Building Sustainable Legacies


The Emperor’s Clothes

When I first heard about the fairy tale of the Emperor’s clothes, I always thought that it would take just one sufficiently innocent and courageous person to point her finger at the emperor and everybody else would automatically fall out of the magic spell that had previously had let them see an altered reality. But, today’s reality is proving me wrong. Today, we are living in this weird situation where about half of the people realize that the emperor is wearing no clothes and is pointing more or less discretely to the naked leader. The other half of the people, however, see the emperor in all of his magnificent beauty of glimmering, luscious and richly decorated clothes. They are blind-sided by the appearance of wealth and the impression of power this creates. They feel the power and they either feel frightened or encouraged by what it may bring to them. If it is not question of how many people see the emperor without clothes, then what are relevant triggers or levers that might open the eyes of those who still see him in his magic dress?

When we talk about change, we remain interestingly speculative with regards to interdependencies, causes, consequences and what are precursors, pre-conditions, enablers and levers of change. Kathy Miller has provided an enlightening response to my blog suggesting that people rather than organizations are the shapers of organizational culture. She points out – correctly so in my opinion – that culture is also shaped by the structure, size, leadership and governance of an organization. These are clearly organizational elements rather than people elements. I would like to further expand that trajectory of thought by investigating what other elements influence organizational and more particularly systemic change beyond the people and organizational related factors.

We have previously established that a variety of aspects that can be summed up as people related factors of change strongly define and influence a culture. We have also established that there are a number of organizational related aspects that impact and shape culture. In the context of the subject of climate change, Andy Hoffmann has investigated why pointing out facts has at best no impact at opening the eyes of those that deny a reality that quasi an entire community of scientists have confirmed. He concludes his assessment with the observation that arguing with facts simply results in the other side generating other (alternative?) facts that further prove the opposite point of view and thus further entrench the already existing difference. If not facts, then what?

Research suggests that in order to even get a chance at changing somebody else’s mind, we need to empathically and authentically connect with that other person. From person to person, not from role to role. And this is where things fall apart. We don’t want to personally engage, there is an inner discomfort, a resistance that creeps up and that communication shuts down. I have extensive personal experience in this and I often self-observe what happens to me when I am confronted with an opinion, a feedback or comment that goes against what I believe in. There is a physical shift inside of me, that turn my receptors from open to close, my smile from broad to narrow, and my heart from trusting to a stand-by mode. Sometimes I manage to turn the switch back on “open”. When I do, it is because I manage to re-establish first my own heart connection to my inner values and purpose, maybe to my soul, and then from that space, to re-establish a connection to the best in the other person that I had previously seen. A colleague of mine describes this as “veils” that are lifted off again that had prevented a clear vision. I pretend that most of us who have self-observed such events will be able to describe some change in our physiological disposition that can serve as a signal and hence potentially allow a reversal of the process. This however, does not work well when I enter a discussion being convinced that the other person holds a “wrong” own perspective that I happen to disagree with or question in terms of honesty of interest and intent. And this is where things get sticky.

If such mastery is required at the personal level to attempt to generate change at the systemic level, we are in for a tough ride. I am struck by the parallel to the current reality across the Atlantic. There are impressive public attempts (including from the New York Times) to influence the personal moral obligation of a high ranking US prosecutor to demand an independent investigation of the Russian intervention in the US election process which is required in order to implement the checks and balances that are in theory well in place from a governance perspective but that don’t get the traction they should. Is it possible that when organizational elements fail to generate the framework for change, that we are thrown back to the individual courage, morals and ultimately mastery which are comprised in the people dimension? If mass protests don’t work, and structural frameworks can be circumvented or be neutralized or ignored, then how are we ever going to point out what one child pointed out so naively in the fairy tale of the emperor’s clothes? Or might it be the simple accumulation of individual, structural and mass pressures that little by little fill the famous barrel until one last drop makes it overflow and thus creates the change. And it mattered very little what that last drop actually was, as long as the drips kept coming. If that were true, then a possible conclusion might ultimately be a very encouraging one. Namely, that irrespective of the immediate or estimated impact of any individual action, new policy or public engagement, what is important is to do what is right  every singly moment a day. Right from an interconnected perspective that embraces values at the individual level, interests at the organizational level and a sense of common well-being and safety at the societal, global level.

Author: Katrin Muff, PhD

Active in thought leadership, consulting & applied research in sustainability & responsibility, and directing the DAS & DBA programs

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