“Thinking Globally is ‘Sacred’ Management Duty”
Ever pigeonhole a book just as you start reading it only to find out that you were wrong? I don’t remember ever having misjudged a book as much as I did when I began reading Barbara Shipka’s Leadership in a Challenging World. Reading about here experiences in Second and Third World countries and sensing her awareness of the deterioration of global systems, I assumed that this was another gushy, let’s-save-the-earth book.It’s not that I disagree with the intent of such books. It’s just that there is so little I can do.
Most of us have a tendency to assume we can’t change the system. So we live with if, hoping that it will last a little longer than we do. But if our ecological systems are dying, perhaps it’s because we aren’t fully alive as individuals. We are not fulfilling out purpose. Barbara regards it as something akin to failure if we don’t access our full potential as individuals. Everything you do is sacred, especially where you have the power to affect lives.
And who affects lives more than business managers? After teaching, doing administrative work and consulting internationally, Barbara concludes that business is a major force in determining the future of all life as we know it. In 1986, after working for three years with the U.N. High Commission of Refugees in the Horn of Africa, she decided to return to her business-consulting practice. When she shared her fear that she was copping out, a friend told her, Do you really find working in corporate America to be easy? It’s tough. And critical. It’s possible that if business doesn’t make it, none of us will.
We are experiencing social and infrastructural disintegration, Barbara points out. The relationship between government and commerce, for example, shows how out of balance we have become. Government and commerce no longer balance each other. Although our economic system is becoming more global, we still remain a nation-state governance system.
How do we alter systems, whether they be economic, governmental or corporate? Through you and me an how we think about ourselves and our relationship to the world, Barbara believes. When we change our minds, our agreements and our practices, systems change. She reminds us that organizations are sets of agreements we make. Therefore, when we change our thinking and, thus, our agreements, our institutions change as well. We can start by determining how our present thinking–or lack thereof–is harming us.
She calls for managers to engage in global thinking. By that, she does not mean international. Global in this sense has nothing to do with nations. Global means all-inclusive. It means learning to think systematically and look at the whole system. A global leader would be one that, as he or she makes decisions, ferrets deeper into what the impact of that is going to be beyond the obvious.
Managers who respond to the world’s challenges have to work on both the personal as well as the global level. Barbara explains: Their business decisions greatly affect other’s futures, so managers have to look at the ramifications of their actions in the future as well as in the present. But they need to be aware of how what is going on in their personal lives can affect their ability to access their potential. They aren’t using their potential if they aren’t looking broadly at the world around them and deeply into themselves.
I find her challenge doubly difficult when I look at the managers I have known. There are bright thinkers and even thinkers who would like to look beyond the immediate, but the pressures of business force them to narrow their focus. Yes, if this influential management group isn’t living out its potential, is it any wonder we are in trouble?
Members of this group are really dis-empowering themselves. They neither reflect on what they could truly be nor on what the organization could be beyond the bottom line. Frankly, many of them are all too aware, when they take time to think about it, that they are sacrificing themselves in bits and pieces.
Managers also have to allow the people who report to them to be similarly empowered so they can do what they really can do. Barbara is convinced that people really want to do a good job, and that they want to work in harmony. But the term empowerment is all too often misused today. Even managers who think, “We need to empower people” are being patriarchal, she points out. Nobody empowers anybody else. The statement she would prefer people to make is “We need to create an environment where people will realize their power.”
This global thinker allows that we may be able to change our systems to create a viable future; on the other hand, we may be witnessing the death of life. Believing one way of the other does not ultimately matter, Barbara asserts. In either scenario, what is at stake is the quality of your life, of my life…and our relatedness to all life. Her point is: Do what you can do.
Yes, I had pegged Barbara wrong. It hit me on the closing page, where she writes: “This book is not about saving the earth. The earth can take care of itself. This book is about saving ourselves.”
What Barbara is saying is that we shouldn’t attempt to save the system “out there” without first saving ourselves. When we don’t empower ourselves to be all we can be, we are not revering life but settling for an empty shell from which we can do nothing to help the system.
Barbara’s own life is one of continuously broadening her viewpoints, learning who and what she can do in the world. She began her career as a Slavic languages specialist, but her obsession for travelling led her to switch to education so she could more readily move around. She has worked for both non-profit and profit-making organizations in Lebanon, Somalia, Ethiopia, the Sudan, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland and the Dominican Republic as well as in the United States.
When she challenges business managers to take the lead in changing our systems, she is not advocating that they use their power for self-gain. The truly global thinker will see that we are all connected. In fact, she points out, we are more interdependent than ever. Not only are we increasingly connected on a worldwide scale, but we are increasing our interdependence within our business organizations. Team structures, for example, require more organizational interdependence than do top-down organizations. Without a global view, managers who try to manage technology and work processes miss this point as they rush to failure.
Getting the Message
Barbara’s writing and consulting have a clear, spiritual tone. This is a time when spirituality is becoming a popular topic in management literature, so I asked her if she sees increasing receptivity to the soft topics, such as global thinking and spirituality. Yes, she replied emphatically, the message is coming from both inside and outside. Perhaps it’s sometimes easier to hear from the outside. In 1980, when she left the corporate world and went into consulting, there were few consultants. In business, a few people had been through teambuilding sessions (and generally had bad experiences). But that was it. Since then, thousands of people have left corporations and become consultants. So, today, almost everyone in business has been touched by someone from the outside, she says. The situation has been created or augmented by the movement to corporate leanness. One streamlining technique has been to eliminate human resources positions and broker the services of outside consultants. To a large extent, these consultants have challenged management’s viewpoint and worked toward raising awareness of human values.
Isn’t it ironic that efforts to economize have opened the door to the non-economic values that Barbara and others have brought in?