Appropriation
Taken: Sony α

Taken: Sony α

“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge - and, therefore, like power.””

(Susan Sontag)

As much as I usually manage to avoid the phrase ‘take a photograph’ or, even worse, ‘take a shot’, I’m always uncomfortable about the acquisitional language that accompanies photography.

As the shutter clicks, I tell myself I am ‘making a photograph’, but a little shiver tells me that I have ‘captured’ the image.

Usually, someone else’s image.

And the shiver is reflected in the feeling that, for many people, to take a photograph is to take a soul.

So I hope the photographs we might make together are respectful, compassionate and hold to the intention of helping both subject and the viewer mutually see each other as well as themselves.

Yet the shadow of appropriation falls across our Western language and our collective psyche.

We speak of my job, my team, my friends, my organisation, in a way that denies the reality of how we are appropriated by our contemporary work and social arrangements rather than the other way round. And the overlay of personal identity and professional occupation means we can give our power away too easily or deny ourselves the opportunity to change, to transition to something new.

We are made by our relationships, our work, our colleagues and our friends. They define us.

But we shouldn’t let them take our souls.

Or allow our relationships to appropriate us.

Notes:

Susan Sontag’s brilliant ‘On Photography’ has been around for a while but is still as relevant as ever. Likewise, John Berger’s, ‘Way’s of Seeing.’ The 4-part BBC program that informed the book is available on YouTube.

Or have a look at David DuChemin’s, The Soul of the Camera. It’s a masterful piece.

Steve MarshallComment
Contribution
My hands: Nikon D3s

My hands: Nikon D3s

Your work is to discover your work – and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.

(Gautama Buddha)

You can tell a lot about someone from their hands.

There is a lovely story-telling exercise where participants are invited to hold out their hands and begin with: “These hands have…”.

And so their history begins to unfold.

Whenever, I’ve taken part in that kind of workshop, I feel embarrassed. My immediate ‘go to’ hands stories feel less than wholesome; a little too overtly masculine, maybe? These hands have… fought, held weapons, flown aircraft, stolen, punched, thrown things… Other participants tell stories of hands that have held children, caressed a lover, stroked animals, planted seeds, grown flowers. My hands have done that too, but for some reason, those stories just don’t feel so available.

So, these days, I’m conscious of more intentionally writing the story that I want my hands to tell.

My hands belong to someone who is fortunate, privileged, Western, white. I have choices and I’m aware that others do not. In a world that is fractured and damaged, it feels ever more critical to me that those of us who can, choose our work well. But as we face environmental, social, and political collapse, we are playing a complex game, and how can we know that we are making our best contribution?

As I redefine my sense of worthwhile, valuable work, I’m nesting my intentions into convening and connecting, helping to focus our collective attention, bringing witness to the people and information that will help us find change.

When I do that work, elegantly, beautifully, it seems that the aesthetics have the capacity to evoke an intake of breath in my readers and collaborators.

Work that makes you breathe.

It feels that I could give myself, heart and hands to that.

Notes:

Take a look at Alan Moore’s ‘Beautiful Business’ website or his Do Design book for some aesthetic inspiration.

I’ve also been dipping into Simon Parke’s ‘The Beautiful Life’ for a more spiritual fix on finding beauty via ‘Ten New Commandments.’

Finally, for all community builders and conveners, Peter Block’s ‘Community: The Structure of Belonging’ is great resource and I’ve just downloaded the 2nd Edition which has a more detailed look at how fear and isolation develops in a digitally connected world.

Dominion
Assynt, Scotland; Sony α

Assynt, Scotland; Sony α

“We can relate to our planet Earth in two ways. Either we can act as tourists and look at the Earth as a source of goods and services for our use, pleasure and enjoyment, or we can act as Earth Pilgrims and treat the planet with reverence and gratitude.”

(Satish Kumar)

My day on the hills finished early; stormy showers had rushed through and the path had become a stream, the higher slopes ran with water and my boots were sodden. It was one of those Scottish days where there was no way to avoid getting soaked; waterfalls were being blown upwards, it was impossible to stand in the face of the wind. Approaching the peak required crawling on all fours. Exhausted, I gave up and wandered back down the hill, sitting for a while in a sheltered spot to photograph the violently beautiful landscape.

That evening I read Nan Shepherd’s ‘The Living Mountain’. On the back cover, Robert Macfarlane writes ‘Most works of mountain literature are written by men, and most of them focus on the summit.’ He goes on to say that Nan’s ‘sensual exploration’ of the mountains is ‘bracingly different.’

Indeed, we desperately need a different way of thinking about our mountains. This week, guided mountaineers died on Mount Everest as nearly 200 climbers were dramatically photographed queuing to reach the summit. One of the world’s highest, most sacred mountains has become an item on a bucket-list, an achievement, a badge.

We have to move from thinking of our natural environment in terms of all-conquering dominion; we have become too powerful and there are too many of us.

Yet our separation from the planet runs deep.

And as we separate from the natural world, we separate from each other. When we exploit and colonise our ‘natural resources’ it becomes a simple step to exploit and appropriate each other as ‘human resources’. We set the pattern for a world of transactions instead of a web relationships and we become greedy consumers of our own lives and ecologies.

We need to recover a sense of sensual reverence, of awe and appreciation of our world. A fundamental shift of perspective from dominion, exploitation and control over to participation with nature and each other.

I know that walking in the mountains is a profound privilege. So, even on days when the elements conspire to knock me off my feet, I try to hold to the idea that I am making a pilgrimage to these high places. And on the days when my relationships knock me over, I’m trying to approach the difficulties with the same sense of gratitude and reverence, working to heal, rebuild and repair.

Which is much more challenging than a wet day in the hills.

As Satish Kumar says, “Tourists find gratification in the consumption of nature’s gifts. Pilgrims find enchantment in the conservation of nature’s bounty.

Notes:

Satish Kumar’s ‘Earth Pilgrim’ is a lovely read when you are out hillwalking. Or just walking anywhere, really.

You might also like ‘Nature’s Due; Healing Our Fragmented Culture’ by Brian Goodwin.

Brian used to work at Schumacher College in Devon which I can highly recommend as a place to take a step into holistic, participative ways of being in the world. The college hosts a series of excellent short and longer courses.

Curriculum
Kew Gardens: Nikon D3S

Kew Gardens: Nikon D3S

“…it is time for universities to rethink themselves and what they are doing.”

(Thomas Berry)

What should we study? What should we learn?

Thomas Berry’s request of universities was made back in 1999. Things don’t seem to have got much better.

In our business schools, the part of our educational establishment where I hang out, it seems that helpful rethinking is in short supply. While the academic window dressing slowly changes to match the latest hype, a relentless focus on tangibility, individualism and constant upheaval promotes working environments that alienate people, make them sick and discourage meaningful engagement with each other. Careful consideration of the role of business in facing towards the existential challenges facing the whole of humanity is barely on the horizon.

As our physical resources become depleted we need to disconnect ourselves from the ‘growth assumption’ that underpins our current economic model and give up our latest obsession with the platform-based, zero hours, gig economy which wastes our material and social potential.

While there is much to be done, technically, to recover the living capacity of our planet, we can only do this if we think differently about ourselves and our relationships, and find ways of being together that will regenerate fractured societies and damaged ecologies.

Back in the 'universities’, our schools of business and leadership need a new curriculum.

It could look something like this:

  • How can we learn to CONVENE diverse forums where many people are seen and heard - and truly feel seen and heard?

  • What does it mean to CONNECT rather than ‘connect’, how can deep communion and all that entails be embraced over the harvesting of social numbers and disengaged, passive audiences?

  • How can we re-establish our capacity to value COLLABORATION, and step outside of the needs to hoard scarce insight knowledge and embrace growth in connection?

  • What does FAIR look like now, and what needs to change in how we are fair with each other and the wider world?

  • What does it mean to be an ACTIVIST for business, social or ecological change, and how can we pay attention to the quiet, gentle voices on the peripheries?

  • What does it mean to COMPETE well, and how can we learn to win well so that others are not diminished by our success?

  • How do we actually treat FAILURE at the moment, and how can we generously support each other to fail well as try and find a way out of the mess we’re in?

  • What does it mean to be HUMAN, if we let go of the need to turn everything into an instrument for making money?

The list is clearly not exhaustive, nor is it necessarily sequential. Start anywhere; dig deeply, think critically and you will find that all the questions begin to link together.

I’m hoping for a shift in the core curriculum of our business education that will lead us to different ways of being with each other. Our businesses are powerful influences in the world and, without being hubristic, I know that many of us are talented, expert educators.

As Thomas Berry says, we need to evoke “not only the vision but also the energies needed for bringing ourselves and the entire planet into a new order of survival.”

So, let’s begin by rethinking ourselves and what we are doing…

Notes:

You might like Tomas Berry’s ‘The Great Work: our way into the future.’ It’s a heartening read.

Look no further than the Uber/Lyft ‘case studies’ or ‘What Airbnb really does to a neighbourhood’ to see some of the unintended consequences of platform economies.

Many thanks to my colleague and collaborator John Higgins for bringing these thoughts together in great conversation as we walked along the banks of the River Thames.

Finally, my enduring thanks to colleagues at Ashridge where we work on the Executive Doctorate in Organisational Change - a beacon of hope in the change education landscape.

Shadows
Paris: iPhone

Paris: iPhone

“To confront a person with their own shadow is to show them their own light.”

(Carl Jung)

A year ago, I was struggling with workload, obligation and fatigue.. A couple of months later, I stopped sleeping and it felt like my life fell apart. Diagnosed with burnout, stress and depression, I needed to spend 3 months recovering before I could return to work.

Of course, I know from my experience of consulting in organisations, coaching individual transformation, and working alongside my supervisees on the doctorate in organisational change at @Ashridge_Biz, that 3 months of recovery from trauma barely counts as triage, let alone provides any substantial ground for personal change.

And so I have continued with the work of change. Over the subsequent months, I’ve switched my job role, I take time to exercise, make space for creative work, I write, I’ve adjusted my diet, and spend time relaxing and being with family. At last, it feels as though I’m showing up ‘more like me’ in my life as well as bringing increased clarity and insight to my day job.

But as I’ve reset boundaries and commitments, I realise that I’m still carrying the previous labels and attributions projected onto me by friends and colleagues.

Last week at @Ashridge_Biz, one of our participants led a ‘Privilege Walk’ exercise. As a white, blue-eyed, male, benefitting from wealth and education, I found myself (unsurprisingly) near the front of the walk and curious that my ‘working class, child of a single parent family’ story didn’t seem to have had much effect.

The walk confronted my hero narrative of ‘working class boy done good due to his own hard work…’ and I began to realise that the ‘breaks’ I had been given might not have been offered to other young men; that despite my stories of disadvantage, in comparison to others, perhaps things hadn’t been that bad.

So, as I try to drop my old identity as a highly motivated, no-nonsense, reliable, hard working role model, and move towards a more developed, relational, holistic and graceful way of leadership, I’m aware that my organisation doesn’t seem to know how to categorise me and colleagues seem to struggle with my new contribution. What do you do these days, Steve?

I’m starting to see that the shadow of my power and privilege still reaches beyond me, dropping clues about how I am seen by others. I experience mis-communication where I thought things were clear; despite good intention conflict arises in ways that leave me confused; apparently random dramas beset me; it feels like I’m still ‘not getting it’; life feels chaotic. It’s as though I can’t reconcile a new self with my own blue-eyed, white, middle class wealth, privilege and power.

Pema Chödrön says that, “The elemental struggle is with our feelings of being wrong, with our guilt and shame at what we are.” She tells us to remember that our practice is not about accomplishing anything - not, as I would have previously framed it, about winning or losing - but ceasing to struggle and relaxing as it is.

I know that I don’t need to add more depression, disadvantage, anger or separation into a world that is already riven with fragmentation and division. Yet I carry privilege and advantage that implicitly situates me within a specific part of that reality.

Finding ways to shine a light into my own shadow, to see myself as I am, feels like the next step forward.

Notes:

I really must congratulate our @Ashridge_Biz #EDOC participants for such an excellent workshop which both held and challenged their cohort with a sequence of thoughtful exercises and challenges.

Throughout this ‘post-burnout’ period, I have found that Pema Chödrön’s ‘When Things Fall Apart’ has been a very helpful guide.

Do your own ‘Privilege Walk’ - here’s how. Adjust the detail of the questions to your geography. The exercise doesn’t provide objective answers but, as I found, is a powerful prompt for reflection.

If a deeper dive into the shadows feels appropriate then maybe ‘The Essential Jung: Selected Writings’ might be useful.