Listening to Find the Truth Within, A Corporate Leader's Story
Tom was born in the mid-sixties in a family of small self-made entrepreneurs. His destiny had to be to continue the family business, to potentially bring it to its next level of development. The family understood that for that to happen, Tom would have to complete engineering studies. This is where he would successfully learn how to become methodical, rational and technically capable. At that time, debates on the “crisis of modern science” were totally unknown to him. He assumed that with an engineer’s education, he would be ready to bring more scientific knowledge into the business and thereby guide it to a brighter future.
At school, Tom found most of his classes rather boring, and he spent his time organizing social events. He was the only student from his cohort not to have a technical final project. Instead, he decided to do an organization assessment, as he got fascinated by his class on that subject. At the time, he did not pay much attention to what this could mean to him and his career. What was important was to enjoy the responsibility-free time of the student life, to get an engineering diploma, and to then join the family business. The roadmap was clear…but what was he listening to?
After acquiring a few years of experience in a large corporation, enough to avoid to be labeled as “the son of”, Tom joined the family business, his presumed life destination. Three years later, he found himself in a dead end, caught up in a conflict between the company’s two main executives who happened to be brothers and Tom’s relatives, and who disagreed on how to drive the business forward. Tom found that his scientific knowledge was of little help as he tried to facilitate the dialogue. With the support of a coach, he did some work on himself to survive this situation; he felt he wasn’t able to be himself, nor could he find a good, harmonious way to leave the company. Eventually, he did so and went back to a large corporation. What was he listening to?
Driven by his desire for professional success, that is, success according to most who believe in growing the bottom line and being popular among colleagues, Tom felt his business acumen was too limited, so he again enrolled in a prestigious school, this time in pursuit of an MBA diploma. After that, it was clear that he was well equipped for a brilliant career. Engaged with some fast track process he went through the talent pool of a Fortune 500 company at the speed of light to become one of the youngest senior executive a few years later. He had made it!
However, in his new role, he soon felt that something was wrong. He was surprised that the personal appraisal system was frequently changed as it was said that people learned quickly how to cheat the system. Regularly meeting with board members, he came to pity those people whose only drive seemed to be to make it to the pinnacle, the CEO position. For this reason and probably for reasons of the ego, they needed to be served like semi gods to ensure their full success. No mistake could be tolerated when competing with similarly wired people shooting for the same single seat. One day, Tom was really shocked when a board member, supervising more than ten billion dollar’s worth of business, proudly and extensively commented on the new wheels of his German company car in front of 20 people. Tom felt an undefined mismatched between who he was and the professional context he was operating in. What was he listening to?
While studying for his MBA, Tom had felt a sense of connection with the Chinese culture through his Chinese friends. Coincidentally…, he got approached for a job in China. The decision was made: he and his family would move to China in just a few weeks. This time, as head manager in a company given a lot of local autonomy, he felt he could lead according to his own beliefs. The exposure to such a different culture revealed new limitations Tom had to humbly work upon. Guided by a local coach, he could develop an extremely well performing team, using approaches like appreciative inquiry and deep dialogue. He was convinced like the famous organizational systems reformer Douglas McGregor that leaders need to move away from external controls towards greater self-control. This approach helped move the organization from being a local player to one with global reach. Within five years, it had become the best organization of the industry in terms of growth, financial return and innovation capabilities. But something else was worrying him. What was he listening to?
One day, Tom got the opportunity to hear a presentation by Karl-Henrik Robert, founder of the “natural step” (2002). The systemic approach Robert developed let Tom get a deeper appreciation of his full responsibility in this universe. This gave him a way to address his worry over manufacturing a product that had only a 40% usage rate, with 60% being wasted through the customers’ process. He went on developing a technology that would ensure a 100% product usage. But still… what was he listening to?
The circumstances of life, what author Joseph Jaworski (2011) would call synchronicity let him enroll in a PhD in organizational systems. System thinking, dialogue, sustainability, evolutionary leadership, organizational ethics,… absorbed all his attention. Within 18 months he started to wonder why he had been blessed to gain so much experience on three continents in many different industries and leadership positions. What he had been preparing for? What was he listening to?
He was finally listening to his true self, the one which had been there all along but which he had only partially listened to each time he had moved to a new place in his past professional life. At last, he was conscious of what Peter Bluckert in his 2006 work on executive coaching calls interference, that which hinders one’s potential to become a true performer. Tom wa also inspired by Gandi’s saying: “be the change that you wish to see in the world.” He had realized that giving back to the community was an essential element missing in his life.
By yet another coincidence…, Tom came across an opportunity that he qualified as his dream job, a position aiming at transforming a complete industry with a systems approach, to address environmental, social and economic matters with the involvement of all stakeholders of the value chain; a job which resonated deeply in him, and which would allow him to live his personal truth.
Excited by this opportunity he started to share this information with his close contacts. Many were like him from the corporate world. All argued that this type of non-for-profit CEO job was for retired people; that Tom could not pretend to change anything with this type of organization which might have good intentions but too few resources and too many conflicting stakeholder interests to manage. They all seemed to be in what sustainable business lecturer Bob Doppelt would categorize as the disinterested stage of responding to change with a rationalization approach. However, Tom found himself agreeing with a number of their statements when his rational side was taking over his emotional side. Was he giving to himself such an understanding of these people’s arguments to justify not taking this job? Were they simply excuses? Was he lying to himself?
In this close circle of people were also Toms’ wife and kids. The discussions on this job opportunity highlighted the gap which had developed in the last 18 months. Tom had neglected to share enough of his emerging mental model, his evolving worldview and his fast growing reluctance to be an active player of what Doppelt describes as the make, take and waste economy. But from a comfortable corporate life with international schools, nice housing, and driver all paid for by the company, it was hard to envision a life in a small apartment with a financial package two thirds lower than his current one; to move in a new continent and to enroll his kids in local schools.
It was hard for Tom to enter in a true dialogue, according to David Bohm’s definition, with his family. In this context, he found himself agreeing with a number of their statements when his rational side was taking over his emotional side. Was he lying to himself?
It took all of 45 years for Tom to realize who he really is, where his true passions lie, but how hard it is to become truly oneself when so much fake decorum has been built up over the years! Tom felt like an actor who performed in different plays of the same type and who put on costumes, layering one upon the other, without removing any.
How to transition in the most harmonious way, to build towards one’s true self without destroying the past too abruptly? Tom had thought that finally understanding who he was would allow him to move forward rapidly…maybe not. He now dreams of having been able to discover his truth earlier, and he wonders if he should not help young people to fast track this discovery. Is Tom finding another excuse for justifying not taking this job opportunity?