Confusing the path with those who walk it

I can see few clearer examples of the consequences of confusing paths and people than in the National Health Service here in England.

We are in a period of acute austerity, which has resulted in the wide-scale degradation (some would say dismantling) of social care services, leaving hospitals filled with elderly people who should not be there at all but have nowhere else to go. This, coupled with a funding model for hospitals that pays them less for caring for such patients than for other vital services, forces those who run NHS Trusts to choose between:

(1) running up a huge deficit to prop up the failing social care system, while continuing to provide the services that people rely on

(2) or greatly cutting back on spending in order to balance the books, either by limiting elective surgery (which, while not life-critical, can have an enormous effect on the quality of life of the people served by the hospital), or by cutting back on the quality of care, with all the attendant risks to safety and dignity of patients.

Each choice is fraught with difficulty and the potential for harm. And each is the product of a much wider societal, political and economic environment which itself shapes the paths that are possible.

When we fall back on our familiar individualistic interpretations, we quickly conclude that someone must be to blame for having to make such choices at all. And this leads us to conclude (a) that the people involved in making such choices must clearly be incompetent or misguided, otherwise they’d be able to make the right decision, and (b) that someone else – a new leader, someone with their head screwed on – will be able to sort it out.

And all of this draws our explanations away from the path itself and what creates it, and towards those who find themselves on it.

We get blinded to the systemic difficulty by our insistence that it’s personal.

And this in turn lays out and reinforces a particular kind of path of its own – one which holds even talented and committed people responsible for that which they cannot control, and leads those who would otherwise wish to contribute to stay well away.

It’s easy to see the effect of this path on people’s willingness to step in: the average tenure for an NHS Chief Executive is only two and a half years (Source: NHS Leadership Academy), nearly 1 in 10 NHS Trusts has no finance director, around 1 in 8 has no director of operations, and vacancies for these posts remain unfilled for months at a time (Source: The King’s Fund).

In the NHS the discipline of good path-making has implications at all levels, including the political and policy situation that could brought about by government if the will was there (the purposeful cultivation of paths that could have the NHS thrive instead of the cultivation of those that have it and those within it flounder). But the phenomenon is also visible at a much more local level in smaller organisations, because the narrative of individual accountability is a background assumption upon which many so organisations are founded.

And until we’re willing to treat the systemic and collective practice of path-making as a serious project in our organisations and in our wider culture, we’re writing ourselves again and again into paths that sustain the very difficulties we most want to solve.

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An invitation…

An invitation is not an invitation unless the person invited is able to say no.

And, in addition, in the face of the no, everyone remains whole.

You remain whole.
They remain whole.
The relationship between you remains whole.

Without those conditions being met, it’s not an invitation at all. It’s a demand. A condition. A bribe. A form of coercion dressed up as a gift. And, like many forms of looking-good we can get into, it’s a way of being in control while pretending, perhaps to ourselves more than to anyone else, that it’s nothing of the sort.

[With thanks to Karen, who told me about this today]

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Changing the path

We human beings are both path-makers and path-followers. Both are important, but it’s our innate capacity to follow paths that makes possible so much of what we are able to do, and gives it its character.

Notice this in your own home. How the door handle draws you to open the door, how the kitchen table is an invitation to sit, how the half-full fridge calls you to open its doors and find something to eat. Notice how a library is a place you find yourself hushed and reverential, how you push and shove to take up your place on a crowded train even though you would do this nowhere else, how you rise in unison to shout at a football game, how the words on the page guide you through the speech you are giving even when you’re not concentrating closely on them, how you quicken your step in a darkened alley, how you find yourself having driven for hours on a busy motorway without remembering what actions and choice any of the minutes entailed.

Our capacity to follow the paths laid out for us is no deficiency. That the paths support us in the background, and that we do not have to think about them, is what frees us for so much of what is creative and inventive in human life – including our capacity to design entirely new paths for ourselves and others.

To be human, then, is always in a large part to find ourselves shaped by what we find ourselves in the midst of.

It is all of this that exposes the limits of our individualistic understanding of people and their actions – an understanding we use to make sense of much of what happens in organisational life. For when we are sure that it is the individual who is the source of all actions and behaviour, we are blind to the paths that they find themselves in the midst of.

And as long as we concentrate only on getting individual people to change, or firing or changing our leaders until we get the ‘perfect’ right one, we miss the opportunity to work together to change or lay out the new paths which could help everyone.

Indeed, working to change the paths that lend themselves to whatever difficulty we wish to address may be the most important work we can do. And this always includes our developing – together – the skills and qualities that support us in being purposeful path-makers in the first place.


When up close

The image you carry around with you of each person you know is not that person.

And the image you carry around with you of yourself is not you.

So often, when you relate to others, you’re relating only to the image – a story, a narrative thread woven from glimpses, half-truths, and your own habitual way of accounting for things. You can hardly call it them. If anything, what you’re relating to is more properly part of you.

How huge the distance there is still to cross to have any real sense of the other.

And yet… this capacity to relax your certainty about other people so you can reach them and be reached is one of the great human qualities, if you’re prepared to allow for it. And if you’re ready to find out that, up close, other people are quite different from what you were sure they would be.

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Safe, or so it seems

Our fear of freedom is a profound source of difficulty in our organisations.

We’re afraid of taking up our own freedom, because with freedom comes risk, and with freedom comes responsibility.

If I speak up, create something new, make a dent in things, allow my feelings to show, do what matters, say no to something, or question a process, person or idea… then who knows what might happen? I might inspire someone, influence a whole system, do something that really matters, fail, be embarrassed. I might be loved, adulated, judged, hated, despised or – for some of us worst of all – not noticed at all.

No, better not to take up our own freedom.

It’s way too risky.

And we’re afraid of others taking up their freedom, because we fear our own wishes will be thwarted or we’ll be ashamed.

If others are free then I might get questioned, I may lose my sense of control, I may get judged, my ideas might be sidelined, I might be less powerful. I might feel vulnerable, afraid, surprised, opened. I might find out I don’t know as much as I thought I knew. I might find a whole new path opening up before me, or end up somewhere quite different from where I expected.

No, better not to allow others to take up their freedom.

And so we curtail our liberty in every direction. We become the inventors of and followers of rules that don’t serve us. We declare boundaries where none are needed, or fail to declare them when they could help. We stay small, in predictable bounds. We bury ourselves in email. We invent processes that keep us feeling safe and secure. We try to fit in at the expense of standing out. We do things because they’re ‘best practice’ but not because they help. And we do what we can to avoid making a ruckus, inviting trouble, or allowing ourselves or others to shine.

It’s tiring. It leaves us diminished and scattered and at odds with our own aliveness.

But at least it’s safe.

Or so it seems.

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What we won’t talk about

We’ve made emotions, the inner critic, and what we feel in our bodies undiscussable in most organisations, perhaps especially for those with the most power and hence the most to lose.

And the effects are far-reaching.

Because without an honest conversation about our fear and vulnerability, and in the midst of the myth of the heroic, independently capable leader, we’ve rendered ourselves mute on one of the most important conversations we could be having: our first-hand account of what makes it so difficult, so often, to tell the truth. And what could help us.

We become united in our silence.

The consequences go far beyond momentary inconvenience, or the conversation you’re avoiding about a colleague’s performance. Because when we’re unable to tell truth, and tolerate doing so however it feels, we turn away from each other and from our capacity to act.

In the spaces left by our silence, the seeds of great difficulty can grow, unrestrained – the seeds of organisational malpractice, self-interest, and denial. And soon, they grow in our society too, even though many of us have forgotten that our work and society are not separate from one another.

How many more economic, ethical, and environmental crises are we willing to have our organisations be part of? How long before we discover our urgent need to turn to one another about all this, and speak up about what we see in ourselves that has us hold back?

Choosing life

At every moment, we stand poised at a threshold, with a choice to make.

Do we choose life, awakeness, and responsibility for ourselves and those around us?

Or do we choose to be asleep, on automatic pilot, reacting out of habit, fear, familiarity?

Neither path is easy.

And it’s certainly not always straightforward to tell which is which.

The path of habit might give us reassurance, comfort, and apparent stability at the cost of our integrity and the longing of our hearts.

The path of awakeness might take us far from home before it brings us back again. We might have to face the mind-boggling consequences of our own aliveness. And we might have to experience uncertainty, confusion, shame, great joy, and the terrible and amazing wonder of writing our own stories.

Many times, despite our intentions, we will find ourselves choosing the path that we did not intend to choose, which always leads to another choice. Turn towards ourselves with kindness or harshness? Own up to our own responsibility, or pretend it’s nothing to do with us?

And all the way through we have to face that what happens in our lives has less to do with which path we’ve chosen than we’d like to think. The path of responsibility is no more certain to lead to riches, success, or security than the path of being asleep.

No, which path we choose is little to do with how life will turn out for us, and much to do with what kind of person each of us gets to be. And that is one of the aspects of being a human being in which we all get to have a say.

Standing at the Gate

In a famous story by Franz Kafka, a man who is searching for truth comes to a door, guarded by a powerful gatekeeper.

The two talk for a while, and the man discovers that what he seeks is within. But when he realises that this is only the first in a series of doors guarded by successively fierce and powerful gatekeepers, he decides to sit for a while and work out how he can obtain permission to enter.

The man sits, and he sits, occasionally striking up conversation with the gatekeeper, and the years pass. The man wonders what it will be like to eventually cross through the door, and why nobody else seems to have come by to gain entry.

And as the man finally reaches the end of his life – still waiting – the gatekeeper reaches out for the door. This door, he tells the man, was only for you, and now it is time for me to close it, for ever.

So much of our lives is exactly this way. Faced with a threshold to cross – as happens to each of us innumerable times – we easily hesitate. Waiting on the known side of the door feels so much better, and so much safer, for who knows what succession of trials and dangers awaits on the other side?

There, we will have to face our anxiety and fear, and an uncertain world in which much that we’ve come to rely on can no longer save us.

And while we know that our chances of living fully are much greater if we’re prepared to step in, we can see only how our lives would be safer staying just where we are, where the reassuring contours of the world as we know it can hold us.

And eventually, each of the doors in our life closes, as we knew they always would, and we find out that the safety of staying small, and quiet, and not bothering anyone – the safety of holding the horizons of the world tight and enclosing – was never any genuine safety at all.

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Travelling Companions

Time and again, we human beings have had to find out that what we took to be most secure and most solid, was nothing of the sort.

We put down roots, build houses of bricks and mortar, make plans for ourselves. And then, perhaps, we find them swept away in a storm or flood, in a war or earthquake, in political or economic upheaval, in illness or accident, in the ever surprising turns of life.

And sometimes we realise this is how things are for long enough that we remember to turn towards the people around us, our travelling companions on this most audacious and risky of journeys, and appreciate their beauty and magnificence, their sadness and their love, and are able to just be with them for a while.

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Two sides

In the ancient Jewish tradition, people are thought of as having two primary orientations to the world – an inclination towards good (yetzer hatov) and an inclination towards evil (yetzer harah).

The inclination towards good draws us out of ourselves towards what is most compassionate and most principled. And the inclination towards evil draws us towards our most self-centred interests, from which we care only for ourselves and not for others or the world.

Surely, in this way of thinking, the inclination towards good is itself good and should be cultivated, and the inclination towards evil is bad and should be extinguished? No, say the rabbis, they are both good, and both necessary.

How can this be?

With only the inclination to good we risk spending all our time basking in the wonder and awe of life. Many possibilities for action are denied to us, because they cannot beknown to have positive outcomes. The inclination to good, on its own, is noble but paralysed, unable to decide what to do when uncertain about consequences, when the world in all its complexity and unknowability becomes apparent.

And so we need the inclination to evil also. Given free rein, it dooms us to a life of self-centredness, of action purely for our own gain. But without it, say the rabbis, nobody would create anything. We would not build houses, bring children into the world, nor do the difficult and creative work of shaping the world around us. The inclination to evil, with its indignation and rage and cunning and huge creativity is what brings us into purposeful action.

Denying either side leads to trouble. It takes both inclinations in a constant dynamic tension to have us act in the most human, and most humane ways.

And this is the foundational task facing each of us if we want to act with integrity in the world: we must find a way of knowing ourselves fully so that we leave nothing of ourselves out. We have to stop denying and pushing away the parts of ourselves that we don’t understand, or don’t like so much. We have to take our fear and confusion as seriously as our hope and our joy. We have to stop pretending to have it all together.

Integrity is exactly that – integrating all of it. When we bring our hope and our fear, our nobility and selfishness, our love and our disdain, our serious adulthood and playful childishness, our light and our darkness, each informs and shapes the other in a constant dance of opposites. And this is what brings us into creative and purposeful and appropriate action in the complexity of the world.

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Learn coaching with us – October 1-2 in London

Everything I write about here is, in a very direct way, connected with one of my great loves – supporting the enduring growth and development of people.

Growth in this case means something more ambitious than getting happier, or getting what we want. Instead it’s being able to ever more skilfully turn towards the suffering and difficulty in the world with both creativity and compassion, and contribute to reducing it.

And there is so much difficulty we face. Some of it is reflected in the large scale issues that we see on the news, but much of it is of a more ordinary, close-in, prosaic kind – in our workplaces and in our homes.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be someone who could make a contribution to all that, and find meaning and fulfilment in doing so?

That’s what we’ll be studying and practising together on the two-day Coaching to Excellence course in London on October 1-2. Teaching these programmes (usually to a small group of between 8 and 14 people) is one of my greatest joys.

Coaching to Excellence is a chance to step in to the theory and practice of integral development coaching, and for anyone interested in becoming even more skilful as a coach it’s the doorway into the Professional Coaching Course I teach that begins in November.

Drop me a line if you’d like to know more or, if you’ve heard enough already, you’re welcome to sign up here to join us.

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