Speculation abounds as to whether the remains found buried under a Leicester City Car Park are those of the supposedly notorious English King, Richard III. Richard’s death in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field broadly coincided with the end of the internecine War of the Roses and ushered in an era of relative stability under the Tudor dynasty. It has therefore been convenient to historians and writers, including Shakespeare, to portray Richard as evil and his end as the beginning of better times. But to quote the Bard himself:
All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
This is actually from the Merchant of Venice, but it remains a critique of all history as it is normally portrayed – simply put, things are not as they seem. Whilst we may never know for sure whether or not Richard had his own nephews murdered in order to take the throne for himself, albeit for a short time, of one thing we can be sure – that the black and white portrayal of anyone, especially someone in a prominent position, as either thoroughly bad, or good (in fact as thoroughly anything at all), is likely to be misjudged, and even disastrously misconceived.
But, the peculiarity of this is not so much that it happens but that we as human beings are so keen to buy into it. Sophisticated, complex, intelligent folk, who should really know better are quite willing to look upon other sophisticated, complex intelligent folk and ascribe their motives in cartoon terms. Whilst this may just be an interesting curiosity about history, I’d suggest it is a serious problem of everyday life and work.
As a personal example, a while ago I was working with a group of senior academics in a well-respected UK University who were being visited in the team development session I was facilitating by their Pro Vice Chancellor. He was the most senior academic in the whole establishment and, as such, their own equivalent of visiting royalty, popular or otherwise. The session seemed to go well. We worked in table groups, following the ‘cafe’ style, wherein a number of particular issues were chosen for special consideration by the group, as all members scribbled on the paper table cloth. I sat at one table with a group of about six people, including the Pro Vice Chancellor, who engaged in a furious yet engaged conversation with one Departmental Head. Without going in to details, this struck me as a ‘truth to power’ conversation, a useful and vital clearing of the air of senior professionals. It is just the sort of thing that needs to happen more often and is one of the driving imperatives of 21st Century leadership work.
Later though, I was sitting during a break with someone who had witnessed this discussion, and we discussed what we had seen. ‘Yes it was a good a discussion’, said my colleague, but then added, referring to the Pro Vice Chancellor, ‘but he’s such a liar.’ When we explored this further, I was slightly shocked to hear them talk about this person in almost playground Technicolor. Apparently, they were ‘a complete liar’, everything they said or did was ‘sneaky’ and ‘nothing they ever said or did was for any other reason than their own self-interest’. It wasn’t just the cardboard cut-out portrayal that shocked me but also the vehemence of how it was being put across. I had the distinct experience that I was being invited to agree unless I wanted to be ostracised myself – it was all very George W. Bush – I was either ‘for them or against them’. Yet the person saying this was not stupid or unsophisticated. They were an internationally reputed Professor.
So how can such clever people be so daft? Or perhaps the more pressing question that is how do we short-circuit this worrying tendency? There are of course many ways of addressing this, and many practices we can develop, but it seems to me that one repeatedly rises to the top of the pile. It is what David Bohm, the famous physicist-turned-philosopher called ‘suspension’. This is the simple (yet not easy) act of the wait-and-see; just recognising that the judgements we are making say more about us than what or who we are judging, and that new possibilities are opened up by our holding back on such judgements. As Bohm himself says:
“The mind is then able to respond to creative new perceptions going beyond the particular points of view that have been suspended.” (David Bohm, quoted by Arleta Griffor: Mind and its Wholeness, ANPA West Journal, vol. 7, no. 1, September 1997, pages 25–26)
Bohm suggested that, in the context of dialogue, this one practice is vital alongside the others that may seem more obvious, such as deep listening. It is precisely because the human mind is so alert, switched on and ready to join up the dots that we must learn to get better at suspending judgement. Indeed it might be suggested that we need this more than ever because we are getting cleverer, quicker, and bound by new realities like social networking, more likely to make fateful snap decisions about each other.
Suspension, like most 21st Century leadership skills, is something that we always have had need of, but that now that need is greater than ever. It’s taken 500 years of suspension under a car park to see Richard more clearly. But do we care more of each other to have to wait that long?
Comments: Megan Peppin: I really enjoyed this, thank you. It resonated; I was at a training day yesterday where we closely observing each other during a particular dialogue; and it was amazing what we said about what we heard, that wasn’t said, so what were we listening to?