3 Momentous Lessons Forged In The Fire Of Crisis

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Knights-of-CamelotPost written by Sandy Shugart.

“Think back. Think back.” These were the words wise old Merlin offered to Arthur at the moment of his greatest defeat and dismay. His new order of chivalry in disarray, the round table broken, Camelot and all it had stood for in doubt, Arthur finds himself encamped before the castle of his best friend whom he would engage in mortal combat in just a few hours over his complete betrayal with Guinevere, the love of Arthur’s life. His whole life and legacy in ruins, Arthur calls out to his long absent counselor to know how it could all have come to this. And Merlin appears out of the heart of an ancient chestnut tree in the predawn hours to say, “Think back, Arthur, think back.” From this moment, the rest of the story unfolds, known to readers as T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and to theater and film fans as, simply, “Camelot.”

Most of us don’t work and lead in a fairy tale, and those few who think they do are dangerous to themselves and others. But all fairy tales are meant to be deep truth spoken in bold relief. A management issue becomes a rebellion among the lords; the threat of unfair competition, a dragon; the senior manager, a king. So long as we don’t confuse the essential message with the dramatic backdrop, we can find helpful insights here, just as well as the latest management journal, since both are dealing with the fundamentals and flaws of human nature.

So what is to be learned from this moment of crisis in the life of the mythical King Arthur? Three things, I think: 1. The power of reflection; 2. The centrality of meaning in our work; and 3. The importance of knowing your own story.

1. The Power Of Reflection

How little time we give to genuine reflection, especially reflection on our work. By this, I don’t mean just thinking about our work. Many of us can’t stop thinking about it, day and night, to the point of unhealthy obsession. But genuine reflection is a different process and experience. It isn’t problem-solving, planning, or strategy-making, per se, though it can contribute to all of these. Genuine reflection seeks to step out of the compulsive, day-to-day activity of our work and bring the whole effort under a different kind of gaze. In reflecting on our work, we “think back” and connect again with our deepest sense of purpose in the world. This most valuable kind of inquiry causes us to question the value of what we do or are trying to create. It reorders our sense of proportion and our priorities to something larger than the balance sheet or the quarterly metrics.   This orientation, in the end, is what engages our teams to endure through difficult challenges much more than the scorecard, no matter how “balanced” it may be.

Arthur’s real question to Merlin isn’t just a matter of technical or political considerations – “where did we go wrong?” He isn’t operating in a process improvement model – “what can we tweak to get better results next time?” He isn’t even seeking to lay blame or “assign responsibility.” He is asking a much more fundamental question: “What has all this meant? The striving, the breakthroughs, the risks we have taken together, the triumphs, and now the seemingly utter defeat of all we worked for?” Much of modern management theory has missed badly in understanding what really motivates people, largely because it proceeds from an impoverished anthropology.

The two dominant underlying views of humanity in most of management are 1. Humans as rational economic choice engines seeking to optimize economic rewards, or 2. Humans as biologically determined entities who are easily manipulated once one understands how the mechanism works. (It seems that these two models underlie most of modern social science theory, as well.)

2. The Centrality Of Meaning In Our Work

A richer understanding, a deeper anthropology must acknowledge that human beings are deeply moral beings – not always “good,” but deeply concerned with issues of right and wrong, with justifying their behavior and judging the behavior of others. One scholar describes this by saying human beings everywhere live in a “thickly webbed moral environment.” Further, human beings, it seems, are especially gifted for finding meaningful patterns wherever they look. We are, in fact, compelled to this activity, consciously and sub-consciously. For this reason, we cannot afford to overlook the question every human being faces at work – “What does my work mean?” or collectively, “What does our work mean?”

To be sure, many jobs seem routine, mindless, drudgery. That we describe them in such pejorative terms only proves the point. Whether through creating some transcendent value of humanity or merely providing for one’s family, work means something to those who do it, and they are likely to find much of their identity in the work they persist in doing.

This is what Arthur is asking…what was it all for? As leaders, we have to work every day to answer this question authentically, both for ourselves and for others. And the more effectively this meaning is apprehended and embraced by all of our associates, the more our work will thrive, even through times of distress.

3. The Importance Of Knowing Your Own Story

The remarkable thing about White’s rendering of Arthur’s story is that the book itself, that is, Arthur’s recovered understanding of the whole arc of his own story is the answer to his question. One of the strongest signs of deep mental health in a person is the ability to render a coherent and fiercely honest biography – to know and embrace one’s own story. This is true of organizations and their leaders, as well. The loss of our narrative through neglect, or its distortion through denial, spin, or just plain lying is a sure sign of institutional pathology. It not only cuts us off from all we might learn from a true rendering of our experience (and the humility that comes from such learning), but it also cuts the team members off from any sense of legitimacy in the organization. When an enterprise’s legitimacy is a source of scorn in its own ranks, just what is it likely to achieve? On the other hand, when one has a deep and authentic understanding of the whole arc of one’s story, personal and shared, many things become possible.

What Arthur discovers in this process is that all is not lost. The vision of Camelot, the idea of a just chivalry, the story of “one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot” won’t be forgotten. The struggle will go on and his legacy hasn’t been a waste and a failure. This is the power of the larger narrative – it helps us to see past the present challenges, to find confidence for the next leg of the journey, and engage one another in work that has more meaning than we might have imagined,had we not had the courage to “look back.”

Sanford C. “Sandy” Shugart, PhD, stumbled into senior leadership at a very early age and found himself “in the deep end, with sharks.” As vice president of a billion-dollar higher education system and twenty years the junior of any of his colleagues and staff, he was compelled to learn to lead in a hurry. What he discovered was a powerful interaction between the challenges of his work as a leader and the formation of his character.  Dr. Shugart’s leadership journey took him on to presidencies of two large colleges, an active life of speaking on these issues in the US and Europe, a visiting scholars chair at Oxford University, and various boards of directors. In all of these roles, he has been in the laboratory of leadership, in the crucible of pressure, heat, and reactivity that defines modern organizational life and acts powerfully to form or to deform the deep character of the leader and the led. His reflections on these experiences have informed his own leadership roles, his poetry, and his music for many years.  Most of all, he is a storyteller, sharing with good humor and humility the inner struggles he and many other leaders confront every day.

photo source: fanpop.com

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