Our culture encourages external validation. School grades, better degrees, promotion, pay rises, likes.

It reinforces a dependency on other people, and often people we would not choose to be dependent on.

Its opposite is internal validation. The stuff of soul and self. The warmth that is generated from doing things we love, that we are striving for mastery in. The knowledge that in some small way, we are making a unique contribution to something that matters to us.

This contribution may never be externally validated, and that doesn’t matter. We know, and our community knows.

There is nothing wrong with external validation, unless it is sought at the expense of internal validation. If that happens, we hollow out and become some sort of zombie.

We are at an important inflection point when it comes to how we work.

The way most businesses are structured creates the conditions that encourage us down the zombie road. When shareholder returns are given not just priority, but near exclusive focus, we end up paying lip service to people’s internal validation.

We talk glibly about “engagement”, but it easily becomes yet another lag indicator like margins, and even if the intent is there we look at the metric not sense the emotion.

We use what psychologists term affective empathy (we get upset when employees get upset) but not cognitive empathy (identifying with and sensing how they feel)

As AI absorbs more and more of the routine work, perceived empathy and humanity becomes ever more critical at every level and boundary-employees, partners, customers and community.

Sawubona. It’s an African Zulu greeting that means “I see you.” It has a long oral history and it means more that our traditional “hello.” It says, “I see your personality. I see your humanity. I see your dignity and respect.”

It resonates rather more than “your call is very important to us”

Sawubona is not a “skill”, it’s a way of being in the world. If we want our businesses to succeed in the world that is emerging, we should learn from that.

The Business Garden

Gardening and natural world metaphors abound in business, and provide a solid link to the systemic, rather than a mechanical approach to understanding change.

A new dimension was added for me last night as I overheard a comment on “Gardeners World”;

There is no garden without a gardener”

It struck me that one of the things we maybe do not pay enough attention to is how we lead and manage through this lens of gardening.

We cannot lead a garden, and our efforts to manage it are at best heroic. Gardens will not be commanded, nor will they behave. They are subject to lots of variables, not least weather, and as gardeners we have to work within the constraints that appear. At our very best, we influence. What we end up with is beautiful, but rarely conforms to a precise plan. To create a beautiful garden, we have to dance with the elements.

The same is increasingly true of business. The days of command and control, of five year plans, of a compliant workforce and the protection of national boundaries are far behind us. To create a beautiful business we have to dance with the elements.

Which brings me to the gardener. Every beautiful garden has a committed, sometimes fanatical gardener at its heart. Someone who works with it, understands and learns from failure that is beyond their control without losing heart, and measures success by the beauty of the garden, not the number of visitors it attracts. A beautiful garden is a creation that stands alone in its own right.

Perhaps if we thought about businesses in the same way, with the same level of ownership and commitment and determination to create something worthwhile, we might avoid some of the destruction that arises from catastrophic failure.

As I write, some 150,000 people are having holidays ruined by the failure of Thomas Cook. A business founded nearly two hundred years ago on a simple premise of helping people see the world. That’s a great vision, and has echoes of the garden about it.

It has been brought down by a combination of circumstances, some predictable, some less so but at the heart of it seems to be an absence of the beautiful idea on which it as founded in favour of shareholders who were happy to take the dividends in the good times but not commit to it when the weather turned bad, and banks who seem not to be able to see past the numbers. To be fair – that’s their brief, but when we lose a business like this, and affect people’s lives as a trip wire event, rather than managing it through a bad season, I think it diminishes the reputation of business.

A gardener would have handled this differently.

Spark to a Flame

There’s been a distinct direction of travel in the national mood over the last couple of years. The dominant narrative has been around uncertainty, unfairness, and other negative sentiments. There’s an good article in this weeks Economist that captures it. Our reality is not what’s real, it’s what we choose to see, and right now a lot of us seem to be looking through a glass darkly.

I’ve been writing in this blog about our inner spark recently, from the standpoint of individuals and organisations. We all have one – what psychologists would term our “essence” – the talents, drives and perspectives that make us uniquely who we are.

Understanding and connecting to the our spark looks likely to be ever more important in the coming months.

When times are good, when there is a greater degree of certainty, it is easy to neglect our spark in favour of easy pickings – the “low hanging fruit” beloved of strategists in search of short term performance. Easy pickings though come at a price. Just about everbody goes for them.

The end result is that we, or our business, becomes inauthentic. It neglects the unique spark, and we, and our businesses become very similar to others. Our differentiation is based on clever marketing more than principle, but it is a veneer.

Turbulence, or even a recession, will strip this veneer away. People will look for more than convenience and price – they will start to ask themselves the question “why am I dealing with this person / organisation? How are they going to help me stay safe in this storm?”Are they interested in me, or just my money?”

My favourite author in this area of risk and uncertainty remains Taleb, he of “Anti Fragility“. I love the simplicity of the idea that the opposite of fragile is not resilience (which gets us back quickly to where we were before the shock) but anti fragility – the ability to harness the energy of the shock to go somewhere, or create something new.

At the heart of anti fragility is our spark, our essence. The layers we have built over it in the easy times will get blown away. If we are to thrive in more difficult times, we have to harness our spark.

First though, we have to find it and reconnect with it. It requires hard work, and sometines a less than comfortable appraisal of where we are.

It’s on this that I will be focusing on now – learning from experience and effort how to approach this, and sharing what I learn with others.

At heart though, this is a huge and timely opportunity to bring real purpose and meaning into our lives, and of those around us. To be who we really are, and contribute things that matter. It’s our own deeply personal rallying call.