Agency, ableness, and affectiveness, deeply important ideas, were all awakened in me in my youth. Coming out of a very racist and restrictive background, I was searching for a way to make sense of human nature. Graduate work in psychology left me frustrated. What they were teaching did not make sense to me. In fact, it seemed contrary to my experience of my own life. By crossing paths with three particularly amazing human beings, I found something that seems real to me. And it makes a better life for all beings.
I completed undergraduate degrees at University of California at Berkeley in Economics and Political Science during the sixties. The same sixties that were the fermenting ground for the Free Speech Movement and protests against the Vietnam War. It was a heady time to be young and on the Berkeley campus. I was in an honors program that was led by Stafen Riesenfeld from Boalt Law School. Riesenfeld had barely escaped the Nazis, leaving for Italy when his mother became suspicious of events she witnessed. As a result, Riesenfeld went to law school in Europe and the United States including a Doctorate of Law from Harvard. After the war, as a civilian legal adviser to the military government in West Germany, he helped lay the foundation for the basic law of the Federal Republic of Germany, who’s constitution served a reunited Germany as well. He eventually came back to Berkeley to teach at Boalt Law School, and served as the professor for my honors seminar beginning in the fall of 1965. He changed my view of free speech and human rights forever. But these changes took me in directions you would not have predicted: an educator for holistic approaches to business. The process changed my approaches also.
He argued many cases before the International Court at The Hague and participated in endless planning sessions, to ensure free speech and human rights was an integral part of the Geneva Convention and international systems of justice. He made us reargue these cases as a group of young and naive students. Riesenfeld had been deeply disturbed by the events he witnessed and was determined that a regime such as Nazi Germany begins before speech and rights are abridged by government. The key was to create a pervasive sense of helplessness, where people felt they could have no effect on an outcome. He spoke from such deep knowledge and vividly powerful stories that you could see how reducing the agency people feel they can exercise is the basis of stopping freedom.
He demanded that each of us write papers and offer oratory in regard to what we felt needed to be changed in our society and how we each personally were going to make that happen. It was not an intellectual exercise. He expected deep critical thinking for how we got to our position on a subject. He would ignore the ending of class indicators, like people open a door for the next class, to get in your face, if he felt you were not seeing the link between freedom and your actions. He had been radicalized by his experiences during and after WWII and we were all radicalized as well. What he fostered was “personal will”, not academic knowledge or a political position, in speaking up for what we could see and clarity of action of what would make a difference. He was not interested in rhetoric, although he was himself eloquent and expected the same from us. He was interested in the intrinsic strength of our character and reflection in our practice. Even as a naive twenty one year old, I was seeing where I wanted to “take on” the world and how my personal voice mattered. My intention became to ensure others gained the same sense of personal and collective agency, no matter whether others agreed with my opinion on a subject or not. I also knew that this had to happen with a high level of critical thinking attached to it and personal respect for all voices.
There are two challenges with having personal agency. The first is caring for a large enough whole and including enough in our thinking, to use that deeply founded agency with caring and compassion. We will come back to this teacher in a moment. The second problem is being — the nature of being that can direct oneself wisely and think completely and holistically enough to work on the right things in the right way. As I have spoken about repeatedly, critical thinking skills and personal development are paramount to using agency with intelligence.
As an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I stepped into a class with Thomas Kuhn. Yes, the guy who posed the idea of paradigm shifts. It was a mind shattering experience. Truth was not always the same. Not that it has changed, but how I viewed it did and how many viewed the same events were not the same. Things changed over time in a discipline, I came to understand. But they also changed among communities. This idea fascinated me, as well as confused and shook me from my very conservative upbringing in Texas. After that day, I was looking pretty consistently for a way to examine and discern paradigms. What they were and how they changed and could be changed. But it was over a decade before I really encountered a teacher that gave me the capability to make a contribution to deep thinking.
In my early thirties I was teaching at California State University at San Jose. CA. The experimental cross-disciplinary program, which did not survive but two years, lead me in an ableness building direction. The program was a combined effort of the business, urban planning, and cybernetics system master’s programs. When you entered one master’s program, you studied in all three. It was a real eye opener to most students and all of the faculty. I met Jim V. Clark, a business school professor who had retired from teaching at UCLA and joined Cal State, San Jose to continue to make a difference. He had also been part of a consulting team, which had been the founders of the Procter and Gamble detergent business featured in the introduction to my 2011 book, The Responsible Business. He saw something in me and pulled me into this amazing group of thinkers who were effectively led by Charles Krone. Charlie, a chemical engineer by education, had been the intelligence behind the P&G systems, which offered totally unorthodox ideas about human nature and how a business could structure itself to make these human traits active.
Particularly he held that we were only partly developed as humans and that our life long work was to keep growing and developing throughout our lives. This was possible for everyone no matter their beginning. As humans, we accomplished this growth by working in value-adding processes, where we kept making the process work better and better and, as a result, provide higher value offerings every time we engaged. We never did anything twice the same way, but sought to be relevant to what was happening at a point in time, with a particular set of people focused on a particular purpose. Charlie was about getting people awake and developing their capability as human beings. He saw business and other organizations where people worked as the practical place to do this. And he called what he did, a “will school”. In other words, it was about personal agency and intrinsic motivation.
I discovered some very interesting things over the years of working with Charlie. One was that you did not have to tell people what the right thing to do is, if you developed their ability to think well and to manage their own egos and reactivity while they were thinking. People learned to work with others well and generously. They learned to care for those they served and they worked to make everyone’s life better without being given objectives to do so. Humans become conscious of their effects on life and all the forces of life and saw their role in engaging effectively for all concerned. These people, uninstructed, work to make their communities more vital along with every other community they knew enough about. They became global citizens. They generated value for themselves and with a lot more to share including for those who had invested in them. They tried not to let people down. They become amazing human beings by working on themselves. It might have seemed indirect compared to laws, regulations, protests, and targeted programs. But it was faster, more authentic and by far more creative in getting more of the right things done with less energy than the other paths. I learned about the power of ableness as the key to responsibility and innovation. I could never have written and articulated the ideas I have, or even lived such a meaningful life, if I had not seized the opportunity with Jim Clark and through him, Charles Krone, years ago at the age of thirty-three.
Before I went to Berkeley, I spent a short time at a Baptist college in West Texas. There is not much to recommend it, but one teacher, Dewitte T. Holland had a profound effect on me and my character. He was a teacher of speech, debate, and rhetoric. DeWitte T. reminded me of Mark Twain because of his slow, well-spoken manner, being a practical philosopher who hit the mark in a way that made you always remember him. But he was also partly a very tall Buster Keaton in his deadpan face and large splayed feet way of walking, but with lips constantly maneuvered to suggest deep thinking was in progress. From day one, he could see I needed some reparenting and he took me home to his wife, where he would talk philosophy to me while we cooked and cleaned. He was a father like the one I meant to select. I just got him when I was eighteen instead of at birth.
I considered myself a pretty good speaker and won the majority of contests I entered because of my quick mind and clever wit, which I got from my mother, and my visual connection to great stories. Having to pay my own way through college, I sought out scholarships everywhere, particularly those for public speaking and debate. There was one contest my freshman year on “Why I Love America?” offered by the Regional Rotary Club. It would pay for my textbooks for the semester. I had a large audience and felt really inspiring that day. Not inspired, just inspiring. I had some great metaphors and aphorisms all lined up, plus some personal stories (not mine) to frost the cake. And I knew how to use pauses and eye contact to connect with people. I was polished even at eighteen.
I sat down after my talk, feeling sure I had won because there were grown men with tears in their eyes in the front row and many, not all, had stood when my eighteen old self sat down. Now remember, we are in West Texas for this event. As the judges walked off to deliberate, DeWitt T., as we called him behind his back, leaned over, I assumed to congratulate me. He swished his mouth from side to side for a moment and then whispered, “Nothing said beautifully, is still nothing.” And then he straightened up. It takes a while for something like that to sink in, no matter how quick you are. It suddenly hit me that he had just pointed out that my talk was full of, and that was, well… nothing. This loving mentor had just sweetly offered me a powerful wake up call to my image of myself as a speaker. And he was looking straightforward, uncharacteristically smiling, and letting me squirm.
He refused to talk further that day and suggested I “sleep on it”. The next day I engaged in a dialogue with DeWitte T. that changed the course of my life. I no longer remember the sequence, the details or even the tears. I do remember learning that you should never speak to or give any offering to people, like I had at the contest, unless you really care about them. You must also care about what you are talking about or offering for them to claim. Otherwise you cannot bring something meaningful to them that will really make a difference. Be present. Be relevant. Be caring. Get so close to them that you care as they are caring. Without this connection it is all fluff. Charles Krone taught me a lot about how a business can connect this way. By learning to watch for caring, I began to see how most of the way businesses designed their work and work systems blocked access to affectiveness. People cannot really care because they cannot experience the customer, Earth, the community, the supplier, and anything but the numbers and the program.
By the way, I did win that day, but Dr. Holland suggested I not spend the money until I had given a speech somewhere else that proved I could connect with people and give them something that mattered. I put it into a savings account for almost two years. It was not Dr. Holland I had to convince, but myself. I could see how easily it was for so much to get between me and what was in front of me. So when I speak of the hazards of market research, feedback forms, and performance numbers that disconnect us from real customers and meaning, I am asking others to work on waking up to caring. The good news is that it makes a better, more profitable, business and makes working on responsibility a natural part of every decision for every member of an organization, without all the haranguing.