Leading from the right: understanding the divided brain

It’ll be ten years in October since Iain McGilchrist published The Master and His Emissary, his magisterial study of the division of the brain into left and right hemispheres and the impact of this division on Western civilisation. I began reading it in 2013 and have finished it in time for the tenth anniversary. Although McGilchrist writes well and lucidly, and although I devour books, I found this one a challenging read. I needed to take pauses from reading it to let its argument sink in. This isn’t just a reflection of my cognitive abilities. McGilchrist writes in ways that draw on both left- and right-hemisphere orientations. My struggle perhaps exemplifies his thesis that we have become inured to left-dominant ways of comprehending.

The outcome of 25 years’ polymathic scholarship, The Master and His Emissary cites 2,500 sources of neuroscience, provides a potted history of Western culture and philosophy from the Greeks to the present day, and displays refined critical appreciation of art, literature and music through the ages. Despite its challenging nature, it is widely cited in coaching and leadership circles, though often erroneously by those who take it to be a confirmation of pop psychology constructs of the left and right “brains” as having different functions: left for language, right for creativity, etc.

Continue reading “Leading from the right: understanding the divided brain”

A Holocaust story and its relevance today

By Martin Vogel

Ostrava Nesselroth passage

I’ve been reading the story of how a liberal, prosperous community succumbs to nationalism and xenophobia. In relatively short order, it descends into violence and murder as democracy and the rule of law collapse. Ultimately, it is transformed from a progressive centre of enterprise and culture into a backwater. Its Jewish community is wiped out.

This is the story of Ostrava in the Czech Republic and the rise and fall of its Jewish community. It’s also the story of my father and scores like him who managed to escape the fate of the overwhelming majority of Ostrava Jews and establish lives for themselves elsewhere.

Ostrava and Its Jews by David Lawson, Libuše Salomonovičová and Hana Šústková is a labour of love that pieces together a picture of the community from archival records alongside the testimony of survivors. It represents in microcosm, a rich and detailed portrait of European Jewish life and its relationship with wider society before the Holocaust swept it all aside. Continue reading “A Holocaust story and its relevance today”

Exploring voice

By Martin Vogel

One of the most stirring encounters that I experienced this year was a one-hour lesson with Nadine George on discovering your voice. Nadine has been teaching voice for thirty years to actors, directors and other creative types. According to her website:

“Having spent eight years researching the voice at the University of Birmingham Drama Department, Nadine has developed her own voice technique. She now works closely with many international theatre companies and drama schools all over Europe. She has been teaching at the Royal Conservatoire Scotland for the past 20 years, where her work is now the chosen technique taught by the Centre for Voice In Performance.”

What was I doing there? A good question. I wasn’t entirely sure myself. I was sent to Nadine by my wife who had previously trained with Nadine, and who had an instinct that I’d find the lesson rewarding.

Her method is in a lineage that descends from Alfred Wolfsohn via Roy Hart. These were not names that meant much to me before this year. Suffice to say this is not an entirely performance-based tradition of voice work. Wolfsohn suffered shell shock during the First World War and used vocalising as a form of self-treatment after other therapies failed to help. While Nadine does not claim to be a therapist, she recognises that her work has therapeutic impacts.

Continue reading “Exploring voice”

Grounds for optimism

By Martin Vogel

Not everything about chaos is miserable. We may be living through an epoch-defining collapse of the socio-economic settlement we have known for four decades. A reckoning with free-market, shareholder value capitalism is long overdue and it is happening in more disruptive ways than was needed. Things may look disturbing and confusing. But, as David Brooks reminds, out of chaos comes hope:

“There have been many moments in our history when old ideas and old arrangements stopped working and people chopped them up. Those transition moments were bumpy, and it was easy to lose hope, but then people figured it out. Never underestimate the power of human ingenuity.”

He doesn’t mean the kind of blind-faith, glib, muddling-through, bulldog-spirit, groundless hope that keeps churning out the same answers to new problems. He’s not British. He’s talking about the application of imagination to the invention of new paradigms; meeting a new reality with new strategies.

Continue reading “Grounds for optimism”

Tracking down Conquest’s law on organisations

By Martin Vogel

The more it is cited, the more frustrated I become about “Robert Conquest’s Third Law of Politics” which is said to state:

The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

The aphorism strikes me as so profound and relevant that I have often tried to verify its attribution. Conquest was a renowned historian of the Soviet Union, so his opinions on the politics of organisations carry considerable credibility.

Continue reading “Tracking down Conquest’s law on organisations”

Beyond codes of ethics to ethical maturity

By Martin Vogel

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

By Martin Vogel

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

By Martin Vogel

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

By Martin Vogel

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

By Martin Vogel

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”