Sawubona

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.

Gradually, then Suddenly

“How did you go bankrupt?
Two ways. Gradually, then Suddenly.”

Ernest Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises

Any of us who have been involved in a failed venture will identify with this. Things happen at the edges, small at first. They happen in several areas, still small, but becoming slightly bigger and more numerous. None big enough to be a crisis in their own right, because we have other things, “noisier” issues to attend to.

Promises and assurances from partners and suppliers (particularly Banks, as they position you as carrion) suddenly evaporate.

Then, we have a “Suddenly” moment. Obvious in retrospect, but almost sneaky in the moment.

The lesson, once learned, is obvious. It isn’t the noise that will kill the project, it’s the quiet insidious intrusion of calculated self interest. For those with practice, it’s part of the game. For those new to it, a surprise.

The same is true for most areas; Business, Politics, Careers. The signals are there long before the event eventually manifests.

What’s interesting right now is that we are facing the challenge simultaneously on several fronts, all of them interdependent.

Business, Climate, Politics. All of these have been exhibiting signal for a while-decades in some cases.

I’m an optimist. This has been coming for a while, and is probably as necessary as it will be uncomfortable.

The “Suddenlies” will test our values, our purpose and our relationships, as well as determination to come out of this change stronger.

We will be presented with choices. We need, individually and collectively, to make good ones.

Heft

I find it an attractive word. With its origin in Anglo Saxon, it is normally used in terms of weight, or effort but there is another very specific use in terms of animals and people, hefted, which is used to describe the relationship between them and the land they live on. Hefted flocks are those that are so inextricably linked with the land they live on that they cannot be relocated.

In the past, up until the industrial revolution, most of us were hefted to where we were born. A function of generations past living on the same land, and the interdependent relationships that developed, we were woven into where we lived. The movement of people from economic necessity as the economy moved from agrarian to industrial broke that bond for most of us.

I came across the term in “The Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks. A beautifully written account of life in the Lake District through the eyes of one remarkable man, it opens with definitions of hefted, and goes on to recount how it defines his life and the society of which he is part.

What struck me most was perhaps what we have lost. When our families lost that hefted relationship with the land they lived on, what did they cling to? Rebanks doesn’t mention purpose or values right until the end of the book, and then only in terms of discovering the power of what was already present. The society of which he is part didn’t have to go looking for them, they were part of who they are, and released through their everyday work. I suspect the idea that you might have to define purpose or make a values statement would be ridiculous to them

So, in our modern day search for purpose and values, perhaps we are starting at the wrong end. Maybe we discover our purpose and values by what we don’t do as we work our way through life (and sometimes from what we do and later regret). Maybe we are born with purpose and have our values inculcated whilst very young, only to risk losing sight of them as we allow ourselves to be shaped by the expectations of others.

And equally, perhaps the same is true of the businesses we start. They are rarely started for money, but rather in an attempt to bring something into being. The primacy of money comes later, in the involvement of others and normally at a point when we have enough money from a degree of success to meet or reasonable needs. I’m not talking millions.

I suspect one definition of hell is the realisation of the impact on others of decisions we may have made in the pursuit of money we don’t really need.

When it comes to how we live and work, I suspect those who are happiest are hefted to something important, even if they cannot articulate precisely what it is. It shows up in how they live their lives and deal with others.