In a recent blog, I wrote of “Pearls and Plaques,” and borrowed Ray Benedetto’s metaphor to speak of the unique “River of Character” that flows through the communities—be they organizational, spiritual, educational or geographical—of which we are a part. I surmised that the character flowing them is made most visible—not by the pearls of wisdom emanating from the lips of leaders, nor the etched, brass plaques that proclaim vision and values—but by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of decisions made by community members…every hour…every day.
So if the dreams we dream for our futures are actualized—or dashed—by the disparate actions of so many others, how might we ensure these actions exhibit even a modicum of congruency? Is there a way to nudge people—or invite them—into alignment with the values we want the communitiy to exude? I believe the answer is yes, but beware…the territory I am about to traverse may make you decidedly uncomfortable.
Some four hundred years ago, the best scientific cartographers of the day, lead by the likes of Sir Isaac Newton (of gravity and apple fame) and Rene Descartes (“I think, therefore I am.”), drew maps of a scientific universe they believed was mechanical and clock-like. As a result of their cartography, we came to believe actions have definable and predictable outcomes. Even the actions and interactions of humans, like the bouncing of billiard balls, have predictable trajectories and knowable future impacts. In a Newtonian, Cartesian world, plaques and pearls, carefully crafted, would catapult us forward in precisely the direction we send that cue ball hurtling across the table.
But our experience shows these maps are crude and unreliable. Even as children, we learn the world is messier, less knowable and far less predictable than the one Newton and Descartes so clearly envisioned. Anyone who has raised a teenager knows that human interactions, in spite of our most careful planning, often ricochet into wildly unpredictable futures.
However there are new maps emerging…new ways of seeing…new ways of listening to, and understanding the world. These new maps ask us to imagine a world that emerges from webs of relationships and action at a distance. It is a quantum world in which the intentions of the experimenter determine the outcome of the experiment. It is a world of fields—gravitational, electromagnetic, quantum and others—that give the world much of its structure. As Meg Wheatley says in Leadership and the New Science, “Fields are unseen forces, invisible influences that become apparent through their effects.”
What if we were to think of communities as webs of relationships rather than boxes in a hierarchy? What if re-imagined vision and values as “invisible influences that become apparent through their effect”? Congruency ceases to result from command and control, whiplashed through an organization’s hierarchy. Gaining congruency—shoring up the banks of Ray’s “River of Character”—must then be re-imagined as strengthening our webs of relationships and fields of unseen forces and invisible influence.
How do you strengthen those fields? How do they become “apparent through their effects”? One of the most powerful ways is through the stories we tell—our mythology. Stories give us concrete examples of how to turn our desires, dreams—and dilemmas—into positive action. Greek mythology…Aesop’s Fables…the Bible, Koran and Torah all communicate proper action through the clarity of story.
The myths and tales we tell scream so loudly they deafen us to any other message. The stories that pervade our communities help create the fields that define vision and values. When they are compelling—for good or bad—they become as difficult to violate as the field of gravity.