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Where do we belong?

We all belong to something that we feel part of. Sometimes it gets submerged underneath the day to day, but it’s always there.

The origins of the word are rooted in “to be fitting, to be suitable”. It is an idea far beyond the simple idea of simplex “ownership”; it is duplex, mutual – belonging to each other as part of a greater whole.

When I was young, I was fortunate to have a Grandmother straight out of a book of Archetypes – all baking, white hair and unconditional love – who told me to be careful about what I owned, in case it turned round and thought it owned me. It was counsel around debt and a long time on, I’m grateful for it. When we buy something by incurring debt, we incur an unforgiving obligation, and it’s easy for the obligation to direct our lives. Mortgages are one thing, but debt for short term consumables entirely another. Like most of us, I know, I’ve been there.

I thought bout it this morning as I listened to the news about the formation of a football super league. It triggered a thought about a “chain of belonging” and complex consequences. Football clubs are a great example. They all bear the name, and a nominal association with a place, although they are owned by people who have no connection to that place, with for the most part, players who have little history with that place. Go far enough back up the “belonging chain” and we find the dominance of money – in this case J.P. Morgan, whose roots are in a place where football is a minority sport. This is business, and as long as we don’t conflate it with clubs belonging to a place, it’s fine.

Emotional belonging though is different. Emotionally, the clubs belong to the fans, although they have no say in what happens. It’s rough when we belong to an idea that has no investment in us. The consequences of a business decision will ripple all the way down to club sport and affect real people all the way down.

And so we get to a business decision – why form a super league? As far as I can see (and I am no expert on football) it’s because the clubs are owned by their debt, required when the club was bought, and extended by the needs of cash flow to pay for players and marketing, all of which stayed whilst fans were forced to stay away during the pandemic.

Short form answer; the clubs do not belong to their notional owners, they belong to the debt.

For football clubs, read all businesses. It’s why I love working with owners, and despair of working with those who are at the bottom end of a belonging chain where shareholders and debt are at the top. At least real owners have the capacity to make difficult decisions for themselves,

It makes me realise how fortunate I am. My obligations, incurred with gratitude, are to my family, my friends, and my community in that sort of order. I have no obligation to money. It is a cold, lifeless thing without personality that is useful for transactions. Giving it power over us, either as debt or as aspiration, just creates a Zombie. Zombies have only one intention, and it’s not about our wellbeing.

We all belong and what to matters. It defines out health, feeds our soul and shapes our short lives.

As my Grandmother said. “Be careful that what you own does not really own you”. I’m grateful to her.

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Reflections 18th April

Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell when something is ending, or beginning. A liminal space where something is emerging but the old has not yet disappeared, and both seem present at the same time. It’s confusing and unsettling and which version we choose to accept is a choice we make depending on our mindset.

This week has felt a little like that, as I’ve watched a major utility, British Gas, decide that sacrificing employees in order to maintain short term profitability is a sustainable strategy, and a former Prime Minister get depressed because he’s been caught out peddling influence for profit, and worse, doing it for a business that then collapsed. Why get depressed? – it’s not an accident, and he’s not a victim, it’s a simple if distasteful game of consequences. What interests me is the conditions that create the behaviours.

As always, the natural world offers us rather more than a clue. Locusts and Grasshoppers are the same creature. What turns the Grasshopper into a Locust is its environment, mostly as I understand is to do with drought. What, I wondered is the drought that turns our Jiminy Cricket’s into Gordon Gecko’s?

It can’t be money. Those individuals and companies exhibiting these swarming, destructive behaviours are hardly short of money already. Maybe it’s the company they keep, where those with more than enough feel inferior to those with way more than enough.

Or perhaps, it’s a really old fashioned idea. Character. In the dictionary, there are two main definitions. The first is “the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing“; the second “(of an actor or actress) acting or specializing in such roles.”

It raises a question – do those individuals we are talking about have character, or are they merely characters? The answer is important – the first is difficult to change. For good or bad, they are what they are and as long as we recognise them as such, we can choose whether or not to follow them. The second is more insidious – people playing a role for a while, getting plaudits for their acting, whilst off stage they are something very different.

Perhaps the etymology may help. “Old French caratere “feature, character” (13c., Modern French caractère), from Latin character, from Greek kharaktēr “engraved mark,” also “symbol or imprint on the soul. Now, I think, we’re getting somewhere.

According to MarketWatch, “The Global Corporate Leadership Training Market size to grow USD 26.7 bn by 2024. It is projected to exhibit a CAGR of 13% during the forecast period. The “YOY (year-over-year) growth rate for 2021 is estimated at 12.8%” by the end of 2024“.

According to Forbes Magazine, there are twenty six words that “scream leadership“. Purpose, values, character and soul are not amongst them. I can’t help feeling there’s better used $26.7 billion could be put to.

Perhaps leadership itself is one of those things in transition, in that liminal space that is both ending and beginning.

Leadership is about character. That “symbol or imprint on the soul”. Everything else is creating characters. Bad actors in a B movie politics and business. We owe it to ourselves, and our children, to choose who we follow, or sanction with our votes, or work for, rather better. Our own character is at stake.

Character will out. Characters are a choice. Who we choose to accept is down to us.

This week’s Books.

Here’s what’s arrived this week.

Friends. Robin Dunbar. He of “The Dunbar Number“. I really value his work, I’m reading it because I believe that we will need to choose our friends carefully over the next few years, and remember that despite any narrative to the contrary, anybody who gives you money for work, or to whom you give mony for work is not your friend.

The Corrosion of Character. Richard Sennett. Another of my favourite authors. A well written philosophical take on what the gig economy mentality does to the character of those who run business.

Critical Path. Buckminster Fuller. Classic, and a frequent reread for me. A good way to save the customers of the leadership industry $26.7bn.


Overselling ESG. HBR. A great example of characters versus character. Environmental goals as narrative warfare rather then purpose. This chart says it all.

An Artisan, Character not “Brand”. Leadership by Example. Shimada Takayuki. Business with a soul. Short, beautiful video. (thankyou Hiut denim)

The misinformation virus. The more we know, the more susceptible we become. From Aeon Magazine. A case for our “character filter”

The Monk’s Secret Weapon. I love Leandro Herrero’s blog – it is one of three that I allow into my email automatically. This one is exceptional in my view.

A Quote:

Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor… I am Pagliacci.

– Alan Moore, Watchmen

End Thought.

Whether we think we are an end of something, or a beginning of something, we’re right.

I choose beginning.

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Where are the iconoclasts?

Thinkout out loud in public can be a dangerous game.

When did you last have a work conversation that didn’t involve taking sides? And when it did, which side did you take – the safe, or the novel?

When I look at LinkedIn, and other social media, very little of what is expressed there is both original and contentious. Rather, it is dominated by different versions of the already accepted. Not a lot of deviation from the mean. Not surprising when people are on there to been seen as employable or contractable. We need different conversations.

Right now we need new and uncomfortable ideas far more than noisily “regifting” acceptable ideas that have been around the block, and are beginning to look a little worn.

As we enter this strange, liminal space as we move out of the heavier restrictions of lockdown in the UK, whilst whole tranches of the rest of the world still wrestle with it, we need new ways of thinking and working.

To find them, we need conversations that do not involve taking sides, but rather genuine dialogues that explore, as objectively as we can, what we notice and what we want. They are conversations in small groups between people who deal with the reality of the current. Who can speak their truth out loud without shouting, and know they will be listened to. Conversations that take place in quiet places out of the range of the narrative warfare that is our media and politics right now. the sort of conversations happening at Originize

Most of all though, we need to have our own opinion, not hitch a ride on someone else’s. To be be clear about what we want from our life, and what we want to give to others in order to live a life that means something.

This is an important time. Release the inner iconoclast. We need to hear you.