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 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:

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:

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 (

Sapphire Partners (

Holker Watkin (

a-connect (

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:

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:

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:

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.