Coming Out: Am I a Snake-Oil Seller? Are You?

I’ve wanted to come out for a long time. My silence has often seemed collusive.

The notion of snake-oil seller comes to mind – saying one thing and knowing another is true.

I’m speaking of everyday collusions rather than grand duplicities: the half-truths that I find myself and others peddling or accepting in the fields of leadership, change and organisational development.

So here are five ‘truths’ that inform my thinking, and at best, guide my action:

1. ‘The world is perfect. It’s a mess. It has always been a mess…Our job is to straighten out our lives.’ I first read this 20 years ago and railed against it. Our job, I thought, was to change the world out there and this quote from Joseph Campbell seemed too selfish. Now, two decades later I see the insight which I missed then: sorting yourself out is systemic and transformational as we’re all connected. The quote is not a recipe for isolationism or narcissism. Rather it recognises that the choices we make and the life we live inevitably ripple outwards. As chaos theory evidences, the flap of the butterfly’s wings, whilst seeming inconsequential, leads to a hurricane on the other side of the world.

2. Take a cosmic view of yourself and us as human beings. We talk about taking a helicopter view but in general our stories and perspectives are too small. It is a miracle that conscious life exists at all in the universe. A physicist commented to me recently that it is awe-inspiring that matter (trillions of atoms) should coalesce for a few brief decades in the form of a person. At this most fundamental level we all have a common heritage, as children of the universe. This remembering is not just whimsical or philosophical, it has practical ramifications. Re-imagining our story, and our place in it, is vital to rediscovering our purpose. For the most part our frameworks and map of organisations are too limited and anthropocentric.

3. Transformation doesn’t happen in a training room in a single day. Formation and trans-formation are ongoing processes of change. This is where it’s so tempting to collude with the rhetoric of instant enlightenment. Of course there are moments of insight, even epiphanies, but the transformation into a shift in habits of behaviour requires discipline and time.

4. The interplay of power and love are the essential forces at the core of human systems. There is much confusion about these forces. We need to cultivate a richer understanding of the dynamics of power and love within ourselves and within the human systems in which we live and work. Martin Luther King summarised the challenged well in one his last speeches:

“Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites – polar opposites – so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. We’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realisation that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic… It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.”

Power and love are polarities in creative tension: ‘power is the drive of all living beings to realise themselves intensively and extensively’ and ‘love is the drive to unify that which is separated’ (definitions from philosopher Paul Tillich). Lest you think this is too abstract reflect on your past few days and examine how these fundamental forces play out in your family, in the groups you are part of, societally and globally?

Here’s my experience. This past week I’ve been in China to run an Organisation Workshop for a global firm on behalf of Barry Oshry of Power+Systems. In the workshop, middle managers got to see more clearly the dominant drive of self-realisation (power) at play (in themselves, their team, their projects) and the new possibility of wider partnership (in the connection across the silos and collaboration with their peers – the systemic manifestation of love).

Around the workshop and following a chance encounter I ended up joining some young Chinese people in their twenties for a traditional tea-tasting in Shanghai. I could see ‘real-time’ the dance within myself of the pull to decline the invitation/withdraw (separateness) or to join them (connection and potential common ground).

These forces of love and power are not just analytical categories. They are forces we actively choose and create and through which we all shape the world in which we live. In the geo-political sphere this week, China and Japan significantly escalated the level of direct confrontation over the disputed Diaoyu Islands. This is reactivating old fault-lines and wounds from the 2nd World War and you can see on the street and in the news the raw and dangerous emotional dynamics of Us/Them with its rapid objectification of the Other. Interestingly, what seems to be moderating this polarising and conflict is the recognition the two countries depend on each other economically: there may be more than one way to recognise our interdependence.

5. Stuff happens! The observations I made all seem too neat and tidy as if knowing things, often in hindsight, is the transformation. Most of us react habitually and automatically to the everyday stuff that hits us. Our reactions are predictable and often diminish partnership with others. ‘I don’t do what I want to do and I often do what I hate’ as one ancient philosopher put it. This is a fundamental truth at the heart of the human condition.

This is why compassion (love) and will (power) are such vital ingredients in our human journey and in our work. Compassion to accept our own and others’ contradictions and shortcomings; will to choose the life we want to create.

So we come full circle: the world is a mess. It’s perfect. Our job is to straighten out our own lives.

Got to go – a row has to be sorted out with my eldest son.


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