Written in two parts – ‘ the Forest’ and ‘the Path’, the author first looks at the global dilemmas and trends that face us and then at ‘the journey to wholeness’ as manifest in individual leadership and in groups. Reflective, and integrative.
“All people … have witnessed the cycle of birth, growth and death, both of themselves and of life in the forest around them. But not all people have lived in a time when it appears that the entire forest may die…. You and I live during such a time.
By virtue of its infrastructure, resources and power … business directly determines what dies, and what is born … and the quality of growth and life experienced in between. Business has a critical role to play in the future of the forest …. and … is a major force in determining the future of all life as we know it.
… business is you, me, and everyone else that takes part, however indirectly, in the arrangements that make our economy work. This means our leadership is critical – and a big responsibility.”
“In my work in Africa, we treated symptoms, one after another; but little fundamentally changed. Unless and until systems change, people die. [quoting a friend] ‘Working in corporate America … is tough. And critical. It’s possible that if business doesn’t make it, none of us will.’ ‘Making it’ means more than succeeding in conventional terms. It means succeeding while changing dramatically by altering organization and global systems to support the viability of the forest, our world. How are such systems altered? Through you and me and how we think about ourselves and our relationship to the world. When we change our minds, our agreements, and our practices, systems change.
To change our minds we must go deep. ….. This book is a walking stick to support ….. the work of providing leadership in the business world during times of enormous change and transition. ….”
That is how Barbara Shipka frames her book on leadership. She writes with authority, having worked as a successful consultant to major businesses, as an aid worker in areas as challenging as Ethiopia and Somalia and having reflected deeply on both the inner world of the individual, the world of interrelationship and the ecological world. She is also a contributor to Harman, Willis and Porter, Maya (eds) The New Business of Business’s important book, which makes an excellent companion to this.
In a single word, her book is a major contribution to wisdom , where wisdom is the level of thinking, action and experience that puts knowledge in the context of a higher purpose. That higher purpose is sacred and spiritual, where spirit is how “we infuse deeper meaning an purpose into our lives; we unleash our … creative potential; we comprehend our connection to each other and all Life.” The book is reflective, integrative and very readable, using powerful examples from the author’s personal experience, including an astonishing and moving dream, to focus attention on the underlying core issues.
When I was a young consultant, my senior consultant trainer used a phrase that has always remained with me:
“Having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts.”
Shipka is one of a growing number of observers – Handy , Charles The Hungry Spirit: Beyond Capitalism – A Quest for Purpose in the Modern World is another – who are pointing to the consequences of a systematic failure by business to reflect about its wider purpose in building the kind of world we want to live in. Their call is both for a truer sense of purpose and, just as important, for the critical importance of giving legitimacy to reflection itself.
Even in the last five years, many of us have noticed a growing reluctance on the part of many executives to give time to any form of reflection, which of course has the direct effect of increasing busyness and making it ever more difficult to reflect on purpose … If business fails to ‘make it’, it will be largely through this failure.
Against this background, the first part of the book – The Forest – describes the challenges and the possibilities and puts the role of business in context. It is in turn divided into two sub sections, each of three chapters.
Chapters 1 to 3 give a concise evaluation of the ‘Demanding Challenges’ that we face – the global emergency of systems that are not life serving, the interlocking crises of ‘dehumanizing poverty, environmental degradation and communal violence’ and the progressive disintegration of society and infrastructures through social and economic imbalance.
It relates these global issues to the related business issues and dilemmas:
the critical importance that businesses survive and succeed through a period of radical transformation, the importance of transforming businesses from ‘machines that chew people up and spit them out’ into humane instruments of service and the possibilities that flow from a shift in perception that would open to business its ‘enormous opportunity to serve as a primary bridge between human creativity and the potential for whole systems change and transformation’.
To achieve this business needs to challenge such implicit assumptions as either that profitability and serving the larger good are mutually exclusive objectives, or (more dangerously) that higher profitability necessarily serves the larger good.
“We must find ways to bring profitability and self interest together with compassion and responsibility for the well-being of our whole system.”
To do this, we must break out of our ‘cultural trance’, above all the myth that we are exempt from working within natural laws [for a brilliant exposition of one way of breaking out from this, see Robert The Natural Step.].
“We must reframe our experiences and our value in organizations and come to better understand that we are not commodities but communities. …. As far as we know, human creativity and ingenuity are unlimited” [a point that is the core of our developing understanding of knowledge management].
Underlying all this is the need to question our personal beliefs about value, about why we believe what we do, and about what limiting beliefs lock us into our current frame (which is why time spent on reflection is so important).
“You and your organization are being challenged to attend to global systems and re-establish global balance. You must keep your business successful … while also turning it into a bridge between global need and individual potential. You must find ways to help draw out the untapped creativity within everyone around you while building a community that is of service.”
This leads to three chapters on ‘Envisioning Possibilities’, entitled ‘Its All in Our Minds’, ‘Seeing the Garden in a Whole New Way’ and ‘Bridge People’.
This section follows the much quoted and sadly much ignored piece of wisdom from Einstein
“No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew.”
Rather than going into complex concepts to explain the phrase ‘we create our own reality and our future, Shipka simply shows that
“The definitions we use determine our assumptions, and the assumptions we carry determine our definitions. Let’s take ‘success’ as an example. Within our society the dominant view of success is based on how much money one has, the volume of ‘output’ one generates, or how much power one has over others. Our world might be very different if the majority of us defined success differently.
For example, the most successful people might be those who walked as lightly upon the earth as possible and consumed the least materially, while still managing to find engaging and unique ways to live in wonderful comfort. …. Successful leaders would be those who consciously avoid accumulating power over others and consuming natural resources. ….
The bottom line of successful businesses would still be monetary profit – but only in the context of leaving the physical earth and all life … better than it was before.”
This is a concept that echoes Robert’s distinction between quantitative growth and qualitative development and that, interestingly, echoes Adam Smith’s view, in which his whole economic system – now so much misquoted and misapplied – rested on his ethical system.
Shipka points out that beliefs become so ingrained as ‘truth’ that we see them as self-evident – and so not open to question. Change comes only when a sufficient critical mass of people question it – something that we can see happening as people as the ‘Newtonian’ mechanical view of the world increasingly comes under challenge.
Once we begin to ‘see the world anew’ the process becomes systemic and iterative affecting our visions, our definitions, our assumptions and our behaviour in an iterative process.
“it is a ‘change of mind’ that will bring a new garden into being. We are engaged in a [profound] evolutionary shift.”
In this we form the link between what has been and what is becoming. It is a two way link that connects ancient and emerging wisdom. As examples of ancient wisdom, she offers ‘Two Sacred Laws’:
“a respect for natural processes of birth and growth… This principle includes, but encompasses far more than, human … growth … a respect for all newborns, from coyotes to ideas, …for natural life cycles .. and for the continuum of life.
No decision is made, nothing is created or enacted, that can harm the children [human, plant, animal or creative idea] – both born and yet to be born.”
In a time of rapidly changing perceptions our task is to sift essence, meaning and guidance. To play our part, the best possibility is to deepen our individual power through a journey to wholeness – which is the subject of the second part of the book.
Part 2, A Path, is again divided into two sub-parts around the development of eight powers, four internal ‘Walking Within’, and four concerned with relationship ‘Walking With’.
The four powers ‘Within’ are ‘Aliveness, Passion, Integrity, and Authenticity’, the four ‘with’ are ‘Relatedness, Expression, Perspective, and Reverence’.
Each has a chapter that starts with an invitation to reflection and then explores three or four major themes. For example, ‘Aliveness’ briefly explores ‘Letting Go’, ‘Engaging Fully’, ‘Presence and Attention’ and ‘Safety and Security’. The author discusses this last in the context of her experience of setting off into an isolated part of the Somali desert accompanied only by four apparently highly dubious characters. All the sections are of this quality, reflective, often illuminated by personal experience, getting to the heart of the issue, and often decidedly challenging – for example ‘Having a life and living a life are significantly different.’ Within the group of chapters, she covers such issues as self-referral – looking within yourself for evaluation and fulfillment – the reality of self-directed teams, the ladder of inference, generative learning, thinking holistically, and grace:
“Grace is remembering, in the moment, ‘that you are alive.”
To use a Quaker phrase, different parts of this section will ‘speak to the condition’ of different people, but all will find it worth reading and will find the reflections valuable.
The final part, Part 3 is called The Well-Walked Path and consists of a Prelude and two chapters. The prelude and Chapter 15 are concerned with integration of the 8 Powers and relates the eight powers to the seven chakras of Eastern wisdom. It is concerned with balance and complementarity between the various powers within and powers with, with bringing them into harmony to form a whole.
The last chapter, Walk Well, summarises the unanswerable questions that we face and discusses what is involved in accepting our part.
“Your personal, sacred work as a leader is to come into greater harmony with the natural flow of life. … You must hold the tensions of paradox that are within all of life. … You must think anew, feel anew. You can only accomplish this by challenging and growing what is within you.”