Friday, 31 January 2014

All Will Be Revealed

Having enjoyed the test of writing to others’ themes earlier this month, I requested three fresh words and couldn’t help but smile when a relatively new contact, Tony Jackson, a member of the HR community, who writes an excellent blog, promptly gave me “Revelation”.  At the start of January the ever inspiring and occasionally provocative Simon Heath had presented me with “Antediluvian”.  I pondered whether I should write a piece that follows on from my former blog, stretching my thoughts from the times before the Great Flood (as defined in the Book of Genesis in The Bible) to the Apocalypse, as per the end of the New Testament in the Book of Revelation.  I was tempted to eulogise about angels and demons (perhaps a topic for another post) or to dive down an intellectual rabbit hole - there is a scholastic tome, Revelation, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John by Steven J. Friesen, which considers the impact that living in a time where imperial leaders, specifically Caesar Augustus, were worshiped as gods must have had on the Book of Revelation, with Nero perhaps being the inspiration for the Beast of the Sea.  It could have been interesting to consider eschatology and draw a comparison between typical, patriarchal organisations (with command and control and little contemplation of the emergence of a new order or an end to the regime) and more collaborative institutions, exploring the impact of the development of social media that is inspiring rebellious talk, encouraging greater creativity and the sharing of thoughts.

Durer: The Revelation of St John,
the Sea Monster and the Beast with the Lambs Horn 1497

But then two other words arrived: “Congruence” from the estimable Ian Pettigrew.  Ian is a coach and expert on leadership and resilience, he is also one of the nicest of men I know, with the ability to see the spark in others and to make them shine; and “Holistic” from the multi-talented Jon Bartlett, whom I am honoured to call friend.  Jon is also a leading coach with an interest in resilience.  He is an excellent photographer, a keen cyclist and he cares deeply about people and their ability to escape limiting beliefs and achieve their potential.  Like his proffered word, Jon considers and works with the intimate interconnections within a person’s life, those that make them the whole being they are, and which influence their thoughts and behaviour.  There is a connection between these words.  Revelations are often a form of confession that enable you to appreciate the bigger picture and to understand the way in which things fit together.  The author Jeanette Winterson makes the following comment in her autobiography, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
“Most kids grow up leaving something out for Santa at Christmas time when he comes down the chimney.  I used to make presents for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Victor Vasnetsov 1887
This statement tells you much about her home life as a child, reading between the lines it must have been one of religious zealotry, with a focus on the imminent destruction of the world and the salvation of the righteous, it clearly had a profound impact on her.  As a mother, I am mindful of the impression I am making on my own children (and I have spent much time considering how my experiences of being parented have moulded me into who I am and how I treat others).  Parenting is tough and demanding and there should be no finger of blame – everyone gets it wrong at some stage; there is no universal approach that suits all.  However, I do believe that adults have to be responsible and try to lead by example.  People at any age need to feel cherished and children are wonderful sponges, eager to absorb information, to copy and to learn.


It is the congruence of experience and understanding that leads to learning (this approach is espoused in the theories of the humanist psychologist Carl Rogers who believed that “individuals have within themselves vast resources for self-understanding and for altering self-concepts, basic attitudes and self-directed behaviour”).  It concerns me that we make so little time for our children to help them develop and fulfil their potential.  The western work culture, which usually demands long hours from the workforce and is one where many employees do not take all of their allocated holiday, often deprives both children and their parents of valuable time together.  People usually learn best from other people, but this requires meaningful time with those who care and who can be genuinely supportive.  Every day I meet adults damaged by bruising experiences and lasting misconceptions forged during their upbringing.

Vintage postcard

Of equal concern is the way in which our society is preparing our children for the future.  We have a strong focus on academic achievements.  However, the education system we have in place has not changed since the last century and nor have the “core” subjects.  The UK has slipped down the global educational standards league tables since 2006 (from 24th to 28th for Maths, 17th to 23rd for Reading and 14th to 21st for Science), although the position has remained static for the past couple of years.  Education continues to be a matter for concern as we contemplate our ability to compete in the global arena. There is a proposal now to extend UK state funded schooling to 45 hour weeks, with shorter holiday periods (cut from 13 weeks to 7), and for a 9 hour school day filled with a broader range of learning than the current focus on academic and vocational exams.  This is intended to boost education standards, reduce youth crime and antisocial behaviour and reduce childcare costs.  But what are the costs of the change? 

  • Will we really be equipping our next generations with the skills that they will need? 
  • Are employers working with the educational establishments to make it clear what proficiencies and attributes will help students thrive once they enter the workplace? 
  • Have we given much thought to what the world will be like and hence the talents they will need? 

I think there is much we can do to enhance the manner in which we prepare the next generations for their turn to care-take our planet.  Traditionally we have focused on academic and vocational subjects, but “soft” and "creative" skills have their place – as the use of technology increases we need to ensure people are effective at communicating and comprehending others’ points of view.  Increasingly the world of work involves collaboration and for that you need to understand other parties’ needs and opinions.  I believe we should encourage children to think and find out more for themselves, rather than learning prescribed answers and dates by rote – information can now be sourced with ease, it is those who can apply knowledge in a productive way who will be most useful to society.  We must become less censorious and encourage children, liberating and encouraging them into wishing to seek knowledge.  For them to succeed, we must become more tolerant of failure, with mistakes come learning and potentially positive outcomes (James Dyson failed over 5,000 times before be created his innovative vacuum cleaner).  Nelson Mandela said:
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.”

Our society’s soul is exposed in our approach towards families, employment practices, educational establishments and the workplace.

Much can be uncovered when you make the effort to observe and to try to understand.  True revelation requires you to hear the music and not just read the notes transcribed on a page.  This is where having a holistic mind-set comes in - things are often not quite as they seem or there is more to a situation than meets the eye. I love the work by Ecuadorian graphic designer Javier Perez, who turns daily objects into clever minimalistic illustrations.  The success of his work depends on the convergence of unconnected, different objects to create a unified image (not dissimilar to the congruence of ideal self and actual self to form an effective whole):

by Javier Perez

It is important to look at the complete picture, rather than being distracted by a detail that is only a small constituent part.  If asked, few can say where they have seen this image before (many wonder if it is from an eighteenth century wall paper design):

 But almost everyone in the UK is familiar with one of these:

The hummingbird is seldom remembered.  In order to be successful (and not just at work), we need to pay attention to the details that when combined make up the whole.  By being aware of a complete scene or scenario and how it fits together you are better placed to make the right assumptions and decisions.  The photograph below was taken in China (given that today is the first day of the Chinese New Year, I will take this opportunity to wish you "Kung Hei Fat Choi" - may the Year of The Horse provide you with a wonderful ride).  The snapshot looks like an unremarkable photo of a tractor and loader, until you notice that there are tanks in the background.  However, the most remarkable aspect of this picture has probably escaped you...

NY Times, taken by Reuters correspondent Terril Jones

This is in fact the only photo that shows the famous man from the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, he stood alone, confronting the tanks; you can see him to the left of the frame, calmly carrying what looks like shopping bags, as he walks towards the tanks (everyone else is running or riding away):

The importance of this picture was not appreciated until 2009, which is when it was published.  The man's identity is still unknown, but many people around the world are familiar with and acknowledge the importance of this picture:
The brave actions of one man have made a lasting impact on the world.  I doubt whether, at the time that he strode towards the tanks, he had any idea of the influence he would exert.  If these photographs had not been taken the event would have passed unnoticed.  Yet his courageous but small act has impacted the way that we all think.  When similar incidents occur (such as news footage of people standing defiant in Egypt or Nepal) our brains are triggered to recognise and respond in a familiar manner.  This can be a dangerous trait - it is all too easy to take the reflex path of thought and not explore the rationale for why things are happening.  This leads to congruence bias where, because you are convinced that your reasoning is correct, you fail to test your hypothesis.  As mentioned above, our world is changing fast and what was fit for purpose or the old regime may not be what we need now.

As is often said at New Year - "out with the old, in with the new". 

We must move with the times - think about the skills and capabilities both we (and our children who will be responsible after us) will need.  It is crucial that we don't let congruence bias prevent us from actually comprehending the world ahead.  We must strive to think holistically to gain a better insight.  If we work together, an auspicious future can be revealed (as opposed to suffering an Apocalypse now). 


Friday, 17 January 2014

Shine! - A Villanelle for HR's Crazy Diamonds

To enable a workplace to shine

Is HR’s primary function:

Both people and place must be fine.

HR’s business role is sublime:

We must sway, with skill and gumption,

To enable our workplace to shine.

Leaders and staff may whine,

But it’s my simple presumption

That people and place must be fine

For a business to feel on cloud nine.

So HR friends, rise to attention:

To enable a workplace to shine

We must do much more than opine;

Our job requires true comprehension

Of people and place.  To be fine

In our role, we combine

Focus and blue-sky assumption

That enables a workplace to shine,

So both people and place can be fine.

Pink Floyd - Shine On You Crazy Diamond (live at Knebworth 1990)

Sunrise from Waterloo Bridge, London

Bring Me Sunshine - Morecambe and Wise

Saturday, 11 January 2014

In Deep Water

In a moment of folly I asked for three words of inspiration for this blog - they came from friends and people I admire, namely - Perry Timms (who gave me “guile”), Julie Drybrough (who offered “philanthropy”) and Simon Heath ( who threw down the gauntlet in the form of “antediluvian”).  In light of the violent storms, ongoing high tides, wind and torrential rain, which have created devastation across much of the UK, it would be easy to write about what life was like prior to the recent floods and how people now are coping.  My mother and sister live on the edge of the Somerset Levels and they tell wonderful stories of bravery and escape.  I could expound on the philanthropy of those providing support and aid to the afflicted, as a contrast to the guile of less decent people who are taking (or will take) advantage of the opportunity to make fraudulent insurance claims and/or to break into abandoned buildings to help themselves to others’ possessions.
Glastonbury Tor viewed from flooded fields
However, although antediluvian refers to times “before the flood”, it is not referring to the current water levels across much of the UK and the drop in value of grandiose, river-frontage villas in the Home Counties (an affluent area of southern England); it means The Flood mentioned in the Bible, Quran and Torah: the time stretching from the Earth’s creation until a Great Flood wiped out all life, except according to these scriptures for Noah, his family and the wildlife and seeds they took with them on the Ark.  In many other culture’s stories there is a similar survivor, who usually took to a boat with his spouse and was eventually grounded on a mountaintop when the waters subsided.  According to Bob Dylan - who commented on the stories of floods in a BBC radio interview and clearly has researched the Great Flood (perhaps because of his album Before the Flood) - “There are at least 80,000 different versions of the flood story...We found them in at least 72 languages.”  That gets me thinking as to what could have happened to impact so many people and what the world might have been like before the deluge. 

The Flood by Carlo Saraceni
I have spent a few days diving into deep waters.  Long before Christianity and Islam became dominant, Plato wrote of a flood that engulfed the island of Atlantis in the 10th millennium BC, the land was supposedly located in the middle of the Atlantic, between Europe and America, perhaps near the Azores.  The Sumerian version of the Great Flood is the earliest recorded version, written in Sumerian cuneiform on a stone tablet.  This Mesopotamian story is older than the Bible version, but very similar, including a man taking his family and animals into a boat, which grounds on a mountain top, and, as the waters subside, using a bird to determine whether there is any land.  I have read of “a time of great wickedness”, populated by giants (the Gibborim of Genesis described as “heroes of old, men of renown” and the Nephilim – strange beings - half mortal, half angel).   
The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Hieronymus Bosch
is based on Genesis 6:1–4
I have looked into occult contact and relationships with these creatures (the likes of the libertine, pansexual magician Aleister Crowley) and the concept of Theosophy, as espoused by Madame Blavatsky – both individuals used guile to attract followers and when that failed fell on hard times.  Sex with angels has been an appealing concept to man over the ages (and angels themselves are fascinating - so many interpretations, worthy of another blog).

I have pondered Peruvian walls and studied ancient maps.  The Peruvian walls intrigued me:

as did the fact that similarly impressive masonry can be found in other locations across the globe.  Certainly, ancient monuments exist, built by long gone civilisations.  I have metaphorically crawled over pyramids and contemplated huge stone steps, spheres, elongated skulls and jars.  The Internet is awash with creationist testaments to ten great Kings and the longevity of the ancients and New Age stories abound of enlightenment and astrology.  I have visited the Bermuda Triangle and pondered underwater pyramids.  I have read about asteroids and the death of dinosaurs and looked at man-made artefacts apparently showing these ancient creatures.  There is an awful lot of peculiar stuff out there...and it is easy to become beguiled by the tales, supposition and explanations.

Aleister Crowley by Leon Engers Kennedy
in National Portrait Gallery London
We could experience another great flood.  We know that there was a 300ft ocean rise at the end of the last Ice Age (as proven by core samples taken in Greenland) - there are also archaeological sites that seem to indicate humans operating as societies at a time of differing sea levels (according to some, the now 9,000 ft high Andean highland city of Tiwanaku shows signs of having once been a port and there are cities on what is now the sea bed).  Change in climates and tectonic movement is widely accepted (Captain Scott, of Antarctic fame’s Polar party found fossils on their way back from the doomed Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole that clearly show tropical vegetation) and that is just part of the way the world works.  It makes sense for our own survival to think about what the future might look like and plan ahead.

"The Deluge", by John Martin, 1834. Oil on canvas. Yale University
There is ongoing debate as to whether the time before The Flood was an idyllic paradise, the Garden of Eden, or a dystopia of wickedness and corruption resulting in god(s) wiping men off the face of the earth.  The antediluvian world and sophisticated civilisations envisaged by many, especially those whose ideas include aliens and high functioning non-human life forms, are not dissimilar to the high tech vision of Los Angeles in 2019 that was created in the film Blade Runner.

Original theatrical release poster by John Alvin
I was fortunate when younger and living in Hong Kong, Sir Run Run Shaw invited me to the first screening of Blade Runner and the experience has had a lasting impact on me.  The film’s themes around the moral implications of human mastery of genetic engineering and the impact of corporate power and corruption (still highly topical today) are powerful, as are the core questions of what it is to be human.  The replicants seem to show more consideration and compassion to their colleagues than the actual people.  All sides use guile to aid survival.  The are antideluvian hints - the humans have fabricated a world with what appear to be animals, but are in fact artificial substitutions to replace the creatures that have become extinct.  It is a dark place with little charity or philanthropy, other than at a very personal one-to-one level.  It concerns me that many of the visions in Blade Runner have come to be the reality in our current world - we are now using robots for dangerous, menial and leisure work and sending them into space.  Our lack of concern for the Earth and the impact we have on our environment is verging on terrifying.  Sir Run Run was Blade Runner ‘s producer and the director, Ridley Scott, has said that he regards the movie as “probably” his “most complete and personal film”. 
Rutger Hauer as a replicant in Blade Runner
mixture of savagery and tenderness
Sir Run Run was an amazing man.  It was with regret that I learned of his death earlier this week - mind you 106 is a great age to reach (or 107 in Chinese calculations – the Chinese year is calculated differently, you start at a year old at birth).  Sir Run Run was still active in his media empire as late as 2011.  The world is the poorer in very many ways without him.  Sir Run Run was an innovative and successful businessman – charming, strong-minded and charismatic.  He started his career with his brothers, running cinemas in Singapore, after leaving Shanghai in the 1920’s, and moved on to make films, co-founding the Shaw Brothers Studio in HK, which produced more than 1,000 films.  He is credited with creating the first ever Kung Fu action movie, One-Armed Swordsman, in 1967.  However, his charm and guile were insufficient to lure Bruce Lee into his fold (Bruce went with a Sir Run Run’s former employee Raymond Chow, who was wise enough to ensure that his star and Sir Run Run were kept apart, by filming in Thailand instead of Hong Kong).  Sir Run Run spotted the potential of television and established Hong Kong’s first independent television company in 1967.  He leaves an amazing legacy.

Sir Run Run Shaw GBM, Kt, CBE
in youth and age
However, one thing that many film aficionados are probably are not aware of is that Sir Run Run was an extraordinary philanthropist: building schools and hospitals and founding scientific, medical and teaching establishments in the UK (e.g. donating $10 million to set up the Run Run Shaw Institute of Chinese Affairs at Oxford), China (such as his donation of HK$341 million to Zhejiang university to create two medical institutes, two stadiums, a hospital, a science museum and three teaching buildings in Ningbo where he was born) and Hong Kong.  It is estimated that Sir Run Run donated at least HK$4.75 billion to education related projects in mainland China by 2012.  He set up the Shaw prize in 2004, an international award for research in astronomy, mathematics and medicine - last year it awarded HK$200 million.  Some say that he invested in China to win the favour of the Chinese leadership prior to the 1997 handover – he had the wit to appreciate potential repercussions of his actions, but none can doubt the good that his investments have produced.  Guile and philanthropy can work hand-in-hand.  I am honoured to have known Sir Run Run and he deserves to be honoured for all he has done, as American president Calvin Coolidge once said:

"No person was ever honoured for what they received. Honour has been the reward for what they gave"

If the world’s climate keeps changing (witness recent unseasonable weather patterns) and man’s impact on the environment continues to go unchecked, we will have need of the research that is supported by Sir Run Run’s philanthropy.  We could find ourselves in deep water again...

London under water 
Instead of closing on a message of doom, I would like to end with some thoughts based on antediluvian experiences, guile and philanthropy that also link to the work place and the way we interact with each other.  The three words given to me made me think hard to find a way of connecting them.  However the answer (as is often the case in life) was right under my nose (well, on my book shelf).  As a child my mother read to me a book that she had loved when she was young, The Log of the Ark by Kenneth Walker and Geoffrey Boumphrey (published in 1923).   It describes various animals that came to the Ark, to be saved by Noah and his family.  

The Sloth sleeping on a towel rail in The Log of the Ark
It is an amusing and interesting reflection on different types and how they cope while the world around them changes.  Some creatures were left behind – such as the Wampity Dumps (so called because of the noise they made as rolled to move) and others were unable to cope in a new environment e.g. the Clidders (who melted in the rain).  Not all can survive in a new world.  There were those who opted out - the Seventy-sevenses (so self-named after the number of their cabin, as they were seen as so insignificant and were themselves so shy that nobody named them prior to the flood).  They eventually find the Ark such an oppressive environment that they leave of their own volition on a raft.  Good but unappreciated employees will leave their employer in a similar manner.  Noah, although philanthropic, is a fallible leader - but learns as he goes along (for example, for convenience he tries to stow all the large animals in the same area of his craft but discovers, almost to his cost, the impact that this approach has on the Ark’s stability and buoyancy).  There are guileful villains who take advantage of the situation:  an outcast animal, the Loathly Scub, infiltrates the ark and introduces certain of the other species to the idea of eating meat - instead of their diet of porridge and a dollop of treacle.  Events change people and we would do well to appreciate this fact.  In the book Noah is horrified once back on dry land to discover that some animals hunt others while others hide – however, that is the way of the world

Noah's Ark (1846 painting by Edward Hicks)

I would like to thank Simon, Perry and Julie – you three have made me think a lot this week and I have learned quite a bit too.  I have been to places where I would never normally go.  You have broadened my horizons.  Perhaps the biggest observation I have is this - to avoid sinking you need to be open minded, to gain what you can from others and be prepared to learn and use your knowledge.