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I don’t know where Malala Yousafzai will be in the future, nor can I know the context in which as a 14-year old campaigner for education for girls in Pakistan she was the target in a deliberate, ignorant and contemptible assassination attempt, but right now as a clear-thinking and brave 16-year old, she is incredibly important to the idea that education has a purpose, and that education is the only thing that holds any hope to break the unbroken global cycle of economic, ecological and ideological hubris.

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Henley, on a cold and frosty morning

Henley, on a cold and frosty morning

I warn you now, I’m not sure this posting will be of any use to you.

I can’t help but notice that many who come to spend time at Henley arrive with a particular outlook on action, and a particular attitude toward thinking. I’m going to label that outlook “pragmatist”, though in truth this is just a piece of second-guessing on my part. That I venture an opinion on this at all is merely and partly from crude, subjective observation, and only with some hesitation.  I shall try to defend this by defining how I think a pragmatist thinks, and then counter that view by suggesting a shortcoming or two, as well as (not surprisingly) a hint at a different outlook.

The term ‘pragmatist’ has a reassuring allure to most managers (arguably, less lustre for those identifying themselves as leaders) because it holds the promise of getting things done, and done in a way that is neat, doable and matter-of-fact. It is almost shorthand for no-nonsense, if not quite common-sense. A pragmatist is a realist, conscious that the world is complex, yes, but equally aware that too much contemplation can get in the way of getting to the next thing. And there is always a next thing to be got to. The pragmatist will tolerate intellectual dilly-dallying only for so long, and will press sooner or later (sooner, actually) for reason to prevail and action to follow.

But the word has a long and fine history in thought, and a deserved place in the story of the philosophy of science. It has in its time been the informed view of many management thinkers and educators, especially in the US, where the term was coined in the late 1800s.

I take the four basic premises of pragmatism to be:

1. A focus on human action in any given situation

2. A view that knowledge is learned, remembered or acquired only according to its utility (or usefulness to action).

3. Humans respond to their environment indirectly, and through a process of interpretation (a big one, this, because it follows that descriptions are abstractions of experience, not experience itself).

4. in any given situation, the usefulness of objects influences what humans select to notice.

Pragmatism is important because it  wants to show that knowledge (which is the focus for action) is open to a scientific method of enquiry. The route for this is inference from empirical sense-data. This is clearly an attractive idea in the world of management – which wants to exert control over a world understood to be concrete and measurable. Enquiry, thought leading to action, becomes the process of better getting to grips with (and better getting control over) one’s environment. Whether or not what one believes to be true is in fact, or in someone else’s opinion, ‘the truth’ matters only so far as it affects that goal. Pragmatism is realist, but only as far as is minimally necessary in that particular ecology of inquiry to inform an action. In the last 100 years, and just as forcefully today as in the periods of social upheaval before and after the Second World War, pragmatists have influenced the formation of policy in science, education, democracy and public policy (including the formation of laws and norms that dominate the context of nearly all global trade, commerce and business). At an individual level, our identification with material gain, consumption, our views of what constitutes ethical practice in business, our tolerance of work practices and acceptance of the functional superiority of a ‘belief’ over a ‘truth’ all owe something to the legacy of the pragmatist tradition. We all go along with the prevailing view because we believe that, all things considered, it works. Whether it is in some sort of abstract or meta-level way true is less important.

In terms of drawbacks, I would like to suggest three.

First, a pragmatist has nowhere to go in terms of explanation other than to the linking sense-data and experience. In other words, they are limited to the forms of inference that rely only on the links between empirical data and events.  By this (and as mentioned in several previous musings on the blog) I mean induction and deduction. What is absent here is abduction. It is worth stating that the early proponents of pragmatism coined and were very interested in abduction, but something seems to have been lost along the way.

Second, this brings me back to whether or not a Business School has any business to disavow someone of the view that it doesn’t really matter how the world really is as long as how YOU believe the world is seems to produce results. I suspect not, but doubt that others do.

Third, and the original point of departure for this whole rant, the usual mantra of “the purpose of contemplation is action” ought to be turned round.  Reframed “the purpose of action is contemplation”, it changes everything.

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Flower in Oxford Botanic 2013

A couple of thoughts to end the week with:

Thought 1: Bateson’s challenge to management thinking

I’ve been listening, and not for the first time since it is multi-layered, to an audio recording of Gregory Bateson speaking, I think, to an audience of anthropology students in the 1970s about epistemology. He says the following:

“Epistemology is A, a branch of philosophy concerned the question of how it is possible to know anything, and what is truth, and questions like that. B, epistemology is a study of natural history; two studies of natural history. B1, it is the study of how people think they know things. B2 it is the study of how people know things. Which is not necessarily the same thing at all. It has to do with the word “how” and with the business of knowing. And everybody obviously has an epistemology, otherwise they couldn’t know anything, and those who say they don’t  have an epistemology have a lousy one.”

This contains some challenging ideas, and is already further along than most explanations of knowing that have been applicable in management learning. Later in that recorded session, and after illustrating the same point using Balinese puppets and the notion of symmetry in bird feathers, he asks whether the problem in knowing isn’t just a matter of error between the ‘how we know’ and the ‘how we think we know’. Confusion here results in a distorted epistemology – when descriptions of the way the world works (and it is inevitable that some sort of description will be necessary) are not in the same ‘language’ as the way the world works. Most social scientists and management academics act as though the social and the psychological worlds are governed by a set of fundamental laws with properties that are unique to human systems. So far, this view has led to all sorts of diverse (though hardly disparate, see below) conclusions and never-ending, small-scale internecine wars. No-one can agree with anyone on fundamental principles because everyone’s own fundamental principles are founded on the negation of the fundamental principles of others. Stalemate.

If, as a manager, you try to look at your organisation no longer in terms of numbers of parts to make up a whole but rather, as Bateson calls it, “a nest of relations”, you are closer to how nature puts things together. You begin to achieve an aesthetic understanding which is more harmonious with the fluid complexity of the way that messages and information that Organisation Theory has been attempting dismally to capture in explanation for at least 60 years. This is what an abductive mode of inference offers.

Thought 2: diversity is not the same as disparity

An often observed and pleasant feature of Day 1 on the Henley MBA is the diversity of background, industry and functional expertise that seems to be presented in each new group. This tends to be reinforced throughout the first days as people get to know each other. Correctly, in my view, this diversity is interpreted as a plus, and is real in the sense that our experience of identity is becoming more, not less, fragmented over time, and is likely to continue in that direction as knowledge-based and service sectors grow and emerging economies move in the same direction as the established ones.  However, I have never really thought much about what we mean when we talk about diversity in this way.

I have been reading a short book about Stephen Jay Gould’s approach to evolutionary theory and note an interesting contrast between the concept of:

       diversity – the numbers of variations within a set of basic types or forms (e.g. lots of species with much homology, or many aspects of personality characteristics formed from a few basic archetypes, or myriad job titles for the same basic sets of job functions etc.) –  and

      disparity – the numbers of different basic sets of types or forms.

Whilst not doubting that evolution offers good explanatory theory, Gould held that there were also still problems with it, as found, for example, in the idea that adaptation is progressive and, some would argue, teleological. In fact, he said, although we now see an amazing amount of rich diversity in our bio-sphere (probably uncountable numbers of variations of and within species of plant and animal), these are all variations from a surprisingly small number of forms. We have not seen, he says, an increase in disparity of basic forms since the explosion in diversity of species, 520 million years ago. On the contrary, there has been a steady reduction of variety.

So, I note that we may have diversity in our MBA, but there is very little disparity. In other words, and in a gross simplification of Gould, we have variation in but not of form. Lots of sorts of companies and businesses, but all with the same basic pattern or form. A variation of form for a Business School would be to reach out to include people/cultures  that have not been inter-twined in their development with our own. The global mono-culture seems to be the right condition for almost limitless response within cultural types, but very limited possibility to break out of that type itself.

I’m not sure what this really means, other than perhaps a sense that we may be vulnerable, at some higher level, to a kind of collective ‘groupthink’ in management education.

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Written by Brecht in the early 1930s, this poem was featured (and beautifully read) recently on Radio 4’s ‘Poetry Please’, which is hosted by Roger McGough. I think it is a really powerful message, even for MBAs.

Its title is:

In Praise of Learning

Study from bottom up,
for you who will take the leadership,
it is not too late!
Study the ABC; it is not enough.
but study it!
Do not become discouraged, begin! You must know everything!
You must prepare to take command,now!
Study, man in exile!
Study. man in the prison!
Study, wife in your kitchen!
Study, old-age pensioner!
You must prepare to take command now!
Locate yourself a school, homeless folk!
Go search some knowledge, you who freeze!
You who starve, reach for a book: it will be a weapon.
You must prepare to take command now.
Don’t be afraid to question, comrades!
Never believe on faith.
see for yourself!
What you yourself don’t learn
you don’t know.
Question the reckoning
you yourself must pay it
Set down your finger on each small item. asking:
where do you get this?
You must prepare to take command now!

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Great Uncle Emmet Dalton was a man full of surprises. A soldier with nerve and cunning, and a leader with imagination and forethought. And a man with more than his fair share of great stories. Here’s another one: he instigated the Irish Air Force.

Discovered in the National Military Archives of website of the Cathal Bruga a barracks is a witness statement made by Emmet in 1951. In this he documents how he came to arrange for an aeroplane to be purchased by the fledgling Irish state on the occasion of a visit to London by Michael Collins following the end of the Irish War of Independence. As a figure of national importance to Ireland, and still a person of some ill repute to the English, Collins’ safety was a real concern if the negotiations with the British government should break down. Emmet Dalton was by this time one of the inner circle that protected Collins and so it was agreed that, following his idea, a purchase of a plane should be made, and that it should be held on stand-by at Croydon airport, ready to whisk the Big Fellow away if necessary.

The witness statement sets this out more elegantly:

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Collins_Plane

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Statue of Hector Pieterson in the Mopanya shopping mall

Statue of Hector Pieterson in the Mopanya shopping mall

During my last trip to South Africa I was lucky enough to be able to visit Soweto for an afternoon, in the company of a local resident who was born and bred in the township, and who has just begun their Henley MBA. After so many trips to Johannesburg, it was certainly good to see such an important aspect of the history and identity of the region and the scene of so many important moments in recent South African history.

Much of the sprawl that makes up Jo’burg and its many satellite districts and townships are built on the gently rolling slopes and subtly varied hues of the Witwatersrand hills. This reveals, as you drive, vistas of urban spread which also keeps a feeling of space and openness. It might not have the manicured lawns and razor-wire walls of the more expensive districts of other parts of the city, but in its own way Soweto is no different.

The name comes originally from its designation as the South Western Township, and is actually a collection of districts of varying age, size and – above all – character. Today Soweto is home to about 2 million people, and the first impression is of a lively, open and welcoming place; as I found. Before arriving there, my guide took me to the City. There’s a contrast here to the hectic and heightened tension of the grid-pattern of the downtown, or City, of Johannesburg, where the Victorian architecture of finance, commerce and state function tower imperiously above (but do not encompass) the messy, dirty and noisy street markets and tiny shops down below. Few South Africans spend much time in the City, which is where immigrant populations from all over the region come to trade or to beg, or to seek a better life perhaps.

On to Soweto itself, with a stop to see “Soccer City”, or the FNB stadium. This was the venue for the World Cup and – as I learned – was designed to resemble a vessel for drinking (beer?). Thankfully, being empty, there was no sound of vuvuzelas being blown (how we loved listening to those…!). The first stop was to take a look at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, which is the third largest in the world, largest in Africa, and an important centre for medical training and research.

Soweto is a place where people are comfortable with making do with what is available and making life more pleasant by being out and about and in communication with each other. Do I know this for sure? Well, no, of course not, but this was my impression as we walked around this area, through a market and taxi rank and past the houses where necessity and basic entrepreneurial spirit blossoms into simple businesses offering everything from haircuts to mechanics, all in the front yard. Statistically, Soweto probably appears to have high unemployment, but this may be deceptive since a whole sub-market of cash services supplies the township with just about everything it needs. And there were some signs of new building and of improvements to facilities and services.

Signs, too, of locals making use of the landscape as we passed a Soweto landmark – the old cooling towers of the derelict Orlando power station, now painted and set up for bungee jumps.

Bungee bridge, at the Orlando cooling towers. I did not have a go...

Bungee bridge, at the Orlando cooling towers. I did not have a go…

We went to visit Maponya Mall, a shopping centre opened in 2007 and the first actually based in Soweto. The “sawubona unlungu” was the friendly greeting called out to me as we left by the guard on the gate. It means, literally, “I see you, white person!”, but translates more to “greetings, white person”… yes, I was the only white person in the mall! On the way out, I stopped to admire the statue commemorating the shooting in 1976 of school child Hector Pieterson, who was shot and killed by South African police when he was 13. In that year, I was also 13. The image is an iconic one, the moment captured in a photograph, Hector’s sister running alongside as bystander Mbuyisa Makhubo carries him. As iconic as the little girl in Vietnam fleeing naked and terrified from the napalm bombing of her village. And just as powerful. Now we all have cameras and capture millions of images every day, we sometimes need to remember how powerful and rare these images used to be. Hector’s name dominates many parts of Soweto and is remembered in museum and school-building. Only one or two names outshine his, I suspect, and they are Tutu and Mandela, and every visitor to Soweto ends up in Vilakazi Street, where Mandela’s house stands (as a museum now) and Tutu’s residence still is (he apparently complains about the noise from the adjacent restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. Two Nobel Peace Prize winners in one street? Sowetans don’t let you forget this is the only place in the world where this is so!

Inside the Mandela house, 8115 Vilakazi Street.

Inside the Mandela house, 8115 Vilakazi Street.

While there, you may also be told to go and taste goat’s head, or sheep’s head. Apparently a local delicacy. I declined. But, I would be more than happy to go back and be persuaded again.

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Icicle hedgerow…

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There is a stream that crosses the road on my journey down through the Chilterns to Henley, and the splash from the passing cars this morning had resulted in some amazing icicles on the bare hedge…

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IMG_2664Skirmett ice hedge 1

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I did not think there would be a part three to this series of postings. I thought the strange case of the “MBA Winner” web site was more or less closed last year with the second instalment. And yet…. it lives on with the posting yesterday of a rather intriguing comment from someone called “Matt”, which I reproduce below (first verbatim, then with some notes and responses).

***Note: Since first posting this Part Three, I have heard from Matt, and he makes the fair point that I replied online here before he had replied to me. In his message Matt confirms that he was a student at Henley, and that he experienced poor tutor support, poor enough for him to seek additional support with MBA Winner. Matt says, however, that he received tutoring only and his work was his own. Matt goes on politely to take me to task with my comments on his comment, so to speak, which I have to take on the chin. I think it fair, therefore, to amend them below in line with what I know. I have asked Matt if he will share more of what happened, and what he believes went wrong, as I genuinely believe that the Business School should (where appropriate and within reasonable limits) make help available on the MBA.

But first, a recap.

A year ago I received an unsolicited email from a company selling “advice” to MBA students. Most of what they were selling was getting someone to write assignments on your behalf. I responded and entered into a short and not altogether un-bizarre correspondence with the company concerned. The exchange fuelled two blog posts, which you can see by clicking:

here (for part 1)

and

here (for part 2)

And I figured that was that. Now the Part 2 posting has attracted the comment below:

    “I have used MBA Winner myself as an MBA Student and I can tell you that I really got great help when I needed them.

     Chris Dalton does not like the idea of students experiencing frustration and having to meet tutors who are not really bothered to help. Business Schools like Henley charge an awful lot of money for the services they provide. Is the cost representative of the service that you offer Mr Dalton? From my experience with Henley Business School this is so far from the truth! The institution is the big cheater and you try to protect it. Who is cheating whom?

     I was going through severe illness and I was not getting any understanding from my institution. The tutors from MBA Winner really assisted me and helped me and I am grateful for this. I would advice that you consider the unethical side of your own educational business practices where money means more than the student. You are ready to point out how plagiarism is when someone writes someone else’s assignment. However when it comes to your failure to provide a good service as a business school your argument shifts to how there is staff that could help….. !! Yeah…. OK.

   Matt”

(This was what I wrote first:) Naturally, I was a bit concerned at first. Was Matt a Henley MBA student? Had we treated him poorly? Had his assignments been written for him?!?!  I wrote to Matt via the email address that comes attached when someone comments on the blog.  No reply, yet. (Reply now received, hence these parenthetical amendments)

And then I looked more closely at the comment. Here’s my annotated version:

 “I have used MBA Winner myself as an MBA Student and I can tell you that I really got great help when I needed them.

(OK, what could one object to here? It doesn’t say what “help” meant. Paid tutor support, presumably. It sounds like the other teasing testimonials on the MBA Winner web site. Everything, and nothing.)(with the added info, there does appear to be a back-story)

Chris Dalton does not like the idea of students experiencing frustration and having to meet tutors who are not really bothered to help.

(I call upon the readers of this blog to adjudicate on this one. Where did I say that? And, does Matt mean I don’t like the idea of tutors not bothering? Surely I’d be nuts to like the idea of tutors not bothering. And, there are frustrations that students on a good MBA should feel, as well as others that they shouldn’t. Which sort Matt means comes out later…)(think I still stand by much of this. I am very concerned if a tutor will not help. That should not happen. But, give me details…!)

Business Schools like Henley charge an awful lot of money for the services they provide. Is the cost representative of the service that you offer Mr Dalton? From my experience with Henley Business School this is so far from the truth! The institution is the big cheater and you try to protect it. Who is cheating whom?

(Matt, what experience with HBS are you referring to? You don’t appear on our database. Now, I don’t know if the cost of the Henley MBA is representative of the service that we offer, but I do think our students will not be shy in letting us know when this is the case. In my experience with Henley, when this happens – and it sometimes does – I hope that we take them seriously and act to correct the situation. The basic accusation here is that Business Schools are there to take your money and not provide you with a service. This theme repeats itself numerous times on http://www.mbawinner.com , where the payment is for a service that is delivered. The only slight problem with this is that the service in question is you submitting work that is not your own for a university degree. That is the herd of elephants sitting somewhat impatiently on the other side of the room.)  (notwithstanding Matt’s statement that he did not get tutors to write for him, I am happy to hold to my position on this, at least regarding the school where I work. I’m sure there are sausage-factory MBAs with anonymous interaction and arrogant, stand-offish faculty… I just don’t think MBA Winner represents the answer. Still, it’s healthy to air the debate, I think)

I was going through severe illness and I was not getting any understanding from my institution. The tutors from MBA Winner really assisted me and helped me and I am grateful for this. I would advice that you consider the unethical side of your own educational business practices where money means more than the student. You are ready to point out how plagiarism is when someone writes someone else’s assignment. However when it comes to your failure to provide a good service as a business school your argument shifts to how there is staff that could help….. !! Yeah…. OK.

(I’m very sorry to hear that you were not well, Matt. At Henley, when a student doing the MBA encounters a serious illness, problem or reason that they can’t study, they receive advice and assistance and may suspend their studies until they are better or the issue is resolved. I suspect that you may have chosen the wrong institution in the first place. The answer is not to aim low and cheapen yourself by paying someone to write your MBA for you, it is to aim higher and find one that expects more. Or, if the Higher Education sector leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth, focus on gaining experience as a manager in the real world instead. No-one can fake that for you.) (given the institution in question is apparently Henley, then I would want to know more details…)

Matt”

(Dear Matt, you may, for all I know, be a real person, and your comment may be heartfelt, your experience bitter. But I’m not convinced. Sorry.)(dear Matt, you are a real person, so apologies for the snooty tone of this. As a serious educator and, I hope, a professional, I believe that if there is a problem, then the Business School needs to put its house in order)

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I suspect only those who have lived (or are living through) a Civil War can know what that is like. The rest of us live through them only vicariously, at best. The protracted and bloody conflict in Syria is an example of one such nightmare, but there have been others. In a land where division and mistrust of neighbour lives in paradoxical proximity to a strong sense of camaraderie and innate hospitality, the short and bloody conflict in Ireland following the War of Independence (1917 – 1921) is one. I have in earlier posts written something about the family involvement in this, and also in the Civil War after Collins’ death.

Civil Wars are toxic, and they invariably feed themselves from poisonous antecedents. When they are over it is perhaps not surprising, yet very damaging, that they are very often not spoken of again. They become buried into the national unconscious, and into family systems. Civil Wars force splits that reverberate across the generations just as much as they cross the garden fences and shopping aisles of the everyday life of a community. They also leave unanswered questions and incomplete sentences, so to speak, in the grammar of community well-being.

I have never seen or been part of a Civil conflict, but when RTE, Ireland’s main broadcasting company, recently aired an edition of a programme presented by Eddie Hobbs called “My Civil War” I suddenly found my grandfather’s name implicated in one of the three incidents under scrutiny – albeit without any evidence in support of that implicit connection – a notorious event of the Irish Civil War in Dublin in late 1922. The incident involved the murder of three teenagers from the Drumcondra district of north Dublin. Their bullet-ridden bodies were discovered in lying in waste ground at an intersection called Red Cow in the late summer of 1922, in the midst of the Civil War which had pitted former comrades in arms into factions of pro and anti-treaty alliances. The pro-treaty forces had formed the first independent government in Ireland and were in the process of establishing the many systems required for statehood. The anti-treaty forces were much smaller, a guerilla force of perhaps a few thousand, with some additional popular support gathered around the controversial figure of Eamon de Valera.

This sounds like a history book, but history – even in extraordinary times – is made mostly by ordinary people. I could criticise the programme for several things, not least the rather tired “Who do you think you are?” format of following people around while they scroll through old records and revisit the places and spaces where their ancestors had been. That’s not to belittle the experience of the three families in search of answers about the fate of their great uncles or aunts – this is quite an important thing to do when there has been something “unspoken” in the family past – but the programme absolutely failed to deliver any answers or any closure beyond the sort which says “this was the spot where…” and “we’re not quite sure why what happened, happened” etc.  Place is important, naming is important, but all in all it was very shallow documentary making, though perhaps it was well intentioned.

My grandfather, Charlie, was named as the officer in charge of the arresting party in the Red Cow incident (four people were arrested in Drumcondra for putting up anti-treaty posters). The implication left hanging (the programme said “there are no official records of what happened next”) in the audience’s mind must surely have been that Charlie, a local lad much the same age, had a connection with the three teenagers deaths later that night. But hold on, there are indeed official records of what happened next. There was also an inquiry. There were records of the three young lads being discharged from custody three hours after arrest in the evening. Charlie was one of the arresting officers, but not the senior one present. He was not involved in their interrogation. No evidence was ever offered that he was involved. The programme failed to make most of these points, and they are surely not nontrivial if you are naming an officer so prominently in an incident which you are making a film about precisely because it has remained a mystery to this day what actually happened to the victims.

Voices are silenced over time in conflict. In Civil conflict, this is made worse by the shame and festering of close contact turning on close contact. But if you are going to get to the bottom of what happened, if you are going to do justice to those who cannot speak for themselves, then you need to have facts, or find them. RTE is guilty of pandering to a kind of confessional sentimentalism and sensationalism that is now a genre: “ancest-reality” TV.

The RTE program is on YouTube and can be watched here.

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Edinburgh 20062005-02-07

 

I wish I knew! But…

I’ve been contributing to a discussion thread in a LinkedIn group. For a change, it’s NOT a Henley group, but one of those with a lot of members, where it seems no-one can start a discussion thread if it doesn’t have a number in the title, such as “7 Horrific Mistakes in Your Job Application Cover Letter”, “Overcome the Top 10 Causes of Workplace Stress”, or “21 tips for email etiquette”, you get the banal idea… 

The topic there was a thread begun in someone’s posting of their own list of “tips for Networking”. Nothing wrong with that, you might think, and I might agree with you. Except that they had labelled this as ‘the most basic missing MBA skill’. I had to question this, and so I asked what assumptions lay behind the assertion. This prompted the original poster to concede that networking was just a skill among many, but in the course of the reply he asked me what I thought the most basic missing MBA skill was. That didn’t take too much thought, if I’m honest. This was my reply:

“It’s true that it is often said that “it’s not what you know, it’s who”, but i think this becomes a game when reduced to equating the quality of an MBA graduate with their gregarious credentials.

I would say that as a manger(or a leader) the key person to know is yourself, and therefore the most basic MBA skill is Self-awareness.”

Well, as usual, I was off, and then got into a lengthy discussion with others on what the hell I meant by that. But, why self-awareness? I know I go on about this ad nauseam in the Personal Development workshops at Henley, but my correspondent in the Linkedin discussion thread was of the view that Self-Awareness is pretty much sorted by the time you finish your first degreee. I couldn’t disagree more. In my experience, self-awareness is often the thing that has been shelved, put away, ignored or assumed to be finished with by people starting the Henley MBA (though paradoxically it is the thing that makes most sense about why they are choosing to return to school). Self-awareness is something that matures with you through life, and actually becomes more, not less, important the more you go through life. What other question is there?

I was reminded of this the other day listening to another Alan Watts audio recording on YouTube, this time part of a tribute to Carl Jung, who at the time of the recording had been dead for just a few weeks. Watts speaks in his usual eloquent way about what he thought was remarkable about Jung, and in so doing quotes verbatim the following passage about self-awareness and about the illusion of the idea that there is an absolute good and an absolute evil that is separate from us (which is not to say that one cannot take sides). Jung wrote (and don’t be fooled into thinking that Jung is arguing for a religious belief here, he is master of metaphor):

“The truly religious person . . . knows that God has brought all sorts of strange and inconceivable things to pass and seeks in the most curious ways to enter a [person’s] heart. He therefore senses in everything the unseen presence of the divine will. This is what I mean by “unprejudiced objectivity.” It is a oral achievement on the part of the doctor who ought not to let himself be repelled by sickness and corruption. We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not  liberate; it oppresses. I am the oppressor of the person I condemn, not his friend and fellow sufferer. I do not mean in the least to say that we must never pass judgment when we desire to help and improve. But if the doctor wishes to help a human being, he must be able to accept him as he is. And he can do this in reality only when he has already seen and accepted himself as he  is.

Perhaps this sounds very simple, but simple things are always the  most difficult. In actual life it requires the greatest art to be simple, and so acceptance of oneself is the essence of the moral problem and the acid test of one’s whole outlook on life. That I feed the beggar, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ – all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all beggars, the most impudent of all offenders, yea the very fiend himself – that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of my own kindness, that I
myself am the enemy who must be loved – what then? Then, as a rule, the whole truth of Christianity is reversed: there is no more talk of love and long-suffering; we say to the brother within us, “Raca,” and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide him from the world; we deny ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves, and had it been God himself who drew near to us in this despicable form, we should have denied him a thousand times before a single cock had crowed.”

(C.G. Jung, CW 11, Psychology and Religion: West and East, Chapter V, “Psychotherapy or the Clergy,” § 519-520)

What I took from this is a lesson in what an enormous task it is to find “acceptance of oneself”, which is the aim of self-awareness.

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