Cynical approach to life;  it emerged in ancient Greece as a way of offering the possibility of happiness and freedom from suffering in an age of uncertainty.  Uncertainty.  Sound familiar?  While I’m in the process of simplifying my life a little, I’m not about to dispose of all my worldly goods as the original Cynics did, sleep in bathtubs and wander the streets with my dogs on a piece of string, but I take inspiration from the attitude of happiness as being linked to living a life in tune with Nature.  The healthy life.  Challenging false judgements of what is valuable and worthwhile, questioning customs and conventions of how things are done.  I cannot do this without extending consciousness.  This is why I do the work I do.  This is why clients work with us: they are seeking something different, something that challenges their status quo.  Same old, same old (or a pretty repackaging of the “same-old”) won’t create the deep, systemic transformation they require.

Like the Cynics, I believe the world belongs equally to everyone, that opportunity for happiness and freedom is for everyone; not just for those in “power”, those they deem as worthy or those who believe that money = power.  Genuine democracy, having a voice, having agency in one’s life, actively participating in making decisions which affect us.  In life, in work, all over the place.  This is a challenge to current convention.  In my experience, the best customer service comes from people who are being authentic and human and have the freedom to do so.  In my experience, the best leadership comes from those who take an interest in their own learning and encourage others to do the same.  In my experience, the best and most humane workplaces happen when everyone is accepting of everyone else in their same-ness and their difference, living and letting live.  It is also my experience that none of these things happen by chance or good luck.  They come about with consciousness.

Some of what I believe goes against Nature and humanity is the (largely unconscious) acceptance of and acquiescence to systems which are unhealthy.  It comes through in an attitude that humans are resources, that corporations are somehow “people”, that the reason for getting up in the morning is to make more profit (even at the expense of a rainforest, a community, an ecosystem or some other inconvenient obstacle).  I know some may find this irksome, but there is nothing I’ve found in any of the teachings of any of the great historical sages, seers, or prophets that advocates or emphasises owning things for oneself at the expense of others.  As far as I have understood, I’m not aware of anything written by, attributed to or uttered by the Buddha, the Christ, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Mandela, Rumi or Lao Tse that delineates capital accumulation as the road to enlightenment and a better life.  I know what you’re thinking: I’m some sort of dangerous liberal, commie, socialist, atheist, pinko abortion-loving anarchist out to destroy freedom and democracy.  Or I’m one of those well-intentioned, but muddle-headed, hybrid-car-driving, tree-hugging vegans who still say, “Peace and love, man.”  Nothing of the sort.  I do, however, go along with Hilary Wainwright and Richard Goulding who write in “Co-ops help bring economics back to the people,” that “we live in a time when the economics of profit are facing a profound crisis of legitimacy, while retaining a deathly grip on the apparatus of the state.”  Something has to give.  Zizek has spoken about getting close to a zero-point; what he terms “soft apocalypse”.  Our  ecological, social and economic systems are near breaking point and if we wish to retain all the benefits of a humane society, something different is called for.  A new game.

This new game must be, if it’s for the good of everyone, co-created by everyone.  It’s no good getting a room full of good-hearted people in a room, asking them individually to put forward their plan for a better world and then vote for the most popular.  This is the point.  This is how we got here.  We have to do this together.  We have to make these decisions together.  Furthermore, we have to do this togetherness thing by bringing the best of ourselves to the party.  Patriarchal businesses who still operate out of the “Manager-Knows-Best” mindset perpetuate the disengagement and dissatisfaction in those who work there, no matter how benevolent they may attempt to be and no matter what they try to put in place to mitigate for them.  Get out of the way and let people bring their whole selves to work.  Give people a bit of credit.  AND…..if we are to create a real sense of “WE”, it behoves us all to invest ourselves in growing greater consciousness and our ability to be with each other.  My “why”, therefore, is to push for greater self-awareness and consciousness in the world.  This will come about with self-discipline, continued learning and a genuine commitment to diversity and engaging others.

Here’s another challenge to current convention:  I have no faith that a system of capitalism (conscious or otherwise) will lead to an age of enlightenment.  A system operates with a set of rules which maintain its equilibrium.  In other words, a system will strive to perpetuate itself.  I struggle to see how a system of capital accumulation that operates to ensure its continuation can be for the greater good of Nature and humanity.  Fraudulent banksters, tax cheats, self-interested lobbyists and an obscene corporate bonus culture all spring out of a system whose rules say, “This is how you play the game.  It’s called capital accumulation.”  The ones who pay the price are the ones who haven’t learnt how to play the game well enough.  Time for us to play a different game, one that allows everyone to play and demands that the play is fair and equitable.  We are not here to serve the economy, it should serve us.  Becoming more conscious of what we do that colludes with an inhumane system is a first step in creating something new.  Furthermore, becoming conscious of what I do that colludes with my own un-health and that of others and their businesses is a first step to creating something more life-giving.

They say you can’t polish a turd, but you can certainly roll it in glitter.  Nowadays we don’t just buy a product, but we buy our redemption from being naughty consumerists because they donate $1 to a starving child in Africa or promise only to use FairTrade commodities.  We are no longer just consuming, but we are fulfilling a series of ethical and moral duties, right?  I’m not saying this is bad in itself; I am as deeply moved as the next person by images of poverty and injustice and want it to end.  I can also understand why some might think I’m being cruel because as Oscar Wilde wrote, it is much easier to have sympathy with suffering than to have sympathy with thought.  So for me to take a dim view of built-in philanthropy smacks of mean-ness because I really should just appreciate the good that some of these modern businesses do, shouldn’t I?  Why not help a starving child?  Why not, indeed?  I would much prefer a world where starvation was impossible.  My point is that the system which dresses itself up as the provider of charity is the same one that necessitates the need.  Oscar Wilde recognised this in his day, too.  The remedy is part of the disease.  My vision is one where the ills of the world (including the modern workplace) are not merely alleviated, but that they are inconceivable.  It is possible.  Having centuries ago passed through the age of the aristocracy, we could not now conceive of contemporary serfdom.  My view, therefore: capitalism will not save the world, conscious or otherwise.  Consciousness will, though.  Watch and listen to Zizek.

This is the same thinking out of which spring my beliefs that meaning, mastery and autonomy are keys to generating satisfaction and engagement, that Theory Y is much more than a lovely sounding “theory”, that cooperation is far more effective and humane than competition, that learning how to reverse roles with people is good for them and us, that people are not their behaviours and that performance is a systems issue, not an HR one.  We know some things that will make work work better for everyone.  We need to be conscious of how we perpetuate the old ways and to be conscious of being different.

If December 21 was indeed the end of things-as-they-were, I believe that consciousness will be the foundation of the new thing.  Herein lies our work.  It is not good enough to rail against unfair or inhumane systems.  While, as a systems thinker, I perceive the interconnectedness of us all, I am also cognisant of the fact that the human family is composed of a number of individual elements.  These are each of us.  We can make a difference in our lives and the lives of others by growing self-awareness and becoming more conscious of our place in the web of life, how we impact it and how it impacts on us.  Who are we?  What drives us?  What gives us joy?  How can we nurture mutually satisfying relationships with others?  What are my Achilles’ heels and how can I find out?  Who will help me uncover that stuff about me that I am blind to?  Growing consciousness, extending self-awareness; these are not easy things, these are not necessarily painless things.  They are, however, indispensable if we want a better world.  We have a part to play.  I have a part to play.  Hence my focus on health.

Being a great leader, a great colleague, a great customer service representative, a great whatever starts with consciousness.  They are all inside jobs.  It is not accidental.  It requires a conscious choice to develop greater self-knowing, to be honest and gutsy in our conscious self-reflection and taking conscious steps to learning and developing.  If, as Zizek says, the most radical horizon of our imagination is global capitalism with a human face, we have a lot of work to do.  Putting out fire with gasoline?  Or, together, setting the conditions so that the fire couldn’t start in the first place?

11 thoughts on “Leadership is an inside job

  1. Hello John

    Back in the 70s and 80s Werner Erhard invented the possibility of the transformation of man and a world that works none excluded. As well as the end of poverty. What did he say on that?

    He said that the only ingredient missing for all of these possibilities is enough of us stepping into and operating from the context of these possibilities as realities waiting to show up if we dive into and operate out of the the possiblity of these realities.

    As you say it is not a HR issue it is a system issue. Sometimes it occurs to me that altering a system is almost impossible. And then I remember that one can, over the course of time, change culture simply by taking away knives and forks and replacing them with chopsticks, or even hands. Eventually, that ripples through.

    So the question for you and me is what practices that have you/I are the ones that if we let them go, will open up our lives and how we show up in the world to transformation. And thus contribute to the transformation of the world?

    And finally, thank you for writing and sharing this post. I had not come across the point of view articulated by Zizek nor Wilde and it has opened up a new horizon for me.

    With my love
    maz

    1. Dearest Maz, thanks for your thoughtful comments. Sometimes what seems impossible is only so because we haven’t imagined it yet. I was listening to a podcast recently that mentioned how the imaginings of sci-fi writers in the 60s and 70s are a direct line back to many of the inventions and technologies we now take for granted. We have to imagine the world we want if we want it to happen, even if we are called loons. We will achieve the end of poverty, social justice and more humane workplaces because folks like you are imagining it to be so.
      Warmly,
      John

  2. Thank you for sharing what i believe to be an amazing article.
    Its been made apparent to myself through a concious choice to understand my purpose in life but not just an individual seen with the eye,but as a spirit felt with the soul that huge change is required throught the world and to understand and not act would darken and harden my heart which i will not allow.
    .In order to achieve such ambitions colaborated by my experiance and faith as im sure your aware is by no means easy however with such articles that you continue to produce allows me to braoden my understanding of how im feeling by conciously being aware that what you write is nothing but the truth, for this i thank you greatly.

    1. Mark, thanks for commenting and I’m glad we resonate together. I’m with you when you say that not to act would harden your heart. Sometimes the most necessary thing is the most challenging or confusing thing, but we can’t live with hardened hearts, that’s for sure.

  3. Thanks for this. A really good read, and I enjoyed the link to Zizek too – thanks for that. You set yourself and the rest of us a huge challenge, but one that we must take seriously.

    1. Thanks Louis, you are right: it’s a huge challenge. I don’t take it lightly, nor believe that people find it necessarily easy, but vital if we are to create something different in the world. It’s time! Thanks for adding in!

  4. What a truly great ponderance John.
    Dis ease requires a remedy. ignorance requires education and a holistic approach will discover that the uniqueness of human reality is actually the human spirit not our phyisical entitiy,
    Humanity has passed throught the stages of infancy and youth and is now entering a time of maturity. The requirements and conditions of the previous stages no longer apply just as the toys and play things of childhood and adolescence do not satisfy the adult mind. This is the time of new powers and perceptions, new capacities and a matured view and vision of who we are and what life is all about.

    1. Thanks Lyndsey. Your analogy to human development stages is delightful and adds a lot to what I am attempting to say. So obvious, really, now that you put it down in words and you are so right. Time for new powers and perceptions to be learnt and put to use. No use playing with toys and deferring to Mummy and Daddy if we are supposed to be standing on our own two feet.

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