Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. In this episode, I speak with Peter Block. Peter Block is an author, consultant, and resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, whose work focuses upon chosen accountability and the reconciliation of community. He’s the author of several bestselling books, including Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest, The Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skills at Work, and a book called The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting on What Matters. He’s also the coauthor of Freedom and Accountability at Work: Applying Philosophic Insight to the Real World with Peter Koestenbaum and a book called The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods with John McKnight. His books address ways to create workplaces and communities that work for all, to bring change into the world through consent and connectedness rather than through mandate and force.
With Sounds True, Peter Block is the author of the audio learning series The Right Use of Power: How Stewardship Replaces Leadership—an audio program exploring a business model where community ownership redefines success.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Peter and I spoke about how to claim our freedom in the workplace. We also talked about the dangers of focusing on speed and scalability in business. We talked about stewardship and how it differs from traditional notions of leadership, and what the true role of the boss is. Finally we talked about the importance of asking meaningful questions and what questions Peter has found particularly useful in organizational life. Here’s my conversation with a true maverick and someone who turns the conversation about business upside down, Peter Block:
Peter, in my 28 years of running Sounds True, you are one of a small handful—very small handful—of business writers—you could say “business philosophers”—whose work has really influenced me. I’ve really found a lot of value in your writing. So I want to begin by thanking you for that.
Occasionally, when I talk to people about your work, the criticism that I hear is, “Oh, you know this guy’s so idealistic. Come on, Tami—really?” I know that in your writing, you actually defend idealism and talk about how we need to reawaken idealism. So I thought this would be a good place for our conversation to begin. How can you defend idealism?
Peter Block: Well, when you defend idealism, you defend imagination. You defend possibility. You defend the world of ideas. The argument against idealism is the wish to be “practical”—the wish for an evidence-based world, the wish for proof. Idealism affirms the place of mystery, not knowing, and caring about things that are [immeasurable].
So I always see the argument against idealism as the argument against democracy, the argument against love, the argument against justice and equity, and all the things that our culture has abandoned in the name of privatization and economic well-being. When someone accuses me of being idealistic, I just say, “Thank you. I was afraid for a while that I was getting too practical.”
TS: But yet, obviously, Peter, we have a need to have our ideas hit the ground, make sense, generate results. Yes? Aren’t you interested in those things as well? I mean, you’re writing about business, which is a world where results are very important.
PB: I’m moderately interested in results, but if you want results you’ll keep doing the same thing over and over again. I’m interested in the edge. I’m interested in life in the margins. I find most useful—say, what would it take to create a future distinct from the past?
And in some ways, it’s kind of mainstream, because everybody loves creative destruction. Everybody’s interested in destructive technologies.
So I don’t think we’re in any danger of forgetting about the need to be practical. But I would rather use the notion of, “How do we embody a set of ideas?” How do we bring them to life? How do we give them form and shape, variance and structure? I’m very interested in shape.
It’s just [I know] that the conversation about results-orientation doesn’t produce results. When people say they’re “results-minded,” I know that they just want to recreate the past. Underneath it all, they’re kind of bored. So that language of a tough-guy adolescent—zero defects; failure is not an option; total results-oriented; if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist; evidence-based medicine; evidence-based education. All that language doesn’t take us anywhere.
TS: OK. But what about somebody that says, “Look, earlier in my life, I was quite idealistic. Maybe,” let’s just use this as an example, “idealistic about the kind of business I could create, the way people would treat each other, and the type of communication and community that could exist. I’ve been trying for so long, and at this point I don’t feel so idealistic anymore. I feel resigned that this is as maybe as good as it’s going to get. I’ve tried really hard and I’m sick of being continually disappointed.”
PB: Then I would make that a conversation of faith. I would say if you’re feeling defeated and disappointed, that’s a conversation with God. It’s not a conversation with the accounting department.
It’s not for you to say, “I only want to take on those things I know I can achieve.” It’s too small a thing to worship. My heart goes out to that belief. I, in some ways, identify with it. I’ve tried so many things in the community world that haven’t worked. And I think, “What’s the matter with me? Why have I failed?” You just can’t act on that. You just have to feel it.
But to say that the world is—and however you finish that sentence, well you’re making that up. There’s no world out there. It’s all narrative. It’s all fiction. It’s all a story we create to try to make sense of our experience. For somebody who says, “I’ve tried idealism, I’ve lost it, and I’m feeling defeated or exhausted.” Well, you’re trying to make sense out of your experience. That way of making sense out of it is one way, but it’s not true. It’s just a way. And I want to support them in their suffering.
TS: Tell me more [about] when you say, “That’s a question of faith.” So for your own life, here you are [and] you’re talking about the kinds of changes you want to see in community life and a level of disappointment in what’s been accomplished so far—what kind of faith is it that you have? Such that you keep going?
PB: One, I need to accept my limitations. I work at that. My major limitation is the belief that anything is possible and that I can handle anything. So I kind of live my life with the notion of, “I can handle anything.” That’s been a source of most of my failures, so I had to come to terms with that and change that. [I had to] say, “Well, I can’t handle anything. How do I become more discerning? Or smarter about what I attempt and what I care about?”
Now, whether my life has meant anything—whether the work has produced enough results—to me that’s a question of faith. I don’t know that there’s evidence. I don’t believe in scale. I don’t believe in speed. A quantitative measure of our lives, to me, is unsatisfying. So no matter how big your business is, there are bigger ones. No matter how successful you’ve been, there are things you haven’t accomplished. There has to be a place in the organizational world for death, for failure, for accidents, for mistakes without making them fatal—without feeling, “Well, therefore . . .”
So I think faith and mystery and belief in what you’re doing is required, because the world just doesn’t conform to what we had in mind. If you think you have control or you want to claim a victory, well, you’re a fool.
It’s like raising children. I always wondered how my kids would turn out, and I was very worried about that given the parents they had. Me.
PB: And probably in their early 30s, I said, “I’m tired of worrying about how they’re going to turn out. They’re both good people. They’re relatively drug-free, they’re independent. I declare a victory! They turned out fine.” And then I could just enjoy them for a while.
So it’s something like that with people who are looking for victory, looking for confidence, looking for evidence of their success. They are squinting their eyes when their eyes should be open. [They should] realize organizational life is intensely complicated. It’s very political. And it’s very accidental. So if got where you wanted to be, you have to thank God for that. You can’t look in the mirror and say, “Good work.”
TS: Now, you said something that really caught my attention—that you don’t believe particularly in scale or speed. Those are two measurements in business that are traditionally what we’re looking for if we’re being successful.
Let’s just start with scale. Of course, the business has to influence lots of people, be replicable, be scalable, et cetera, et cetera if it’s really going to make an impact. It sounds like you’re saying something different.
PB: I think that’s where we’re vulnerable—the idea that you have to take it to scale, as if size matters. That destroys all that is local, all that is inventive, all that is unique, all that is surprising. Scale requires replicability. They have to do the same thing over and over and over again. Now, if you’re building a bridge, that’s cool. If you’re making a product, of course you want it to be consistent. But if you’re running a business, if you’re creating a business, if you’re worried about bringing something new into the marketplace—or being agile or whatever the words of the moment are—you’ve got to believe in the quality of things.
Everybody has to replicate—I wrote a book on empowerment once. It told the story of a how a group redesigned their own office space. And in them doing it themselves, they created a space that was useful, less expensive, more aesthetic, and made them feel better about the company. That company looked at the space they designed and said, “We’re going to put this design everywhere to get the same results.” And, of course, they didn’t because they didn’t realize it was the act of local creation that produced the culture and the outcome they were looking for.
So I would argue localism and uniqueness and [inventiveness] as a substitute for the notion that, “If we can’t take it to scale, it has no value.”
If we can’t do it quickly—speed has become a value in of itself. Well, maybe it’s true in an aspect of the miniaturization and technology world. But it’s not true about culture. It’s not true about things that matter. It’s not true about building a business on a set of values. People admire values-driven businesses [the most]. Or in a hurry.
So, hurriedness in of itself has an effect, has a cost. It’s not good for the land, it’s not good for the community, [and] it’s not good for the people. It wears us out. Why are we so tired? The jobs aren’t that difficult. And I know they’re not that difficult, because we can do them. So this notion that 24/7, on-call, is just a lot. That’s a thin veneer of what matters in my mind.
TS: Peter, I’m listening to you and it’s just so contrary to what you hear about in the culture at large about success in business. Just back to this idea of scale for a moment: I can’t imagine talking to an investor and saying, “I’ve got this great idea, but scale’s not important to me.” I mean, the investor would just walk out of the room. Why should I invest in this? There’s never going to be a big return on this particular business idea.
PB: So, this is part of the mythology, OK? The money that a business needs to be successful—four percent came from investors. The rest came from revenue, came from loans, came from other places. And yet we’ve made the investor God.
It’s true—the investor could kill us a bunch of business. And at some point, you got to create a story about how they’re going to make money. But I think a lot of people who aren’t caught up with scale make a lot of money. So the idea that you grow or die is a fiction. It’s a modern fiction that’s, in effect, killing us.
It’s an argument against competition. Most companies are not interested in competition. They want to dominate. They want to be Number One. Proctor and Gamble won’t enter a market unless it can dominate the market. That means you don’t care about competition. You don’t want competition.
So much of the rhetoric around business these days is up for question, is up for grabs now. It’s good for wealth creation, but for very few people. We have a recovery—we have a world of high stock value, but it’s impacting very few people. The wage inequality in the United States is the greatest it’s ever been. It’s higher than the Great Depression, back in the late ’20s and early ’30s. So if you step back a second and don’t look at it through the eye of the top few or the investor, you got to question what we’re up to.
“Who will care for the common good?” is the question that most businesses aren’t ready to deal with yet. So, I think that’s what’s shifting. I think our consciousness is shifting. I think that a movement’s afoot.
If I’m running a business now, I better worry what will give me the license to operate over the long term. This is what you start caring about. That’s why you have little movement with glimmers of conscious capitalism, of social entrepreneurship, of the collective movement—where you have growing, 40 percent cooperative banks [that] control more money than the top five Wall Street firms.
If you’re interested in business, you’ve got to start paying attention to these things. You have to start reading outside the Business page of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Economist. Those business pages are describing a way of thinking about businesses that maybe won’t work after a while.
TS: Well, I hope you’re right about that. When I hear you ask a question like, “Who will care for the common good?” and that businesses could be asking that question, I thought to myself, “How many people even ask themselves that question, let alone organizations?” Who will care for the common good? I better care for my own good! Who’s going to care for that?
PB: Well, that’s the conventional wisdom. You’re giving voice to the dominant narrative, to the patriarchal narrative, to the historical narrative. I don’t think that’s where the world is occurring right now. I think we’ve reached the limits of privatization.
In the 17th century, the King of England privatized public land to pay off war debts (I think). Which meant that the common people couldn’t hunt or fish or farm on what were public lands. So that began a privatization movement. It began a movement to the cities. So we’re seeing the end of that movement now, where [we think] everything can be privatized.
I just don’t think that’s useful or true anymore. People run for office against government. Well, government cares for the common good. They’re against public education. Education was started to create an equitable society, a just society. Well, now public education has been highly privatized. Universities, now, are doing virtual classes because they’re “cost efficient” and high-leverage, scaled enterprises.
All this is true, but I think it’s more fragile than we realize. There are voices in the world—and also people running companies—that are having these conversations. [Most people] are not going to read about it. They don’t listen to you, Tami, and Sounds True. If they don’t subscribe to you, they’ll never hear about these things.
TS: I want to talk a little bit more about speed because you mentioned that as well, as being problematic. I was reading your book The Answer to How Is Yes—which in of itself is just a great bumper sticker. A great book title, worth pondering. The Answer to How Is Yes.
TS: And in it, you talk about what it takes to pursue what matters in our life. You bring forward three ideas. One we’ve already, briefly touched on, which is the importance of reawakening our idealism. And another point you make is that we have to have a willingness to choose depth over speed. When I read that, it really impacted me—choosing depth over speed. I thought of how much of the time I’m buzzing around, choosing speed over depth! So how is that you put those things together—choosing depth over speed?
PB: I was in California and somebody in a workshop said, “Speed is God and time is the Devil.” And I thought, “Hmm! He’s right. We’re in Silicon Valley and that’s the world.”
I began looking—speed is also related to convenience. All this great technology we have—it’s really not that powerful, it’s just easy. It’s convenient. Anything I do in a hurry is always an argument against intimacy. It’s an argument against the aesthetic aspect of life. It’s an argument against art. It’s an argument against uniqueness. It’s an argument against democracy. Anything that’s used as an argument against a quality of life or the quality of aliveness is worth questioning.
I [began] with, “Well, what’s the alternative to speed?” Suppose I wasn’t in a hurry, what would that open up for me? It opens up depth, intimacy. The texture of life; the nuance of experience. It opens up the world of the feminine. Feminine power isn’t based on speed and scale and cost—it’s based on a quality of experience. It’s based on a quality of relationships. If you believe in speed, you sacrifice relatedness. You substitute contact for connection. It’s just a way of thinking. The usefulness of that thinking is [that] it forces you to say, “Well, what matters to me now? What matters to us? What’s the meaning of things?” The love of cost-control is the absence of things that have meaning. It’s just cheaper.
I see that as being so costly to the land and the culture and raising a child. I don’t see that it’s sustainable. In a business—most people running these businesses advocating scale and speed and cost are only on the job for two or three years, and then they move on. So mobility is a huge obstacle to the quality of life or sense of life.
Who will be accountable for scale and speed and cost? The answer is nobody.
TS:OK, Peter, but as you’re talking, I’m very touched by it in, in that I recognize how much relatedness I’ve been willing to give up because I’m trying to get stuff done. And so I’m running around all speedy, trying to get a bunch of stuff done. How do you help people break the speed habit—if you will—in business, when there’s so much to get done?
PB: You need a Sabbath. See, the Sabbath in Pharaoh’s world—in the Old Testament—was created as a political stance against restless productivity. So in Pharaoh’s Egypt, no matter how much you produced, it wasn’t enough. In today’s culture, no matter how much you have, it’s not enough.
So you say, “Where do I find a means with which I can question?” And one is, “I can’t do it alone, so I need to be in conversation with other people.” Or wondering about the pace of their life and the assumptions they’re making.
There are all kinds of ways of doing it, but mostly it’s a way of thinking that requires a shift. Now, it’s being forced on us. The middle class is pretty much disappearing in this culture. What are we going to do about that? Couples have to both work, they think, in order to afford the life that they want. We ask ourselves, “Will your children be better off than you are?” And I say yes, they’ll just be poorer. They’re going to have a smaller house, but they’re going to be healthier.
There are all kinds of movements afoot. There’s a slow food movement. There are 35 community gardens in Cincinnati, which take time to plant and raise a garden. There’s a cooperative movement where I can support farms that exist in the city or 20 miles from the city.
You pick what you care about. You care about kids, you care about the economy, you care about people, you care about poverty. Any of those things you care about, you can’t get there with scale and speed and low-cost operation. You just can’t get there. And we know that.
So, it’s a rethinking of what would a non-consumerist capitalism look like. There’s plenty of room for small businesses, local enterprises, private ownership, and enough wealth to go around. There’s a whole shift in thinking about our economy.
That’s where we’re headed, because it’s a jobless recovery. All around you, people are aware of how rich we are and how much struggle there is. As a nation, the United States is not that successful at what it spends its money on. It spends 40 percent more than any other country in the world on health care and it ranks about 25th on any measure of health. On any measure of safety and well-being, we don’t do well. On any measure of the environment, the land—any measure of how our children are doing.
All this at some point’s got to be questioned. And the speed, the scale, and the cost mentality make it impossible to create an alternative future.
Now, I say this with uncertainty. I have no idea what I’m talking about.
TS: I take that with a grain of salt, Peter. That’s understood by our listeners.
PB: I mean, I believe absolutely what I’m saying. I just don’t know if it’s accurate. This is kind of how I try to make sense of this world.
TS: I’m curious about something, Peter, because in addition to writing your books and speaking, you’ve also been part of organizational life—part of businesses. A consulting company. And I’m curious to know—of the ideas you’ve written about, what have been the most important and—forgive me here—I’m going to say “effective” ideas that you’ve actually incorporated into the organizations that you’ve been a part of?
PB: Well, most of my consulting is looking for good clients. Everything I write about is something that I’ve seen. If I write about the redistribution of power or wealth, or if I write about staff groups that are consultative or not—judges and audits and watching other people. It’s working somewhere.
I’ve been witness to the revival of companies like Rich Teerlink and Harley-Davidson. They were three months from bankruptcy and what Rich did was to say, “We’re going to treat the people doing the work and making these motorcycles like they know what they’re doing.” So he started a huge campaign of developing people, creating circles, creating choices, creating conversations. The idea of a conversation about how to make things better is just a powerful idea that’s worked everywhere.
All these ideas come from witnessing what works in small groups of people talking about the future. Companies that give choice close to the margin and the edge—these are the places at are really successful. They go against the dominant narrative. They go against the dominant notion. To me, that’s what’s effective—changing the conversation will change the culture. That works. Getting large groups of people together to talk about the future they want to produce together, where the boss is a host instead of a hero.
All these things are working in the world; they’re just not acknowledged. They never get credit because they go against the patriarchy. They go against the dominant belief embodied by the people reporting on business as to what business is really about.
It’s true on the national stage: Obama is reluctant to attack Syria. And when he decides to consult with Congress on it, it’s considered like he’s waffling in the news media. When Russia comes along and says, “Wait a second, you don’t have to attack. I think we can reach an agreement.” They play a good third party role. [The media] show it as a sign of presidential weakness that he allowed another country—not so friendly to us, perhaps—to be decisive in bringing peace and avoiding a war in the world.
So that interpretation events is what we’re dealing with. There needs to be an alternative narrative—alternative storytelling—where flexibility, love of us peace, a care for the common good, and an honoring of unions and their ability to protect the rights of workers—where those things are valued instead of viewed with disdain and anti-whatever.
TS: You said something interesting, where the boss or the leader is “a host instead of the hero.” What do you mean by a host? What are you doing as—?
PB: It’s a convening function . . .
PB: . . . as opposed to a convenience, since the job of the boss is to get peers to engage each other and decide what they want to do. The job of the boss is not to be a role model—not to be a parent, not to be a visionary, not to be dynamic and charismatic, not to carry the hopes and dreams of the institution on her shoulders, and embody all that kind of longing for the parent we never had. That’s foolishness. It’s an escape from freedom. It’s an escape from accountability.
What I really want from a boss: I want you to know the business really well. Should we be in this business or that business? What do we need to do to sustain and survive? But in terms of their behavior, just be a good human being. And bring us together—convene us into the room.
I’ve been part of this again and again and again. I’ve seen budget conversation where most of the conversation wasn’t, “OK, here’s the budget. Are you onboard or not?” It’s a conversation where you say, “Here’s the budget. What else do you have? What’s going to be required of us? What agreements do we need with each other for us to fulfill the promises we’re making to the business?”
That’s a language shift. All transformation—all progress—is a shift in language. You named your business “Sounds True.” That’s what you knew.
But we shift our thinking, and the language shifts from, “OK, are you behind us? Are you for us? Against us? Are you a team player? Are you a ’can-do’ kind of person?” You hear this kind of baby talk all over the place and you realize that doesn’t produce outcomes. People produce results despite that kind of “failure not an option” language. The language that really produces results is, “What do we want from each other?” What do peers need to do to create a future that they want?
Then you can design systems around that. You design comp systems that are transparent. Everybody should know pretty much what the pay scale is at every grade. Everybody should know how we’re doing as a business. Whereas most places are still highly secretive about things that matter.
TS: So, would you be recommending, then, that everybody’s salary is posted someplace? Something like that?
PB: Well, salary ranges. Most people aren’t mature enough to realize somebody makes more money than them who they think is a jerk—me included. But yes. Make it much more transparent and treat it as relatively unimportant. Salaries are determined by the marketplace. So let people know what the market’s paying, here’s the grade.
But especially at the top—the very top—in a public company, it’s all transparent and people survive. Any public company, you know exactly what the officers made and life goes on. So why not just do that overall and take the false oxygen out of the compensation conversation?
I’m on the board of a public company and they asked me to be chair of the compensation committee for the board. And I said, “That’s fine, as long as you realize that I consider compensation relatively unimportant. And [I’m] not very decisive in terms of people’s performance or their thoughts and feelings about the world.” They said, “Fine.”
A lot of these things that we think motivate people are just kind lease-hold arrangements. We think we can rent people. We can buy people. We can purchase people. We can retain them with money—retention bonuses—for a while.
And all that is just a simplifying mythology. It’s just a way of thinking that treats people as if they’re commodities and as if, when we go to work, we’re being purchased or rented. My whole work has been to create an alternative to that kind of thinking and to try to bring humanity back into our institutional lives.
TS: So if it’s not pay that motivates people, what do you think motivates people?
PB: Relationship. Having control over what they do and feeling connected to the people that they’re doing it with. Period.
If some people are lucky in the private sector, they have a product or something they believe in. Most of the time, they don’t. But what they do believe in is the people around them. They feel like they’re producing something. They’re producers. They’re creators. They’re something more than “labor.”
And that’s why people stay. Everybody’s being recruited by somebody. Sometimes they answer the phone; sometimes they don’t. When they don’t answer the phone, they stay. It means they care about the people around them. They feel like they have a voice. They’re listened to.
Listening as an action step is way underrated. Most of the great executives and CEOs and top leaders I’ve seen? Their real skill—in addition to knowing the business—was they paid attention. They just paid attention. And that is so healing and so rare in the speed culture and scale culture and cost culture we live in. It’s astoundingly powerful.
A good example is: Mulally runs Ford. He used to run a big part of Boeing, and Ford had the wisdom to bring him in. That’s who he is. This guy pays attention. And he was always working things out with the union. He’s always looking to reach agreement. He’s a realist that reaches an agreement on things.
It’s interesting to me: after he was there for a while, Ford is the only company that didn’t need a government bailout. I think those things are deeply related. His form of listening, empathetic, collegial kind of leadership just made a huge difference in that huge culture. People like that are miracles. They’re amazing.
TS: Peter, one thing you said that I didn’t really understand that I’d love to have you clarify: You said that the language that we use makes all the difference in creating change. Tell me what you mean by that.
PB: If I say, “OK, here’s a vision. The top management has created a vision and value statement. Now we’re going to enroll people in these visions and values. We’re going to cascade this down through the organization.” That treats everybody else as a consumer of top management’s beliefs. So it activates an enrollment process and you get people onboard and every manager’s got a deck or something to communicate. That is a deeply patriarchal, top-down, colonial way of achieving change or creating a future. That language: enrollment, enrolling out, and cascading.
Suppose we said the top management has committed to a set of values, and we want to engage people in a conversation about what those values mean for them and what we can construct around that. We’re going to have an engagement process of inviting. The difference between enrollment and invitation is night and day. It creates a very different culture.
Mars is a culture of engagement. They have a strong set of values—and it’s not like we’re going to vote on values. One of their values is freedom, which I find miraculous. Another one is engagement. Another one is mutuality. But they don’t cascade it down. They don’t market it, sell it, and message it down through the organization. They say, “This is something all of us, over time, are going to be engaged in discovering, ’What does it mean?’ What does mutuality mean to us? What form can you give that wherever you are living and working?”
Which is such a different philosophy, because most other places I go, the values are just—it’s a way of enforcing. A company once called me and said, “You wrote a book on empowerment. So we’re all for that. One of our values is empowerment. So can you design a performance appraisal form for us to measure how empowered people are? Can we do a survey to see how empowered people are? Can we create a compensation system that’s aligned with our values of empowerment?” That kind of thinking tells me it’s a colonial culture. It’s a culture of monarchy—the top knows and the bottom doesn’t.
That dominates the American culture. I don’t think that works. Now, this company is very successful and has made a lot of money, but it’s a tough environment to work in.
TS: You talked about this business which had “freedom” as one of their values. In reading about your work, I came across this statement that I wanted to have you comment on. Which is: “You can claim your freedom and make a living at the same time.”
And I thought, “Well, that’s probably pretty controversial.” Probably a lot of people have the experience that [they] can’t claim [their] freedom and make a living at the same time. So talk to me a little bit about what you mean by claiming one’s freedom.
PB: I claim my freedom when I choose to be accountable. Every time I blame my boss or my boss’s boss or the culture or, “The Devil made me do it . . .” Every time I explain who I am—by my story, about my history—I’m escaping from freedom. People measure personality and they say, “Well, it’s genetic.” What came from your parents? What about the culture? What about your peers? What about your birth order? They have every explanation for who I am except for the fact that I’m also a free will.
This I learned so well long ago from Peter Koestenbaum, who’s an existential philosopher. The first time I heard him give a talk, he used the word “freedom” and I just about fell over, because it wasn’t even in my vocabulary.
To be free is to claim agency. To say, “I’m creating the world I’m a participant in.” Now I’m not creating all of it. But let me stop blaming the world as an excuse for what I’m up to. If you claim your freedom, it means you’re willing to be accountable for the well-being of this institution—the whole thing.
That’s of such value that any company would be a fool not to want you working for them. We think they want dependency. We think they want compliance. We have seeming evidence. I don’t see that. I see that people who are really most valued by their organizations are people who are willing to step up and say, “Oh, my word is gold. We can do this.”
So that, to me, is what freedom’s about. That’s why I so admire this company, because they’re willing to use the word “freedom,” which implies a promise of partnership, connection, relational equity.
People confuse freedom with “license.” They say, “I can’t have my freedom around here because they keep saying no to my suggestions.” Get off it. They’re not your mother. Maybe your suggestions aren’t that great.
PB: You know? A lot of people buy the conventional version of what it means to be an employee and they want great parents. “I want my mommy. I want my mentor. I want my water bottle to have a nipple on it.” All that language. All that conversation. “I need my coach.” I just feel it’s a symptom of our dependency. A symptom of our willingness to yield sovereignty.
Everything I’ve written over these years has been towards the instinct of partnership—the instinct of interdependence, the instinct of connection. It just seems that that’s what works in the world. But you never get it named that way.
TS: I just want to make this really [comprehensible].
TS: Yes. So, somebody’s listening and they’re like—
PB: As opposed to what I’ve been talking about?
TS: No, bear with me.
“I don’t feel free in my workplace. It’s not just that I don’t have license or this and that. But there are so many things about my work that are not the way I wish that they were. I don’t feel free. So how am I going to incorporate what Peter’s saying here? I could quit. That’s my freedom. My freedom is that I’m choosing to stay in this place where I don’t feel free.”
PB: Quitting is never an act of freedom. It doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea, but it’s not freedom. Freedom is to look at your workplace and ask the question, “So, what can I control? Where do I have agency? Where do I have a voice?”
Because of course life doesn’t give you a platter. It doesn’t give you what you want. It doesn’t work that way. Life is complicated. It’s brutal. It’s harsh. It’s accidental. It’s unintended consequences. It’s how you deal with what life presents you is an expression of your freedom. It’s not the fact you got what you want.
You can tell people that are experiencing their freedom, because they talk about what they can control. They don’t waste a lot of time complaining and waiting for the transformation of the people around them. That’s true in the community world. It’s true in businesses. It’s true in churches.
That theme—it was true when this country was founded. Democracy was a pretty new idea. Self-governance was a pretty radical thought. It’s in those themes that the world is transformed.
All it takes is an instant for somebody to decide [that] they’re going to focus on what they can control and let what they can’t control—maybe it’s one person, maybe it’s one project, maybe it’s one aspect of a project. And they say, “How can I bring my gifts to that aspect of the world that I can control?” That’s what freedom is about.
TS: OK. With Sounds True, Peter, you created an audio learning program called The Right Use of Power: How Stewardship Replaces Leadership. What was that giggle? About the title?
PB: Yes. You have such a good memory, you’re dangerous.
TS: OK. So, I thought it would be helpful for our listeners to know when you use this term “stewardship”—and the vision you have for stewardship to replace leadership—what you mean by that.
PB: Stewardship is to care for the future, care for the next generation. It’s an antidote to speed and “this quarter” and cost as measures of value. Stewardship is to bring a spiritual dimension. That word is borrowed from the faith community. It says, “I’m here for a larger purpose than this moment. I’m here to redistribute wealth—to democratize wealth and give choice.” That’s what develops the next generation.
Right now, we raise our children and they’re useless. They have nothing to do. We call them teenagers.
Stewardship says that the future gets created or good is brought into the world when people feel they have control over something. When they have choice over something.
I like the notion of stewardship because of its future orientation, its spiritual dimension. And it means I’m holding something. I’m holding the Earth—we talk about stewardship of the Earth. I’m holding this institution for the long run, for the sake of the unborn child, for the sake of the next generation. If you think that way, then it changes your actions. Then you aren’t so obsessed with speed, cost, and scale. You’re obsessed with the quality of things. You’re obsessed with the sense of relatedness that people have. You say, “We have to make money, and I’m all for making money, but we’re doing it for a purpose larger than just shareholder return.”
All of that is caught in the word “stewardship.” Leadership sounds to me—even though the word is held on for so long—as if you need a follower for there to be a leader. That’s the arrangement of the world. Leadership, to me, in its best stance is to initiate an alternative future—that’s an act of initiation, it’s an act of creativity.
In fact, the leadership—the Thomas More Business School in Minneapolis [has] a statue out front of a man with a chisel in his left hand right against his knee, where his body is not yet formed. In his right hand is a huge hammer that he’s about to strike. And he’s blindfolded. I love that image of entrepreneurship. It says that this person is creating something out of some inner sense, by looking inward. He’s created of his own choice.
The best leadership is of that quality. The typical leadership is if leadership is a competency model—as if it’s a set of skills. A role modeling kind of thing. I think that breeds dependency. It’s not good for democracy. It’s not good for a customer. It’s not good for an employee.
But the dominant economic model is based around efficiencies and scarcity—that we don’t have enough. That there’s not enough to go around. That we need to compete. We take our children in the first grade, we put the normal curve over their head, and we tell them, “OK, you’ve enjoyed learning for its own sake up until now, but those days are gone. Now we only have so many As, so many Bs, so many Ds, and so many Fs in this class. Go for it.”
So this belief in competition as being a motivator, useful, all of that’s wrapped up in the dark side of leadership in my mind.
TS: Now, Peter, you’ve brought up democracy a couple of times. I know in your work you talk about citizenship. And it seems that you make a pretty important link between what happens in our business lives and what happens in our political lives—that they’re connected in some way. What’s happening inside businesses and the kinds of citizens that people become in the world, in terms of how they relate to the collective.
What’s that link in your mind? Can’t we be one way in business and another way in terms of how we relate to our political system?
PB: I wish we could. I just think this notion of, “How do I balance my personal life and my work life?” [is] a foolish question. These are all complicated things and they’re integrated things. I worry: this culture is corporate-dominant. The dominant belief system in the culture is the business perspective. And the business perspective is the one we’ve been talking about, which is scale, speed, cost, and efficiency. And the commodification and replicability of life and people. No person is indispensible.
I worry that if I live in that culture all day and that belief system dominates how we think about government, churches, public education, and healthcare that we’re losing our sense of citizenship. To be a citizen is feeling that I can produce the future. I can co-create the future.
I feel we lose that by not only how we are in business, but the fact that the business perspective so dominates every sector of our lives. When that happens, we reduce democracy to a vote. And we have a low percentage of people voting. We want to automate the civic space, so now you’ve got technology to connect me with my neighbors, technology connects me with my government. We’ve got schools now being privatized and scale has taken over, so you have the virtual charter school.
All of this frightens me, in terms of being a more totalitarian culture. The last election—in 2012—we were attracted to the Republican candidate mostly because he was a good businessman. It just struck me. Forget about politics. That we so value the business acumen that we want that as the President—as if the President of the United States was a senior executive. And that’s what we most value.
None of that is good for the messiness of democracy, the messiness of populism, a sense of caring for the whole, or doing something about the 40 million people who live in poverty in this country. These are big forces.
So if you care about the democracy, you start thinking about these kinds of things. And you don’t get trapped into a discussion of left or right, conservation or liberal, Democrat or Republican. Those conversations don’t take us anywhere. You start saying, “In the world I’m in, how do I deepen my own participation in it? How do I treat myself as if I’m a player, an agent?” And make up our own mind about what we want to do in a neighborhood. Or make up our own mind about we want to do in this division or this department.
Most of the miracles I’ve seen in organizational life [were] somebody in the middle or upper-middle who’d given up on their ambition and said, “To hell with it. I’m going to do something that makes sense here.” When they did that, they made a lot of money for that company. That’s why you don’t have to choose between making money and—choosing freedom or doing something that matters.
If what you do works, the world will pretty much embrace it. They’ll at least tolerate it. They may not love you for it, but you’re not going to get destroyed for doing something that works, even though what you’re doing goes against the dominant culture. I’ve seen that a thousand times.
TS: OK, Peter, I have just a couple final questions for you. Here’s the first one.
PB: How are we doing?
TS: How are we doing? We’re checking in. Oh, I love talking to you. I love talking to you because you turn everything upside down and it just makes me so happy.
Which brings me to this question that I wanted to ask you. Which is—well, let’s find out. How do you think we’re doing? How are you feeling?
PB: I so admire you for the thoughtfulness and the preparation you have done for our conversation. I’m just totally grateful for you, Tami.
TS: Aw, that’s sweet. Thank you.
OK. So, this really got me—this quote where you quote Carl Jung and you say, “Disobedience is the first step towards consciousness.” I wanted to hear you unpack that a little bit, because I thought that was one of those quotes I’m going to put on a Post-It on my computer screen for a while.
PB: He also said that a broken heart opens you to compassion. So when I see people who aren’t very compassionate, I think, “Well, their heart hasn’t been broken yet.” If I see people who don’t seem conscious, it means that they’re still being a good child.
Disobedience is to say in a fundamental way, “I’m not the child you had in mind.” At some point in your life, you look at your parents—you don’t say this to them—but in your mind, you say, “I’m not the child—I’m not the son—I’m not the daughter you had in mind.” At that moment, your adult life begins.
What blinds my consciousness is my longing and willingness to live into the dominant narrative, the dominant culture, the dominant beliefs—the taken-for-granted belief. In the early years, at some point, you just want to be a good son. You want to get a good grade. Mrs. Shea told me in the third grade that, “Peter’s a very dependable boy.” And I thought, “All right! I got it! I got the message! Here I go.” So I wished to be good, dependable, predictable, reliable.
It keeps us unconscious. It doesn’t allow us to see the real suffering entailed in being a human being.
Peter Koestenbaum, my friend and hero, says, “We’re all wounded at the moment of birth.” So the act of disobedience is a reclaiming of some autonomy, some freedom, some self—something that I have willed or chosen out of my own handicrafts. That’s what makes me conscious. That’s what makes me experience the world as alive and mysterious and wounded and joyful and possible and cheerful. It allows me to realize that death is inevitable.
Institutional life has no space for failure. It has no space for death. It says, “Grow or die.” And I think somebody should say, “Why not die?”
PB: Most of the companies we know about have died anyhow! I complain about my age and people say, “Well, it’s better than the alternative!” And I say, “How do you know?”
So consciousness, to me, is creating space for this mystery, for this texture, for the aesthetic sense of life, for the tragic sense of life, for the joyful sense of life. And it always comes when we went against something we thought was true. When we took a stand that made sense to us in the face of the dominant beliefs—in the face of the coach’s advice.
That’s why that quote from Jung meant so much to me. It allowed me not to feel bad about my disobedience.
PB: And about the way I’ve let people down. The way I’ve hurt the world. I have. I feel it. And the older I get, the more I feel it. I also know that those are an ailment of a lived life. I did live this life. Some of it didn’t turn out well, but so be it.
That’s what always frightened me the most—that I had this burden of a life. And I asked myself, “Did you honor that responsibility?” God gave us a life, and did I do something with that other than be a good boy and do the right thing? Most of my woundedness comes from my compulsive desire to be responsible. Most of the harm I’ve caused in the world is I thought I was being so responsible and it was unlivable. It was unholdable, uncontainable.
So the disobedience is not that you celebrate it, but you have to create space for it. That’s why dissent is so important. Institutions need to create space for people to have doubts—for people to fail and be wrong. Otherwise, it’s a prison.
A lot of companies I’ve consulted say, “Well, you’re with us or you’re against us.” And I know that’s not good for business. It’s not good for the human soul.
TS: Now, Peter, you spend quite a bit of emphasis in your work on asking questions and pointing people towards what kinds of questions are really useful to ask. Here, as our conversation comes to a close, I’d love for you to share with our listeners what you think some of the most important questions are to ask in organizational life and about our relationship to organizational life.
PB: Just the idea that the questions are more powerful than the answers, in of itself, is worth underlining. So the task of leadership is to figure out what’s a question now that we should be talking about.
Most powerful questions, to me—the most powerful—is the question, “What’s the question, if you had an answer to, that would set you free?” So that’s been an organizing question for my life. For some reason, I just value freedom almost excessively. That’s a very big, philosophical question—
TS: Hold on a sec. Hold on a second. What’s the question—that if you had an answer to it—it would set you free? So do you have a question for you—that if you had an answer to it, it would set you free?
PB: For me, the question would be, “What’s the point?” That’s what’s plagued me most of my life—what’s worth doing? What matters? What’s the point? It’s been a useful question for me. I’m in the fall or late autumn of my life, and it still haunts me. So it’s powerful in that way.
See, the question—a good question works on you. It’s like a parasite that worms its way under your skin and you can’t get rid of it. When you wake up in the middle of the night, it’s right there. For me it’s, “What’s the point?”
At some status, I had questions like, “What’s the courage that’s required of you now?”
In an organizational context, the best question I know is, “What’s the crossroads we’re at at this stage in the game?” Because if we can talk about crossroads, we treat ourselves as choiceful human beings.
Another question I make a living off of asking people is, “What is the gift you’ve just received from each other at this moment?” To bring legitimacy to the discussion of our gifts as opposed to our weaknesses, problems, and inefficiencies is life-changing.
Another great question is, “What resentment do you hold that nobody knows about?” What do you do with that? Race for the door? You know.
So these questions are very useful inside organizations to keep people grounded against the mythology that everything’s going fine—that life is headed for the North Star. Most businesses that can’t confront difficult questions—the reality of their lives—they’re not going to do well because the world will know it. You can feel it when you walk into a store [where] people don’t care. You know it right away. When you get a product that promised no more than [audio jumps], you know it right away.
Even in communal sense or an organizational sense, the questions of crossroads—perhaps questions of purpose and, “What’s the point?” Questions of, “What doubts do we have?” Questions of, “What did we say yes to that no longer applies?” Questions of, “What are the gifts that we came here to deliver?” Questions of, “What’s the possibility we are organized to live into or declare to the world?”
They do something to us when we consider them together. And you say, “Well, what’s the answer?” and then you laugh. Great questions keep working on us. It doesn’t matter what you say at the moment. They work on us and the questions open space for another possibility. They open space for an alternative future. And that may be the point.
TS: OK, Peter, I’m going to bring our conversation to a close here with this final question for you. You said that you’re in the late autumn of your life. As I was talking to you before this interview, you shared with me that you’re 74-and-a-half now. What I’m curious about is to know what—if anything—you want to accomplish still. Is there anything that, when you look ahead, you think, “I really want to get this done.”?
PB: I would like to experience a life of reflection. I would like to be in the world, where thinking is my focus. And I’ve asked myself, “So, what do I want to get done?” and I kept saying, “Nothing.” Then I realized I meant it. That the thought—for the next 10 years or so—of having to do nothing. I want to be domesticated.
Ulysses is a great metaphor for me. At the end, he comes back after this long trip, rescues his wife, kills all the suitors with his son, and then gets ready to go back to war. So the night before his ship is about to take off, he has a dream. The dream tells him to take his oar, go inland, and plant it in the earth. That becomes his future.
I don’t know if I want to accomplish it, but [audio jumps] is to give myself space and time to reflect, to think, to dwell in the realm of ideas, to take advantage of the network of relationships that I have built up over all of these years, and to essentially be unproductive. And not worry so much about being useful and productive and somebody.
So that’s appealing to me. Other than that, there’s nothing I want to accomplish—other than rest in peace, really.
TS: Well, Peter, I haven’t talked to you in quite a while. I think it’s been a decade or so. And so, I just want to say how grateful I am to have had this chance to hear your gravelly voice and your disobedient ideas. I feel grateful. I’m really glad you’re in the world and that you’ve been engaging your imagination in the way that you have. Thank you.
PB: Thank you, Tami. You’re a jewel. You’re just a jewel. Thank you.
TS: With Sounds True, Peter Block has released the audio learning program The Right Use of Power: How Stewardship Replaces Leadership.
SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.