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August 2010

Transforming the self

As a motivational mentor I encounter people with many issues and these always divide along the lines of the three core life elements: achievement, relationship, or self growth. Paradoxically, sometimes the more the serious the issues, the easier they are to support and help. People who are doing all the right things sometimes cannot change, and therefore cannot transform their Self.

 There is a wonderful story in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers about Abbot Lot: “Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said, ‘Father, to the limit of my ability, I keep my little rule, my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; to the limit of my ability, I cleanse my heart of thoughts; what more should I do?’ This question – what more should I do? – is relevant to us all in our odyssey through life. And I am sure you can see how difficult it is to answer, given the fact that Abbot Lot is already doing so much that is right. Indeed, Abbot Lot specifically refers twice the ‘limit of his ability’ – he is doing, in our language, the max!

 As mentors and coaches, then, it is easy to see how to help or direct somebody who is all at sea, who is not doing any of the basics in the three core life elements. But how do we help the person who is dissatisfied by their progress when they are sincerely doing the best that they can already?

 Let me invite you now to reflect on what would your answer be to either Abbot Lot or to one such client that you have experienced or might experience in future? What would you say?

 What Abbot Joseph said is revealing: “The elder man rose up in reply, and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said, ‘Why not be utterly changed into fire?’”

 This answer is instructive and brilliant on many levels. First, he “rose” – the physical body changed in order to make his response. Second, the hands addressed a power beyond and a small part of him changed further – the digits of his hand. As a theological point the ten digits are burning in flame; what may ten represent? The ten commandments – the law – the very thing that Abbot Lot is consumed by following – all the right procedures, and protocols, and ‘laws’ that supposedly lead to heaven. Third, the all-consuming question – not an answer – a suggestion almost: become fire!

 This is a staggering suggestion: that at root we need to burn up the old life and become something completely new, and wholly free, and incandescently bright. Exactly how we reach that transformation is, of course, another question. But it must surely begin for all of us, if we consider the real meaning of the story, with the vision and the intention to be that flame.


Standard debate

A recent debate on the IOD Linkedin Forum asked whether Investors in People and ISO 9000 et al were a total waste of time and effort. Good question! Ever since the ‘Standards’ were formulated practitioners and clients have been wrestling with this problem. I cannot speak about ISO as I was never a practitioner, but I was an IiP Adviser for seven years, and during that time must have been into over a hundred businesses and organizations, Thus, I developed strong views on the subject.

 Someone said that these things CAN be a waste of time but are not ALWAYS. I agree: clearly having a framework was for some businesses and organisations immensely useful, as was being able to draw down funding and expertise. I would add that I don't think that working in the field for 7 years was a waste of my time; on the contrary, I believe I achieved some outstanding results for my clients - sometimes through IiP, sometimes despite it.

 But finally I came to the conclusion that by and large IiP had become a waste of time - and quit the process. What I found irksome was the application of the philosophy of 'continuous improvement' to the Standard itself. What this meant in practice for IiP was that about every three years every consultant had to be re-trained, re-accredited on the new, improved Standard that frankly was no better than the one before - there was simply an increase in management jargon. And it wasn't difficult to work out why this was happening: it was a cash machine for the custodians of the Standard. The cynicism at the top that engendered such a process was a value-contradiction to all we were supposed to be doing.

 As belief wanes, the Standard becomes a gravy train for consultants, a job for bureaucrats, and a political rallying cry for Governments who can claim they are doing something. We need a different approach and a different set of tools; and one thing we need to grasp, but probably won't, is the issue of people being 'different' and so requiring 'different' approaches. Put another way, people can be truly amazing and outstanding; connect them to Standards and mediocrity creeps in.

 And so far as IiP went I guess 'things' decay and the right systems, right leadership was not in place to enable the product to renew itself in a way that would be relevant for the C21st. Given that SMEs are the only possible engines for real growth in our economy, and certainly for employment take-up, the urgent question still remains as to how the Government is going to support SMEs and enable them to reach their full potential. This question is also not demarcated entirely from our education system and what it does and doesn't do for young people who will become the workforce or the entrepreneurs. I note with interest the changes in Scottish education underway - implying what? That the model of the last 20 years is completely flawed! A contentious point, but somewhere along the line England needs to get its act together.

Lotus eaters and Myrmidons

A good friend of mine copied me in today on an email he had received that filled him with disgust. It was from a senior manager in the institution in which he worked – basically, informing them all that his work was done, time for new hands to steer the tiller, and he’d be off to a glittering new opportunity in Australia … how wonderful to have made so many friends and he’d be keeping a friendly eye on his old employer/colleagues … yawn, yawn, yawn.  The fact that he’d been in post less than two years, that his sector was experiencing huge trauma and upheaval, and that far from the work having been done, rather it had yet to be attempted, did not seem apparent to him.

 My friend had every reason for a silent curse, and I reflected on it that there were two very distinct kinds of nauseous and de-motivating managers: the first, the lotus eaters, which characterised the above. These are the type of manager who seem to have ingested a drug – the lotus plant – that fills them with management jargon, and hail-fellow-well-met-and-where’s the pension, and the sharpest of resumes combined with the dullest of performances. In short, they never seem to get what performing or performance means.

 They float from organisation to organisation, often ending up in the public sector, never having achieved a damn thing, but stuffed with the offices, the salaries, the perks, the titles, that persuade the unwary and the uninitiated that they are dealing with a VIP and somebody who at the very least is making a difference. Alas, no such difference is ever made, much less attempted – the eye is on the clock, and the only real concern – often not even consciously apparent to them – is escaping to retirement unexposed.

 Increasingly, as their career progresses, these lotus eaters live on islands with like minded people – all ingesting the drug – they recruit people like themselves, and the whole organisation nose-dives into absolute mediocrity. In the case of businesses they then go out of business; in the case of the public sector – take quangos – it takes a change of government to cull them.

 The opposite of the Lotus eaters are the Myrmidons. These can be equally aggravating. The Myrmidons were the crack fighting soldiers of the great Greek hero, Achilles. They were originally ants which the god Zeus upgraded into a human fighting machine: in their black armour, they swarmed invincible and pitiless to do Achilles’ bidding and fight his wars. The thing is, they are achievers, but of a very irritating variety. They too seem on a drug – the drug of endless success and achievement.

 Apart from their leader – Achilles – they are all nameless non-entities to whom, frankly, a psychiatrist might say: get a life! We read about these Achilles all the time in the superior dailies and in the glossy management monthlies: they are the mega-successful captains of industry who do have a ‘bit’ of personality (like Achilles, who had a marvellous sulk) – they sold ice cream once, or they like hot air balloons. And they are worshipped: books are written about them, books are written about how to be like them, and most importantly there is a constant publication of tips to give you just that edge – i.e. how to make sure your sword cuts – like they have in business.

 This dull imitation translates into a soulless focus on achievement, often diluted to simply making money, which drains the colour out of work: the ants are all the same.

 And this is the problem with both the lotus eaters and the myrmidons: you may think being paid to underachieve for thirty years means you have arrived, but you can’t cheat your own self-esteem. You have self-developed into an inferior person and that never leaves you. And at the other end, the Myrmidons, you have been so busy achieving that you have all but forgotten that you are a person. Typically, we find them with a loveless end and a raft of health problems to boot.

 So it is with managers in this new age – we need new models if we are to avoid the self destruction of both lotus eaters and myrmidons. Where shall we turn? Perhaps it is to the wily Odysseus himself – the strategist, the hero, and the one who clearly identified his own emotional needs whilst fully experiencing their intensity.

The nature nurture debate

A perennial and favourite discussion topic is the nature-nurture debate. Are values and morals learnt or do we inherit them? Do we instinctively know right from wrong or is this down to conditioning of childhood?

A friend of mine recently had a debate with their partner and discovered they had very different views: one, thinking that all beliefs and values come down to one’s upbringing and surroundings. The other, thinking that whilst 'upbringing' is a contributory factor, there were people they knew who’d had a very unhealthy moral upbringing, but seemed to instinctively know right from wrong from an early age.

I was asked my view.

Of course I am not an expert on this and anyway the research (read: answer) keeps changing. Before giving my view, however, one needs to understand a number of issues around it. For a start, this isn’t really a scientific question – people want to provide evidence largely for a belief they already have; in others words, beliefs drive the answer. The reason for this is that the question touches on the question of what it means to be human.

Put another way: animals always remain in their own state of being; human beings are always in a state of becoming. The most obvious proof of this is: animals can only live in their environment; humans create their environment – in fact, very few humans live in an environment that is as ‘nature’ intended. Moreover, the nature of being human touches on deep philosophical and spiritual questions.

 Simplistically, those who believe that human beings are entirely products of nature will tend to be deterministic and fatalistic in outlook – leading to a victim mentality because ‘that’s just the way it is’. On the other hand, those who are think human beings are products of nurture will tend to idolise humanity itself – anything is possible, you can be whatever you want, there are no limits. Put another way, ‘nature’ enthusiasts will tend to be more accepting, passive and conservative, whereas ‘nurture’ believers will stray towards more active, aggressive and liberal positions.

 So what we think on this spectrum will start reflecting profounder issues of our nature.

As Chinese philosophy observed long ago: there cannot be yang without yin, and vice versa. So I believe the correct answer is both, but not in equal proportions: we are about 30% the product of our natures and about 70% the product of our nurture or environment.

Of course in any given individual this can fluctuate. But just as human beings can profoundly affect their environment, so they can profoundly affect their internal environment of the self and its body. In one word, the biggest single factor that will impact your being and change it is belief. What we believe we ultimately become, and the reason for this is that the actual foundation of the universe is consciousness itself.