Tuesday, December 14, 2004

How could I have forgotten? 

How could I have forgotten how engaged I once felt by the idea of helping people improve their effectiveness in organisations? How could it have slipped my mind how much I wanted to become involved in generating energy, banishing fear, spreading support and liberating creativity in the workplace? When did I lose touch with the power and humility and affirmation of making deep connections, of taking and honouring risks of sharing oneself with another?

The questions are rhetorical; I know the answers, although I didn’t know that I knew until something caused me to ask the questions.

It’s obvious now; when beliefs I hold to be important, values that I hold dear, things that are a deep part of who I am are politely sidelined, treated as inconsequential, ridiculed even, or merely met with blank uncomprehending looks - when that happens, then I express those values less and less; they are driven inwards and shrink as there’s nothing to nourish them save my own belief in them. When banging your head against a brick wall yields nothing but pain, the instinctive solution is to stop. The blazing flame of passion dies away until it becomes just a flickering candle, sheltered and kept hidden from the world by a protective cupped hand.

But the candle didn’t go out.

I spent the last two days with some wonderful, inspiring people; we were together, 120 of us, on the first two days of a leadership development programme that runs for the next six months. They didn’t know they were being wonderful and inspiring; they thought they were just being ordinary. We took some risks; we were willing to be ourselves; we were willing to expose, each of us, mostly to complete strangers, something of our fears, our frustrations, our anger, our hopes, our weaknesses, our strengths, our desires. No, we didn’t bare our souls completely – these were mostly just glimpses, corners of the curtain that shields our innermost selves lifted just for a moment, but they were enough, I felt, to see something of the vulnerability of the person perhaps not usually apparent in the workplace.

It wasn’t only those things that were present that set the tone and made this event so unusual; it was also what was absent. No posturing, no showing off, no put-downs, no battles for position in the pecking order, surprisingly little blame of “them”. Perhaps we were all too shell-shocked from the announcements a week ago of massive job losses across the entire organisation. Or perhaps it was the almost complete lack of any hierarchical clues – it’s the custom at these events to go informally dressed (not that our organisation sets great store by formality – suits and ties are a rarity, even among top management, so that every day looks like dress-down Friday). But regardless of dress, I couldn’t help but wonder if people adopted a different persona in the workplace; whether being here amongst peers gave them the freedom to drop their guard and be more authentically themselves, without having to conform to any expectation of how a leader should behave.

But I digress. The bottom line: it was good, very good, to be reminded of things that matter to me, to spend time with people for whom these things matter too. To know that, in spite of some remarkably insular and task-focused thinking in my immediate working environment, in the wider organisation, I fit, I have a place – my thoughts, feelings, opinions, values are respected, often shared.

I’m not alone. I may even have something to give.

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