Losing Your Sense of Taste

Several years ago I took a friend of mine for tea at the tea house in the local Chinese garden.  Lan Su is one of my favorite places in the city, and I have spent many happy hours sitting alone by the lake letting my brain drain into its reflective silence or writing for hours in the tea house.  It got to the point where, if I hadn’t been in a few weeks, the staff would comment on it when I showed up.  And they knew that I would just order what I wanted up front and then sit and write while they kept the hot water coming.  I wanted to share all the subtleties of taste, scent, and pervading peacefulness with my friend.

However, my friend had been a friend of strong drink, black coffee, and cigarettes for a number of years.  When the wait staff brought our tea—his being quite different from mine—he could not taste his tea at all.  In fact, though we went to the garden a few times, he never could taste the tea nor could he understand the subtleties of the Scholar’s Garden, though he could appreciate the peace of the reflecting pond.

A whole world of sensation was lost to him, and this got me thinking about how the strong drink of organizational life can also dull our sense of taste in terms of perceiving the “little murders” as Edith Wharton calls the paper cuts we inflict on each other’s selves and sensibilities.  That which diminishes us and those around us can become the fabric of “how we do things around here” to the point that we no longer question whether we are behaving in a way that best nurtures our humanity.  The interesting thing about that which diminishes us and others is the impact it has on our creative lives—our ability to participate in the process of innovation.

Over the course of my career, I have repeatedly seen circumstances in which organizational cultures put blinders on those who live within those cultures.  They no longer see, for instance, that the effect of their own ascendancy over others, while viewed as appropriate professional aspiration from one perspective, is actually limiting to the organization from another perspective because of its effect on idea generation and experimentation or decision making in the face of a newly arisen issue in the product development process.  When a nominal leader in the organization hears “We’ll have get to Jane’s input on this before we go ahead,” Jane would be wise to coach back to the speaker in such a way as to ensure that problems aren’t allowed to fester or solutions delayed for lack of access to her.

The subtleties of leading in such a way as to ensure that the organization runs well in your absence are many.  And just like my friend who had lost his ability to perceive the subtle pleasures of Snow Dragon green tea or lychee and almond cookies, we can forget how our shimmer both attracts and affects others.

Last night, I finished listening to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code:  How Moral Revolutions Happen.  The book was so interesting that I also ordered the hard copy.  Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly interested in Appiah’s ethical reasoning, and this book is an excellent example.  He explores how ethical codes change over time using the stark examples of dueling, foot binding, and Atlantic slavery and wrapping up with a modern day ethical problem, the honor killing of women.

While Appiah’s are stark examples of brutal cultural practices once considered honorable and now considered dishonorable, the critical thinking and theoretical development he distills from these examples is insightful.  It can serve as an excellent whetstone for our own thinking about organizational life on the macro level.  Taken together with Gary Hamel’s thinking, especially in The Future of Management, about self-healing and resilient organizations, it provides some insight into the evolution in thinking around leadership and power gaining speed even outside of academe these last few years.

To notice when how we are in the workplace is out of alignment with how we might best be, our palates, as it were, need to be able to catch the unsavoriness of behaviors and attitudes currently considered acceptable but perhaps not in our own best interest—let alone the best interest of the organizations we serve.  Yesterday, I attended a local knowledge industry breakfast on the emerging leadership paradigm which was quite interesting from the opening statement, through the panel discussion, and the audience questions.  But all the way along, I noticed a tendency of these forward-thinking leaders to use possessive terms when referring to organizational participants in the organizations they serve—“my team,” “my staff,” “my people,” and so on.  Even in the face of such authentic intention to lead differently, old entrenched thinking around ownership of others pervaded the discussion.  Even “developing people” seems odd to me when alternative language such as “providing a context in which people can pursue their own development ” is available.

I wonder, when thinking about Hamel’s vision, Appiah’s theorizing, and my friend who could taste nothing but hot water at the tea house, what the nature of leadership will be in organizations of the future.  To my mind, leadership must pervade not only organizations of all sorts, but all of our society, and therefore, Pervasive Leaders are required.

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