I came across this piece by Marcia Devlin this morning.
The first part of her post reminded me of my Grade 6 teacher. (A Mr Horn, if I remember correctly.) Now I liked Mr Horn very much. I thought he was an engaging teacher who always made us think. But I do remember him one day looking around the class and saying, quite seriously and matter of factly, “I don’t think any of you will go to university.”
I now have four degrees and I know one other member of the same class has a PhD.
Predictions are not really very useful. I could go on about that but the part of Marcia’s post that really caught my attention was :
I’m a bit taken lately with human potential ideology and hope theory. The former moves away from deficit models to models of human potential and the latter promotes the generation and pursuit of goals. (links added.)
I was excited by just the thought of these concepts. How would it be if we were to move away from all this talk about (inherently self-limiting) standards in education and moved towards finding the potential in each child in our care? That instead of focussing on all that is wrong with our world, we were to move towards generating hope.
Our previous prime minister was famous for saying he wanted Australians to be relaxed and comfortable. On reflection, this sounds like an opium for the masses. It sounds a long way from finding the potential in every member of our society and generating hope.
Education is currently dominated by standards. What if it were dominated by potential and hope?
Business leaders are evaluated on achievement against “key performance indicators.” What if they were evaluated against the extent to which they developed their organisation’s potential? What if they were evaluated against their achievement in promoting hope, both within their organisation and in the wider community?
Lot’s of questions I know. You didn’t really expect me to provide answers did you?
A more obvious interpretation is that James Hardie’s directors acted with extraordinary disregard for their duties and deliberately set out to deceive their stakeholders. The question that remains in my mind is why they would do this? It is not as if it is a unique case. The tobacco companies have repeatedly been accused of hiding their knowledge of the health effects of smoking. I could understand the owners of a company trying to cover up their actions. But the directors are not the owners. They are generally supposed to act in the interest of the owners.
In this case, how could James Hardie’s directors have thought they were acting in the interests of their owners (shareholders). Surely they were going to be found out. The evidence seems that they knew (or seriously suspected) that the compensation fund the company set up was not fully funded. At some point this was going to become public knowledge.
Perhaps it could be argued that it would be in the interests of shareholders to have relocated the company to the Netherlands so that it was immune to any future liability for asbestos related effects of their products. There was a possibility they would have been able to protect this position in court, but it would surely destroy the company in the market. Who would buy anything from a company with such a tarnished reputation – a company that had simply walked away from its moral responsibility and left many of its employees and customers to die a horrible death with completely inadequate compensation?
I ask again. How could this possibly be in the interests of shareholders? One possible answer is that it was not and the directors acted not only with complete disregard to their moral responsibility but also with complete disregard for the interests of their owners.
If, for the moment, we accept this argument, the more fundamental question is “Why did they do it?”
To suggest an answer to this question I am going to delve into the world of psychology and more particularly, one of its sub disciplines – psychodynamics. I suspect that the directors became caught up in a subconscious fantasy that they could get away with it and they would be seen as heroes. This fantasy in turn was possibly triggered by the awful facts they were presented with and the more difficult option that faced them. The only alternative was to face the music. To be the board that stood up and declared the king had no clothes — James Hardie had been involved in systematic deception and cover up for decades. They would have to ‘out’ their predecessors as having acted both illegally and immorally. This would be an unforgiveable sin in the directors club. I would guess that you could go through the minutes of Hardie’s board meetings during this time and not find one hint that this thought had even been remotely hinted at. It’s probable that no suggestion of this possibility even passed the lips of any of the directors involved – either in the board meetings themselves or in private conversations. No one had to say what the alternative was. They all knew it.
It would have taken incredible courage to take this alternative route. A courage that the James Hardie board seemed incapable of finding. In the end, this seriously eroded the value of Hardie’s owners’ investment in the company.
If you accept this interpretation of events, you are left facing one more piece of evidence that “shareholder value” is not only a vacuous concept, but also an often used excuse for acting directly against the interests of shareholders. If we are really serious about maintaining shareholder value, we would demand that our directors and executives act with absolute moral rectitude.
Easier said than done to be sure. A better goal than “maintaining shareholder value?” I personally think it is.
Most Christmas messages are light hearted homilies full of good cheer, hope for humanity, celebration and high spirits. We all need a break from the pressures of everyday life and Christmas is one of those times many of us use to relax. Personally I love Christmas. I love the atmosphere. I love getting together with my family. The big Christmas dinner. Using the opportunity to bring joy into many hearts. All that and much more.
However, as I sit down to write my final newsletter for the year, my thoughts are a little more reflective than usual. Still full of hope as is who I am. But the path to hope is more complex than I usually allow myself at this time of year.
I had a deep conversation with the manager of my regular cafe last week. We talked
about life and experience and the varied paths we all take in our days on this
planet. Discussing the absolute dedication many people in the corporate world
give to their careers my colleague remarked “I wonder if they’ve ever stopped
to think ‘What’s next?'” By this she meant if they have ever wondered what
the end game of their career progression be. If you get to the top (whatever ‘the
top’ may be) what’s next? If you don’t get to the top at the end of your career,
what’s next? I see so many people who work 80 hours a week and wonder when
they ever get time to enjoy the benefits of their work. Before I continue on this thought, I want to relate a seperate experience.
Welcome to the first edition of The Spiral Path – the companion newsletter
to my Spiral Path blog.
In this newsletter, I refer to the concepts of Quantum Leadership® and
The Spiral Path™. You can find out more about these concepts on my website.
Over the last half a year I have given a lot of thought to what I might write
about in this the premiere edition of The Spiral Path. I’ve written
myself notes and possible titles have come and gone in my mind. In the end
though, I have come back to my very first thought – the concept of our
Blind Spot. I am heavily indebted to C.
Otto Scharmer* for the central insight
of this article as well as many of his words that I will quote directly.
When we think about our blind spot, we think about something that is in front
of us but we can’t see it. A colleague I was discussing this with recently
observed “it’s something we don’t want to see.” There
are certainly many of those, but I want to talk about a different view of
the blind spot. Something that is within the range of our perception but is,
in fact, invisible.
I’ve come across the work of the sociologist, Max
Weber, a couple
of times recently.
Firstly, in their book, Why
Should Anyone be Led by You?, Rob
Goffee and Gareth
Jones talk about the implications of Weber’s thinking
for Leadership in business. I hope to write a piece on this book
in the near future.
However, the catalyst for this post is this thought provoking piece,
by Lorin Loverde.
Loverde discusses Weber’s book The
Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I am fascinated by Loverde’s
analysis which is that the development of capitalism only became possible
with the widespread influence of the ‘Protestant
According to Loverde, there is a vast contradiction inherent in capitalism — we
seek to gain wealth but when we do we are immediately tempted to spend
it on ourselves. So previous societies over millennia created great
edifices to themselves or lived in debauchery, but there was nothing
left to invest in future investment for wealth creation. So the civilisation
collapsed only to start the process over again.
But then came the Reformation and the Protestant Age. The capitalist
contradiction was held by a ‘transcendent
wordly life was but a preparation for a future life. In this life our
purpose was to serve God and deny ourselves. Loverde puts it this way:
“…we demonstrated on earth by our economic success that we
were predestined to go to heaven after death; thus, our success was
a sign of goodness, but we still had to avoid being extremely selfish
with extravagant spending and conspicuous consumption to typical of
Having a “Reformed
Baptist” background myself, I would
contest Loverde’s theological interpretation but the end result
is the same. The Protestant ethic was one of self discipline (as opposed
to the self-denial of the pre-reformation
Christian Church.) This involved
enjoyment but avoidance of the wordly pleasures or ‘sins of the
flesh’. In Wesley’s Methodism,
this developed into avoiding anything that was thought to be worldly — including dancing,
drinking alcohol, anything that had a sexual association, the theatre
and even reading ‘wordly’ (ie non-religious) books.
Most “Protestant” christians today would regard this methodism
as extreme but would still aspire to some notion of avoiding ‘wordliness’ – that
is that their ultimate purpose in this life is in preparation for the
The point Loverde is making is that this live view — that of
having a transcendent purpose — made, and to some extent continues
to make, capitalism possible. Without it, previous generations would
have spent all the wealth they created and we would not now be enjoying
the benefits of the ‘great industrial west.’ There would
be no infrastructure, no large industrialised capacity.
The problem now is we have capitalism but have lost the Protestant
It reminds of the RAF’s Bomber
II. It was formed during the darkest days of the Battle
of Britain in an attempt
to strike at the German war machine at its source. From it’s
origins as a cobbled together unit with hopelessly inadequate and out
of date machinery, it became itself an efficient and ruthless machine
that could ‘take out’ any city in Germany on any night
it chose. And, in the end, it did for no other reason than because
it could. It had been set up in the dire need to defend Great
Britain but when the hour of desperation had passed it continued to bomb cities
because that’s what it did – with devastating impact and
little military gain as we say in Dresden.
Perhaps that’s the point we have reached in capitalism. We make
wealth because we can. We’ve forgotten why. We just do it. For
ourselves we could say this is no problem, except that our continuing
to make wealth threatens our very ability to make wealth.
We have become so efficient at extracting and using the Earth’s
resources that we can, for the first time in our history, envision
the day when we have used all there is to use. Again our efficiency
at using resources has created daunting problems of waste and impact
on the world’s environment. It has gone well past the stage where
the West can live without regard to the pollution we create in the
World. The world is now just too small.
Finally, continuing to create and concentrate wealth while at the
same time making communications technology easily available to almost
every square millimetre of our planet, we have allowed the world’s
poorest peoples to know about our affluence and, many would say, decadence.
There can be little doubt that this is a major driving force towards
This has perhaps always been the case, as long as there has been a
divide between rich and poor. What is driving, and makes so threatening,
the extremism in the terrorism of the “fundamentalists” is
the juxtaposition of this divide with what they see as the purposelessness
of the West.
Loverde’s response is to propose the need for a transcendent
For better or worse we have left behind the Protestant Ethic and now,
Harris, we build bigger businesses because we can. We have
forgotten why. The catch cry is that business exists to make a profit.
If we believe this, we are sounding the death knell of capitalism as
we know it for there will be nothing left to invest. That is if the
earth’s resources don’t run out first or fundamentalist
extremist terrorism doesn’t make it impossible to continue to
operate business on a global scale.
So what might a viable transcendent purpose be? How about you tell
As I was growing up and developing an interest in science and electronics, Dad
seemed to be able to answer any question I put to him. He knew how a radio worked
and helped me build my first crystal set.
When I got to high school and started learning algebra, calculus and trigonometry
he seemed to be able to explain every question I had at least as well as my teachers.
Dad often had his own particular way of explaining a topic that made it come
alive in my mind. I didn’t
think about this much until later in my adult years. This seemed to me just what
a Dad should be able to do. But as I became a science and maths teacher myself,
I started to realise he would be what we would now classify as a gifted student.
We would regard him as having the potential to go a long way. Had he been born
in the fifties like I was, he would almost certainly have gone to university
and had the opportunity to do post graduate studies.
Dad was also a gifted and advanced pianist. As we were growing up we realised
that not everyone’s dad played the piano and certainly not everyone’s
dad played what we later learned was called classical music. But although we
loved his music and loved hearing him play pretty well every night we didn’t
realise until late in our teens how advanced he was. He played Chopin, Paganini,
Liszt and many other
composers’ works from memory. Even then it was only well into my adult years
that I started to realise how amazing it was that a fitter and turner son of
a blacksmith from Kalgoorlie was such an advanced musician. He was certainly
talented enough that had the opportunity arisen, he could have made a career
from his music.
Yet Dad never had the opportunity to go to university or had the opportunity
to make a career from his music. My dad was a teenager (although the term wasn’t
used then) during the depression and had to leave school to go to work as soon
as work was available. He worked as a Diesel Mechanic in the Kalgoorlie mines
and the power station there. Each week he would bring his pay packet home and
give it to my grandmother who would then give him whatever she thought was a
reasonable allowance to live on. He wasn’t destitute. Dad was able to buy
a number of old motorbikes and eventually a brand new Francis
Barnett in the late 30s. He
even bought a piano as far as I know with my grandmother’s blessing. Who
knows, if things had continued as they were he may have had the opportunity to
advance his education and eventually make it to university or have opportunity
to play music as a career.
But this was not to be. The war came and Dad joined the RAAF as a Fitter. Even
there he excelled. I recently applied for and received his air force records.
The results of his examinations for his group of trainees is included. The names
are listed in order of merit and at the top of the list, alone in the category “Pass
with Special Distinction” is dad’s name. While he was training in
Melbourne, my auntie contributed to the war effort by inviting some of these
young men home to replace some of family comforts they were missing. I still
have a photo from those days of my dad in his RAAF dark blue uniform sitting
at the piano at my auntie’s house. That’s how he met my mum (my auntie’s
sister). The were married on December 6th 1941. Pearl
Harbor was bombed on December
7th 1941. All leave was cancelled and within days of becoming a married man,
he found himself at the receiving end of Japanese bombs in the Northern
Although mum and dad were able to correspond, all mum was allowed to know was
that he was somewhere in Australia and was left to guess that he was in the Northern
Just a few months later she received a telegram from the Air Force:
REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR HUSBAND, AIRCRAFTSMAN CLASS I STANFORD HARVEY
CURNOW, IS REPORTED TO BE SERIOUSLY ILL AND HAS BEEN ADMITTED TO A MILITARY HOSPITAL
AT BATCHELOR SUFFERING FROM A PROBABLE FRACTURE OF BASE OF SKULL AS THE RESULT
OF ACCIDENTALLY FALLING FROM MOVING TRANSPORT ON 18TH JUNE 1942 STOP
YOUR HUSBAND’S CONDITION IS CONSIDERED TO BE SERIOUS STOP
ANY FURTHER INFORMATION RECEIVED WILL BE IMMEDIATELY CONVEYED TO YOU STOP
Thanks to the surgeons at an American
Military Hospital, Dad did recover although
he was left with permanent paralysis of one side of his face and for a long time
was very embarrassed about this. I don’t know all the details of his recovery
but he was not discharged until 1944 without taking any further active part in
the war. (One of his brothers was killed in the Battle
for Singapore and the
other spent 11 days drifting in a dinghy in the Mediterranean after being shot
On medical grounds, Dad was advised not to return to Kalgoorlie where work was
being offered to him and was forced to compete in a much tougher employment market
in Melbourne. Eventually he was able to get a position as an apprentice fitter
and turner as part of a scheme to retrain returned servicemen. He remained with
the same employer for the next forty years. However, despite his proven intellect
and ability Dad remained a blue collar worker all his working life. One of the
high points of those early days was the young husband and wife, with my then
infant eldest brother being able to move into a War
Service home in Highett which
remained the family home for the rest of Dad’s life and until Mum was no
longer able to live by herself.
Interspersed with periods of great happiness, perhaps the greatest of them the
birth of their four children, Dad experienced periods of deep melancholy. It
wasn’t easy feeding, clothing and schooling four children on a fitter and
turner’s wage even though he worked long hours of overtime when it was
available and took on a second job as a waiter at a golf club on weekends.
Things probably got to their lowest point at the death of my brother after a
long and difficult illness, but then things started to look up as Dad neared
retirement age. After years of working amongst heavy machinery he had suffered
significant hearing loss and was successful in receiving a small but useful compensation
payout. Then again, after years of hearings, letters and appointments with government
bodies (mainly the Repatration
Department) he was finally awarded a compensation payment and pension
for his war injuries. Although the compensation payment did not cover the pension
he would have received if the government had originally admitted liability
for his injuries, it was enough to allow Mum and Dad to live comfortably for
their twenty years of retirement.
I wrote this piece for another purpose. But as I was writing it, it made me
think again about the concept of "potential." Given my Dad’s ability and talent,
many would say he had the potential to acheive much more than he did.
When I think about that, my first reaction is to wonder who has the right
to judge the worth of one life’s achievements and whether something "better"
could have been achieved.
Leaving that aside though, did my Dad have that potential, or when you think
about potential do you have to take circumstances into account? I guess we
can never really now.
What we can now is how we respond to what we believe is our own potential.
What do we do with the gifts we have? This is not about beating ourselves up
and telling ourselves we should be doing more than we are. It is about taking
an honest assessment of ourselves and asking ourselves what do we really want
to do and what can we do about that.
I leave this with you.
I recently had a delightful lunch with a colleague from my past. My colleague
and I worked closely together nearly 20 years ago when we shared the passionate
idealism of youth for innovation within our chosen calling of education. As
it happened, during the time we worked together my friend witnessed my
transition from idealism to a disillusionment which led me to leave education
to pursue a career in private business.
In the meantime, my colleague has risen to a senior management position.
During the course of our lunch she surprised me with the question "Do
you like yourself as much as you used to?" When I look back on my decision
to leave education, I am left wondering if it was the right decision or was
it just based on chasing personal financial gain. I miss teaching. But as soon
as I think about it long enough, I know I don’t miss schools and neither do
I miss the bureaucracy that surrounds them. Regardless of how my decision
will weigh in the balance of my future, it has given me the opportunity to
do things I never would have if I had stayed in teaching.
Surprising as it may seem, running my own business has given me the opportunity
to know myself more fully. To be truthful, given my personality, I think I
would have learnt more about myself whatever I did. Indeed, as I will come
to shortly, I think my colleague’s question was prompted by her reflection
on her own actions in the positions she has held and the personal dilemmas
that go hand in hand with increased responsibility.
Staying in the moment however, my immediate response was I thought I
liked myself even more than I used to. As I have pursued my business interests
I have had to reflect on the decisions I’ve made. On occasion I have trusted
people I ought not to have trusted. There are times when I have invested time
and money in ventures that were unlikely to, and in fact did not, succeed.
As I reflect on those actions I have looked deep into myself to understand
what attracts me to trust untrustworthy people and what attracts me to invest
in unsound investments. In this deep reflection I have discovered a lot about
myself. I have a tendency to avoid the difficult decisions – so it is easier
to trust someone than probe their integrity. I believe in myself but I am afraid
to really present myself because you may not share that belief – so it is easier
to hope that the unsound investment might come off rather than confront what
I am not putting into it.
Regardless of all this and more, I have had the opportunity to look into
and have a glimpse of my deepest self. When I speak of this to some people
their reaction is to regard me as self obsessed, that I think I’m better than
other people. One associate in a potential business venture, with undisguised
disdain once said to me "You
think you’re so special." That hit me hard and forced me to think. After
a moment or two’s thought I told him I did think I was special, but equally
I thought he was special and indeed every single one of us is special. No one
of us is more special than an other but we, each of us, are very special.
This all led to me to reflect on my colleague’s question and pose it back
to her. "You wouldn’t like some of the things I do." She replied,
emphasising the "you" meaning, I thought, me in particular. I took
this to mean that after the idealism we had previously shared, I would think
she had sold out on some of the principles we once shared.
It made me think of two young revolutionaries who met many years later. If
I enter this analogy, my colleague’s original question seems on the surface
to be the wrong way around. In this scenario, I am the one who sold out. I
left the revolutionary army to join the bourgeoisie, while she remained true
to the revolution and, in this play, is indeed now a senior member of the new
However she went on to speak of the decisions she now makes. I thought she
was going to fall into the jargon of saying "decisions she has to make"
but either she corrected herself before the words came out and said instead,
or always intended to say, "the decisions I choose to make."
Oh, the dilemmas of leadership. As young revolutionaries
we could criticise our incumbent self serving and incompetent masters. When
we find ourselves in their position however, things become so much more complicated.
There is never, as it once seemed, one single obvious solution to a problem.
No matter what we do, someone will be hurt, we will under-resource,
or cut a program that should not be cut, we will never have a complete command
of the whole picture and, being human, from time to time we will simply make
So do I like myself as much as I used to. Once I find it within me to
forgive myself for my mistakes I truly can say I like myself more than I used
to. A teacher in one of my postgraduate programs once made the comment "We
miss out on so much in our organisations because we can’t bring ourselves to
my personal journey, I have found it necessary to learn, and to continue to
learn, to forgive myself as well as to forgive others. Indeed to forgive myself
before I can forgive others. I am human. I make mistakes. I often don’t care
as much for those close to me as I want to. I get bound up in my own selfishness
when others around me offer me so much. Yes, all of that is true. If, however,
I can accept that as my human frailty find forgiveness I can move on to generosity.
This week’s edition of BRW is another of
its so called ‘Flagship editions’. These editions invariable involve a list of
the top so many of such and such. It was a landmark when they produced the first BRW
1000 list of the top 1000 companies in Australia. However, I’m getting
a bit tired of what seems like every month they produce a new list of the "top"
whatever. This time it is the Rich
200. A list of Australia’s wealthiest people.
It made me wonder what we mean by "rich" and why it matters to us so much?
My current book is Phillip Yancey’s volume Soul
Survivor (How my faith survived the Church.). A book I highly recommend
– even if you are not interested in the concept of faith. Yancey writes about
his journey of faith by reviewing the lessons he learned from the lives of people
he has either met or he experienced through what they wrote or what was written
about them. Chapters cover people such as Martin
Luther King Jnr., Leo
Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Mahatma
Gandhi and C.
In each case, Yancey both praises the contribution each made and clearly portrays
each person’s failures, complexities and personal dilemmas.
While I have been rivetted by each chapter, the BRW Rich 200 made me think
of Gandhi. Here was a man who held no formal office, wore only a rough hand
woven loin cloth and possessed only what he carried with him. Yet Gandhi almost
certainly procurred the independence of the world’s second most populous nation
and profoundly influenced not only India, but the United States (through his
influence on King) and other parts of the world. Could any of us imagine how
different the world would be today if Gandhi had never lived? In one hundred
years will Kerry or James Packer even be remembered? Probably by some. Will
anyone regard their legacy as profoundly good for the world?
Gandhi’s life challenges almost all of what we stand for in the West. When
we compare our wealth with others we fret not that we are not wealthy, but
that we are not as wealthy as someone else.
Like Yancey, I found Gandhi’s life challenging. I like my gadgets. I write
this on an Apple MacBook Pro 17 which
goes with me everywhere and an iPod. I have a mobile phone, a NextG modem
which enables me to connect to the internet anywhere I am. I live a 200m2
home and drive a new car. There a five computers in my house. I haven’t even
begun to describe the extent of my posessions. Am I happier than Gandhi? Do
I feel more fulfilled? I can’t imagine doing what Gandhi did giving up posession
after posession and living more and more simply. Living simply itself appeals
to me, but I can’t imagine myself taking even one hundreth of the steps Gandhi
took to this end.
This challenges me and I don’t know the answer to this as a personal dilemma.
However reading about Gandhi has brought home to me that acquiring more and
more wealth is not going to make me happier. It has caused me to re-examine
my personal and business goals. It has led me to think once more about how
I set my fees. I don’t know where this will lead me. This could sound trite
and self serving but I hope it doesn’t – "all I can say is that I am on my
own Spiral Path."
Rein has decided to sell
the Australian arm of Ingeus
– the business she has built
up from herself
and a part time assistant to a multi-million dollar company employing over 1400
people over the past twenty years
I hesitate to mention that Rein is married to Australian opposition leader Kevin
Rudd because if you google "Therese Rein Ingeus", you will scroll
a long way before finding a link that does not mention this fact. This despite
the observation that Rein is a successful business person in her own right.
It’s hard to find details about Rein on the internet because there is so much
comment on her latest decision and the
events leading up to it.
My angle in this story is the clash of purposes rather than the conflict of
interests. Before making her decision, Rein passionately spoke of how her work
was much more than a business but was her life
support. She passionately believes in what she does – helping disadvantaged
people find work – and no-one seems to suggest that she doesn’t do it well.
But what happens when two people are tied together and their purposes clash?
I am often asked this question in terms of leadership teams. What happens when
the members of the team have different purposes (this is often expressed as
This is a difficult question. I don’t have an easy answer because there is
no easy answer. However, somewhere, I believe the answer lies in the higher
purpose that ties the people together. In the case of Rudd and Rein, him becoming
Prime Minister does not directly affect her business. But her remaining in
her (at least Australian) business does affect Rudd’s ability to do his job
if he becomes PM. What is the higher purpose? Only the people involved can
answer that. In politics, it is often the politician who wins out and the politician
is usually a man. I wonder how it would have been if it was a woman running
for PM and her husband was running a successful business?
Regardless, it is the difficult task of those involved to find their higher
purpose. In many cases, this leads to each individual finding their deeper