One of the questions that continues to dominate many of the conversations that I have with organizational leaders is the one related to how they should structure their business.
For example, yesterday in a conversation with a friend and client, we discussed the role of the administrative assistant in his business. Like many small businesses, this role has shifted from an essential one to a discretionary one. Many employment positions have gone away because the benefit does not match their cost.
The issue isn't whether the tasks that these people do are not valuable.
The issue is whether the role as defined is.
This is a picture of the shift being taken in many places from a traditional hierarchical business structure to one that I call a parallel one. This parallel structure is a network of relationships.
As you can see by this chart, there are some real differences between the traditional approach to organizing a business, and one built around relationships. This shift is hard for everyone who has spent their work life in a hierarchical structure.
In the traditional approach, a person is hired to fill a position. That position has a job description that outlines the specific tasks and responsibilities that they are to do. The employee's expectation is that is what their time at work will be like each day. Completing tasks that are assigned through the organizational design of the company. Responsibility is passed down to the employee,while authority is held at the top. This system worked well during an era of easy growth and social continuity. It does so because the ultimate purpose of the organization is institutional integrity.
In a network of relationships parallel structure, the job description is also relational. It means that the individual's character and engagement with people is part of what makes them a valued employee. Some may think this has always been true. And that is correct. These parallel structures of relationships have always formed when a specific need emerges. But they were seen as temporary or adhoc, not a permanent or essential part of the organization's structure.
What We Want
The greatest business failure of the past thirty years has not been scandals or financial collapses. It is the failure of business to understand the value of their employees. This failure originates in the structure of businesses.
If employees are functionaries in an administrative, production system, then their value is diminished, by let say at least 30%, and in some cases twice that.
If the business is organized to create order, then employees are hired to comply with that order. Institutional integrity becomes the goal of the organization.
However, in a network of relationships model, people bring much more to their work. This is what the team building movement has been teaching us for a generation. How people relate and work together is a key ingredient in an organization's success.
I suspect though that here again the value of the individual to company is still not perceived well.
If you were to sit down with each employee for coffee and talk about their lives, you would find what I am finding. There are three things that they want. Everyone says them differently, but they can be summarized simply.
People want their lives and work to be
Socially Fulfilling, and
Make a Difference that Matters.
This is what we all want. We want the values that matter to us to be central in how we live. We want some kind of purpose for our lives. There needs to be a point to it.
We also want our relationships to be healthy and whole. We don't like conflict. We don't like to be manipulated, to be taken for granted, or to be used for someone's selfish purposes. We want to walk into work hopeful and excited about the opportunity to share my day with the people with whom I work.
We want to feel at the end of the day that we did something that made a difference. Listen to what people say when they talk about a good day. One where they accomplished something. They overcame a challenge or an obstacle and succeeded at it. Also, they did something for someone else that was appreciated. It made a difference. There was real satisfaction in helping solve person's problems. That's what we want.
The Circle of Impact Connection
The lesson for me when I began to see this picture emerge is how congruent it was to the three dimensions of leadership that I had identified as the Circle of Impact.
The three dimensions that command every leader's attention are Ideas, Relationships and Structure. We tend to segregate them, thinking that it is easier that way. Instead it creates confusion and greater complexity. That is why the four Connecting Ideas - Purpose or Mission, Values, Vision and Impact - are essential tools for helping link together the three dimensions. And it begins by clarifying the Connecting Ideas.
The Circle of Impact applies to both kinds of structures, traditional and parallel, because this is a basic, fundamental understanding of all organizations, regardless of type. Every organization must address its ideology, its social context and how the business is structured to achieve impact. All of them. However, here's the difference.
The parallel structure, described above, is a Network of Relationships. Just like in a traditional hierarchical setting, this organizational structure requires attention to the Connecting Ideas, relationships and the organization of their work.
Networks of Relationships are formed around a Shared Mission and Shared Responsibility, where leadership, authority and responsibility to contribute are shared.
From this perspective of Shared Leadership, the responsibility of the individual is to take initiative to create impact. This is the most basic contribution of the team member. And because the group is organized as a network of relationships, their collaboration and communication is an essential focus of their relationships.
Most of us have experienced team work where there was a genuine experience of coming together as a group of shared purpose and contribution. And most likely, we see these experiences as the exceptions in our lives.
Let's return to my conversation with my friend and client about the administrative staff person in his office.
How can this perspective about parallel structures, networks of relationships, shared mission, shared responsibility, shared leadership and impact fit into his traditional business structure?
It begins with recognizing that each individual has unrealized potential waiting to be released. Everyone of us wants to work in an environment that is personally meaningful, socially fulfilling and makes a difference that matters. If that is so, then the first step is figuring out how those three personal goals can become the basis for the contributions of each person.
As a result, each person contributes that which is personally meaningful. Each person contributes in their interpersonal interaction that which is socially fulfilling. And each person contributes out of their own talent, expertise and character of personal initiative those actions that create the impact that makes a difference that matters.
For each person to do this means that the social structure of the business must change. And this shift is based on what each person shares with the whole of the organization.
Here's the insight that is a key to understanding this organizational change. Because these networks of relationships are parallel structures, they can work along side of, and even within the traditional structures of hierarchy. In fact they always have. But rarely as a core strategy, but rather as a tactical approach to team work.
We can see this is the way businesses define positions of employment. Instead of focused on contribution, the emphasis has been task oriented. As result, the value of the employee is not realized, and it makes the case for reductions in force must easier to make.
The future belongs to these parallel structures. Let networks of relationships form. Let them take collective initiative to make a difference that matters, then new vitally and impact will emerge.
Near the end of my father's career, the company for whom he had worked for over 35 years, was purchased, and, not so slowly, its assets drawn off and exploited for use by the parent company.
I remember him telling me of the day that he was on a management recruiting trip in Pennsylvania, and received a phone call that the company was not going to make payroll that week. He returned home to help usher through the closing of the company and be the last executive remaining as he handled the outstanding employee medical and benefit claims against the company. He was of an age where he could retire. It was a sad day for him. He had worked for the company his entire career.
My dad's story is not unusual. It is symptomatic of the time we are living in. I thought of my father as I watched last year's under-appreciated film, The Company Men. It is a story of executives and their families coping with change as their corporation goes through a series of downsizes simply to raise the share price. Like my father's experience, the film illustrates a very common experience of change. Here's a clip of a meeting where decisions are being made as to who is to be let go.
This has become a very normal experience for people. Even with a nice severance package, the emotional trauma of being fired is something that doesn't quickly go away. What lies behind this approach to quantifying the value of a company is a way of thinking about organizations that I believe is ultimately destructive rather than a path to sustainability. The logical outcome from over a century of this way of thinking has been the narrowing of the value of a company to something short term and specifically related to its financial value.
Consider the executive's rationale for downsizing staff and eliminating a division of the company in this exchange between Tommy Lee Jones and Craig T. Nelson's characters from the movie. .
Nelson: "Stock is stalled and revenue is flat."
Jones: "Entire economy is flat. We are in the middle of a recession."
N: "I only closed two of the shipyards. Should have closed all three of them. Stock is in the toilet."
J: "Everybody's stock is in the toilet."
N: "Well, the stockholders would like to see their share value maximized."
J: "Heh, Heh, Heh, Well ... sell the Degas'. ... three thousand jobs?"
N: "Gene, we aren't some little shipyard any more. I'm not going to keep pouring money into a losing operation."
J: "We innovate, retool ..."
N: "American heavy manufacturing is dead. Steel, auto, shipbuilding ... the future is in healthcare infrastructure and power generation."
J: "I have to be involved in any decision that affects one of my divisions."
N: "You wouldn't have approved the cut. ... You'd go behind my back to the board again, right?"
J: "They were good people, Jim."
Both men are backed up against a wall. They are caught by a way of thinking about the value of companies that worked in times where growth was relatively assured. Now, the competition is tougher, more astute and far more flexible in their ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
Do you think they could have seen this coming? I'm not sure. It goes back to how to you determine the value of a company. I'm not talking about how Wall Street values it, but the people who are touched by the company in some manner. How do they value the company?
Can the value of a company be reduced to one thing, like the share price, or the charismatic leadership of the CEO or a design innovation? Or is the value embedded in the whole structure and context of the organization?
We are in a time of global transition in all aspects of life. Short-term, reductive, passive aggressive, reactive thinking is not going to lead us out of a recession into a new era of peace and prosperity. Instead, we need to realize that our approach is failing, and that we need a new way to think about how organizations function. It must start with the willingness to be different, to think differently, and invest in changes that provide for long term development.
The Context of Change
The ancient Greeks had a word for change which is metanoia. Literally, it means a change of mind, but it has come to mean something much larger and more comprehensive. Metanoia points to a change of orientation, perspective and direction. There is a sense in the meaning that the change of mind is accompanied by some regret. So the change, upon reflection, is a choice to follow a different path. People choosing to turn toward different values and new ways of expressing them. Metanoia is a change that embraces the whole person, the mind, feelings and will, and is expressed in action that is change.
This change of mind is an awareness that the path we have been on is no longer sustainable. As I wrote in my post, The End and The Beginning, this change marks an end of an era in several ways. The nature of this redirection means that the recent past is no longer an adequate guide for understanding what we must do in the future. As I began in that post,
What if our past experience instead of illuminating the future, obscures it? What if the way we have always approached a problem, or the conduct of a single day, or the organization of our work makes it more likely that we end up not accomplishing what we envision?
The continuity between the recent past and the near future has broken down. This is a turning point for us. The 20th century may provide our most immediate experiential memory, but for the purpose of understanding the future, it is now ancient history.
Reflect upon the attacks on 9/11, our response to them, and the global recession of past three years, and our response to it. Can you see how the tried-and-true methods of the last century have not worked. Neither peace nor prosperity are being restored, in fact, the world is less peaceful and prosperous than it was a decade ago. Terrorism maybe contained upon our shores, but it still festers in places of poverty throughout the world.
Fear, doubt and diminishment in the confidence in our leaders and institutions are increasing. Greater diversity, interconnectivity, and, yes, even greater business efficiencies, are not answering the question about what it is that we must do.
We are now at a crossroads that requires metanoia, a change that is comprehensive and whole. This change of mind requires us to begin to see businesses as a whole organizations, rather than as a collection of interchangeable, discardable, transferable, value-specific parts. The company in The Company Men was dying because it too, like my father's company, was just a collection of assets to be exploited. There is no future in this way of thinking. To have a future requires us to change our minds and see things differently.
To change our minds, we need to make Three Turns of perception, understanding and orientation.
The Moral Turn In the first clip from The Company Men, above, Tommy Lee Jones' character raises questions about the selection of people to be let go. His response, that there is an ethical question involved, is met with a legalistic answer.
By reducing the decision to a question of share price and what is required under the law, the company is not just making a business decision, but also a moral choice.
What is a company that no longer manufactures its products? Is it now a money machine for its share holders as long as the money holds out?
The moral turn is first and foremost about the purpose or mission of the company.
Does a company whose actual purpose is share price encourage confidence and trust?
Does a company whose primary focus is share price understand its connection to the people who work in the business and the communities where they are physically located?
Is a company more than its financials?
Does a company have a responsibility that goes beyond its shareholders, and what is defined by what is strictly legal?
Every organization exists in a context that is greater than the sum of the parts of the organization. There is a culture that is physical, ideological, technological and social.
For example, what distinguishes an insurance company in London to one based in Sao Paulo or Detroit is geography and culture. Yes, they each ofter insurance plans. Yes, they each have customers. Yes, they each generate revenue. The difference is the local context that helps to define the culture of the business.
As a result ...
a company is not primarily its mission or purpose, but its values that are embedded in ideas and relationships within the context, culture and structure of the organization.
Values permeate the whole of the business, including those persons and organizations outside of the business who are influenced by it. Values inform its purpose, its vision of impact, its relationships with all those who are touched by the company, and how the company measures its impact.
The mission of a company is a product of its values.
When the purpose of the company is more than its financial value to shareholders, it is no longer, just a reservoir of assets to be exploited, but a context in which to create the future.
Recently I heard a presenter during in an organizational development workshop describe organizations that are mission driven as organizations on the rise. He used a diagram similar to this one that I use to describe organizations in transition.
When a company reaches a point of maturity or stabilization or equilibrium, the importance of its mission as a guide often fades. What follows is an increasing focus on its financial assets as its primary purpose. The presenter was convinced that once an organization shifts from a mission focus to a financial focus, it has entered a stage of decline. In effect, they no longer see how a company can grow, but rather be sold.
The moral turn that a company needs to make is to reaffirm its values and reestablish its mission as the driving force of the company as a whole.
The Social Turn When the value of a company is reduced to its share price, the company loses the value that exists within its social structure. Not every member of the organization benefits from a rise in the share price. As a result, the company fragments into internally competitive parts to see who will survive the company's disintegration.
For example, as a Boston Red Sox fan for over 45 years, I was particularly disappointed in their collapse this year. It was not that old patterns of attitudes and behaviors that had hampered the team in the past had returned. Rather, it was the squandering of the talent and potential that existed on paper, at least, at the beginning of the season.
By all appearances, the social environment of the team is the core reason for their decline. At the beginning of the season, they were the odds on favorite to win the World Series. Great pitching, the acquisition of two all-star hitters, and a coaching staff that had produced two World Series championships held great promise for the upcoming season. Yet all that collapsed into a mess in what appears to be based in a collective selfishness and lack of accountability for the team's social environment and on field performance.
The Social Turn is the recovery of the human dimension in organizations. As human beings we are social beings through which our individuality develops. Much of the fragmentation of modern business organizations isolates individuals and business units into individualized roles that make collaborative team work more difficult. As a result, the connections that exist between people in the workplace are treated as having marginal value.
In The Company Men, when Ben Affleck is fired, the stated reason is that his position is redundant. In effect, the company was recouping a cost that it viewed was exceptional rather than necessary. The company also loses in this kind of fragmenting of the social structure of the business. Affleck's character was not just a person in a cubicle, but was a connection point in a network of relationships that provided information and influence beyond the company. The value may be redundant, but it is a redundancy that creates strength and resilience, not weakness.
Social fragmentation is not just found in businesses, but in global society at large. Its destructiveness finds its way into companies and organizations, weakening their ability to marshal the talent that exists. The Social Turn is one that values relationships of honor, respect, humility, trust and mutual reciprocity. These values function to create a social fabric that allows for diversity and interconnectivity that creates the sustainability that businesses and communities need.
The Structural Turn The industrial model of business was conceptualized around the idea that a business is filled with a few smart people and a lot of laborers. The world has changed, yet the structures of organizations have not. Still the structure is a hierarchy of decision-makers "leading" a larger number of decision-implementers.
This approach does not work as well as it once did. Here are just a few reasons.
1. Technology levels the information playing field.
2. Advances in public education, and the expansion of higher education has created a society of workers who are much better informed and equipped to do decision-making type work.
3. The complexity of working in a global environment of diverse cultures makes it more difficult for a few people to know everything they need to know about the issues that confront their business.
4. The skills required for leadership and management of business are much more accessible to far more people than every before.
5. Hierarchical structures are organized for control through compartmentalization and standardization.
The Structure Turn that is taking place elevates personal initiative, network collaboration, and adaptive learning as the keys to the organization and leadership of businesses.
Instead of a structure organized around compartmentalized roles and defined areas of responsibility, the emerging structure is an open environment where the skills and resources needed for the work of the business is acquired through a network relationship structure.
In this structure each person is responsible for the whole of the project, not just their segment. Each person can function in the role of leader, while not having a title as one.
In this networked structure, the premium skills are placed upon thinking skills that are both analytical and intuitive.
As I recently commented to Dana Leman of RandomKid,
"Imagine Proctor & Gamble without bosses and managers, and everyone is a leader."
Leadership ceases to be a title, and becomes a set of behaviors and attitudes that all share. For the character of this kind of leadership to take root, it requires changing the structure.
The Structural Turn is towards an organizational culture where people are free to create and contribute, to communicate, to initiate and to pitch in where they see a need. Instead of being doers of assigned responsibilities, they are facilitators and problem solvers. In many companies, this kind of structure is developing. However, it must happen at the senior level for the turn to be successful.
How would the company in The Company Men function differently if they operated under a network structure?
1. More people would be engaged in meaningful reflection about the challenges facing the company because they knew that had an actual stake in its success.
2. Innovation would be more prevalent as employees practiced a higher level of leadership initiative and problem solving.
3. New business applications through employee ingenuity would expand the number and range of revenue streams the company has.
4. The company would be unified behind its shared values and mission.
5. The company would be a more attractive place for the top talent to work.
6. The company could more easily adapt to financial downturns.
7. Communities would be vying for the opportunity for the company to create a local operation.
The central message of the Three Turns is for your mission to drive change in the company, centered around values that unite people to create a shared company culture of trust, personal initiative, and a desire to contribute to the company's success. When this happens, the turn from hierarchical structure to a network one can take place as a natural evolution of the company.
A generation ago the saying "The Future is Now!" celebrated the presentness of a hope in the future. It foresaw the acceleration of change that compresses our experience of time.
I used to see this frequently in planning projects. The five year plans we'd create, often would take only 18 to 24 months to complete. The sense of time that people had was off kilter. Much more could be done than they imagined. The limiting factor? Seeing beyond the present. Or, to put it another way, being able to identify a future that was truly tangible, beyond the aspirations of today, in which they could root their present actions.
Through these experiences, I often saw its contrasting attitude, not the inability to truly grasp the future, but rather resistance to it. I would hear,"What's wrong with the way we've always done things?"
The traditions and cultural forms, as I wrote about in Bringing the Past into Future, replaced the values that were their inspiration. Instead of a vision of the future, a nostalgia for the golden days of the past provided motivation of resistance to the future rather than engagement.
Whether it is a nostalgia for the past, or a shallow adherence to current organizational fads, the lack of a tangible vision of the future makes it difficult for people and their organizations to develop the adaptive skills needed in a environment of accelerating change.
Resistance to the Future
A resistance to the future is based in part on the lack of personal confidence to venture into the unknown of the future. It is easier to stay with what is comfortable and known of past ways of doing things. It is also in part how we approach the future, or how we bring our past experience to the task of envisioning the future. It is worth restating what I wrote in The End and the Beginning.
What if our past experience instead of illuminating the future, obscures it? What if the way we have always approached a problem, or the conduct of a single day, or the organization of our work makes it more likely that we end up not accomplishing what we envision?
If resistance to the future is part confidence, part approach, its also part, the lack of skills in managing change or in knowing how to adapt.
Adapting to the Future already in the Present
To adapt is to change on the fly. It isn't a linear process. It is an emergent process. Each adaptive moment moves into a new context of change. It isn't staying in one place and defending the palace against the barbarian hords of change. It is rather like being in conversation with different aspects of the future, very quickly and progressively.
For example, you walk into a room and within two minutes have a twenty second conversation with a 90 year German World War II veteran, a 10 year old girl from St. Louis in a soccer uniform, a thrity five year old couple from Miami with twin 6 year old boys, the 65 year old Japanese CEO of a global communications business, a 16 year old social entrepreneur from Sri Lanka and your great grandmother. Each encounter requires you to shift your attention from one person to the next. And if each relationship was intended to go somewhere, then within those twenty seconds, you'd have to quickly be engaged in who they were, find common ground and define a shared responsibility for the relationship in the future.
Sounds daunting. But that is what adapting means. The needed skills are a quiet personal confidence that enables you to be the same person with each of those listed in the example, and a tangible vision of the future that provides a conceptual context for the relationship.
This sort of adaptation goes hand in hand with innovation. It is a learned skill, not a personality trait.
These examples may suggest that these are for extraordinary people in unique places. Yes and No. In one sense this is true. They are extraordinary people, but only because the learned to become extraordinary. They developed the confidence and the capacity to adapt. In another sense, they are no different than you or I. They are just further down the path toward the future than most of us. This is one of the core values behind the children and youth social entrepreneur site, RandomKid: The Power of ANYone, (Disclaimer: I chair the board of RandomKid).
Creating a Vision of a Tangible Future
Ask this question of yourself and your organization.
Are you best days / years ahead of you or behind you?
How you answer that question will determine how you relate to the future.
A tangible future can be difficult to imagine because the past is actually not very tangible either. It is an amalgam of memories and impressions attached to random situations, people and objects that represent to us what we selectively remember our past to be. One person remembers a conversation one way, and another a different way.
Our remembrance of the past changes day to day. It is constantly shifting. We can remember a traumatic situation that leads us to view the future with bitterness and cynicism. Then, encounter someone who's perspective sheds light on our experience so that we see it differently. In the space of a few moments, our feelings that our best years are behind us shift to hope and optimism about the future. All of sudden a tangible future begins to form in our minds.
What has taken place within us? What is the source of this change? It isn't simply the influence of someone's different perspective.
What we've experience is the Future being brought into the Present. All of a sudden, with a flash insight, we see something in the future which is real. It is tangible. We feel we can reach out and grasp it. We want it. Our sense of purpose and self-confidence in a moment has changed. We are different. We have adapted to a new context, a context where the future is here now.
The Future Begins with an Idea
This question about the relation of time to our lives is one that I've reflected upon for a long time. The relation of the past to the future and of the future to the present exists in time. It also exists outside of time. What we remember about the past that we wish to be a part of our future are conceptions of the way we want our life and work to be.
At the most fundamental level, we are talking about ideas.
Several years ago, I conducted a project with a mid-size corporation to develop a values statement for the company. The planning team was a mixture of mid-level managers, Union leadership and a senior vice president. One of the refrains we heard from the group was, "We want to get back to a time when the company was more like a family." Over the years, things had changed. The company had gone through a scandal with some top executives. Perception by some was that the company's best years were in the past.
Here's a situation where a rememberance of the past influences people's expectations of the future. For this team, being a family meant something. The question was what does this mean. For not every employee has a positive experience of being a family. As we went through our process, four ideas came to the front that provided a way to understand the past in order to create the future that they desired.
Those ideas were Respect, Trust, Integrity and Pride.
It would have been easy to take those words and turn them into slogans for an internal marketing campaign. The result would not have been a tangible future of respect, trust, integrity and pride in practice, but continued cyncism about the role of leadership in the company.
But that is not what happened. The company instituted a program of culture building around these ideas.
The first step was to introduce the values to the whole company through small gatherings of employees where they would participate in a discussion of the values and their historic place in the company.
Next, leadership training was instituted for middle managers so that they could implement or "operationalize" the values within their work areas. The purpose was to make the values of respect, trust, integrity and pride live in the functioning of each department. In effect, the process was equipping new leaders to solve problems and resolve issues before that became to big.
Today, the company is recognized as one of the nation's most trustworthy companies.
I share this story to emphasis a point about what it means to bring the future into the present.
For many organizations the past is represented by traditions and cultural forms. A cultural form could be any practice that is regularly done in which the original rationale has been lost. The future for those companies consists, in many respects, as an attempt to preserve those traditions and cultural forms into the future.
The alternative is to recognize that behind every tradition or cultural practice is a value that matters or at one time used to matter to people and their organization.
Another key to understanding for how to bring the future into the present is to understand where our values fit in.
Let me be clear about this. I'm not talking about those values that are divisively used to distinguish one organization or association from another. Those values of the negative other have no place in creating a positive, tangible, sustainable future. They are representative of past traditions and cultural forms that have lost their meaning. I say this primarily in anticipation of the distastful unpleasantness that is about to descend upon our country called a Presdential election.
A tangible future is one where values matter in practice, not just in theory. So, if respect, trust, integrity and pride matter, then they matter in practice. If customers matter, then they matter in practice, not just in advertising copy. If innovation and impact matter, then the organization will adapt to make it possible for those values to make a difference in the future.
In order to understand how a value matters, ask this question.
If this value was functioning at its highest capacity, if it was reaching and sustaining its potential, then what would, 1) it look like if we were to shoot a video of its performance, and, 2) be the change we would see as a result?
Impact or difference is change. If something changes, it can be measured in some way. What is it that is changing when this value is a living practice in your organization? Can you identify at what level it is operating today? Can you see things to change so that it can grow a little bit more today, tomorrow, next week? If you can, then you are seeing a tangible future being brought into the present.
If you can answer this, then you can envision the future. If you can envision the future in a tangible way, then you can identify what must change to make it happen. This is how the future is brought into the present.
This is true not just about values, but especially of each of the Connecting Ideas - Mission or Purpose, Values, Vision and Impact. Make them tangible for today, then you can see how they will be in the future.
When you do, what happens is that old traditions and cultural forms that no longer are empowered by their original values can be discarded, and new ones formed.
This means that you have a reached a definitive transition point in your life and work. A clear point of change that either leads towards decline or advancement. When you do, it is important that you discard dead traditions and cultural forms in a way that becomes a tangible moment of remembrance in the future. As you do, the values that guide you forward will find new traditions and cultural forms to serve as their vehicle for their practice.
Remember, those traditions and culture forms are nothing more than tools for making our values tangible in our daily life and work. Develop new tools, hold true to your values.
Three Things We Want Now and in the Future
I've written before about my observation that people want three things in their life. They want it to be Personally Meaningful, Socially Fulfilling and Make a Difference that Matters. Ask yourself today the following questions.
1. Where do I find meaning in my life and work? What are the values that matter to me most in what I seek to do each day? What activities do I regularly do that support what is meaningful to me?
2. Who are the people that matter most to me? How am I fulfilled by being with them? What are the values that matter to us? How do we practice them together? What are the traditions and cultural forms that we use to celebrate the values we share with one another?
3. What do I do that I feel makes the greatest difference to people? Where do I see my actions creating change? If I was to continue to develop the confidence and skills to make this difference, what do I see myself doing in the future that is different from today? Am I at a transition point in my life and work as it relates to the impact that I am having?
What then is the tangible future that you can begin to create today?
The Future is Now. The future is an idea, a tangible idea that provides for us a point on the horizon to lead us forward. Our idea is a value or values that defines for us meaning, fulfillment and the difference we can make. When our idea becomes clear then we know what we must do. And a tangible future becomes a reality that we can reach.
You know what peripheral vision is. It is what you see out of the sides of your eyes. You see things that if you look straight at it, you wouldn't see it. You wouldn't because the details obscurce a larger vision.
The same idea can be applied to our hearing and our thinking.
Peripheral hearing is paying attention to what we hear, not listening for something specific. It is listening with wisdom and openness. It means laying aside our filters to hear what we miss by only looking for what we expect.
Peripheral thinking is what we miss when our thought process follows the same path every time. For many people, they might call this innovative thinking. For me, I see it as broadening or opening ourselves to areas of thought that are outside of our normal field of interest. My post, The Picture of the Future in a Box, is an example of learning about something that is totally outside my normal experience, and seeing in it connections to my understanding of the world that make sense.
Peripheral vision, hearing and thought expands our perception of the world. When we only focus on what we know, we lose that peripheral perspective. It is easy then to think that the past is a good indicator of the future.
What if our past experience instead of illuminating the future, obscures it? What if the way we have always approached a problem, or the conduct of a single day, or the organization of our work makes it more likely that we end up not accomplishing what we envision?
Let me over simplify what it means to bring the past into the future. I do so, not because it is simple, only to make a point.
Two Ways the Past Enters the Future
What I observe in people is that the past provides an experience of validation, or affirmation, or a sense of stability and continuity. It seems comfortable and secure because it has already been experienced.
This attitude and behavior is often viewed as traditionalism. Meaning, the traditions of the past are the basis of how we interpret what the future should be.
We can hear this in the criticism by some people I know of social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter which seem to trivialize human relationships. I am sure that many relationships formed through social media means are superficial. But, so are many that are in our normal day-to-day interactions. The technology isn't trivial or superficial. People are.
There is also a tendency in this type of traditionalism toward homogenity, where like joins with like, and a community is formed around common ideas and experiences to the exclusion of those which are different. This is how a community can become narrow, closed and parochial.
When the past is all we know, and we expect tomorrow to be like yesterday, then we begin to look only for those ideas and experiences which validate our perception of the past. Those that don't are resisted, or worse attacked as a threat to what is true or right. This closed mindedness is part of the source of the divisiveness that we see in society today.
Traditionalism works within the limited parameters of a closed system or community. It may work until change threatens to disrupt its equilibrium. This traditionalism is not limited by philosophic outlook. It is a product of human attitude and behavior. It happens when a group or community become protective of their tradtions rather than adaptive with them.
This is the second way that the past can be brought into the future. We do so through might be called living traditions, which are experienced through open awareness and adaptation.
The past has value for the future, but only in context.
For example, many of the towns around where I live were developed around a manufacturing business. Over the years, more and more of these plants have closed as textile and furniture manufacturing moved overseas. These towns diminished in size and economic vitality as a result. The traditions of these towns made it hard for many to realize that there are opportunities that may exist if they were to open themselves to a new way of understanding the assets of their local community. To do so meant that they would have to change.
Two decades ago, while serving in a small college in Appalachia, a summer on-campus enrichment program was started that was designed for eighth grade children from the coal fields. It had a great response because parents of these children understood that the well-paying jobs in the mines would not be there for their children in the future. They understood, were aware, that their children needed a better education than what they received if they were going to make it in the world.
What their children learned at home was the value of family and hard work. And they brought that into their experience at the college.
This is also true for many of those who served in the Armed Forces in World War II, who returned home and took advantage of the G.I. Bill to earn a college degree in order to provide a more financially stable lifestyle for their families.
What they brought into the future from the past were values that gave them the ability to shift and change and adapt to changing circumstances. Values of openness, inquiry, situational awareness and a willingness to try new things.
The future just doesn't happen. It is the product of decisions that are in reaction and in response to changes in society.
Traditionism holds to a form of the past that is embedded in institutions and social forms that are not allowed to change. They are symbolic of the past, but often have lost the vitality that the values underlying those traditions once had.
This was true of the textile mill for whom I once did a project. The company had not changed how it was organized and functioned in 60 years. There was a form of tradition that was predictable and comfortable, and was not suited to the marketplace. Finally, a member of the family brought some awarness to the rest of the family, and change began to happen. Unfortunately, it was too little too late. The company closed and opportunity with it.
Traditional values can seek ways to adapt to changing circumstances. Living values bring a vitality to any situation. They are ones that provide strength and direction for how to manage change. These values are what unite people together to make the hard decisions, and take committed action. It isn't just passion or commitment that matters. It isn't just tradition. It is the importance of values whose clarity is realized in an open awareness that enables leaders, their organizations and communities to adapt to the constant changing circumstances of their life and work situation.
The past that is brought into the future is not a relic of a by-gone era, but the motivation and heart that inspired others in the past to create the traditions that today still matter. If your organization is floundering, drifting, or has no clear sense of its future. Begin by reflecting on the values of the past, and ask how can we live this values out today in the work that we do.
See the past as a set of living traditions, is to see with your peripheral vision of the mind that enables us to project the best of the past into the future.
In my previous post, Tradition and Change, I reflected on the change in society evident in the Luchino Visconti's film, The Leopard. The picture illustrates the change that took place when traditional European aristocratic society shifted to a modern middle class democratic one. Our experience in America is different because we were not an aristocratic society but a nation of immigrants who came here as a part of the change we see in the movie, only a century before.
Over the past the century, a similar conflict between tradition and change has been occurring here, as it has in Europe.
Traditions are values that are shared by people and whose practices form a society.
Several years ago, when working on a values project for a company, the members of the committee that I worked with kept saying that their goal was to get back to a time twenty years in the past when the company was more like a family.
What did they mean when they said they wanted their company to be more like a family?
A family is a society with its own traditions. A company can have traditions or not. It depends on its leadership. In this case, the previous leadership had placed their own enrichment over that of the company. As a result, a wedge was driven between the senior executives and the rest of the company. This group of employees wanted a return to a more traditional social environment in the company.
During the past century or so, a mythology of the individual has grown up that places the welfare of the individual above that of society. When this happens, traditions are shredded as constraints upon the individual.
In psychological terms, we could say that when the individual places his or her wants above that of society, that we have something a kin to the adolescent child who is seeking independence from the constraints of the family.
In other words, traditional society that binds one person to another or one group to another is viewed as a liability, not an asset to the forward progress of society.
The elevation of the individual above society, not the elevation of the individual's development as a member of society has created the crisis, conflict and divisiveness in the public arena that we find in the world today.
However, if you look away from those who promote the dichotomization of society into me or us versus them relationship, you'll see the lingering remnant of a traditional society as played out in individuals who willing place the betterment of society ahead of themselves.
This is what I see in young people who upon graduation from college, or even high school, go to places of need to teach and to work for the development of people and their local societies. It is what I saw in the people who moved to the gulf coast of Mississippi to help bring hope and recovery following Hurricane Katrina.
This same attitude of sacrifice is what makes a traditional society work. A traditional society that is focused on the greater good.
Reflect with me on the nature of kindness. Look at this quote from Aristotle on kindness
Kindness -- under the influence of which a man is said to "be kind" -- may be defined as helpfulness towards some one in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped. Kindness is great if shown to one who is in great need, or who needs what is important and hard to get, or who needs it at an important and difficult crisis; or if the helper is the only, the first, or the chief person to give the help. Natural cravings constitute such needs; and in particular cravings, accompanied by pain, for what is not being attained.
This expression of kindness is at the heart of how a society can sustain itself. Notice that the kindness shown is self-giving. It contributes to those in need, rather than as something beneficial to the giver.
Traditional societies are built upon individuals giving to one another. They require the individual to give up part of their prerogatives as an individual to gain what they cannot have alone.
The criticism of traditional societies is that they are not progressive or modern. If however, to be a progressive or modern society is to pit one person against another, one group against another, then that is not progressive, but regressive and barbaric.
Traditions are values that join people together in a common purpose. As leaders, we must look to how we can create traditions that provide people an environment to grow, and a platform to lead, as members of a society of leaders.
At the heart of these traditions is the recognition that kindness is a way to understand how we are to function in society together. The response to kindness by another is gratitude, to say thanks, and return that kindness is some manner.
The challenge before us is, not our understanding or valuing these ideas of traditional society, but rather the acceptance and willingness to give, contribute, and even make personal sacrifices to make a society work.
Personal sacrifices cannot be coerced or prescribed, but freely made out of the kindness of one's own personal commitments. This is an individualism of personal responsibility and maturity that is the remnant of tradition that is holding modern societies together.
For five centuries, the value of the individual has grown to have prominence over a perception of society that is now anachronistic. Those ancient and medieval societies were not traditional societies of one person or one group, joining with others to create a society of opportunity. They were societies built around the power of a governing elite, not unlike what we have today.
The American experiment in freedom, for the individual's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, is not about the individual alone, but of a society of individuals who join together to create the conditions for their fulfillment.
Today, connection, collaboration and service are values that are uniting people together to create organizations and communities that are traditional in nature. In these places, openness and accountability are practices that build strength and sustainability.
For a very long time, the image of the individual standing alone in the crowd, isolated and alienated from the conditions that can bring genuine happiness has been present in my mind. Even as human connections expand through the use of social technologies, the individual remains alone until a relationship of mutual commitment and accountability is formed.
A traditional society is built upon values that unite people around a common purpose and a vision for the difference that they can make together.
The perception that a traditional society stands against change and progress is a false one. It is only by creating a society of shared traditions that social change can be progressive and beneficial to the whole. This is how all social change becomes sustainable. Without the values that are embedded with tradition, we are subject to the whims and emotions of the moment, to those whose eloquent persuasiveness present a false, but attractive perspective, and, to appeals for change that are essentially divisive and self-serving.
The Leopard's Prince, Don Fabrizo Selina, understood that change in concert with tradition is how the future is embraced with the least disruption to social. This truth we have lost. As a result, the change that our society will go through in the future will be more disruptive and painful than it needs to be. It is a choice that in large has been made by our contemporary "aristocratic" leaders. What they fail to realize, or do not care to acknowledge, is that their abandonment, not of the past, but of tradition, sets the stage for their own irrelevance.
The resistance to change has always come from a desire to hold onto traditions that have value. Yet, in a time of dramatic, disruptive change, holding on to traditions while adapting to changing circumstances provides a way to build continuity over time. The question is how to change without losing the traditions and the historical continuity that is the seedbed of sustainability. That is a question we must all be asking.
I was thinking of this as I watched, again, LuchinoVisconti'sIlGattopardo, in English The Leopard. This film is set in the context of the social and political change taking place in Italy at the time of its unification under Victor Emanuel. It is the story of a Sicilian prince, Don Fabrizio Salina, who sees the days of the artistocracy coming to an end, and understands that an accomodation with the rising democractic middle class is necessary in order to preserve his family and place in society.
What I love about this film is the richness of its depiction of social change that comes with the passage of time. In Italy, as in many places in Europe during the 19th century, aristocratic rule was being eclipsed by the modern world. Every character is a picture of the time.
The following transcription of one scene offers the personal view of the Prince of this change. The scene is his conversation with Caviliere Chevalley, an emissary from the Italian government in Turin, sent to invite him to become a Senator in the new democractic legislature.
The Prince: I am a member of the old ruling class hopelessly linked to the past regime and tied to it by chains of decency, if not affection. I belong to an unfortunate generation straddling two worlds and ill at ease in both. And what is more, I am utterly without illusions.
What would the Senate do with an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for those who guide others? No, I cannot lift a finger in politics. It would get bitten off.
Chevalley: Would you seriously refuse to do all you can to alleviate the state of physical squalor and blind moral misery in which your own people lie?
The Prince: We are old, Chevalley. Very old. For more that 25 centuries, we have bornethe weight of superb civilizations that have come from outside, never of our own creation, none we could call our own. For 2,500 years, we've been nothing but a colony. I'm not complaining. It's our fault. But we are worn out and exhausted.
Chevalley: But all that's over now. Sicily is no longer a conquered land, but a free member of a free state.
The Prince: Your intention is good, but it comes too late.
Sleep, my dear Chevalley, a long sleep - that is what Sicilians want. They will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even to bring them the most wonderful gifts. And between ourselves, I doubt whether the new kingdom will have many gifts for us in its luggage. Here, all expression, even the most violent, is a desire for oblivion. Our sensuality is a longing for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings are a longing for death. Our laziness, the penetrating sweetness of our sherbets, a longing for voluptuous immobility, that is ... death once again.
Chevalley: Prince, are you exaggerating? I myself have met Sicilians in Turin who seemed anything but asleep.
The Prince: I haven't explained myself well. I'm sorry. I said Sicilians. I should have said Sicily. This atmosphere, the violence of the landscape, the cruelty of the climate, the constant tension in everything -
Chevalley: Climate can be overcome, landscape improved, the memory of evil governments canceled. Surely the Sicilians want to improved.
The Prince: I don't deny that a few, once off the island, may wake up, but they must leave very young. By 20, it's too late. The crust has already formed. What you need, Chevalley, is a man who is good at blending his personal interests with vague public ideals.
May I offer some advice for your superiors?
Chevalley: With pleasure.
The Prince: There is a name I'd like to suggest for the Senate.That of ... Calogeno Sedara. He has far more qualities than I that merit election. His family, I am told is an old one, or soon will be. He has more power than what you call prestige. He has power. In lieu of scientific merits, he has practical ones, and quite outstanding too. His work was most useful during the May crisis. As for illusions, I don't think he has any more than I, but he's clever enough to create them when needed. He's the man for you.
Chevalley: Yes, I have heard talk of Sedara. But if honest men like you withdraw, the way will be open for those with no scruples and no vision, for Sedara and his like, and everything will be as before for centuries to come. Listen to your conscience and not to proud truths you've spoken. I beg you, try to collaborate.
The Prince: You are a gentleman, Chevalley. I consider it a privilege to have met you. You are right about everything ... except when you say, 'Surely the Sicilians want to improve.' They never want to improve. They think themselves perfect. Their vanity is greater than their misery.
Sit down. Let me tell you an anecdote.
Shortly before Garibaldi entered Palermo, some British officers from the warship in the harbor asked if they could go up onto the terrace of my house, from where one can see the hills around the city. They were ecstatic about the view, but they confessed they were shocked at the squalor and filth of the street. I didn't explain as I have tried with you, that the one derived from the other. One of the officers asked, 'What are those Garibaldini really coming to do in Sicily?' I replied, 'They are coming to teach us good manners, but they won't succeed, because we are gods.' They laughed, but I don't think they understood.
It's late. Almost time for dinner. We must go change.
Packed into this 15 minute scene are ideas and images of change that were relevant to the aristocracy and rising middle class elite of 19th century Italy. These ideas and images are equally relevant to us today.
Traditions are not the same as "the old ways."
Traditions are values that serve to defined the values and boundaries of a culture or society. They can be stories, myths, that illustrate why we believe in one idea or value or another.
The past two centuries has been an attack on the notion that tradition has value and relevance in the modern world. In Chevalley, you hear the modern world, as this man expresses his confidence that the world's squalor and filth can be cleaned up. This is the perspective of the 19th century Progressive who saw the world as inherently changeable by their own hands.
If Don Fabrizio's Sicilians thought of themselves as gods unreachable and without need for Progressive contributions, the Progressives of that century equally failed to see what they could not see, that in their beneficent arrogance, the 20th century would become an era of World Wars and leadership without scruples and no vision.
We are at another turning point in human history. Just as revolution swept through England to America, through France, Germany, Italy and then Russia, bringing with it radical, disruptive change, so too we are at another turning point. The historic trend of change that brought about the decline of the old aristocracy, replaced by the leadership of the bourgeoisie, now threatens a new aristotcracy, one born in the revolutions of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.
The old ways of the past hundred years are worn and exhausted. What is it that will replace it? Will it come by revolution or evolution?
As I look forward, the themes that emerge are ones related to values and tradition.
Every where I turn I find people interested, concerned, engaged in conversation about trust. It is something we all desire.
In trust, I see a type of innocence that has been missing from our world for a long time.
It was this sort of innocent belief in a person that catapulted Barack Obama into the Presidency. And yet, now, it appears that for many people that innocent trust is gone replaced by disappointment and doubt.
Remember what Don Fabrizio said about himself?
"I am a member of the old ruling class hopelessly linked to the past regime and tied to it by chains of decency, if not affection. I belong to an unfortunate generation straddling two worlds and ill at ease in both. And what is more, I am utterly without illusions."
Can we not say for ourselves that we are a people raised in an era tied to the dreams and failures of the ruling class of the modern era, the era of Chevalley, and are tied to it by habit and comfort in those old ways?
Can we not also say that we are people who straddle two worlds, and are ill at ease in both? For the one is dying, and the other emerging, and comfort and security are lacking in both.
Can we not also say that we are people with illusions, and that this is a dilemma of our own creation?
What then to we do?
Begin by riding ourselves of our illusions, and thinking clearly about the time we are in. This means that we each are to take responsibility for ourselves, our families and our communities.
We, with great intention and discipline, become people who are trustworthy. We can't ask others to be trustworthy if we are not.
Restore traditions in your homes, businesses and communities. If you were to take the Five Actions of Gratitude, and treat them as traditions, you will find strength to deal with change. Consider for a moment adopting for yourself personally the following traditions of gratitude.
Say Thanks by writing notes to people who have done something worth your gratitude.
Give Bank in service as an organization to those in need in your community.
Make Welcome with a program of hospitality to those who are new comers to your community.
Honor Others by recognizing their gifts of service and hospitality.
Create Goodness by being a person who is trustworthy in all your dealings with people.
To creatively practice these actions of gratitude is allow traditions to be born that build trust and the ability to find continuity from one era to the next.
As I watched The Leopardagain, I could not help but think that it should be watched along with Francis Ford Coppola'sTheGodfather series. Together they are a picture of the historical continuity that our modern world has experienced. In ten years, what film will we refer to as representative of this time? I don't know.
Without illusion, let us approach the future by creating trust and traditions that provide people an environment of support for adapting to the changes that are with us.