Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Anonymous comment to blog provokes feelings of distain...

My thanks to Rob Greenland and Patrick Hadfield for responding to my blogpost on action for climate change. Firstly, I hope I don't come across as a hectoring judgemental busy body - the last thing I wanted to do was provoke feelings of "oh no, I am not doing enough". Lord knows, I do little enough...

I also received a reply from a blogger called "About Me" and can in no place find out who this person actually is. I am probably not trying hard enough but it makes me think they are cowardly if they don't post their name. I know in the blogosphere we can be anyone who we want and that Patrick might actually be Daisy, Rob might actually be David and I could be Dr Seuss for all you know but somehow, it does not occur to me that someone who uses a name would lie about it (for the record, I am not Dr Seuss). On the other hand, "About Me" gives no name and thus I somehow feel that person has something to hide. I know that is spectacularly irrational and would be interested to know how the anonymous blogger makes anyone else feel.

My feelings are exacerbated by the fact that the remarks "About Me" left are simply silly, defensive, and judgemental. I wonder a few things:

1. "About Me" states that I have misunderstood. The aim of climate camp "isn't to influence companies to but to stop them directly". Forgive me, but how do you get companies to stop? You influence them one way or the other. And having gotten them to stop, you have succeeded in influencing them to such an extent that they have changed their behaviour.

2. How does "About Me" know what I got up to at Climate Camp? Maybe I did empty toilets and do the washing up. "About Me" has no idea and his/her data-free speculation is presumptuous.

3. I did not say Climate Camp are doing anything wrong and I am fully aware of the recent successes. What I did say was that Climate Camp would be even more effective if their actions were more informed.

Whilst I am delighted Climate Camp took up my challenge to read and respond to my original post, I hoped for a more postive and less defensive response. The response I received was childish and unprofessional and I am sorry for that.

For those of you who want to read the original response from "About Me", it is below:

"i think you've slightly misunderstood the climate camp, our aim isn't to influence companies to but to stop them directly and build a movement that is an alternative vision of society. The climate camp isn't about asking others to do things it's about doing it ourselves.if you wanted to feel involved and make a contribution at the camp perhaps you'd have been better off emptying the composting toilets, doing the washing up or one of the other hundreds of jobs needed to build a strong grassroots movement, rather than telling us we are doing it wrong - have you read the news this week? victories for us (not alone but as part of broader movement) include Kingsnorth delayed for at least 3 years and not likely to ever happen, BAA backing off on the 3rd runway and a new coal threat at Hunterston called off before it even starts."

For those of you who would like to know more about "About Me" here is a link to his/her blog:


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Only a marriage of youth and experience will change the world

As I sit on a cold Tuesday morning with the heat off and many sweaters on, I am simultaneously reading the paper, listening to Radio Four and catching up on the Bloggers Circle. I am forced to reflect that all of this collective hand ringing is actually reaching a very small audience and that this small audience is not very effective at putting the collective hand ringing to good use. I am an active participant in the collective: I read, I write, I listen, I have heated discussions with friends, I go to lectures at the RSA...and yet I feel, as Patrick Hadfield does that, on some important issues such as climate change, the world is not changing for the better - or at least not fast enough.

There are probably loads of different reasons for that, most of which have to do with the fact that the people with power are older, less energentic and idealistic, and have a short term view which stems from the fact that their main priority is keeping their jobs, and have less time for "extra curricular activities". The net result of the list is that they are more interested in doing what it takes to maintain their status quo than in effecting world change. Realistically, that is what drives decision making both at a corporate and at a government level.

These people can be influenced to a point. The questions are who does the influencing and in what way?

On the influencing front, I have tried writing letters to my MP (no response), joined in the protest of the war in Iraq (failed), and recently participated in Climate Camp which was a thoroughly depressing experience. Firstly, because I did not have dread locks and am clearly over 21, I was consistently asked if I would like a leaflet, rather than accepted as a participant. Secondly, for all the enthusiastic chat, and gung ho educational modules about how to "do" civil disobedience, among other things, the organisers actually did not know, in the main, who - WHO - they were trying to influence. We gathered outside the head offices of large corporations. Did the protesters know who ran them (and thus who they should write to, phone, e mail in order to influence them?): no. Did the protesters know the latest about the enviromental policies of these large companies: no. They meant well but are too prejudiced and narrow minded to ever make a big impact because they refuse to learn who they should be influencing, and how.

We need to be able to marry experience with enthusiasm in vast quantities in order to change the world. Age and youth need to work together. So here is my starter for ten list of suggestions to the members of the Bloggers Circle, the RSA, and the reader regarding how to do that and, in that way, ideally change the world:

1. Get your criminal check done so you can go and speak about something at your local school (get them while they are young).
2. Contact an action group and see if they are open minded enough to have you come in and speak to them about organising themselves better and getting to know who it is they need to influence. Give lessons in corporate culture, how to write a letter, draw an org chart on the wall to show them how the decisions are made, teach them about CSR and how to manipulate it.
3. RSA: find some way to get university students involved on a regular basis in what we are doing and see if we can harness some of their ideas and enthusiasm in return for...?

I have motivated myself whilst writing this and will contact Climate Camp forthwith to have a chat about my observations and offer my services to them. Sadly, I am nearly 100% certain I will be thanked and dismissed because I don't fit their profile. Watch this space.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Where next for the Bloggers' Circle?

The twin objectives of the Bloggers' Circle were to enable members to develop a wider audience for their blog posts and to be a source of inspiration for our own writing. I think we need to look at them both before passing judgement.

To take the last one first, the Bloggers' Circle is absolutely inspiring for me. It has become like a second news paper for me, and a valuable source of content, comment and opinion. The digest is the most helpful bit of the Bloggers' Circle as it enables me to scan the headlines to see whether there is anything I want to read and debate. There are usually two or three things that interest me and that's pretty good given I don't bother reading about 80% of the newspaper. So, I do feel like the blog posts are informative, educational and interesting. I regret I don't always have the time to debate them as I would like to as many are a source of inspiration for my own writing. 10/10 for the inspiration bit.

To take the first one last, I know the Bloggers' Circle has not expanded the number of people who follow my blog. Having said that, my blog posts have been debated a couple of times by members of the circle and that is nice. If I flip that over, I have debated a number of blog posts and I know that people who follow me (via my blog, twitter, or facebook) have followed up on those links from time to time, have read the original bloggers' posts, and have commented back to me. I do not know if any of "my" followers are now following the other bloggers but I do know that I have not become a follower of any of the Bloggers' Circle members. The digest makes it so easy to stay informed that I don't need to follow anyone directly: I can follow everyone through the digest. 5/10 for the wider audience bit.

What to do?

I love the Bloggers' Circle, truly I do, for the above reasons. It mostly meets my aims and, although I admit I wish more people followed me, I rationalise that the reason more people don't follow me is that I don't have enough interesting stuff to say. Certainly the circle has given me a wider readership from time to time, even if it has not given me a wider followership. I am ok with that. However, Matthew, if the Bloggers' Circle is not meeting your aims, it must become disheartening to manage the digest and the admin of the circle. Please at least let me now say thank you - I appreciate what you are doing.

As for taking it "to the next level" I wonder if more active networking in addition to or as an alternative to debating is an idea? What I mean is that if I read a blog that interests me maybe I should suggest to the writer someone (person or organisation) they could send the post to directly - so it comes from them (with a recommendation) and not from me? Maybe we should be more proactive in enabling posts to be sent newspaper or journal editors, think tanks or politicians directly. Are members looking for work? Are they looking to get published? Are they looking to commericalise their creativity in some way?

Maybe we could introduce a component of action among all the talking? Just a thought.

Summary of Interview with Mandeep Kaur

Mandeep Kaur was born is the Punjab and is the first Sikh Chaplain in the MOD. In her role, she has responsibility of "providing moral, pastoral and spiritual support to Sikhs serving in the armed forces and their families." She met me off the train at Birmingham station and we sat in a cafe and talked long beyond the sixty minutes I had promised her. She is a warm, thoughtful person who was immensely generous with both her time and her thoughts and feelings.

Mandeep believes it is virtuous to develop oneself and to strive to be a good person where "good" is defines as taking righteous actions and conducting oneself honourably. Love is the essence of virtue as love pushes the ego away and enables selfless service, tolerance, and humility all of which are the very opposite of sinful behaviour. Behaving virtuously is beneficial to her in many ways: it makes her feel good and when she feels good she sees that goodness comes back to her; it results in her receiving respect from others; and it delivers financial and material success in that when she leaves greed and envy behind her, she automatically feels satisfied with what she has and sees herself as successful.

She does not think that people, and she would include herself in this, think actively about virtue and definitely believes that this needs to change and we need to start the debate about the virtue of virtue. In general, she sees that a lack of dialogue about virtue has caused us to take it for granted when there is clearly a large and growing lack of virtue in our society. As humans, we need to be taught to be human and to live in humanity. Accepting this statement is a necessary first step to developing humanity.

In order to embed virtue Mandeep stated very simply "change yourself and the world will change". If you want your world to be better, you have to be better. If you are bad, your world will be bad. To that end, we all have a responsibility to bring out the best in others, to thank, praise and acknowledge them for positive contributions they make. We also have a responsibility to bring out the best in ourselves by reflecting on our behaviour and taking actions like forgiving someone or endeavouring not to tell fibs the next day. We do not live in a world where we can do whatever we want. We need to live together humanely for the sake of humanity or we are little better than beasts in the wilderness. Virtue is the enabler.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related links:



Summary of Interview with Ed Kessler

Dr Ed Kessler is, among other things, the director of the Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths which is "dedicated to teaching, research and dialogue in the encounter between Jews, Christians and Muslims." He received me with great kindness on a rainy day in September and we talked about virtue in his cosy office tucked away at Wesley House in Cambridge.

Ed mused that virtue is an old fashioned word, one that does not get a lot of air just at the moment and conceded that he does not think about virtue per se in that he does not use the word to define what he does think a lot about which is "doing right". Ed believes virtuous behaviour can be demonstrated when doing small things like picking up litter, or big things like helping people off the path of sin and on to the path of righteousness. His virtue comes out of engaging in education which he does because he thinks the process of teaching is the right thing to do.

Ed believes that virtue is practically relevant to the average person and that people think a little more about it today than they did ten years ago. This is because we are challenged so much more than we used to be. We see much more suffering and many more causes for concern (terrorism, global warming, refugees, immigration, the financial crisis) are daily front page news. It is difficult, however, to translate the raised thinking into action because humans are naturally conservative and change averse. Under stress we tend to retreat to what we know rather than reach out and across boundaries to effect change.

In order to embed virtue Ed believes we need to acknowledge where we go wrong, reflect on it, and the go out there and do good which is what he tries to achieve every day.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related links: http://www.woolfinstitute.cam.ac.uk/cmjr/staff/kessler.php

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Why stop at a Director of Strangeness for the Arts Council?

Year ago my driver in Siam Reap admitted he did not like western classical music - it all sounded like noise to him. We laughed because what I hear as the ping pang pong of Cambodian music all sounds just like noise to me. We agreed the issue was that we could not access each other's music. Like a totally foreign language, we could not hear where one noise ended and another began: our respective classical traditions were strange to each other.

Strange is something I frequently want to overcome - or at least understand. Strange leads to action. Diversity, on the other hand, is supposed to be "a good thing" in its own right. We are not meant to want to overcome it, we are just meant to love it for its own sake. Where is the opportunity for transformation or progress in that?

Mark Robinson's somewhat tongue in cheek idea of a Director of Strangeness for the Arts Council is actually a great one but why stop at that? Maybe all companies should have CSOs (Chief Strangeness Officers). And we should definately have a Minister for Strange in the government. Maybe we would actually start to make progress.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Too much action without enough strategy is a sure route to bankruptcy!

As a management consultant, I would like to respond to Simon Cooke's blog post that there is too much strategy and not enough action. I read with interest his blog and was interested to see that he started his argument at the point when the goods and the place of exchange were selected. Selecting the goods you want to sell (the market you want to be in) and the place of exchange (the distribution channel(s)) are two key elements of strategy and if you get them wrong you will find yourself in an unattractive market, trying to sell products that nobody wants in a way that will not reach the intended customer, assuming there is one in the first place. So, whilst his friend may need to focus on tactics, that could be because he has already done the strategic leg work.

There are many definitions of strategy. The one used at my old firm (The Monitor Group) was the following: "Strategy is an integrated set of choices about what market opportunities exist, or can be created, that are organisationally and economically practical for your company to capture." This is a longer way of asking five questions:

1. What are my goals (market position, financial targets, non financial aspirations, etc.)?
2. Where should I play (product lines, customer segments, geographies, etc.)?
3. How will I win (distribution channels, pricing, brand, make vs buy, etc.)?
4. What capabilities must be in place (skills, resources, etc.)?
5. What systems do I require to manage (IT, decision making, cost management, manufacturing, governance, etc.)?

Question One is a heartland corporate strategy question. Questions Two and Three get us into the realm of marketing strategy. Questions Four and Five are about operational strategy. In an ideal world, executives start at the top and go to the bottom, moving from corporate strategy to operational strategy in a linear fashion. Practically speaking that is rarely possible because companies are living, breathing organisations that are impossible to freeze whilst we answer all of the above and the world changes around us. The important thing is that all the questions should be answered so that executive have integrated and robust corporate, marketing, and operational strategies that re-inforce each other and are difficult for the competition to copy.

As for strategy consultants charging you more than other consultants, let me reassure him that I will charge him just as much to do a marketing project as I will for doing a strategy project!

Friday, September 11, 2009

In exercising our "rights" are women asking for it?

Listening to Between Ourselves this week I followed with horror the stories of two women who had been raped. Although most rapes are apparently conducted by rapists who know their victims, on the programme, both women had been raped by strangers. The stories were terrible in different ways. One of the women was violently raped by a man who was known to her friends and who offered to walk her home from a night club. The other woman was taken advantage of by a man who had sex with her against her clearly stated will in a dark corner of a hotel at a party. Again, this man was known to friends of the victim. In both cases the women were drunk and in the second case the woman was raped while she was physically incapable of putting up a fight.

Although both victims bitterly regret getting so drunk that their judgment/physical capabilities were impaired, they both articulated that woman should have "the right" to go out and have a good time in what ever way they choose. They maintain that raping someone is a choice and rapists can choose not to rape. I agree with them on both points, but sadly feel they are being unrealistic.

Second point first: Committing any crime is a choice. I agree, criminals make choices to commit crimes. Pointing out the blindingly obvious is not going to stop rapists from choosing to rape if they get the opportunity. In an ideal world, there would be no rapists. In our world, surely the real issue is making sure the rapists who clearly exist do not get the opportunity to exercise their choice? First point second: I wonder if either of these women leaves her doors unlocked, her purse unattended, or the keys in the car? I doubt it. It would be great if they felt they could do so but I am certain they do not. I am certain they take preventative measures to avoid being burgled as, with regret, do I.

Today, I consider staying relatively sober and relatively modestly dressed as preventative measures against rape just like locking my front door is a preventative measure against burglary. I have not always taken precautions against rape and I have been lucky: At a university frat party I passed out stone cold due to too much vodka and when I came to several hours later I was on the floor of the loo with my coat over me and my hand bag and shoes next to me. A year later, at a different frat house, a girl was gang raped while she was unconscious. Believe me, I count my blessings most days.

The problem is that a lot of women react with hostility if you suggest that part of a rape prevention plan should be relative modesty and relative sobriety. Suggesting either seems to be tantamount to asking them to wear a bin liner and stay home and scrub the loo. The "asked" inevitably think the "asker" is some kind of unliberated desperate square who is on the side of the potential rapists and who believes women wearing short skirts are "asking for it" and I resent that.

As women (and men) of course we have the "right" to go out, get pretty naked, get hammered, and dance on tables whilst snogging the bouncer if we want to. We also have the "right" to leave our doors unlocked but I bet that most of us don't. I wish it were different, I really do, but until it is different I will continue to advocate that a little modesty and a little sobriety are the best preventative measures we have got.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Summary of the interview with Sandy Nairne

Extremely tall, and looking more like a director and less like a luvvie, Sandy Nairne warmly shook my hand and suggested we start our interview by having a brief look at the gallery itself. Given it is my favourite gallery in London, the fact that the director was going to give me a tiny private tour was a dream opportunity. During our tour, he pointed out certain works and told me a bit about their stories and their role in fulfilling the aims of the museum. He also filled me in on the types of people who get to be on the walls in painted, sculpted or photographic form. There are some splendid secrets and I cannot possibly reveal them!

Back in his office, Sandy and I had an energetic conversation accompanied by a welcome cup of coffee.

For Sandy, a virtuous person does things that contribute to the public good - things that make a positive impact on the world in both small and large ways. He thinks about virtue actively - although he may not use the word "virtue" itself. It strikes me, however, that he both looks for and welcomes opportunities to serve others: he has various pro bono advisory roles (he is an advisor on fabric to St Paul's Cathedral, for example), he enjoys nurturing junior curators, and he takes time to manage his team at the Portrait Gallery sensitively and bravely, creating a safe place where they can generate ideas and work together. In all cases he uses his skills and experience to serve others. A self-confessed optimist who also is public-minded, Sandy gets a great deal of quiet pleasure when he thinks he has made a positive impact on the people around him.

Sandy believes he was influenced by his parents who stressed the importance of "giving back", and led by example. He believes positive role models are crucial if we want to embed virtue more widely in our society, and that positive role models are everywhere if we choose to see them: they are standing up for strangers on busses as well as heading up organisations. Sandy does believe that "doing good" makes people feel good although he concedes that people may not always be able to articulate the connection between the two. The biggest barrier to bringing virtue to consciousness is social deprivation, including poor health and education, which negatively impacts people's behaviour and their interactions with others. Social deprivation prevents people from even realising the many ways - large and small - in which they can contribute and, as a result, make themselves feel more positive.

Sandy claims he is no preacher and he refused to be drawn on what he would advocate people change "on Monday morning" in order to embed virtue in their lives. He was clear, however, that the gallery has an important role to play in providing the public with an opportunity to be inspired and intrigued by the lives of others and maybe, just maybe, be transformed.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related links: http://www.npg.org.uk/


The shadow baby
lay between us
crying in the night

we had no peace
we had no rest
we had no speech
we had no sex

the shadow baby
crying in the night

the shadow grew
a barbed wire fence
and you went left
and I went right.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Artificial Trees: possibly the shortest blogpost ever

Plant more real trees.

You can stop reading now if you like as that is the main message of this blog post.

I have listened with growing concern all week about the plans to "plant" lots of artificial "trees" to trap and store carbon "for a long time." This morning on Today, a man from the Royal Society was in on the act promoting artificial trees as one of our best radical, scientific hopes for combatting climate change.

OK science (as represented by the man from the RS), you are officially up your own backside, you have ceased to do any integrated thinking, and here is my longer response:

Most of us know the benefits of real trees, including the fact that they transform CO2 into O2. Many of us know the complexities of cutting down rain forest to grow crops, for fuel and building materials, and to create grazing land for cattle. We should tackle the issues that are causing the real trees to be cut down and restore some kind of natural balance to our world rather than add to the imbalance by putting sunglasses in the sky to sheild us from the sun or plant artifical trees that store carbon but don't do anything productive with it.

To his credit, the man from the RA did say that it was best to tackle the problem "at its source" by which I think he meant, "stop cutting down trees and plant some more" but I cannot be sure. If that is indeed what he meant, why did he not say so and why does he not spend his time tackling the issues to do with the loss of real trees rather than the development of artificial ones?

Thus, the key message of this blogpost: Plant more real trees.

That is why this is the shortest blog ever.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Summary of interview with Professor Janet Reibstein

Professor Reibstein, one of the UK's most established psychotherapists and a professor at Exeter University, kindly made time for me on a day when she was in London to see private patients. She is originally from the USA and has lived in the UK for most of her professional life. Through her research, clinical work, lecturing and her body of published work, Professor Reibstein has built a reputation as a specialist in relationships - what they mean, their value to us as individuals and to society as a whole, and how to make and maintain positive, constructive relationships both personally and professionally.

For Professor Reibstein, virtue is about doing good for others. She freely admits she finds it difficult to think about virtue without the context of relationships because her learning and thinking have led her to believe that constructive relationships put one in the state of being open and desirous of doing good for others. For Professor Reibstein, to be in a constructive relationship, thus to be in a state of wanting to do good for others, "feels marvelous": it is personally satisfying and it affirms her belief system. Love, for her, is the highest state of virtue and it is something she thinks about actively and consciously every day of her life because she knows that when we are in constructive relationships we feel good about ourselves and seek to contribute to the maximum of our capabilities - whether it is in our personal or our professional lives. The opposite is also true: when we have been injured or hurt - even by a stranger and even in a tiny way - it causes us to freeze up and withdraw in order to protect ourselves. Luckily, we only need one constructive relationship at any point in our lives to transform ourselves and give us some of the resilience we need to weather fear and uncertainty and withstand hurt.

Although she believes that the average person is somewhat empathic in nature, she also sees that the average person may not have the vocabulary to think about virtue in a conscious way. As a result, they may not seek to work at building constructive relationships simply because they may not necessarily understand that it is constructive relationships above anything else that will benefit them. She observes that people tend to think about themselves and their needs in terms of "this is what I want" or "why am I not getting what I want" rather than "what can I do for others that will return something meaningful to me"?

One of the barriers to embedding virtue more widely in society is that the current culture of competition fosters individualistic and singular behaviour - behaviour that is "by myself" and "for myself". At an individual level this can lead to selfish and rude behaviour where the needs of others are not considered and the "rights" of the self are paramount. At an institutional level, many leaders are emulating the culture of the "master of the universe", currently celebrated by the media, in order that they themselves are recognised as being powerful. This conflation of "power", "singularity", and "leadership" has resulted in the situation in which many people in power are irresponsible and do not reflect on the impact that their power can have on others. In actual fact, the best leaders (as measured by popularity and improved share holder value) are those who create the circumstances where good relationships are formed and fostered and who reward others for doing the same.

To embed virtue, therefore, we must all work at our relationships and seek to build more positive relationships with our intimates, and more courteous relationships with strangers. Institutions must develop leaders who wield their power in a constructive and even benevolent way by enabling and encouraging people in their organisations to be in constructive, benevolent relationships. Changing one's behaviour, she concedes, feels odd and even fake at first, but rapidly becomes a new habit which feels "marvelous". Wouldn't that be great?

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

For related links about Professor Reibstein please see:

Societal harmony depends on the rule of law being upheld -

Maybe I am really naive but I always thought that the legal system was independent - that although many people would like to influence a legal judgement and will bring pressure to bear, we have to trust in the rational decision making capabilities of our lawyers and judges and trust that their influence is given due weight in any political decision such as the one made by the Scottish Justice Minister last week.

The law is not there to be "fair" it is there to be just. There is a body of precedent and cases are judged against it. There are plenty of cases that hit the news and generate a national or international outcry. I can cite the one of the couple who got divorced and he wanted all of their frozen embryos to be destroyed. He won. He won even through he could get re married and have children of his own and his ex-wife had no more eggs and thus no chance at children ever again. Nobody can think that is fair. However, it is the law and the law was upheld regardless of public outcry.

The release of the Libyan terrorist on compassionate grounds is clearly offending people and making them unhappy - and I am talking from the position of having a friend of mine, whom I saw two days before the event, blown up on that plane. However, the Libyan's circumstances matched the body of precedent and so the judgement was made to release him. The Minister’s decision was made over a long period of time during which he would have considered every angle thoroughly and had an opinion given to him by legal experts. It is highly disrespectful to the legal experts to even hint that they were unduly influenced by political pressure over any other consideration. I will be horrified and disappointed and lose trust in the legal system if that turns out ever to be proven.

We cannot let public opinion or political pressure sway our legal system. I choose to believe we did not let that happen in this case and cannot let it happen in the future. The fall out is complicated but the law was upheld.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Escapism is not so very bad...and benefits the locals!

There is so much to debate in Julian Dobson's latest amazing blog post that it is hard to know where to begin. I could debate "why people read" or "what people read" or "I bet the locals are happy to have the tourists' money regardless of what they are buying"or "who says history is more factual than fiction"? I love it! Get in on it!

Our Man with Rats wonders whether we are "bored and uncomfortable with the real stories that make us who we are" and that is a complicated question which brings to mind recent blog-bates about virtual reality versus reality, for one. Certainly fiction is a form of escapism, allowing the readers to enter into worlds that may be completely different from their own. An enjoyable and relaxing break from their day to day lives (like a holiday?).

Without thinking too deeply just at the moment, here is my light hearted and shallow response:

1. There is so much choice now about where we can go and what we can do on our holidays (and it is easy to go places) that people probably use books and films/tv to help them make their choices.

2. Many people are not that intrepid and may want to go and visit places with which they are a bit familiar - albeit through books or film/tv. The place is less alien and less threatening and this may be important to the traveller, especially if the destination is in another country.

3. Some people have a preference for fiction over history and others have a preference for history over fiction. Most blokes I know maintain they prefer to read history and most women I know say they prefer to read fiction. (Maybe women are the ones choosing the holiday destinations about which Our Man with Rats writes?) However, reading a novel often inspires people to learn more about the period and the place in which the novel was set - thereby inspring them to read some history and/or visit the place in which it was set and maybe pick up some history along the way (and spend some money, thus benefitting the locals).

4. Clearly an accurate understanding of who we are and where we come from must come from history (at least, that is what my head mistress told me when I wanted to opt out of history) but then again that argument is fraught with difficulty: whose version of history is the accurate one?

That's another good topic for a blog post....

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bad trip to the dentist? Why doesn't that surprise me?

I had to laugh (not in a mean way) when I read Rob Greenland's post about his trip to the dentist. In one fell swoop he reinforced two of the national stereotypes with which foreigners paint the British. The first is bad dentistry and the second is lousy customer service.

Let's face it, dentistry has never been a core competence of the Brits. All the articles this past week end on the recent history of dentistry in the UK prove this point (read: lots of false teeth). Whilst those residing in other Western countries have had flouride in the water for decades, have visited the dentist twice a year for the whole of their lives, and have prioritised expenditure on expensive orthodauntists to coax their teeth into straight lines with no over bites, Brits have prided themselves that their wonky teeth and tobacco-stained smiles provide them with individualistic charm.


Although tea drinking, gardening, satire, and rambling all rank among things in which Brits truly excel, spending good money on straight teeth and healthy gums (not to mention the resulting avoidance of severe and chronic halitosis) until very recently, has not. To that end, it is not to be expected that dentistry is at the forefront of Things Brits Do Well (yet).

Let's also face it that Britain is famed for the provision of bad value products coupled with poor customer service. Fawlty Towers, need I say more?

My advice? Protest! Vote with your feet! Make a stand! More Brits need to refuse to patronise British dentists and join the other Brits who have defected to Poland, Germany, or Hungary to find competent, cheerful, professional dentists who do not over-charge. Your carbon foot print will be higher but your blood pressure will be lower.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Summary of the interview with Nigel Seed, QC

I met Nigel in his chambers at 3 Paper Buildings at The Temple. I had never been to The Temple and was delighted to go there and to get a chance to see it and to meet him. A reserved and thoughtful man, it turns out that this seeming pillar of the establishment was a real rebel in his youth.

For Nigel, virtue is more than mere goodness. Virtuous behaviour is honest behaviour, by which he means being truthful to oneself and others. He sees that dishonest behaviour takes many forms including outright lying or cheating but also trying to cover up the truth or not tell the whole truth. One aspect of dishonest behaviour that particularly strikes Nigel is when people make a mistake and follow elaborate (and usually dishonest) steps to try to cover it up or make out there was no mistake in the first place. Behaving honestly is difficult because it requires the strength of mind and character to resist the temptation to fabricate or embellish and this, in turn, requires genuine self confidence. When Nigel sees someone behaving virtuously (honestly) he feels warmly toward that person, is inclined to trust them, and would seek to get to know them and re-engage with them. Similarly, when he sees someone behaving without virtue he feels immediately that they are not to be trusted and he goes out of his way to avoid them, both socially and professionally. They make him feel angry and irritable.

Attempting to behave virtuously is not something Nigel thinks about consciously. It is like breathing. Interestingly, Nigel does not remember developing his understanding of virtuous behaviour from positive role models, but rather from negative ones. Growing up, and as a young barrister, he came across behaviour he actively chose not to emulate. Whilst this may have isolated him from certain people and blocked certain avenues, he does not regret the choices he has made and it is clear that he could not even consider living in any other way.

Sadly, he sees that there is a lot of dishonesty in the world. He sees so many people who try to get away with as much as they can, pushing the limit until they get caught. Regulation has not helped, indeed it is hugely interfering, removing individual accountability and peer pressure for virtuous behaviour. Nigel is a criminal barrister but his observations are not limited to his work at the bar. His professional and personal interests take him into a variety of places and he interacts at a senior level with people from different professions, many of whom have begun to "believe their own press", hiding behind the authority of their office or profession. This is particularly troubling because people in leadership positions are influential and should be setting a good example rather than using their authority to serve themselves and their own interests.

In order to embed virtue he thinks that we all need to take a good hard look at ourselves and the groups and organisations to which we belong, analysing whether we are being truthful to ourselves, in our jobs, and with the people around us. Dishonesty is a habit which we need to work hard to break and he suggests everyone starts by resisting, at least once a day (for starters!), the temptation to tell a little lie. We'll survive and, in the end, be better off.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related links (profile of Nigel Seed, QC): http://www.3paper.co.uk/profile/72/group/3/64

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Summary of Interview with Jonathan Aitken

I drank tea with Jonathan Aitken in his lovely library in London. He was an honest and enthusiastic participant in the process, holding nothing back about his controversial past, his time in prison, and his conversion to Christianity.

Jonathan defines virtue as a personal quality that raises those who possess it above the run of the mill. Virtuous people honour both the spiritual life and the earthly life in a community of their choosing. The behaviour most closely associated with virtue is moral courage which, he freely admits, can make virtuous people incredibly stubborn as they may be unshakeable in their belief system. Nevertheless, his experience is that this kind of moral courage (of convictions) can be rather infectious and feels admiration and respect for people who display it whom, he observes, have a certain something about them. They radiate, they shine, and that radiance affects other people.

Jonathan thinks about virtue actively as he daily strives to be a better person, "less self-centred and more Christ-centred" is the way he phrases it. This translates into a constant attempt to have better relationships and to be more grateful for what he has and what he receives. The benefit of attempting to behave virtuously is "peace at the centre" which is a Quaker phrase. Although he has elected to follow a Christian path to achieving this kind of peace within himself by building relationships with loved ones, neighbours, and God, he is perfectly comfortable with the idea that this can also be achieved in a non-religious way. People, he believes, have a remarkable store of qualities which they can put to virtuous use.

He is saddened by his observation that virtue is low down on most people's behaviours as the spiritual side of life is squeezed out in a secular age. He sees that behaviour has become rather "scientific" rather than conscience-led. One example of this is regulation: where there is a regulator, people doing a job, whether it is a city trader or an executive in an electricity company, or a politician, may choose to try to get away with as much as they possibly can, delegating responsibility for "what is acceptable" to the regulator. This scientific approach in an increasingly litigious age is the biggest barrier to embedding virtue, for him.

To enable the embedding of virtue, Jonathan believes we have to become more comfortable talking about it as a day to day part of our lives. Leaders in institutions can play a key role in this if they elect to discuss virtue, weave it into a well understood and broadly shared value system, and develop a behavioural code for the workplace where the virtuous circle can spring into life.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

You don't choose to be a role model

There was a great programme on Women's Hour recently in which a woman named Dreda Say Mitchell was being interviewed. She is a writer and a teacher yet is reluctant to call herself a role model. I am not getting at her, maybe she has never thought about it, but you don't get to choose whether or not you are a role model, especially if you have chosen to be in a position of leadership, as she has. You do, however, get to choose to be a good role model or a bad one.

Leaders are those who are followed. Those who seek out leadership positions have a duty to be good role models because more often than not, they are followed and copied, at least by some. Even if they are not followed or copied, their behaviour is scutinised and talked about. The members of The Wiggles understand that and never even jay walk just in case a tiny fan is watching. Some people do not seek out leadership positions deliberately but nevertheless acquire followers. Examples include some children in the classroom, some junior members of organisations, some neighbours, and every parent. Very few of us get away without being observed and copied, at least by some, and we do not necessarily know who is watching and maybe copying. To that end, it is likely that we are all role models and thus the choice we have is whether to be good ones or bad ones.

What's a good role model? That is another blogpost altogether...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Isn't social intimacy a contradiction in terms?

I like conversing with my 16 year old god son because he uses the computer completely differently from me or anyone else I know who is over 25. We had a massive debate about whether or not internet "friends" are really friends and whether you can ever really trust someone you only know in the virtual world. I feel strongly that they are not and that you cannot. Needless to day, he feels strongly that they are and you can. I was interested, therefore, to read a thoughtful account (versus a bun-throwing fest) of this same topic from Prestolee who feels that social networking sites like Twitter can help build intimacy.

There are lots of different kinds of relationships (casual, business, social, intimate) and we are best served not confusing them. One of my earliest, and most painful life lessons was to make a clear distinction between friends and "work friends". A "work friend", even if you are genuinely close at work, is not necessarily a friend. They do not necessarily hold you in the same esteem as a true friend, may not be open to having a drunken slobbering conversation at 3 am about your ex boyfriend, and may work very hard to get promoted before you do - even if it is at your expense. In short, they do not necessarily have your best interests at heart in the way a true friend does. But they are still a friend - of sorts.

The Germans have a great way of tackling this by using the formal "Sie" for social , casual and business relationships. If (and it could be after you have known someone for 25 years) you mutually decide that you would like to have an intimate relationship (in other words, to be friends) you will celebrate the fact by addressing each other by the informal "du" and by going out for lunch or dinner to confirm your new status as intimates. I actually think that is lovely and it certainly avoids any confusion about where your relationship stands.

Internet relationships (especially the ones on the websites most employers ban) are not intimate relationships. They are social, business, casual, or some combination of the three. By this, I am not suggesting that internet relationships are bad or shallow - just that they are limited and we should remember this. We may care about our virtual friends at some level and wish each other well. We may help each other find something or solve something, raise money for charity, or provide support and encouragement. But at the end of the day, we do not really know the people on the other end of the ether, nor they us. I am afraid, even after reading the thoughtful blog post, that I am sticking to my view. However, I absolutely concede that kindness and acknowledgement from people whether in person or on the internet, whether friends, contacts, or strangers is positive and makes us feel good about ourselves. When we feel good about ourselves we are more likely to go out and do good for others, thus developing and building truly intimate relationships where virtue can continue to flourish.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Summary of interview with Mark Goodrich, CEO ER Consulting

Mark and I met in the frenetic cafe of the IOD on Pall Mall where we had cups of tea and people watched whilst talking about virtue. He is a quiet, principled man of strong beliefs and feelings, whose ideas were shaped by his family upbringing. The son of a peripatetic Methodist minister, Mark is now a confirmed agnostic, and ex trade unionist who, although English, started his career deep inside the steel mills of middle America.

Mark believes virtue manifests itself in two ways which he calls the internal and the external. A state of internal virtue is achieved when one has a clear set of beliefs, is prepared to stand up for them, and uses them actively to benefit oneself and others. "There is virtue," he says, "in participating...in a dynamic iteration of my life's meaning." The internal value system that drives his behaviour stems from his belief that we should respect others and we should work to see justice done. External virtue is represented by societal norms and beliefs about what is acceptable behaviour. Clearly, where the internal and the external clash there is conflict of the kind that Mark has observed and been engaged in during his entire career. In conflict, he believes we must seek to understand differences and attempt to reconcile - a view he espouses both in his personal and his professional life.

Mark feels positive when he sees virtue - it tips him into the "people are good" side of the balance because virtue generates positive, reciprocal relationships, something that is particularly important in times of crisis. Collaboration is only possible when people trust one another and trust is built, in part, by virtuous behaviour. Unfortunately, he does not believe we, as a society, think about virtue consciously, nor that virtue is a concept that is current. This is because it is not discussed widely due to that fact that it has traditionally been a subject for discussion in church and no forum has replaced the church for certain important discussions - such as virtue. He believes the average person is virtuous, but that they don't think about it and so don't necessarily appreciate the positive impact virtue has on them and others. That there is no obvious place for the discussion of virtue is one of the key barriers to embedding it. Other barriers include the culture of materialism which leads to destructive behaviours, and the current level of political discussion which he maintains it pretty "virtue-free".

We can enable the embedding of virtue by discussing the benefits of virtue and thus encouraging people to behave in a virtuous way. Schools become the obvious place for both discussing and encouraging virtuous behaviours (how to interact with people for a positive impact, participating in public service, etc.). Virtue, he says, requires sacrifice and requires us to be open to changing the internal in order to find the common ground that serves the greater good. As a sample of one, it is precisely this interaction with others that makes him get up in the morning and hum.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related links: http://www.erconsultants.co.uk/

Monday, July 20, 2009

A cause for weeping

In the medina in Tangiers
Moustaffa leaves bowls of water
for stray kittens.

He sings while washing
chicken carcasses as gently
as you would a baby.

They say he beats his wife.

Summary of interview with Matthew Taylor, CEO RSA

I met Matthew Taylor in his sunny office at the top of the RSA building just off The Embankment. It was a Friday afternoon and, over cups of tea, we covered virtue as well as psychiatry, nurturing, leadership, and growing up (among other things) in a candid and, at times, poignant discussion.

Matthew would modify the Golden Rule somewhat in order to define virtuous behaviour. Rather than do unto others as you would have them to unto you, he would like to do unto others as they would like to be done by. Doing good, and doing harm are in the eye of the beholder. Whilst that may sound simple, the reality is that for us to behave in a way that enables others to reach their full potential, we need to be enlightened ourselves. We must have self awareness in order to know our limits. We must have confidence in order to be able to accept and resolve differences. We must have compassion and a capacity to nurture in order to truly bring the best out in others. We must understand the relationship between means and ends in order to have a consistently virtuous impact on our surroundings. Whilst it is important to have a clear value set and to adhere to it, it is also important to know how to resolve the conflicts that can come about when two different value sets meet. People who are in positions of leadership, as Matthew is, are in positions of great responsibility because they have the opportunity to impact other people's lives for good or for ill depending on their intellectual and emotional capabilities and their abilities to embrace and resolve differences.

Matthew is driven by a tremendous sense of duty coupled with a genuine desire to be a better person and a better leader. He wants to have a consistently positive impact on the world around him and continues to struggle to develop the qualities that he believes he lacks. When he is successful, when he feels he has done his duty, he experiences a sense of well being which, he freely admits, feels even better when it is acknowledged and/or when he sees his ideas being implemented. For him, the emotional benefit of behaving virtuously is a feeling of contentment and the self expressive benefit is being thought of, by others, as a person with good ideas who is having a positive impact on his surroundings.

Although he believes that virtue is practically relevant for the average person, and that the average person behaves virtuously much of the time, he also sees that many people find the concept of virtue to be "too big" for them. This means they don't think about it consciously and therefore, do not behave virtuously with consciousness - observing how their behaviour makes them feel, and seeking to repeat the positive experiences and cut down on the negative ones. The real problem occurs when people are so unobservant of their own emotional responses to their behaviour that they buy into a destructive set of values which is so easy to do whether you are an average bloke participating in a blokey kind of culture where being virtuous could be perceived as weakness, or are a vulnerable teen ager looking for acceptance in a violent gang.

To embed virtue requires self knowledge and that requires conversation and learning. Given that many people work in organisations, employers have a responsibility to help leaders develop themselves so that they can have a consistently positive impact on the people who work for them. Individuals are also responsible. People should create time in their day to reflect on their behaviour and then make conscious choices about how they would like to behave going forward. Further, people should initiate and participate in conversations that are productive and constructive. Discussing something like virtue makes the concept more practical and accessible and creates moments in which we could all be positively changed.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related links: http://www.thersa.org

Saturday, July 18, 2009

NEDs - a response to the FT's article on David Walker

Sir David Walker has suggested 39 steps to better corporate governance. Doubling NEDs days from 20-25 per year is one of them. The Financial Times characteristically sees barriers to this great suggestion:

"The calibre of people required and the increased amount of time each will have to dedicate to individual directorships under the proposals will inevitably lead to concerns about whether there is a sufficient supply of mature professionals to fill these roles" (Financial Times, July 18/19 2009, p 13).

Currently it is true that many non executive directors have several positions which means they cannot dedicate themselves properly to all the positions they hold and could not double the days they commit to their NED positions. However, this situation comes about not because companies cannot find good people to be their NEDs but because networks are strong at this level in the business world and people like working with people like them, everyone likes to fill positions with people they can trust, and people who come highly recommended by someone you know are often trustworthy by proxy. Further, selecting people from within trusted network eliminates the time and expense required to do a thorough search. If organisations limit the number of non executive directorships their non execs can hold, each NED will have more time to do a better job. Although there has been a lot of noise about this topic over the years, the reality is that many NEDs still hold too many positions.

The vacancies created by reducing the number of positions NEDs can hold, or doubling their time commitments so they are forced to give up some positions can be filled - easily. The reality is that there is a glut of talented and experienced people to fill these roles who do not have an outlet for their creativity and skills and who cannot get NED positions because they are not in the right networks. There are literally of hundreds of independent consultants many of whom were senior executives in top firms and have opted for whatever reason to work independently. They would be fantastic NEDs. The pool grows bigger when you factor in the women who have held senior positions, who are not working in order to look after their children, and who would love to have a challenging job that only took up 2-3 days a month.

People do not have to have decades of experience in the industry of the company for which they are an NED. That is what the board is for. However, NEDs must have fine minds, they must be able to formulate questions, drive for answers and resist the temptation to cosy up to the CEO and other members of the board. Above all, the Western virtue of courage is what is required: courage to admit when you don't understand something and to make sure you get the answers you need before you take decisions. Given most bankers have admitted they did not understand the instruments they were trading, the only conclusion we can draw is that, even at the NED level, they did not have the courage to admit, in public at least, that they were in the dark.

To the FT and to those who would have the system remain unchanged the message is this: if you use the same people you will have the same answers, the same approaches, and the same problems - whether or not you cut their pay, double their pay, cut their days, or double them. If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you always got.

Try harder people: To force companies to get new blood, every board should have one NED who has never been an NED before. This system of apprenticeship ensures we have a sustainable model for developing good NEDs. It also ensures there is new thinking on every board at least for a little while. As spaces become vacant, they should be filled by someone who is new to the NED role. Go and find some talented and experienced professionals who are currently outside the banking system and ask them to be NEDs. Try it for 6 months if you don't want to commit to it - you have absolutely nothing to lose. And that is a great return on your risk. If you need some help, call me - I know plenty of people who could fit the bill. Or, better yet, contact one of the following companies all of which have fantastic talent pools in which you can fish:

Eden McCallum (http://www.edenmccallum.com/)

Sapphire Partners (http://www.sapphirepartners.co.uk/)

Holker Watkin (http://www.holkerwatkin.com/)

a-connect (http://www.a-connect.com/)

An insufficient supply of mature professionals? Give me break. You just don't know where to look.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Summary of interview with Dr Yazeed Said

Dr Said, an Anglican priest with an Israeli passport, is currently completing post doctoral studies at Cambridge. We met at the entrance to Corpus Christi college, just around the corner from its remarkably beautiful new clock. He treated me to lunch in the hall (ancient, beautiful room with modern, institutional food) before we retired to the cafe of a nearby church for coffee and brownies where there were a series of very noisy dish breakages during our talk that caused us to stop regularly and crack up laughing at the hapless stackers of dishes. Not very virtuous of us...

For Dr Said, virtuous acts are acts that contribute to growth - of the self, of others, of society in general. A truly virtuous act is something we do to in response to an emotional challenge of some kind in order to change ourselves for the better: for example, a moment of shame, guilt, or sadness. It is then that we have an opportunity to be less caught up in ourselves and develop better connections with the bigger reality of life. He would not say that he thinks about virtuous behaviour all the time but he does know that he tries consciously, and through prayer, to become the human being that he is being called to become. Prayer, like contemplating a beautiful landscape or listening to music, takes him out of himself and gives him to opportunity to confront and challenge what he sees and understands with a view to transforming it (i.e. himself) for the better.

Whilst this may sound like he is caught up with himself, the answer could not be farther from the truth. Dr Said grew up in the Middle East where society is lived in a less individual way than in the west. He maintains it is easier to be virtuous where groups of people must cooperate on a daily basis to achieve a common goal. This is also the reason that he sees virtue is critical for people in positions of leadership: they can become isolated and begin to work against the interests of the group they are leading if the heirarchy allows them to do so. Alternately, they can be a powerful force for good.

Dr Said sees the barriers to embedding virtue include egoism, greed and fear - all our worst, natural human inclinations! Embedding virtue requires us to forge relationships and learn to live with each other in communities. For him, God is a critical member of any community because he believes we need help and support to transform our lives.

Embedding virtue is in the hands of individuals and Dr Said suggests we do two things: Firstly, we must learn to question our motives when we do thing, asking ourselves, "Why am I doing this? What good will it do? Will it do any harm?" and then acting only to do good and not to do harm. However, asking ourselves these questions in isolation is not enough because we need to understand the people with whom we are interacting in order to be able to answer the questions accurately. To that end, we need to build relationships and share experiences. Only in that way can we get to know others and learn from them, thus creating opportunities for us to transform.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post:

Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related links: http://www.jal33.org/jal33.org/News/5C08D6F6-9455-4FC6-9DE4-BF2F6104217D.html

Friday, July 3, 2009

Summary of Interview with Imam Asim Hafiz, Chief Muslim Chaplain for the MOD

Imam Asim Hafiz is the British born and raised muslim chaplain to Her Majesty's Armed Forces. We met in the cafe at the MOD and chatted at length about virtue. Asim is a deeply thoughtful and quietly spoken man whose kindness and charm come out in every word he speaks.

Asim's understanding of virtue is strongly influenced by his faith. Although Islam has a list of virtues (for which see: Virtues (for the virtue project) ), Asim insists that virtous behaviour also involves making active decisions to avoid sin, for example deciding not to get angry when someone cuts you off in the car, or deciding not to be greedy when faced with a tableful of cakes. To that end, behaving in a truly virtuous manner requires us to decide consciously to make a sacrifice of some kind.

Asim thinks about virtue consciously and challenges himself constantly to be a better person. He finds it fulfilling to behave virtuously - it is not just about doing things for other people. Being virtuous and thinking about virtue makes him feel hopeful and connected to a greater whole. He considers virtue consciously partly because he is interested in human psychology and partly because he is a dedicated follower of the Koran which explicitly requests followers to be good in all aspects of their lives and to try to embed goodness widely to ensure that humanity has good manners and good character.

Asim believes that although most people are virtuous, they do not think about virtue consciously and so do not enjoy the benefits of behaving in a virtuous manner. The weakness in society, therefore, is not that there is a lack of virtue - but that people take virtue for granted. If we could bring virtue to consciousness, both the givers and the receivers of acts of virtue would feel more positive and more connected. He was dismayed to realise that he himself is often surprised when he sees virtue and reflected that this sad state of affairs is caused by a culture of fear that makes many people must unwilling to build relationships with others - especially with strangers. This unwillingness is exacerbated by the fact that technology does not require people to develop relationship building skills because it limits face to face human interaction and, thus, limits the opportunities we have to learn about ourselves. Self knowledge is the key to empathy and empathy is the key to virtue.

He suggests we make a little sacrifice once a day or once a week to see how it feels, and/or spend a few minutes each day reflecting on our interactions with others and our behaviour to develop our self awareness. As a simple change that will instantly make us all feel better, he recommends smiling at someone at least once a day (and smiling back at someone who smiles at you)! To help embed virtue, therefore, we need to create opportunities to develop self-knowledge, and to that end, Asim is clear that it is individuals who must be responsible for embedding virtue in our society to help ensure that humanity can develop and maintain the good manners and good character mentioned above.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related links: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/priests/armychaplains_3.shtml

Summary of interview with Rob Taylor, CEO Kleinwort Benson

I met Rob Taylor, CEO of Kleinwort Benson, in his offices in the city. Rob is the CEO of a private bank and, to that end, the subject of virtue is a topical one.

Rob believes that virtuous behaviour is living according to a set of values that have a positive impact on society. To that end, virtue is not a static concept but one that changes with time as societal norms and standards change. He has enormous respect for people who live according to their values, resolving conflicts where possible but, in the end, not giving in to pressures to make decisions that compromise their own beliefs.

Seeing virtue in action evokes feelings of kindliness and respect for the other person. Behaving in a virtuous manner - that is upholding his own values especially when it comes to making decisions - causes him to feel proud of himself and comfortable in his own skin. He thinks about virtue actively especially when it comes to making decisions. In decision making he constantly weighs up the possible outcomes of different decisions and reflects these outcomes back to his own value system, trying contantly to make decisions that enable him to uphold his values. He realises that his values are sometimes are in conflict with the values of others and sees virtue in trying to resolve that conflict and come to a shared decision.

Rob has continued to develop his value system throughout his life. He went to a church school and had a family who actively discussed right and wrong; good and bad. He enjoys discussing these kinds of ideas and has always surrounded himself with supportive people who share this interest. He believes that people are inherently virtuous and feels saddened and disappointed when he hears or reads of terrible events and bad behaviour. He believes the individual must make active choices to change their environment if they are surrounded by destructive and unsupportive people. Clearly this is often easier said than done, but the role of the individual and the choices we make are critical in embedding virtue. Individual's choices can be informed and supported by leaders - all kinds of leaders - who create virtuous organisations and role model virtuous behaviour. He encourages everyone to move out of their comfort zone from time to time to test and possibly change their values - seeking always to develop values that have a positive impact on others.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links: http://www.kleinwortbenson.com/

The whole interview will be available shortly. Please post a comment if you would like to hear it. Thanks.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

In the garden

Dirt under my fingernails
proclaims the advent of spring,
and summer's slow continuance.

My ankles and calves are mud-streaked
grubbing around in weeds like caterpillars,
seeds come to visibility as tiny green promises.

I am face to face with
the reality of miracles.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Emerging Findings (very very draft and incomplete)

1. Definition of virtue:

Doing good works
Doing things for others with no expectation of reward
Working to develop and maintain progressive, positive relationships
Building communities
Going above and beyond the call of duty

2. What is in it for me?

Behaving virtuously meets emotional needs:
Makes me feel happy
Provides me with a sense of well being
Makes me feel like I have done my duty

Behaving virtuously meets my self expressive needs:
People think I am a good person

Behaving virtuously meets my rational needs:
Greases the wheels of social intercourse (makes it easier for me to meet people)
Helps my career (I get noticed for doing good things well and people ask me to do other things)
Broadens my network (I meet people who may help me later both personally and professionally)
I meet interesting people with whom I like to interact

3. Embedding virtue

Barriers to embedding virtue:

The word itself is huge: isn't virtue limited to people like Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa?
How to we make the word less threatening and more applicable to people like me?
How to get people to understand what is in it for them (what it will do for them, how it will change their lives positively)
How to get all people into positive communities (children will choose to be in a gang as a community rather than feel they are not in a community at all)
How to get people into communities that are isolated and therefore begin to lose confidence and self esteem (stay at home parents, elderly, long term unemployed)

Enablers to embedding virtue:

Leaders in organisations have power to:
- set standards of behaviour in the company so that doing things for others "above and beyond the call of duty" at work are the norm - become like breathing - must discuss this broadly in the organisation and involve people in the setting of these standards
- role model these behaviours
- develop opportunities for people to behave virtuously and thus come to understand how it changes their lives for the better: 1/2 day off per month/quarter to engage in volunteer work of their choice; 1 month off per 3 years to engage in volunteer projects at full or part pay; "quarter days" where a group of people from the organisatioin (including leaders) do something together like paint a hospital, clear rubbish, read to the elderly, etc (thus team building at the same time). Must be more than giving money - must involve time and relationship building/community building

Individuals can:

- ask themselves who do I know? who do I love? what can I do for them? How can I build relationships for myself (with estranged family/friends; with lady who sells me my paper every day; with neighbours)
- can get involved in my local community (what interests me - environment, traffic, cycling, children, elderly, sports, gardening...) and get involved
- can can ask other people (friends, neighbours) to join them in their virtuous activities (best way of getting a new member of a club is through referral because people are shy/nervous of walking into a new place without knowing a soul)
- exercise good manners (making eye contact and thanking people like bus drivers, canteen ladies, people in shops, drivers who let you into traffic.....)
- take 5 minutes out every day to contemplate. In contemplation (prayer, meditation, great works of art, nature...) we think about our own behaviour and we make a connection to something outside of ourselves causing us to think one way or another about the greater whole of which we are a small part. It is in big or small ways always transformative.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Summary of interview with Peter Manning

Peter Manning kindly received me in his lovely home and made me coffee before we settled in for our discussion of virtue. He is a concerned man who thought deeply as we talked.

For Peter, virtuous people take responsibility for their actions, reflect on their behaviour, and keep trying to live better lives - going through the cycle of apology and forgiveness whenever necessary. He is concerned that we are moving from self-regulation of behaviour to regulation imposed from without - guidelines from government that try to mandate standards. Not only is this virtually impossible, in his view, but it also actually disempowering as it means people can abdicate responsbility, theoretically doing what is expected of them to a minimum standard. An added concern is that this minimum standard is further limited by the press that consistently sends us messages that people in "modern Britain" are limited, sinful, unvirtuous, and not to be trusted. These two occurances are huge barriers to embedding virtue because they make us wary of forging relationships.

Peter does think consciously about his behaviour and tries to act virtuously, knowing full well, that he does not do so all the time. Behaving virtuously makes him feel good about himself and his fellow man. It also provides some structure and purpose to his life in that it helps him to feel positive and progressive and it engenders trust between people. Virtous behaviour is easier when you have strong relationships.

In times of uncertainty developing relationships is is more important than ever: people are re-evaluating their lives and thinking about new ways of living. We have an opportunity to develop a new common understanding but we need to feel able to take risks and develop new approaches. To that end, he encourages people to develop links in small groups where they can get to know people and with whom they can ideally have daily contact. He also believes that leaders of organisations have important roles to play in embedding virtue, indeed he feels it should be a part of their job. However they need to make themselves accessible, thinking more of what others need than what they need to stay in their positions of power.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links: http://www.manningmusic.com/

The whole interview will be available shortly. Please post a comment if you would like to hear it. Thanks.

Summary of interview with Dan Winder, Artistic Director Iris Theatre Company

Dr Dan Winder and I met at his cosy offices in St Paul's Church in Covent Garden. Suitably, it is the actor's church as Dan is a theatre producer, director and an actor, and the artistic director of Iris Theatre. We curled up on the chairs and drank coffee as the cat wandered in and out and talked at length about virtue. Suitably, Dan's entry into a discussion of virtue was Shakespeare's list of qualities required for kingship, taken from Macbeth. These include: justice, verity, temperance, stableness, bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness, devotion, patience, courage, and fortitude.

Dan believes that virtue is lived out in the small day to day actions one takes. For him, virtue involves emotional and physical closeness and includes personal expressions of affection and intimacy. In short, behaviour based on true empathy with others is virtuous behaviour. For him, being in a supportive environment - being loved and seeing love - makes it easy to be virtuous and to see the impact of virtuous behaviour. Watching people help each other, and helping others, makes Dan feel complete and connected to a greater whole. To that end, virtue meets a deep emotional need to be of service. It also meets a clear rational need which is that virtue eases social interaction, helps makes connections, and thus provides some of what he needs to do his job. It was Dan's upbringing that enabled him to understand the benefits of virtue, and the positive impact it can have on himself and others. Nevertheless, he believes he has made conscious behavioural choices and, to that end, believes the individual plays the key role in embedding virtue in society as a whole. Choosing to surround yourself with supportive people makes it easy to see and participate in virtue, and reap the benefits.

The biggest barrier to embedding virtue in our society is the current pursuit of money and fame for their own sakes. In his line of work (theatre) he sees a lot of this and observes that it inflicts so many people - the 99% who don't win talent programmes - with a sense of failure and shame. He hastens to add that there is nothing wrong with money and fame but that the pursuit of money and fame for their own sakes is clearly damaging in so many ways. Another barrier to embedding virtue is that we just don't talk about it in spite of the fact that virtue leads to a sense of wellbeing and improved psychological health. Many people in power, who could lead the debate and help embed virtue, are closed in on themselves and focused on maintaining their power rather than effecting positive change in the institutions they are leading.

Dan believes if everyone took even five minutes out of their day to sit and think quietly they would develop perspective and harness the energy that is needed to be a little more patient and a little more helpful, enabling you to serve others and, in doing so, serve yourself.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links: http://www.iristheatre.com/

The whole interview will be available shortly. Please post a comment if you would like to hear it. Thanks.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Summary of interview with Martin Vander Weyer, Business Editor Spectator Magazine

Martin and I met at the Spectator offices and had a good poke round the lovely (damp) garden before we admitted defeat and took our places around one of the large tables in one of the meeting rooms. He is a welcoming and kind man who looks a bit like Albert Finney (although he cannot see the resemblance)!

For Martin, virtue is wrapped up in the idea of self restraint and unselfish behaviour. Self restraint is important because, as an ex-banker and now a journalist, he understand there is a lot of scope and opportunity for unrestrained behaviour. He models behaviour along a spectrum from virtuous to neutral to mischievous attention seeking to downright vicious and says of himself that he does not really have it in him to be vicious (something that has caused minor conflicts during his career). Martin seeks to behave with restraint: to have at least a neutral, if not a virtuous impact on others in his day to day life and in his career. He is clearly also an unselfish man in many ways, playing an active role in his local community and taking unpaid positions on various committees and boards. He believes that the highest degree of personal behaviour involves acts of public good that neither seek, nor receive recognition.

There is no shame, he maintains, in keeping virtuous behaviour close to home to benefit yourself as well as the other people who live in your community. Indeed, one of the great pleasures he enjoys as a result of his work in the community is a pleasant community in which to live. him, the emotional benefits of virtuous behaviour include a sense of achievement, of having done his duty, and the result as he walks down the streets of his town and greets the many people he knows includes feelings of warmth and happiness. The rational benefit of being active in the voluntary world is the network he has built up over the years which has definitely helped his career.

Martin thinks about virtue actively. As a journalist, he must consider the impact of his copy and does not want it to have a vicious impact - to that end, he is making choices all the time about the content and tone of what he writes. He believes he learned to consider virtue through his university studies (he read PPE) and also throughout his career where he learned from both positive and negative role models. To that end, he believes senior executives have a critical role to play in embedding virtue in our society because they can create the conditions that make it possible for all employees to engage in virtuous activities outside of the company - either in their local communities or further afield as they choose.

When people ask Martin about they key to a fulfilled life he replies immediately that getting involved is the key: become a trustee, contribute to the local community, donate money, do more for strangers...there is an endless list of what we can do to be more virtuous and the benefits to others and to ourselves, as we have seen above, are manifold.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links: http://www.the-spectator-magazine.co.uk/

Monday, June 22, 2009

Summary of Interview with Lucy Beresford

Lucy Beresford and I spent about two hours together drinking tea and discussing virtue, asking many more questions than we answered! She is a warm and thoughtful person with a lively intellectual curiosity which provoked a great deal of honest soul searching on both sides.

Lucy is the first of my interview subjects to have looked up virtue in the dictionary. Her interpretation of the strict definition is that virtue honours other before self. It is more than just doing no harm. It is behaviour that does good - is above and beyond the call of duty. One of the problems in thinking about virtue, however, is that it is somehow so big. If Mother Teresa was virtuous how can the average person be virtuous? Lucy had difficulty thinking about herself and virtue in the same sentence. Was she virtuous? Did she ever behave virtuously? Are her "random acts of kindness" enough? We need to make virtue an accessible word and concept in order to be able to discuss it, let alone embed it into society.

Of course Lucy behaves virtuously, and does so frequently both in her day to day life and in her random acts of kindness which she freely admits she tries to do at least once a day. In her case they involve helping lost tourists find their way. These little acts of kindness make her feel good about herself and she is happy to receive the thanks from strangers in return for a few moments of her time. Being a psychotherapist, Lucy and I discussed whether people could behave virtuously if certain of their basic needs were unmet. Maybe only the lucky ones were capable of virtue? However, we then agreed that behaving virtuously did meet some basic needs - affirmation, self expression, altruism or sense of duty, to name a few. Although people may not have the vocabulary to articulate what virtue means to them or how it impacts them, there is clearly plenty of virtuous behaviour going on "out there". However, there is still a great need to embed it further as it would promote a sense of well being and foster a more harmonious society. The enabler is education. Virtue is something that should be discussed and debated. It should be demystified and raised to everyone's consciousness as something that is simple to do. To that end, we need to start the debate. We hope it starts here.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links: http://www.lucyberesford.co.uk/

Summary of Interview with Canon Precentor Jeremy Davies

When I knocked on the door of the house attached to St Matthew's Church in Westminster to see Canon Precentor Jeremy Davies, Father Peter opened the door! Upon hearing I had a meeting with Jeremy Davies, Father Peter showed me up to what is clearly his family's lovely sitting room and invited me to wait. The dog was frisking and people were running around - it clearly is Grand Central for the Church by its side.

Jeremy Davies is the Canon Precentor of Salisbury Cathedral and is responsible for the music and worship at the Cathedral. He is a deeply thoughtful man who makes every effort to speak from his heart and is guided and driven by his profound Christian beliefs. As a gay Anglican priest he has struggled with the concepts of virtue and goodness in a Christian context and has come to an understanding that virtue is more than doing good deeds, although eventually it does come to be goodness. Virtue, for him, is the set of actions we take and attitudes we adopt when we strive for perfection, as God asks us to do. As such, it is both a deeply spiritual concept and a set of practical actions that benefit others and serve God. Jeremy has struggled with this for a long time and has come to be comfortable with his understanding of it because he is open to the grace of the virtuous "Other" which holds, supports, loves and guides him for who he is. When behaving in a virtuous way, or seeing virtuous behaviour, Jeremy feels his humanity is being affirmed. He feels alive and loved. He feels joy.

He is quick to add that virtuous behaviour is practised all the time by people with no sense of the "other". You don't need to be a Christian to be a good, virtuous person (in fact it can be quite limiting). This is because a shared understanding of virtuous behaviour has become embedded in our culture and as such is well understood and recognised by most people. If you are in a society/community with a clear structure and shared behavioural norms, there is a general expectation of how to behave - you don't have to think about it because it just is. Currently, however, he senses that there is a yearning "out there." People are becoming intrigued by altruism and they are looking for heroes. However, he sees there is also a great deal of fear and insecurity that lead people to hide their vulnerabilities, stop learning, and ultimately may lead to their corruption and their corrupting of others.

People in institutions (schools, churches, companies, families...) must play a role to guide and support members, setting expecations and role modelling behaviours through the example of their own flawed selves. Virtue is "caught as much as taught".

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post: Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links:
General information: http://www.salisburycathedral.org.uk/news.php?id=291
Jeremy used our virtue conversation as a basis for one of his sermons: http://tinyurl.com/n78dbb

Friday, June 19, 2009


God and I
have an understanding.

He is comfortable with it
which should be good enough for me.

That's God for you.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Summary of the interview with Father Nadim Nassar

Father Nadim is an Anglican priest, journalist, and director and co-founder of the Awareness Foundation, which "was established to help Christians make sense of their faith in the 21st Century, and to increase awareness of their neighbours' faiths and cultures, so that they can live in a diverse society without fear and without compromising their beliefs" (Awareness Foundation website). He welcomed me warmly into the Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square before accompanying me to the Sloane Club where he was made a member by the generous grace of the club, there being no church hall at Holy Trinity Sloane Square. It was a delightful place to have a cup of coffee and talk at length with Father Nadim about being a Syrian christian, the Awareness Foundation, and of course, virtue.

The definition of virtue, as found in a dictonary, is not adequate for Father Nadim. For him, virtue is found in all positive and fruitful relationships. He chooses his words carefully and is thoughtful about how he expresses this view, taking time to emphasise that of course relationships are difficult, of course people make mistakes and of course we do not always behave virutuously. However, in seeking to build contructive relationships and working to make them so, virtue will be found. It is the tension between the postive and the negative, the cross and the resurrection, that is the essence of virtue for him.

For Father Nadim, virtue is exciting and dynamic. It includes the whole spectrum of human behaviours and because it includes the recovery from sin, it must perforce include sin. Virtue, as defined in this way, makes Father Nadim feel alive and aware of his humanity, his vulnerabilities and his strengths. Indeed, he maintains that in order truly to live a virtuous life - one that seeks and maintains positive, progressive relationships - requires the ability to be vulnerable (and thus open to being loved) as well as to be responsible (and thus able to love). It is only when we are aware of the true nature of our longings that we will seek and maintain virtuous relationships as opposed to trying to shop our way out of them, for example! The catalyst for this change in behaviour, if it is needed, is usually some kind of loss. The cure does require faith in the fact that our longings will be relieved through progressive relationships.

To embed virtue in our society, Father Nadim suggests we should encourage people to ask themselves three questions "Do I love anybody? Whom do I love? How can I express this love for them and how can I expand this love to cover a wider circle of people of people in my life and keep expanding it all the time?" He knows that asking these questions is easy but that answering them and acting on the answers may be extremely difficult for some people.

However, we have to start somewhere and being loved and loving are, for Father Nadim, the obvious places to start.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post:
Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links:

Saturday, June 13, 2009

In the Transition

Speeches by a president garbed in white
flanked by his brothers
to the left and the right.

Posters, pictures, banners, bunting
fire crackers crack and
the government is hunting.

The press is called
and a minister cries,
"you are a peddler of filthy lies.

We won the war
all fair and square
you saw it all, our press were there.

They lost the war
all right and tight
those terrorists ran out of fight.

Now they’re in camps
and you can’t go
until we sort out friend from foe.”

People speak in whispers.

The sound of fighter jets
is so loud I duck and cover
even if I shout
I cannot be heard.
Young men and women point
machine guns indiscriminately
as they know from experience
that anybody can be an assassin.
Walls studded with shards of broken glass
are crowned with barbed wire
and shod with sandbags
to protect buildings we cannot see.

People speak in whispers.

Emotions, like taste buds,
burned at the end of my tongue.
Like nerve endings,
they ran over my skin.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Summary of the interview with Stephen Venner, Bishop of Dover

Today I interviewed Stephen Venner who is the Bishop of Dover and, thus, the Bishop in Canterbury. He welcomed me most warmly into his office at the Canterbury Cathedral and over cups of coffee we discussed virtue among many other things. He is an extremely honest man - both intellectually and emotionally and I found him brave and generous in what he told me of himself and the opinions he expressed. The Bishop wears many different leadership hats: nationally in the Church of England, in the diocese, in the local community, amongst organizations involved in the care of children, and in the business community where he works with business leaders on a range of commercial and non commercial issues.

It is not surprising that leadership, for the Bishop, is central to the challenge of embedding virtue in our society.

For the Bishop, virtue is "developing the gift of experiencing and bringing into reality all that is good in our hearts" where good means treating others with kindness and generosity: trying to make the lives of others a little easier at whatever cost to oneself. He believes that from birth all humans are pleasers who naturally seek to be in positive relationships with other people and do, therefore, at our core, seek to live in a virtuous way. The Bishop is no different and freely admits that behaving in a virtuous way, whilst it fulfils his genuine desire to please God and the people around him, also meets one of his fundamental emotional needs which is for recognition as a good person. He likes to be held up as a positive example, takes great pleasure in being told his words and/or deeds have a positive, lasting impact, is somewhat fearful of disappointing God and the people around him, and does think from time to time about what may be written about him in an obituary. Clearly, he is a very human Bishop!

Whilst other people may not actively seek to live virtuously (or would not necessarily give it that name) the Bishop returned to the point that we seek, as humans, to forge positive relationships and, to that end, we need to behave in a way that integrates others into our lives in a positive manner for all. It is this that makes us happy. He sees clearly that many people need to change in order to do this and believes that, with a tiny number of exceptions, we are in control of our behaviour and our choices. The trigger for creative introspection and, therefore the opportunity for behavioural change, is life events, most specifically endings (bereavements) of any kind. One potentially positive aspect of our celebrity culture, in his view, is that many people are avid followers of celebrities and have relationships of a sort with them through the pages of the tabloids and the celebrity magazines. Readers identify and empathise with the stars they admire and when something terrible happens (Jade Goody's death came up in our conversation) the fans genuinely grieve and, in doing so, will contemplate their own behaviour and, ideally, choose to make changes for the good. In religious terms, in every generation people look for saints – people whom we admire, would like to be with, would want to be like.

Although the individual makes his/her own choices, the Bishop is clear that institutions must play a larger role in encouraging and embedding virtuous behaviours. An institution is a collection of individuals and, as such, is in a powerful position for good or for ill. Institutions, in his view, have a responsibility to look beyond the bottom line and to help nurture the people who belong to them. Leaders, therefore, must communicate the set of behaviours they would like to see embedded and then lead by example. The benefits will come as people's experiences of the institution change for the better. The leader, however, must make the first step and must continue to stay ahead, enabling people to have something to admire and emulate. The leader must have faith in what seems, at first, so intangible. Like most things, this engagement has a double purpose: not only is it good for the human being involved, it is good for the organization itself.

On a practical level, the Bishop wishes people would be more "glass half full". It is an attitude to life that can be learned with an appropriate personal discipline: actively to seek things, events and people to rejoice in and be thankful for. His experience tells him that if you stick at that it becomes like breathing and then virtuous behaviour, more positive relationships, and deep happiness at the knowledge that you are serving God and that even one life is better because of you, is never far away.

For more on the virtue project and links to other interview summaries, please see an earlier post:
Behavioural Change: The Way out of this Mess? (for the virtue project)

Related Links:

The whole interview will be available shortly. Please post a comment if you would like to hear it. Thanks.