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Issue 258
January/February 2010
Liberty

Web Exclusives
Article

Hunger for Meaning
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issue cover 258

Cover: Common Starling flock, Dumfries, Scotland. Photograph: Paul Hobson/FLPA

 

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Hunger for Meaning

Social responsibility can only emerge when the organisation recognises it is defined not just by a collection of individuals, but by the complex series of relationships between those individuals.

In his book Theory U, Leading from the Future as it Emerges, organisation development consultant, and Senior Lecturer at MIT, Otto Scharmer, attempts to address why we, and especially business organisations, so often fail to deal with the challenges of our time? “The cause of our collective failure is that we are blind to the deeper dimension of leadership and transformational change. This blind spot exists not only in our collective leadership but also in our everyday social interactions. We are blind to the source dimension from which effective leadership and social action come into being.” He says.

Quite. Just how many leaders are there, like Ray Anderson of Interface, who had the courage to admit that nothing short of creating a company that was 100% sustainable would do? Without such leadership, it becomes very difficult for employees, who have begun to align with the values of sustainability to affect change at a local level with an organisation.

Kate Cowie, from Independent Organisation Consultancy, The Chaos Game says: “In our work we encounter numerous individuals and subcultures within organisations who demonstrate a genuine hunger for meaning, not borne of fear. We might call them post-postmodern thinkers who seek ‘the pattern that connects. Bright lights in large organisations; or external practitioners who find that they can best illuminate and support shifts toward meaning from the outside. Unfortunately bright lights soon exhaust their capital and are often marginalised by the formal reward/influence system. We see little evidence of a coherent and general awakening to meaning on a large scale across organisations.”

Contrary to popular opinion, many executives, who might otherwise galvanise these pockets of hunger for meaning, find it hard to subordinate their own egos in service of the triple bottom line, not out of greed, but out of fear. “We encourage leaders to examine their fear, not as proof of a lack of courage, but as an opportunity to display it. Without fear, taking action is just business as usual – and there is nothing very brave about that,” adds Kate Cowie. “This reframing of fear and courage can be liberating as sometimes an examination of resistance unlocks wisdom. By using courage to confront their fears, leaders become more aware of the power they have in situations which previously confounded them. No longer a debilitating force, fear together with courage becomes a force for creativity and, therefore, for the change they know they must lead.”

Stephen Lewis, founder of Leadership development consultancy, The Wild Peak, believes that when push comes to shove however, a less universal, and more personal and immediate ‘meaning’ invariably comes to the fore for executives engaged in transformational work. “Rather than agonise about environmental or social issues that seem much too big and remote for them to make a difference, or, rather than engage in ontological navel gazing, they find enough meaning in providing for their families, securing their economic future and achieving all they can within the seemingly fixed constraints of the present capitalist system,” he says.

David Key, who runs development programme Natural Change, in collaboration with World Wildlife Fund for Nature, believes a more fundamental change of identity is required. Waiting for people to have a spontaneous eco-ephiphany in the same way Ray Anderson did, is too random by far. “Natural Change invites leaders to discover a deeper more intuitive relationship with (the rest of) Nature and helps them make meaning out of their experience towards pro-environmental behaviour,’ he says. “Our premise is that time in Nature, in solitude, for a significant period of time, can help knock the egoic self off orbit.”

But just how many executive leaders are there, willing to go solo in Nature and discover a deeper more sensory relationship with Nature? Or, willing to consider that reframing their relationship with Nature is actually relevant to the business of business?

Otto Scharmer’s Theory U suggests that the roadblock to change actually occurs through our conditioned response to wait for a leader to emerge who embodies the future path. Any examination of both present and past history will reveal we have an errant ability as a race to project our hopes onto anyone who displays the character traits, such as charisma, or is adept in the methods such as oratory. Along with other pioneering thought leaders of the day, such as Peter Senge’s Learning Organization, David Cooperrider’s Appreciative Inquiry, Peter Block’s work on Community and The World Café Community’s groundbreaking work in Conversational Leadership, Theory U articulates a concept of future direction powerfully emerging from the group itself.

Dr Frances Baldwin, an organisation development consultant, and founder of When Women Lead From Within, says: “There is also a focus on ‘looking inward and among’ (individually and collectively) for the intelligence needed to create unparalleled innovation, breakthrough solutions and deeper understanding of how organisations learn and how systems work. This depth of understanding and engagement puts the potential for social change and sustainable high performance into the hands and the will of the people.”

Empowering everyone to take ownership, as a stakeholder in our collective future, also appeals to the increasing number of employees who realise they no longer want to be viewed as transactional objects to get things done, and instead want to feel that they belong and can be a stakeholder with a meaningful role to play.

Other practitioners of organisational development, say it’s the operational structures and business processes originally created in the image of production lines, to maximise output and profit, which must change. It’s not that corporate social responsibility and environment change programmes are always cynical attempts to create a smoke screen for business as usual, they simply fail because they fail to recognise you can’t force old frameworks on new emerging realities.

As, John Keeling a former acting CEO at UKTV and now independent executive coach aptly puts it “Management structures are inclined to be illusory. Organisation charts show neat boxes and straight lines. People do not fit into square boxes and relationships do not follow straight lines.” Martyn Lowesmith, a partner of The Centre For Right Relationship, Europe says executives need to not only develop Emotional and Social Intelligence, but also Relationship System Intelligence. “This intelligence is about becoming conscious of the culture that an organisation has created – the unconscious patterns and rules of behaviour that invariably reflect the hierarchical and mechanical processes on which the corporation is run.” He says, “Social responsibility can only ever truly emerge and blossom from within the organisation, when the organisation recognises it is defined not just by a collection of individuals, but by the complex series of relationships between those individuals, and the culture that those relationships create.”

In other words, individual employees must be willing to accept their part in creating the system, rather than being a victim of it, and be willing to do the inner work, which transforms the limiting beliefs that prevent a deeper level of collaboration from unfolding.

Clearly, the failsafe for any model of organizational change is that as long as it invites people get in touch with their True Self, in a way that can be expressed, honoured and respected, it’s natural connection and interdependence with others, the social sphere around it, and the planet is naturally revealed. But change agents have to be invited in first. Those businesses that see the wisdom in so doing, may just survive the current economic turmoil, and play their part in redefining the world so it’s consistent with Nature.

Nick Kettles is a freelance journalist and broadcaster.

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