How Successful Leaders Do Business With Their World: The Balance of Power Series

I have been a corporate leader for many years. Later in life, I decided to undertake a doctorate on the subject of power and leadership. This led to me putting my years of research into writing my book: How Successful Leaders do Business With Their World.

So, what exactly does this phrase mean, how successful leaders do business with their world? In the third episode of my podcast series the Balance of Power you can listen to an extract from the introduction of my book. It explains how I came to write my book and study this subject. Here, I’ll share some of the topics the book covers, and how you can use this book. Not only to become a more effective leader but do a better job developing future leaders.

Challenging the key assumptions of what makes a good leader

The key question I was chewing on was around assumptions. Was it assumptions about the world that made certain leaders behave in a certain way or make certain choices? Or was it really what so many coaches and recruiters seem to be focusing on. Leadership style, leadership behaviours, and outcomes. What we see those leaders doing, rather than what drives them to do, or even what they intend to do. 

How I chose which leaders to interview for How Successful Leaders do Business With Their World

If you want to try and find out somebody’s assumptions, you need that person to be able to reveal something of themselves. Their view of the world, honestly and safely. If you want to find out about somebody’s leadership, style and behaviour… It simply needs you to observe and assess their conduct and their impact. It tells you nothing about the experience, the motivations, the priorities of the leader herself. 

As I went on to develop my coaching practice, I suspected that this was a huge gap. Why? Because as I say in the book, by understanding what our current and future leaders at their core feel about their world, and about their ability to do or not do in the world, we begin to understand how they feel about us, and what they will do to us with their power once they have taken office. And it’s not just a one-way street. 

Finding out what makes a successful leader by not talking about success 

To give one’s life some form of coherence, I wanted to make sure that those I interviewed didn’t feel that they had to defend, justify, or even make sense of anything publicly. And less by design than by sheer good fortune, I helped that process by not asking them to tell me about what had made them successful. I simply wanted to know about their experiences, and what they went through while they were leaders. That was my intention.

In their telling, however, they steered me one by one, and much to my surprise, to their childhoods. And that, in turn, opened up the doors to what I called their navigational stance. Their entry point into dealing with their world, based on what they’d learned to assume was their level of power, vis-à-vis that of their world.

And from there, I could build a model, a theory, about what objectively successful leaders had in common as far as their navigational stance was concerned, and what other assumptions, or worldviews, they had formed as a result. The book expands on that initial research. Both with further investigation, but also with how I use that model in my own practice. 

The face of future successful leaders, and how we can develop, or hinder, them 

There are three elements that as parents and educators we can influence. The first is space, we can provide a space which is relatively safe from abuse from those with greater power. The second: dealing with problems. We can stop protecting our children from problems and make sure that they see them as normal world-things rather than crises. And the third is learning by experience. We can give our children space both to understand and experience that problems, like life itself, can only be managed by being faced and tackled. 

We need to enable our children to learn to experience managing their world. A world where obstacles and problems are normal and not specifically designed to frustrate their uniquely unencumbered path to success. All we can do as parents is ensure, like lionesses, our offspring have the space to explore without invasion by hyenas… And if at all possible, without falling off a cliff. 

Those of us born in the 1950s, particularly in the middle classes, are responsible for a space distorting shift. Baby Boomers had to fit in around the rest of the family but when it came to raising their own children, they put them right in the centre. The family revolved and still revolves around the children. 

They have little room to develop their own relationship with the world in which they can manage problems without the smothering benevolence of their parents. We may not rule quite as openly as our parents did, but that’s only because we have robbed our children of the ability to be responsible for themselves. We may say to our children, my darling, you’re special, you can be whatever you want, as long as you’re happy. But make no mistake, they feel our disappointment when their chosen career or even ballet class is not special enough. 

And if they persist and choose their own path… They will always worry that they did not measure up to our standards of specialness. When problems do arise, they are seen as abnormal, or even crises, which by their nature trigger alarm and anxiety. Alarm, in turn, suppresses rational thought in favour of the faster fight or flight response. They may become very good at fighting or avoiding their world. But, not so good at living in, and with, it. 

How fight or flight can lead to success 

Ironically, a byproduct of this fight or flight may be very good news for our society. The generation of children born after 2000 has quickly become alert and alarmed at real crises. And, they have become sceptical enough of their own elder’s filters to push back.

A glowing example of this is the global climate change movement “Friday’s for Future”. It began with solitary protests in 2018 by the then 14-year-old Greta Thunberg in Sweden. This movement now includes millions of children throughout the world. At the time of writing, they strike every Friday from their schools to force their elder’s attention onto climate change. They do this consistently and peacefully every week. In the face of open bullying and abuse from political, and corporate leaders, and many media commentators. 

If this book does its job, it should say something to all of us, whether at work or in our families. But because I believe that our leaders have such a significant impact on us, particularly in times of crisis, much of the book is focused on helping us change what I believe is a flawed, if not a broken, model, about how we choose our leaders, how we develop them, and how we manage them while they are in power.

Let’s Talk About Power: Episode One

Battles, Balance and the Fasted Kid in Florida: Episode Two

Readings from ‘How Successful Leaders to Business with their world?”: Episode Three

Are you interested in learning more about power or are perhaps interested in leadership training? You can contact me, or learn more about my consulting services & speaking engagements.

Military Leadership In The Corporate World: The Balance of Power Series

One of my findings whilst conducting research for my book, How Successful Leaders do Business With Their World, was that we all have a foundational assumption about the balance of power we have with our world.

In the second episode of my podcast series, the balance of power I met with lieutenant-general Ben Hodges. We discussed how his childhood lessons impacted his leadership methods in the military.

Going into this interview, I had many preconceived notions of military leadership. I had thought of the military as being largely hierarchical and unquestioning of its leadership. I couldn’t imagine junior officers seriously challenging their superior’s conclusions. And when you come to think of it, isn’t the military’s sole purpose conflict, opposition? Aren’t they, in fact, the epitome of the oppositional stance? 

Someone who I thought was ideal to answer that question was lieutenant-general Ben Hodges. Ben retired from the US Army in 2017. He is currently the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Centre for European policy analysis. Before that, he was commanding general of the US Army in Europe, a top adviser to NATO, and worked, and served, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Here I’ll share a few of the topics Ben and I covered. You can listen to the full podcast “Battles, Balance and the Fasted Kid in Florida” for more details on how to be an effective leader. 

What makes a good leader in the military?

Ben:  “So my experience is that the expectation was for me to use initiative to take risks, to accept responsibility. The times I got in trouble were usually when I failed to do that, not when I failed to follow a specific order… So that’s always been the expectation. That does, in a way, seem at odds with the stereotypical you know, Prussian “we all follow orders, unquestioning obedience”, that sort of thing but actually, that’s the opposite of the training.

My favourite, Clausewitz quote is “happy the army where ill-timed boldness occurs frequently; it is a luxuriant weed that indicates the richness of the soil.” So even Clausewitz, the ultimate Prussian, advocated, you know, young leaders who were willing to take a risk, and you just had to help that mature”

How the military’s role within a nation can remind us of the importance of purpose and responsibility to be effective leaders 

Ben gives a more in-depth explanation in the full podcast, but here Ben shares what he saw as the role of the military within a nation. 

Ben: “The Trinity, of course, you know, the state, the people, and the military. It’s had a role for thousands of years to protect, of course, it can be misused as a weapon. And so, as a member of the United States Armed Forces, in our history, our founding, if you will, the army is actually one year older than the country. The army was officially started one year before the Declaration of Independence, and without an army, the Declaration of Independence would have been an empty political statement.”

The action of declaring an oath to the constitution is actually something we can carry into the corporate world. As leaders, we have responsibilities and duties. When we feel out-of-balance with the world, as I discussed in Episode One: The Balance of Power, we can feel at odds with the world, and those around us. We feel in direct conflict and unable to work with, or for, them. Keeping a focus on your true goal, whether to uphold the constitution or support your employees, helps you step out of the every day to focus on the larger picture.”

The importance of scenario planning in military leadership 

The military is well-known for its tactical planning and wargaming. I asked Ben to discuss it in more detail and how it helped him become a better leader.

Ben: “We were constantly Wargaming courses of action. As technology improved, for example, we were preparing for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I was a Brigade Commander and by this time, we had a visual methodology that you could actually see the terrain. Now, this is 2003, obviously, it’s a million times better now. 

There’s a lot of potential for things to go wrong. The Wargaming, going through the planning process, was necessary to number one, figure out the timing, the logistics, what would be required? And then to figure out, you know, what do we want to do to have the best chance for success? 

At the end of the day, it was gonna be a lieutenant with a group of sergeants and soldiers that were going to be the key on the point so it had to be something, they couldn’t be long you know, obviously, they would rehearse multiple times but at the end of the day, it needs to be something that they understood when they get there and if the situation looks different from what we thought they still knew what the end state was.” 

The opportunity to train leadership from an early stage 

While I discuss the importance of a partnering start in my book; it is true that not all of us had what can be described as a partnering start. I am a firm believer though that we can learn these skills later in life. Ben explains the military’s focus on leadership development.

Ben: “The training that we did all the leader development was based on that. My goal was always that lieutenant sergeants and captains would say “if Colonel Hodges was here, and he knew what I knew, and he saw what I saw, he would probably tell me to do X, so I’m going to do that.””

How to nurture a future leader by removing yourself from the center of attention

I asked Ben the practical ways in which the military helped to develop leadership skills in younger recruits. 

Ben: “In modern warfare, you have to be able to conduct distributed operations. You’ve got young leaders all over the place. They’re out interacting whether it’s with the local populations, their own soldiers, Allied, or in partner formations… And, of course, the enemy. And so they’ve got to be confident. Able to act independently. Which means you’ve got to communicate to them in such a way that they feel confident. So that they can make decisions and take risks in order to carry out their assigned purpose. 

The Importance of Investing time

Now, of course, they don’t come in a box like that. You have to invest time in that. And so one of the things that I think the leader has to be conscious of and prevent is the gravitational pull of his or herself.

The norm in a headquarters, when you issue the order, the staff would always set up the briefing room where you, the commander, are sitting right in the middle, and you’d become the focus. 

And I remember looking at that, like, wait a minute, I’m the one issuing the order. This is my order to my subordinates. Why is the room, or if when we do it outside on a training model, why is it set up so that I’m the centre of attention?”

So by a simple technique of putting everybody, my subordinate commanders, in the front row, and I would sit off at the end, would number one, it would cause the staff to brief them because they’re the ones that have got to execute it. And then also I can kind of look down the row and watch their faces, and I can see… Mark, he doesn’t get it, or she doesn’t see what it is that’s expected, or okay, they got it. And it was a completely different dynamic and made us, I think, much more effective and, and also these guys, I mean, they were all now on it. I mean, I’ve just been told what I’ve got to do. I’m the centre, I’m the centre of attention and I own it. And those are simple techniques.”

Listen to the full podcast to learn more about Ben and military leadership. We discuss how Ben’s childhood readied him for military life. The importance of freedom at a young age. Plus, a more in-depth look at the purpose of the military within the US. 

Are you interested in learning more about power or are perhaps interested in leadership training? You can contact me, or learn more about my consulting services & speaking engagements.

Listen to all of the Balance of Power Series:

Let’s Talk About Power: Episode One

Battles, Balance and the Fasted Kid in Florida: Episode Two

Episode Three: Readings from ‘How Successful Leaders to Business with their world?”: Episode Three

What Makes A Good Leader: The Balance of Power Series

Many of us can explain what makes a bad leader. But if asked to explain what makes great leaders, it seems much harder to defne. The qualities of a good leader seem somewhat more intangible, perhaps because they are less about individual qualities and more about a relationship with the world around them. 

My late in life doctorate was in how successful leaders manage power which informed much of my book  ’How Successful Leaders Do Business With Their World’. 

My new podcast series, The Power of Balance, discusses exactly this topic. It is a series about power, and why it, and more importantly, what we have learned to believe about our relationship with it, affects every aspect of our daily lives. I’ve spent most of my working life with power and leadership. I’m a coach-mentor of leaders, and I used to be a corporate leader at one stage.

Here you’ll find extracts from Episode One: Let’s Talk About Power.

What is power in regard to becoming an efficient leader?

We deal with and talk about power every day. Most of the time, it’s about power over, whether somebody or something has less or more power than we have. Whether the government has the power to arbitrarily lock us down, whether the boss has the power to force us to do something we don’t want to do.

But also those everyday incidents, like how you feel when an overly boisterous bunch of kids gets on your carriage on the train, or when a driver changes lane in front of you, without indicating. They’re all about power too.

And until we understand that, and until we understand our own assumptions about our own power, we’ll be half-blind in our relationships. 

How does power affect how we view the world as leaders

Our ability to act, to do in the world, is regulated by what we have learned to assume is the nature of our relationship with our world. It’s a bit like ballroom dancers on a dance floor. Your ability to move is going to be affected by the number of other dancers on that floor.

If everyone is doing their bit and gliding around, then everything should go smoothly, and nobody bumps into anybody else. However, if you see one couple start to knock into other dancers, you might start getting a little alert and avoid them. But gradually, you notice that a lot of couples, the majority, in fact, are jostling and forcing the rest of you into a corner of the room.

You could assume that what’s happened is that a majority of dancers have decided to push the others into a corner of the room, deliberately, so that they have a bigger space or force the minority to dance badly for the judge’s sake. Or you could assume that the disruption happened when that original duo deliberately or accidentally bumped into another couple setting off a chain reaction that resulted in everybody being off-kilter.

In the first assumption, you’re fighting against a superior power, the majority. And the latter, you and your fellow dancers are in it together, you’re all out of balance. In the former, your choices are: you either have to get out of the room, or you push back, or you surrender.

Are leaders born or made? 

I conducted an academic research study over four years, and then expanded it in my practice, as well as in my book How Successful Leaders do Business With Their World. 

Very briefly, through their explorations and interactions with their parents, their families, peers, and communities children progressively build up a blanket assumption about how much space they can make for themselves. What they can and can’t do, in and with their world. In other words, they build up an assumption about the balance of power between themselves and their world.

Put very simplistically, they come to the conclusion along the spectrum that ranges from “whatever I do, my world always has the upper hand”, “I have less power than it has”, “I have no power all”, or right at the other end, “I can do what I want, I have more power than my world, I am all-powerful.”

Or “I can work with this world of mine, I can do business with it. And if I partner with it, we’re reasonably balanced.” There’s your spectrum.

And of course, they learn to behave differently according to that underlying assumption.

What are the qualities of a good leade

If your assumption tells you that you will always lose against the world, then you’re either going to try and beat it or surrender, or even avoid it altogether. If you believe that you can do anything you like, you will eventually discover that to be untrue. The world will inevitably in the form of someone or something get in your way.

But of course, your assumption will still insist that you really do have more power and that the blockage is an anomaly.

So, where your assumption is that you and the world have a reasonable power balance, you’ll know that the best way to behave is to partner with it, work with it, these are true leadership skills. Anything else would be a waste of time and energy. Why would I oppose it or manipulate it when I can just work with it? And, in fact, the combination may be even more powerful.

Can our perception of the world make us better leaders?

Einstein is reputed to have said later in his life, I think the most important question facing humanity is, “is the universe a friendly place?” This, he said, is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.

Why did he think that?

I believe because if the universe is your opponent, you will build up defenses and weapons to control it or keep it at bay, and eventually, you will destroy it and it you. And if you think it’s friendly, your partner, you will work to preserve it, so that you can flourish together.

So in this series, I’ll be talking about how our assumptions of the balance of power between us and our world affects all our relationships. My purpose is not to uncover old bones but to hopefully help us all to find ways to better manage ourselves in our world. At work, in the family at the polling booth, in hospital, at the supermarket, or when we ourselves have power because here’s the good news, those assumptions are learned and what is learned can be unlearned.

I’ll be drawing on much of my own research, as well as the book that I’ve written on the subject but I will also be talking to others. Leaders, writers, victims, and victimizers and I will ask all of them the same opening question

“For you, is your universe friendly?”

Listen to the full podcast: The Balance of Power

Episode Two: Battles, Balance and the Fasted Kid in Florida

Episode Three: Readings from ‘How Successful Leaders to Business with their world?”

Are you interested in learning more about power or are perhaps interested in leadership training? You can contact me, or learn more about my consulting services & speaking engagements.

Remembering a Dismembering World

 

Politicians and commentators, particularly those in the center, persist in making the mistake that what is happening in the US, Britain and now spreading across Europe and parts of Asia is a matter of political debate, of differences of opinion.

It is not.

The dominance of Trumpism and Brexiters in the US and Britain respectively, the two thirds majority of the ultra-nationalist Fidesz party in Hungary and the election of right wing populist governments in Austria, Italy and Poland do not represent a difference of opinion but of values, of morals, of a world view. They cannot be reconciled by debate in the parliamentary chambers or media.

Views will not be changed by facts, precisely because they are not opinions but values.

It is not a matter of opinion whether the lives of so-called white Americans and, let’s face it, Britons and Europeans, are worth more than those of their compatriots. It is not a matter of fact that creates the divide between those who see Britain as part of a European community and those who see it as a power on its own. It is not a matter of debate whether some see refugees as human beings in desperate need and others as a destruction of “our culture”. Reasoned argument will not change the minds of those people who believe women are not only second class citizens but actually are to blame for the assaults on mind, body and spirit that are inflicted on them.

Neither argument, nor appeals to compassion will bridge those chasms. And it seems the right wing has understood that very clearly. Facts do not matter because facts do not change relationships – and particularly one very special relationship: that which we hold with the world.

What we are seeing are fundamental differences in how we view the world and our place in it.

Essentially, these are differences in how we relate to the world. Is the world a partner we help nurture or is it a rival to be tamed? Can I reasonably manage what it throws at me or do I need to be constantly on the lookout for its trickery? Do I do business with it – or against it? If my experience has taught me that my world is pretty manageable then why would I waste time and effort trying to beat it into submission, when I can parley with it? On the other hand, if I have learned that the world will, mostly, smack me in the chops, then I may try and smack it first.

The trouble is that we started building these assumptions about our relationship with our world from a very early age. We are, literally, experts at them. And no law, no fact, no reasoned argument or yah boo sucks in parliament and twitter will change them. That assumption lurking behind my eyes is the refracting lens with which I see the world.

When it comes to a fight between assumption and reality, assumption will always win hands down.

And people, as both history and today’s world keeps showing us, will defend those assumptions even when it is clear they are working against their own interests. Hitler held significant popularity – and probably majority support – in Germany in mid 1944 when the war was clearly going horribly wrong. Donald Trump’s popularity and trust amongst his supporters has held firm in 2018, despite the fact that not only does he merrily lie on a daily, if not an hourly, basis, but his policies – on trade, environment, health, banking and even the quality of water– are hurting the very people who assume he’s their man. Facts on crime rates amongst migrants in Sweden or Germany will not make a blind bit of difference to your assumptions about whether refugees have a right of safe haven or not.

We can continue to yell at each other from the barricades. We can even take over governments, change laws or appoint judges to our liking. Or, if we find that all too distasteful, we can switch off the news and seek out only those who agree with us.  We can, in other words, continue to go to war against each other. And the first victim of war is loss of humanity: loss of the ability to see the other as human; to see the other as a complex, vulnerable fellow being.

“So what?” you may ask. “That being can be as complex, vulnerable and ‘fellow’ as he likes. If he is threatening my security, way of life or principles, he’s still the enemy and needs to be stopped”.

True. But how do you propose to do that? Facts and persuasion, as history shows us, will not work. Civil war? Now, there’s an irony. We employ the ultimate of threats to remove a threat. And has it ever worked? The American civil war may have removed slavery in name but it did nothing to prevent nearly 5,000 lynchings between 1882 and 1968. What did the civil wars in Spain, Nigeria or Sudan solve? Tom Lowman (“African Argument”, July 2014) cites a direct line between the Biafra/Nigerian Civil war and Boko Haram through the continued underdevelopment of the Muslim north. Open conflict may scare the losers into silence for a while but the grievances and the assumptions remain.

So, what is to be done?

Facts and logical arguments don’t work. Appeals to compassion don’t do much better. Political debate ends up in finger-pointing, unashamed chicanery and spitting rage.

Let’s review what we’ve discovered so far:

  1. Our view of the world is founded on the way we have learned to relate to the world.
  2. Those foundational assumptions are so long-held and so deeply embedded that we may not be fully aware of them
  3. They are so important to us that we will distort facts, forgive lies, ignore logic, numb human compassion and even wage wars as long as our core assumptions are supported.

Therefore, any project to change our current dismemberment of our worlds, would need to include the following propositions:

  1. If the foundational assumption we have learned about our relationship with our world –as enemy or partner, equal or inferior – directly influences the way we behave towards our fellow beings, then changing that foundational assumption should change way we act. If we have learnedthat relationship, we can unlearn or relearn it.
  2. If those powerful assumptions are so deeply embedded that we are not fully aware of them, then the first step could be to uncover them; to know what is controlling us.
  3. If the defence of our assumptions, leads to the numbing of our humanity, then re-awakening it may hopefully help release those defences.

It is a hugely demanding task, in which neither persuasion nor hectoring can be used. In which the urge to punish, to shut down must be entirely resisted. In which the task is not to change minds but to awaken a shared humanity.

And dear God, that is difficult. It is difficult enough for victims to face their assailants in a court of law – the very purpose of which is justice and punishment.

How do we voluntarily enter into a dialogue with those who do not even share our view of the world?

I implied earlier, the answer may be by trying to understand how our views of the world came to be formed. How those foundational assumptions came to refract our lenses onto the world. But how do we even start? How do we honestly tell “our enemies” about both our deepest held views and the assumptions that helped build them? And how do we not react with disgust or rage when the enemy insists that separating infants from their parents at the Mexican border is absolutely right?

By turning the world upside down.

Instead of viewing the world as a fragmented, dismembered, chaos of differences, view it as the great physicists, biologists and philosophers have done: as an integrated, interrelated whole, in which we, as beings, participate and of which we partake(to paraphrase physicist David Bohm). In that way, we start from the perspective that we share; we are part of a whole.

So, our priority is not to try and change minds, persuade or ‘educate’. It is to uncover and understand what we share. It is not the language, definitions or even opinions that we share that are important, but the meanings we attach to them. If my assumption is that “government is bad” then, however you try and discuss with me how to define or rebuild government, I am inevitably going to think the debate is ultimately useless. What’s worse, you’ll be trying to change my mind, when it’s my foundation that’s at stake.

As Bohm put it

“If we don’t share coherent meaning, we do not make much of a society. And at present, the society at large has a very incoherent set of meanings. In fact, this set of ‘shared’ meanings is so incoherent that it is hard to say they have any real meaning at all”.(“On Dialogue” P.32)

So how do we start?

Fortunately, a number of practitioners have drawn on Bohm’s ideas to develop a model for ‘supportive dialogue’, to try and stop our ongoing dismemberment. Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge et al put together a very detailed model called   Theory U, which they have used in corporate and socio-political contexts. William Isaacs too, echoing Bohm, has worked to steer group dialogue participants away from debate and argument, to building a new conversation based on fresh, commonly created thinking.

Elements of Bohm’s Group Dialogue are recognizable in a number of political, social and corporate situations. Both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and, as far as I can assess, the early informal talks between the ANC and Afrikaner leaders were (deliberately or not) held very much in the spirit of sharing meaning. It was not – I suspect – negotiations that cut the Gordian knot of the Macedonian name dispute. Negotiations, compromises, deals had been tried, signed and failed for decades before Greek and Northern Macedonian prime ministers Tsipras and Zaev sealed an agreement in June 2018 that was put into effect within days. A quick look at the terms of that agreement reflects a deep understanding by both sides of the meaning of historical figures and symbols, as well as current mutual needs and values.

I  have used the uncovering of meaning, assumptions and values in fractured corporate teams and boards. It’s astonishing the impact that an admission of a deeply held value or assumption can have on the others in the room – particularly when they recognise something of themselves in that statement.

If it is so effective why has it, apparently, not worked?

Why are we faced with the divisions we have? The answer is, that it has worked where groups have decided they will no longer sub-contract their relationships with their fellow beings to “those who know better”. It has worked where both the status quo and the current solutions are intolerable. Apart from dramatic examples, such as South Africa, Macedonia and, I suspect in many ways, Northern Ireland, it has worked with groups that have bridged huge divides but are either disapproved of or ignored by the authorities. And, of course, it has worked in corporate boardrooms and teams that do not publicly herald their change work. This form of ‘shared-meaning’ (or remembering dialogue, as I call it)  may not be heralded precisely because it does not need combative leaders. In fact, it does not need any leaders at all. What it requires are people, in small groups or large, who are prepared to explore; to explore, not to change but to remember one another.

It is time to remember ourselves

Whether we like it or not, we share with our fellow beings a vast pool of consciousness that we have built together since the beginning of our existence. It is time to remember that. By remembering I do not mean merely reminding ourselves of it. I mean putting ourselves back together again. The opposite of remembering is not forgetting. It is dismembering. We do not obliterate our experiences; we simply cut off those pieces that are too painful, too conflicted to occupy our consciousness. When we do that to our fellow beings, we cut off our own limbs. A very stupid, and ultimately fatal, practice.

I am not advocating group hugs with your enemies.

This is neither forgiveness nor negotiation. This is an unfiltered dialogue between you and your fellow beings, some of whom may have said and done things that make you tremble with anger. Others may simply be fellow board or team members whom you’ve learned to mistrust. And yet others may be people of ethnic, religious or national differences in your neighbourhood who have never spoken to one another – let alone shared their world views.

 

In the spirit of this article,  I would like to suggest a practical way forward – with some thoughts of how to set up these dialogue groups. In doing so, please note I have shamelessly stolen ideas from all those I have quoted here as well as from leaders, military and civilian, with whom I have been fortunate enough to engage in my work.

The Groups

In setting up a group, try to make it is as diverse as possible although I don’t recommend you immediately go and search for your natural ‘enemies’. Start, if you can, with those who have an interest in getting together and are diverse. Even “friendly” clusters can be extremely challenging. You may, for example, assume you know your fellow members so well that you don’t have to probe for meaning. On the other hand, if you are alert, you could discover how little you know of “kindred spirits” at a very deep level.

Try and meet regularly. Particularly at the beginning, once a week for a couple of hours, is ideal. This applies if you’re trying to develop organizational, team, social or political dialogue. Groups can change in membership, break into several clusters or break up entirely. It doesn’t matter as long as they keep trying.

The Rules

These are very few and should be made explicit.

Here are some that may be useful:

  • This is a dialogue of equals. Nobody has moral, hierarchical or even ‘spatial’ superiority. By ‘spatial’ I mean the less articulate, expressive or confident need to be given the time, space and support to contribute.
  • Do not try to persuade or win over by argument. When we persuade we are not necessarily uncovering the others’ meaning system, foundational assumptions or view of the world. They may simply be deciding to agree. Similarly, be careful that the group does not exert unspoken, moral, or other pressure to conform. That too tells us nothing about individual meanings.
  • Do not smother. Anger will happen. As will frustration and sadness. It is an opportunity to listen and – most important – to share. While you may not sympathise with someone expressing rage about how those ”damned Barden’s taking away my job and swimming in my pool”, it is crucial that you hear that emotion; pay attention to it.
  • There is only one goal (at this stage). We are all here to share with one another. To share what makes us what we are. That is all.

The Dialogue

I suggest the following flow  in your dialogue.

Context.  Establish the context by telling your story and encouraging the others to do the same. It’s the story of how you each relate to the world – and how you believe the world relates to you. But don’t focus on trying to extract anything. As people unwrap the story of their lives, their view of the world –and their relationship to it – will inevitably be revealed.

Meaning. Now the group can ask questions of each other. What, how and why? What did this episode that you’ve just told us about, mean to you? What does it mean to you now? How did you react at the time? How did you deal with it? How do you deal with it now? Why do you think you dealt with it in that particular way rather than this? Do we as individuals share your interpretation of meanings let alone the meanings themselves? When I say ‘police’ I may think of a largely benign organization whereas you may think it as a corrupt, racist institution. Remember, this is not an interrogation in order to gather evidence. You’re asking because you want the group (including the individual being engaged)  to understand the meaning systems you each have. How you have learned “to do business” in and with the world.

Impact.The key question here is ”And then?” Follow through the logic of your/ their beliefs and values. What happens when they’re put in place. And then?

Reflect and let go.Reflect, quietly and with no pressure on what has happened over the last few sessions . What do we – first as individuals and then, if ready, as a group – want to let go . It’s uncovering what no longer has a place in our meaning.

Reflect and let come.This too needs quiet, gentle reflection. What are some of the values we as individuals now hold? What meanings do we still need to uncover and make explicit? What do the worlds we inhabit (the planet, the country, the town, the neighbourhood, the family) mean to us? Which of them mean anything to us?

Create anew.What is the new dialogue and meaning system we now wish to create? What new individual, group, institution, society, do we want to build? What do we actually want to shape, to re-member, with our fellow beings with the values and meanings that we have actively shared, as against the fossilised meanings we previously swallowed without chewing?

 

The dialogue itself can continue for as long as it is useful. It may be that that the group with which you “create anew” is entirely different from the one you started out with. It may be that you think your group has failed, because it drifted apart or even splintered in a shouting match. It won’t have failed as long as it unwraps and shares a single meaning.

Start where you can. If you’re a neighbour, start with your neighbourhood. If you’re a policeman, start with your fellow officers. If you’re a CEO, start with your Exco. But start. It’s not the big initiative that changes the world. It’s the one that slips under the net and keeps going.

 

If you’d like some help in setting up or facilitating a group, please feel free to contact me. 

 

Sources and recommended reading:

Barden, S. (2017) Tell me

Barden, S. (2015) Leaders: just do the damn job

(available on www.stephenbarden.org/reflections)

Bohm, D. (1996) On Dialogue.Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

Bohm, D. (1980) Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge

Brookfield, S. (2012) teaching for Critical Thinking.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Isaacs, W. (1999) Dialogue. New York: Doubleday

Lowman, T.(July 18, 2014) Biafra and Boko Haram – different conflict, common themes. African Arguments.https://africanarguments.org/2014/07/18/biafra-and-boko-haram-different-conflicts-common-themes-by-tom-lowman/ accessed July 9, 2018

Senge, P. et al (2007) Presence. London: Nicholas Brealey

Scharmer, C.O. (2007) Theory U.Cambridge, MA: Society for Organizational Learning

 

Tell me

“When you hear someone – or you – talking about who is right, their primary concern is about power. When they  talk about what is right, then you’re talking about values.”

That’s the phrase that popped into my head when I was thinking about why discourse, the dialogue of ideas, has given way to the slanging match that so often ends in threats, and I include name calling in my definition of a threat.  Have the social media  caused  this ya boo sucks way of talking with our world or is it simply the ideal medium for the way we have been taught to think? After all, even in the heyday of newspapers did we ever have millions of readers clamouring to comment on the pages of the New York Times, the Guardian or Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, where some semblance of thoughtfulness was demanded by editors?  The social media are perfect for “who is right”. Not only because of the (perceived) anonymity of those commenting but because there is no need to think. There is only a need to take sides. Read most, if not all, of the threads on Twitter and you will discover someone who will insert him or herself with a variation of “I’m right and you’re wrong, arsehole.” And that sentence all by itself means nothing more than “I have no need to think about what you said because you are an arsehole and I am not. You may be Pope, prime minister, president or a chief Brexiteer but you have no power over me. I can take you down again and again simply by not thinking about what you’re saying.” And, of course when people with authority and power join in and refuse to accept any evidence apart from their own infallibility then the Rights and Rights line up against each other, identifying the enemy not just as Obama, Trump, Putin, Netanyahu or Khaled Mashal but as Liberals, Democrats, Republicans, Russians, Israelis, Jews, Palestinians, Arabs and Moslems.

We mass allies around us and range them against our massed enemies. And we know as little about either our allies and our enemies. Why? Because we know nothing about their values. Because those values are not what we have been squabbling over. If they were, we would notice very quickly that the Liberals, Republicans, Israelis and Palestinians hold many differing values within their communities; some of them perhaps close to our own.  What we have been doing is jostling for power, positioning ourselves with those blocs that we think – we imagine – can provide us with the greater influence. Why else would Alabama Evangelists back a man accused of  sexually assaulting teenage girls in the 70’s? Why else was the Brexit campaign conducted with so little information and impact evaluation on either side? Because ethics,ideas, justness, what is right – were not important. Power – winning – was. And history shows it can only get worse if we do not discuss what is right. If we do not cross the battle lines to understand both the values that bind us and the foundations of the values that divide us. The “enemy” morphs from, Clinton or Trump to Democrats and Republicans, and then to gender, race, religion and nationality.

So, is there a way out of this? Back to that phrase at the top of the page.

Talking about who is right is about power. Talking about what is right is about values. By “who” I mean individuals insisting that they, their countries, political parties, religions or races -or in fact any branded entity – are right. By “what” I mean ideas, values, morality, sense of justness. The former cuts short discussion. It’s the ideal arena for ya boo sucks. After all, if I tell you that you are wrong and I am right, then you have a limited number of choices. You could walk away;  or you could tell me, and the world, that as I am a buffoon, whatever I believe is invalid; or (inversely) since you have the backing of the British people, Christianity, Islam or the Koch Brothers you have the authority of credibility on your side. All of those are about power – even walking away.

You have one more choice. You could  say, “Tell me…”

You could say, “Tell me something about what is right for us all about your stance. Tell me something about how you formed the ideas behind your belief that you (or your allies) are right. Tell me about your values, what is important to you. And why you think they could be important for me.”

There’s nothing like “Tell me..” to make people think about what they are doing and who they are. There’s nothing like “Tell me…” to make two people realise they are human. And incidentally, “Tell me about why you think your belief is good for us all” is well short of 140 characters.

Trust the Process of the Heart

We worry so much about the future that we fail to manage the present. We build artificial visions of the future and then expect life to match up to them. And when they inevitably don’t, we burden ourselves with disappointment and a sense of failure. We use our heads and our gut – but not our hearts, the most formidable organ of them all.