Beyond codes of ethics to ethical maturity

A recent article by Kara Swisher in the New York Times appeared under the headline Who Will Teach Silicon Valley to Be Ethical? Tech companies have been attracting a fair amount of criticism this year over their grasp of ethics. But they’re not alone in finding this area a minefield. The shareholder value view of firms, which has it that their sole purpose is to make a profit, still shapes leadership thinking in most organisations. This infects even those – like the BBC or NHS – that aren’t ostensibly profit focussed but where stripping out cost often crowds out other considerations. Where a reductionist view of purpose prevails, it’s not surprising that questions of ethics may receive scant consideration.

Kara Swisher considers various solutions including companies appointing chief ethics officers, putting in place official systems of ethics or (radical idea) chief executives stepping up to the plate to provide more leadership. She quotes an unnamed ethical consultant who complains that appointing custodians of ethics would be no more than window dressing because “we haven’t even defined ethics yet”.

Running through all of this is an assumption that ethics can be defined to delineate universal principles that clearly determine ethical or unethical behaviour in all eventualities. Coaching has been pursuing this track for some years. Every professional association of coaches has a code of ethics that its members commit to follow. And yet coaches, who are privy to ethical dilemmas more than most in business, must know that ethical choices are highly contingent on the contexts in which they arise. This is the essence of the well-known trolley problem: it’s obviously wrong to kill someone; but what if doing so saves the lives of five others?

Continue reading “Beyond codes of ethics to ethical maturity”

Nick Cave as coach

Nick Cave has initiated an interesting project answering questions sent in from his fans. The questions are searching. The meditations Nick Cave composes in reply are works of artistry in their own right.

Last year, I wrote about the transcendent experience of the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concerts that followed the death of his son. The first of his epistles addresses this very theme. He describes how immersion in work and – in so doing – recovering a sense of wonder helped him find community and accept his grief:

“I kind of realised that work was the key to get back to my life, but I also realised that I was not alone in my grief and that many of you were, in one way or another, suffering your own sorrows, your own griefs. I felt this in our live performances. I felt very acutely that a sense of suffering was the connective tissue that held us all together.”

Continue reading “Nick Cave as coach”

Blackkklansman’s bleak conclusion offers a glimmer of hope in dark times

Can compromised organisations be turned into a force for good in society, and can individuals exert positive impacts in organisations whose dark side overshadows their light? These questions are put by Spike Lee’s compelling film Blackkklansman.

A dramatisation of the story of Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, the film zeros in on the intersection between the two organisations, the Colorado Police Department and the Klan, in the late 1970s

Both are responding in their way to the liberalising forces that have swept through America in the preceding years. The police are encouraging the recruitment of ethic minorities. The Klan are donning suits and attempting to sanitise their rhetoric, in order to take their hateful message mainstream. There are elements within both organisations which resent the liberal turn. Beyond the police, a third organisational player, the network of black power activists, poses awkward questions about the rationale for liberalising. Stallworth strikes up a relationship with the leader of the local activists. She categorically dismisses the idea that a racist police force can be reformed from within.

Continue reading “Blackkklansman’s bleak conclusion offers a glimmer of hope in dark times”

The betrayal of purpose: reflections inspired by The Lehman Trilogy

Ann Treneman’s review in The Times of The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre concludes: “It ends badly in 2008, of course, but you knew that.” When I read the review, I took this to be a flippant comment. Having seen the play, I realise that her observation is more salient than I grasped. Stefano Massini’s saga runs for nearly three and a half hours in Sam Mendes’ production and only the opening and closing seconds deal directly with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. The playwright’s interest is in the preceding century and a half as he interweaves the related threads of the evolution over three generations of the Lehman family from immigrant arrivals to scions of the establishment, the transformation of the company they founded as a shop in Alabama into a dynamo of American capitalism, and the shifting sands of the Lehman family’s relationship to their Jewish heritage. It’s a tale of our times, told from the past.

Continue reading “The betrayal of purpose: reflections inspired by The Lehman Trilogy”

Engage a coach to save humanity from itself

Humans are a clever species. Look at the world we’ve constructed. The very name homo sapiens describes us as wise. But somehow we’ve come to live in a way that is inimical to our nature and destructive of our wellbeing. The organisations in which we work are part of the problem. They are incapable of maintaining bonds of trust with their employees, and obstruct our efforts to sustain our closest relationships.

This is the thesis of A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon which attempts to explain the science behind our fundamental need for human connection. Written by three professors of psychiatry, it was published in 2000. In my layman’s reading, its scientific authority has been overtaken by more recent neuroscience. But its date of publication is significant. At the start of a new century, the book aimed to debunk the mythology – whether psychodynamic or behaviourist – which shaped our understanding of emotions through the 20th Century. Insofar as these mythologies remain influential today, A General Theory of Love remains a relevant read. Indeed it seems prescient in its cultural criticism of how Western societies have developed so as to deny our physiological need for attachment, and the social maladies that thereby arise.

Continue reading “Engage a coach to save humanity from itself”

Abstract nouns are rarely the solution in organisations. But they could be.

Some years ago, I was happy to make the acquaintance of Valerie Iles, a leadership consultant whose domain is healthcare. Like me, she brings an interest in mindfulness. But she has a great ability to draw on a diverse range of other ideas. This year, she held a seminar to hand over her body of thinking. I was already running with it. But, in the months since, I’ve enjoyed re-reading some of her articles.

One that stands out is Valerie’s admonishment against reaching for abstract nouns. This is not the usual tirade against meaningless management coinages but a philosophical challenge to how leaders conceive their strategies.

Continue reading “Abstract nouns are rarely the solution in organisations. But they could be.”

18th Century insight on 21st Century complexity

Who, these days, speaks for conservatism, the philosophical orientation that is cautious of change? We have an answer in the small band of Tory rebels, led by Dominic Grieve, who have won for Parliament a right to decide on the final Brexit deal. But the very fact of their struggle against their own party shows that cautious conservatism is not much in vogue.

My question is prompted by reading Jesse Norman’s 2013 biography of Edmund Burke, one of the founding thinkers of conservatism. Jesse Norman is a Conservative MP and current government minister. But I imagine he might be out of sorts with his party since the philosophy he describes is not much reflected in current Conservative practice. His book demonstrates, though, that even if Burke is out of fashion with the Tories, he still has much to say to contemporary Britain.

Continue reading “18th Century insight on 21st Century complexity”

Nick Cave: the transcendent power of music

bad seeds

The most memorable and moving cultural event I experienced this year was seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform at the London Arena in September. In fact, I could say that in any year I see the band in concert. But this year was especially poignant.

Rock music has acquired roughly the position in our culture that jazz had when I was growing up: the breakthrough art form of an earlier generation, kept on life support by an ageing cohort of afficionados. Nick Cave has been in the business a long time and manages to observe the boundaries of the form while keeping it fresh and innovative. He surrounds himself with musicians of the highest calibre and inventiveness and produces music that spans the spectrum from hard-edged, dark, aggression to the most heart-wrenching and romantic ballads. Nick Cave himself is a consumate performer: he strides the stage with visceral energy and has an electric relationship with his audience.

Continue reading “Nick Cave: the transcendent power of music”

Remembering Cindy Cooper

London’s community of mindfulness practitioners lost a guiding light this year with the death in March of Cindy Cooper. Cindy was my teacher and sometime supervisor for about ten years. During that time, I frequently reflected on my good fortune to have encountered her. She combined the integrity and wisdom evident among the best practitioners in her field, with a warmth which made people feel they had a deep connection with her. In this, she embodied the value we gain from working with a teacher and learning in groups. She helped generate a depth of understanding that could never arise simply by practising alone.

Continue reading “Remembering Cindy Cooper”

Effort more than talent is the key to achievement

growth bw

In conventional thinking, the people who get on in life are those who are brainy or talented. But this apparent truth was overturned by the Stanford University psychologist, Carol Dweck. Through many years of research, she found that being labelled as talented could quickly become an obstacle to achievement. It turns out that effort is much more important than talent.

This simple but important finding is presented in Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. The key insight it contains is that people learn and develop best when they adopt a “growth mindset” – open to learning as a challenge, relishing setbacks as an opportunity to learn – and flounder when they adopt a “fixed mindset” – defensive of their identity, frightened to take risks in case they fail. The fixed mindset values innate talent over cultivating potential.

Continue reading “Effort more than talent is the key to achievement”