Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Art of Balance

I spent yesterday afternoon with a good friend who, like me, spends a lot of time on the road talking with managers and supervisors about the art and science of management, team building, mentoring, workplace relationships, and leadership. Sitting near a beautiful hot spring outside the high desert city of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, that we both call home, the cool breezes wafted off the mountains that surround this special place and our discussion progressed from the ideal institutional manager to the person inside that manager, and we examined the premise that until a manager becomes balanced internally he or she cannot balance others, lead them, set an example for them, or motivate them over the longer term.

How can a manager, for example, concerned about the future of his children in a world with an ever more impoverished environment be a willing party to pushing ever more waste into our biosphere? How can a manager who has little knowledge of other cultures and fundamentally misjudges them, or least shoots his values through the western prism, ever understand, let alone motivate, those upon whom he looks as lesser? Can a manager balance her work with the rest of the moments in her life by increasing work hours or tethering herself to the job with one of the myriad of electronic marvels? How long can she ignore the guilt we all feel when leaved our loved ones to their own devices?

What efforts do most of us put into understanding our environment, culture, ethics, values, and how we fit into this living world? How do most institutions help managers address these issues, if they address them at all? Can institutions simply mandate behaviors that ignore fundamental beliefs? The answer is, "Yes, they can," but only for the unthinking, for those who have given up trying to make sense of work and life and how they should be connected in a way other than work being a necessary evil to provide for the rest of life. There are many managers and other employees who are willing to just stay busy and get paid, if for no other reason that it takes away the pain that comes when trying to adjust one’s beliefs and actions to make them consistent. Unfortunately for most institutions, the busy are not the creators, but merely the executors of instructions.

Jeremy Narby, an activist anthropologist, observes that the answer may not be found in institutional solutions, those solutions imposed on us by modifying our behaviors, but inside those who control institutions, to-wit, leaders must first learn to control “[their own] predatory nature[s],” and that [just] because we have made our way to the top of the food chain, if we are to survive successfully in world of ever-diminishing resources we can’t act “like hormonal adolescents with power tools,” an elegant way of saying that there has to be something more than the profit-motive to motivate the best and brightest among us, those who think, who are socially conscious, who care how it all ends.

How many managers do you know who have come to peace, meaning a balance, with what they are doing vocationally and their fundamental beliefs about life, family, friends, animals, the earth, that which really matters? Perhaps the system isn’t the solution, after all, but rather the solution is found inside each of us and is different for each of us – that one size does not fit all. Perhaps our learning to distinguish between “me” and “you,” and “us” and “them” as the primary paradigm of life has resulted in a duality that defines success not was winning, but rather, in making someone else lose, whether it be the person in the next cubicle or the next company or the next country. If it is not in our nature to hurt others, and I believe it is not, then a new paradigm of cooperation, participation, and self-organization should be considered as an alternative to the command-and-control model of management. That said, this requires more than simply teaching participation “techniques.” It means looking at the world differently and seeing more one than two.

To find our answers, we need to spend more time thinking about what matters, and less time fiddling with our integrated circuits, playing with our “executive gameboys,” and sending electronic mail, which serve the worthwhile purpose of high speed communication but regrettably allow us to lose ourselves “out there” and forget about what is “in here.” Technology in some ways has made us better and more efficient at doing that which we have not taken the time to understand.

How to achieve this balance will be the subject of many more discussions among us, and from these may emerge some answers, not for others, but for those who participate. If there is a learning from these conversations that can be projected, can be passed on, it will not be in the form of answers with universal applicability, but rather, in the form of creating an environment in which each participant is comfortable in identifying his or her fundamental beliefs, what they value, and then determining whether his or her actions are consistent with those beliefs, and if not how balance can be achieved.


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