Saturday, 22 October 2011

On The Death of Gaddafi

The night before last I was reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel about Thomas Cromwell in the reign of Henry VIII and there was a passage describing the execution of monks by evisceration and burning.  It also described the crowd watching the events.  I caught myself reflecting on how we had moved on as a human race and feeling relieved that we could no longer contemplate public condonement of such cruelty.  As I traveled home, however, I was confronted with images of Gaddafi being beaten and shot in the stomach and head despite pleading for his life and my heart went out in pain to him.

On the one hand I have to appreciate the skill of Life for me personally, highlighting to me, "You think we have evolved and are no longer capable of such cruelty? - Try this!".  I realised Life was saying: Careful! - no complacency, no expectations.  I recognise also the symmetry; Gaddafi who was responsible for the death and torture of many is "hoist by his own petard" and has to experience at a personal level the suffering he inflicted.  Perhaps, if we believe there is some continuation beyond death, this is part of the learning.  I am also struck by the elegant design of Life; those in the west who were left uncomfortable by the images were left without any moral ground to stand on because of the powerful symmetry with the assasination of Osama Bin Laden.  Even intelligent and compassionate friends of mine were able to justify the assasination of Bin Laden; in their view there were some people who were exceptions to the normal moral code, indeed in the USA, there was huge public celebration.

Many would say that it is progress that individuals like Bin Laden, Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein are no longer alive but I wonder instead if we have missed the point and squandered an opportunity for real progress.  When I was in my teenage years I began an interest in Nelson Mandela and his life. At the time, it was difficult to envisage how change in the apartheid regime could be brought about without violent revolution.  Yet South Africa made a peaceful transition.  It came about through Nelson Mandela's willingness to take a different approach.  Which of us could have endured more than twenty-five years in prison without some instinct for revenge or retribution? Yet, from Life's perspective you can see that the scale of the transformation he was going to make required a similar transformation at an individual level.  Twenty-seven years of imprisonment, looked at another way was twenty-seven years of meditation and personal development.  It was his crucible where he was confined in such a way that all he could work on was himself.  The result was that he came out of prison saying "peace, truth, reconcilliation, love" and meant it.  In one fell swoop he prevented anyone else being able to justify acting on feelings of retribution and revenge and he allowed the whole nation to take an evolutionary step.

Albert Einstein famously said that you cannot solve the problems of today at the level of thinking that created them.  We talk much about regime change in cases like Libya and Iraq, yet to replace a regime based on power and violence by using power and violence is no change.  Nelson Mandela's approach and that of the Dalai Lama with China suggest a different way, to genuinely change regime by evolving beyond the "us and them" mentality which created these oppressive regimes.

The young teenager who killed Gaddafi was hoisted on shoulders brandishing his gun.  How sad that someone else now, will have to live with the responsibility of having murdered someone who was pleading for mercy and the rebels have founded a new regime whose seed point is violence and retribution.  As has been the case in Iraq and Afganhistan, the real work of evolution has not started yet and the West has responsibility for it's complicit role in perpetuating the belief that power and violence are the ultimate currency in resolving difficulties.  We think there can be no compromise in dealing with people like Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein yet really there can be no compromise in dealing with our own capacity for violence and lack of compassion.  Imagine how all our hearts would have felt had they resisted the instinct for revenge.

In Greek tragedy, there was the concept of Miasma - that the sins perpetuated by heroes like Oedipus infected everyone.  The Greeks recognised in their tragedies that these miasma were not unavoidable, they sprung from the missed opportunities to stop negative chains of events.  Time and again, individuals had opportunities not to act but were not conscious enough or brave enough to resist their instincts or fears.  Thus the miasma was perpetuated.  It is easy to look back and think that such Greek tragedies belong to a different age yet they are just as real today and our opportunities to prevent the miasma of individuals like Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein being perpetuated is there to be seized as individuals like Nelson Mandela show us.  To see how strongly this miasma penetrates our culture, you only have to watch films such as Avatar (which was hailed as breaking the mould) or most Hollywood action films.  The plot is the same, there are the "good guys" who are victims of some more powerful oppressor (the "bad" guys).  The good guys then set about defeating the bad guys by becoming even more violent than they are and destroying them.  By the end, the reality is that the roles have switched and the oppressors have become the victims and the victims the oppressors.  They are indistinguishable yet we are expected to triumph in the violent success of the "good guys" and feel it is positive because they are the "good guys".  It is really the triumph of the old adage that "might is right".  If our modern myths (films) are reflecting this then is it any surprise we are still playing it out in society?

I think behind the scenes though the real evolution is taking place and individuals like Simon Baron-Cohen, who wants to change our concept of "evil" to "lack of empathy" and his book "Zero degrees of Empathy" do show how we might begin to evolve away from this black and white, us and them style of thinking about the world.  His aim is that instead of demonising regimes such as the Nazis in the second world war and feeling that we could never be like that, instead we would work on seeing the lack of empathy that caused it and recognising the potential for this in all of us.

The I-Ching teaches that we are "all one in our hearts".  To watch a vulnerable and defenceless Gaddafi being beaten and shot is to watch ourselves.  Can we have compassion for a man who was so fearful and lacking in compassion that he could cause the deaths of thousands?  If not, then how are we any different and how can we hope to evolve?

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Confidentiality - the enemy of trust?

Working in some of the major global organisations, I have noticed how highly confidentiality is prized.  The stated aim is to protect people so that they will not be hurt.  When I was working at Ernst & Young I was always uncomfortable with this approach to confidentiality.  My own background was that I had been trained by my teacher Chrissy in an environment where everyone's most intimate problems and difficulties were actively shared with others as learning.  I noticed that while this was difficult at times, it created the opposite effect from that which the proponents of confidentiality suggested.  We were very open with each other because we had nothing to hide, since we already knew each others most intimate secrets.  Somehow this lack of confidentiality created more trust not less.  Since everyone knew everything there was little to mistrust each other over (it came up at times of course but then it was shared and resolved very openly with everyone knowing about it!).

I work as a coach in business and in this environment, most coaches put forward confidentiality as essential, and indeed something fundamentally critical to their role and to the relationships they build. Indeed they see it as a positive virtue.  When I worked at Ernst & Young as part of the Human Resources function, confidentiality was seen as very important for the HR function.  Yet a curious phenomenon took place.  Since HR people were by their nature very curious and interested in people, it was almost impossible for them not to share the fascinating information they were privy to.  I also began to notice that the more confidential things were kept (to protect people and prevent harmful gossip) the more gossip and harmful speculation there was.  Confidentiality was achieving the opposite of its stated aim.  My own approach in coaching people within the organisation was to be clear that I would not keep the conversations with them confidential since it was more valuable for me to discuss with other people and get their perspective on the challenges the individual faced.  I did, however, tell them that they could trust me completely to have their best interests at heart and to be sensitive.  When it came to 360 degree feedback I was expecting to score poorly for confidentiality but everyone had scored me 5 out of 5.  I knew I wasn't at all confidential in my approach but everyone thought I was.

I started as a governor of Wynstones school some 13 years ago amid a regime of absolute confidentiality.  The reason given for this was that it was imperative in order for the staff to trust the governors.  Yet the odd thing was that this had been in place for some time and there was the opposite; a climate of mistrust.  The other major problem the school faced was the terrible car park gossip.  Various bans and prohibitions on gossip had been put out but with little impact, indeed it had been exacerbated.  Given this, I set about trying to eradicate the roots of gossip and to talk to everyone openly about the real issues and crises that were taking place in the school, particularly the sensitive issues.  What I noticed was that where people did not know something they naturally were intrigued and they naturally speculated to try to fill the gap.  Some people were horrified and I came in for some flack, but as we persevered the gossip cleared up and the level of trust between the governors and staff improved significantly to the point now where there is an atmosphere of phenomenal mutual trust.

I have noticed the same phenomenon in my coaching work.  I have come in for some flack at times but I realise that the confidential information people want to prevent others knowing, they generally know anyway and that often the judgements and speculation where it isn't known are worse than the truth.  In my own circle, I am conscious that everyone, including the individual involved, is more comfortable when the truth is on the table, no matter how unpalatable.  What seems to be worse is the paranoia that we experience in trying to control and prevent this.  I have also noticed that this information is far less charged when you don't try to prevent it being known.  On programmes, all good trainers/facilitators say that "Chatham House Rules" or "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" applies and no-one must share anything outside the programme.  Whenever I hear this, it strikes me that there is a trade off between confidentiality and learning.  The greater the confidentiality the lower the learning because nothing of any real depth or value can be shared with others.  On my programmes I start the other way round with the premise that everything is open but I give people the option to let others know if something is sensitive and they would like people to be careful in how they share it.  Having run progammes for eight years, I notice there has never been an issue and what's more I can think of only a handful of examples where people have requested the sensitivity of others.

What is interesting for me here is that trust is really about openness.  Sadly you can't get to trust through witholding information it only breeds further distrust.  What we all really want in our hearts is to be completely free and open (the relationships where we can be are the ones we value most).  We want to be accepted for who we really are, not having to keep up a front.  Yet we do not yet seem to realise that the way to do this is to be free and open.  I suspect that the real issue is power not trust.  I think coaches and psychologists love to focus on confidentiality as a great virtue because it is a front for power.  Only they know or can be trusted, but of course they trap the individual by re-inforcing the sense that the personal information they are sharing is dangerous and can only be shared carefully in certain circumstances with certain people thus fostering the very paranoia and mistrust which the individual is often caught by.  Once you hear that everyone else fears the same things as you; their inadequacies, their paranoia, their normal dysfunctional personalities, it loses all its power and people feel released and relieved and laugh together.  Of course, the other paradox is that if we are free and open and we know everyone will hear what we say, we have to choose our words much more carefully.  When people are gossiping (having held the other to secrecy) they are often unbelievably callous and judgemental.  Can we learn this one and apply it collectively?  I wonder what the media and MI6 would look like if we did?

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

I think the universe might be listening or perhaps we are?

In August I was at our favourite chalet in the Alps near Annecy.  For many years I have harboured a dream of owning a place in France.  My family take it in turns to drag me away from immobiliers and give short shrift to my musings and desire to go and explore and view beautiful old chalets.  Somehow, I never quite seemed to find the right place or the right time to buy.  I was lying in bed reflecting on this at the chalet and I said to Life, "what I would like is something like this, a beautiful old chalet in it's own secluded spot, which is a bit difficult to access but which has been looked after and worked on so beautifully".  As we left we were chatting to the french owner.  I thanked him for letting us stay in his beautiful chalet.
"If you like it so much, you can buy it" he informed me.  Assuming he was joking I laughed, but he assured me he was serious and that the chalet was for sale at a price which was a stretch but we might be able to afford.  This threw me into a black hole as I was faced with the reality of my beautiful mind picture; did I really want the reality of the responsibility and owning two places?  I consulted my heart and realised, reluctantly that I did not!  Good learning if somewhat disappointing.

This was not an unusual experience for me.  I realised in my twenties with a sense of wonder that the universe was listening to us and delivering on our casual mind chatter.  Often, the result was that people did not like the reality or life would deliver it with a twist.  Most people seemed to entirely forget or miss that they had asked for it.  I thought people would be amazed to discover that life was working this way; it felt like finding the keys to the universe.  I quickly realised this was an inaccurate picture! People did not necessarily want to hear that they were complicit in and indeed responsible for their fate.

However, I was struck again today by the precision of the universe.  I was on the train heading into London when I suddenly thought that my mother in law might not have insurance for our holiday on Friday; it was prompted by sorting out car insurance.  Within minutes my daughter was ringing me to say that my mother in law wanted to talk to me urgently about holiday insurance - something I have never spoken to my mother in law about in my life.  This got me thinking, who is playing whom?

On Friday I resigned from my position as Chair of the Steiner school that I have been chair of for ten years.  As I explained my decision at the meeting, I found myself thinking that I did still want to be involved with a charity and education and that I wondered what the next step in terms of the school of the future I wrote about would be.  I had begun to think there might not be one.  Tonight my wife rang and was describing the first running of an idea that she had had about a toddler group being run for children to come and be with the horses at our centre (  It was a great success and it turned out that the parents already had formed a group to self-educate, employing a teacher once a week.  They were intrigued by our idea of the school of the future and wanted to know more about it.  I saw that we needed to invest in our barn to make a venue for teaching.  This in turn had answered another question which I had been pondering.  I earn very well compared to most people but in watching the news the other evening I was concerned at the protests in America and across Europe about corporate wealth and greed.  Since I work in the corporate sector as a coach, I know I am complicit in this and I didn't want to feel "I am alright jack" since I know it is all "us" and if some of us are suffering then it is all of our problem.  I have assuaged this by putting much of my money into the stables we run for adults, children and increasingly autistic children and this runs largely at a loss but provides something wonderful for those who would otherwise not be able to be involved with animals or have the space and help.  I was thinking that it was in my nature and my fate to earn well but I didn't want to pour my money into money making schemes for my retirement.  I am not against making money, it is the flow of the universe, but I am increasingly asking myself, what for? (This is a whole topic I am going to think about and expand on in another blog).  My question this time is are we the creative force thinking these thoughts and programming the game of the universe or is it perhaps programming us?  Are we in fact puppets whose strings are being pulled or are we masters of our own virtual reality game, which we are unwittingly programming and creating.  Perhaps it is even a mixture of the two?  What is clear to me is that universe is alive and we are involved in an interactive dialogue with a phenomenal learning facilitator.