I received a letter from a consultant named Ed Valentine. He has spent his life trying to bring change in organizations. He cut his teeth doing OD work at a University. He worked as a facilitator and was often impressed by dramatic positive outcomes he was able to bring. He eventually moved to a corporation where change seemed more challenging. He read my book Change the World and it intensified his desire to “do good” in the very transactional contexts. He reports discovering a question that made a difference in his practice:
At that time, a provocative question came to me:
“How do I show love to THIS organization?”
Sometimes a strategy would suggest itself, sometimes not, but always the question helped move me beyond just what I wanted personally and usually helped me consider the bigger picture.
I find Ed’s last sentence instructive. The unusual question not only moved Ed beyond his own self-interest, as we might expect, it also changed his perspective. When we transcend our own self-interest, when we orient to the common good, we tend to see our context as a dynamic whole and we see ourselves as a dynamic element of the dynamic whole. It is from this perspective that we begin to understand an elusive truth, a truth that is preposterous to the conventional mental map. We can change the social context by changing ourselves. If we increase our own moral power, we positively infect other people.
In coming to this same perspective Ed found that there was a biblical story that inspired him and helped him persist in the pursuit of the common good. He writes:
At one point in their existence, the Kingdom of Judah was the sole remaining portion of the Israelite nation. After having aggravating their more powerful neighbors for generations, they were invaded, the capital Jerusalem besieged, their temple destroyed and all the meaningful human capital taken captive, on foot, several hundred miles east to an area now part of Iraq. During this time, those lucky enough to be favored were given new names; those less favored lived in various types of menial servitude. They could only worship in secret, by the riverbanks. There’s a psalm from this time (137), which describes just how angry they felt at being taunted to sing their native songs for their masters, and it ends with a wish that they wished they could kill the infants of their captors. (I suspect most slaves have felt that way about their masters, and even some employees about their bosses)
Into this mindset stepped Jeremiah, who had warned the Israelites decades before of their likely fate, and was a captive now himself. In his speech to them, he advises” Work for the welfare of the city, for as they prosper, so will you prosper”, and then he gives several practical ways to make it work.
In some cases Ed has found himself in professional contexts driven by ineptness and self-promotion at the very top of the organization. Despite the toxic environment, at lower levels, there have been units led by people of integrity and vision. By remembering the message of Jeremiah, Ed has found the strength to support the lower level leaders in pursuing the common good. After many years on this path, Ed now sees himself as having a life mission. His call is to “work for dignity, justice, show love, create confidence, and enable cooperation and trust.”
Feel free to discuss these ideas with Ed (firstname.lastname@example.org).
What does it mean to see the dynamic whole?
How can we change the social context by changing ourselves?
How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?