Three Lessons for Business People

If we consider organisations and how they prosper, what three things have we learnt over the years?

First, that people are not the most important asset in organisations. That’s right, they’re not. There is a mantra, of course, that says they are – one sees directors beaming with moral self-satisfaction as they repeat – with that rabbit in a headlight look on their faces – ‘People are our…’.

There are organisations where they are, but they are few and far between. The game is given away by the phrase Human Resource management and Human Resource Managers. People don’t want to be a Human Resource (or ‘Asset’) – they want to be people. And they want to be treated as people should be treated. One of the core principles underscoring the development of healthy self-esteem is respect. Whether we are children or adults we need to be treated with respect.

The core skill that delivers ‘respect’ is listening. As we look round the waste of top-down management styles – the ‘Fred Goodwin Effect’ (ex- and disgraced CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland) as its latest incarnation in the UK might be called – where do we see the listening? The tragedy is that after a while people become inured to being treated badly – even get to expect and like it. An addiction to punishment sets in: the public sector is especially aware of this.

The second thing I have learnt is that leaders don’t lead. Yes, there is a lot of management going on, but although management is necessary it is not leadership. At the top level it is not management we need, but leadership. Part of the reason for this is that most people are secretly crying out to be led – and for a good reason: leadership removes uncertainty and creates stability and security, a primary human need.

Management – all operational stuff. We need a leadership that is genuinely visionary – that creates those images that inspire people to give of their best. Leaders – to be a leader – must engage people, and engagement is what people want.

Finally, the third thing I have learnt is that managers know little or nothing about the nature of the universe, and so ‘go astray’. Why wouldn’t they? Imagine being transported to the most fertile farm land in the world and told to till the ground, but you know nothing of farming. Of course you could expect disastrous results despite the fact that you can create ten thousand amazing Excel spreadsheets!

Perhaps part of the problem is the specialism of the education system: the process by which we come out ‘qualified’ but not educated.

I explained to my audience very simply that if we understood the Tao Te Ching we might understand something about the universe. First, we needed to move away from fruitless speculation on the nature of God: as the first line says, The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao. What wisdom is there!

Second, having established not talking about the Tao – the Way – the One because to do so was itself self-defeating, we come on to the real profundity: from One comes Two, from Two comes Three, and from Three comes Ten Thousand things. What does this mean: the immortal, invisible, ineffable One produces Two – Yin and Yang – and Yin and Yang produce Three – Heaven, Earth and Humans – and these Three create all things that are. Oh my!

You can see, as you say this, people thinking – is he off his trolley? What has this to do with business? Everything. Let’s just take one point: if we understood the Two – Yin and Yang – and their ceaseless opposition, we would have known the economic downturn had to happen. The Yang of success had reached such overblown proportions that a Yin correction was inevitable – a correction, incidentally, of the same magnitude as the bubble which spawned it. So this means, if we understand the nature of the universe, the recession is far from over: we have a lot further down to go. But knowing this is reassuring, because we are no longer acting in uncertainty, but preparing for the storm.

The lessons from this are simple and come in the form of three pressing questions: first, how do we make people truly central in our organisations? How do we develop leadership at the highest levels? And how do we educate people so that they ‘see’ more?

No one said, of course, learning was easy!

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