Value Systems : Soul Business

James Traeger works as a training and development consultant and facilitator, as a founder member of Global Resonance Group. For ten years he was also assistant editor of the New Humanity Journal, one of the UK's longest running magazines of politics, philosophy and spirituality.

James is also known for his menswork project, and is the co-developer of an international work-based development programme for men, called Navigator.

Contact James by e-mail, or check out his website

What does the Soul of an organisation look like? Is it just the sum of the individual souls that make it up? Or does it have a life, a heart of its own? If so, in what condition is the heart of many of our larger businesses and institutions? Could it be that Marks and Spencers faced its recent turbulence because, at some level, it has lost sight of its Soul? In my own experience, I can think of an example that may point towards the existence of such a ‘Soul’ in business.

I used to work in an office. It was a bright, airy place to work. Every morning at about 11am, someone would go and make up a tray of coffees, teas and biscuits for the whole team. There were normally about seven to 10 of us there. Work would stop. The phone would still be answered but for the most part we would have a collective time out. We would gather together at the end of one particular desk - it was always the same desk, and ‘chill out’. It was refreshing. We would do an easy crossword together, chat about last night’s TV or rerun some celebrity gossip. It was part of what made that particular office a nice place to work. This in itself is some evidence of what I mean by a group Soul, because it didn’t seem to matter which of the busy team was in that day, it was always the same ritual. But there is something even more striking to add. I left that place of work some years ago, and recently I had cause to go back and visit. It so happened I arrived at about 11am. There they all were, gathered by the same desk, doing the crossroad, chatting merrily, yet, it struck me: - not one of the people I used to work with was present. The whole team was new. Yet the ritual was identical. It was eerie. I felt as if I was catching a glimpse of the Soul of this business.

If such a gestalt does exist, beyond the lives of those for whom it exists, then we can start to recognise the value of service - of contributing to this heart, nurturing it and leaving it enriched, rather than feeding off it and expecting it to always provide, as most do of their employer. This might mean then that this notion of ‘Soul Service’ has big implications for styles of leadership and governance which we encourage in the institutions of the 21st Century. Perhaps we need a new kind of manual of leadership, one which can take account not just of the nuts and bolts of our businesses, but of the spaces in between them. And it might be that in these very spaces are the ingredients which makes each organisation, team, institution or whatever, essentially what it is.

There is a precedent for such a manual. It was written in the fourth century BC, one of those times in human history when there was a great flowering of wisdom all over the planet. This particular work was written in China, and is called the Tao Te Ching. Said to be by the great Lao-Tzu, the ‘Tao’ is essentially a book of how to govern; how to lead well. At its heart lies the proposition that flowing in and around everything is a paradoxical essence, called the Tao, and good leadership is about working in the same direction as this omnipresent energy:

The Tao is called the Great Mother;

empty yet inexhaustible,

it gives birth to infinite worlds

It is always present within you.

You can use it any way you want.

So it is not a new proposition that there is a Soul to institutions and that we would do well to take this into account in our decision-making about it. But perhaps it is new to most organisations of today to make this explicit in their government. There are a few passages of the Tao which I have been using in my own work as a consultant within the commercial world. For example, when working with a group of managers, training them to be more facilitative in their style, I offered them:

When the Master governs, the people

are hardly aware that he exists.

Next best is a leader who is loved

Next, one who is feared

The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,

you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.

When his work is done,

the people say, "Amazing:

we did it, all by ourselves!"

In another example, I was working with a group of five senior managers who were meeting together to discuss the restructuring of one of their departments. Each had a strong view about what they saw as the correct approach and each was as forthright as the next. Needless to say, the meeting quickly degenerated into an argument. Picking up the pieces, I read to them the beginning of another passage from the Tao:

Governing a large country

is like frying a small fish.

You spoil it with too much poking.

These managers began to recognise that the way they shared their visions and blended them together were as important as the value of the individual visions themselves. I feel proud of them when I relate to you that ‘are we poking the fish?’ has become a question used as part of their everyday vernacular!

The rest of that passage, by the way, reads as follows:

Centre your country in the Tao

and evil will have no power.

Not that it isn’t there,

but you’ll be able to step out of its way.

Give evil nothing to oppose

and it will disappear all by itself.

There is a great parallel between this and the triple positive which Johan Quanjer of the New Humanity Journal has been elucidating for the last 26 years.

In essence there is much in the Tao which makes rational sense to the thinking individual. Yet most of it remains new in the way it could be adapted and applied in everyday life, by all. Very few people admit they know how to do so:

The soft overcomes the hard;

the gentle overcomes the rigid.

Everyone knows this to be true,

but few can put it into practice.

Yet, there is absolutely nothing which actively stops us from developing our own Tao. Apart that is from our own sense that it can’t be done. It could be useful to see the Tao as out of date, whilst still timely. There is much in it which we can use, but it can never by definition be the same from one age to the next. So we must write it again for ourselves. Perhaps we must do this every day.

A major rewrite could be about widening the Tao’s application. The original Tao was written primarily for those who governed oligarchically. Democracy has shared that government more widely across society, but it has not made the tools of the Tao, what we might call Soul Rule, accessible at the same time. Pneumatocracy, to coin Johan Quanjer’s word, which means ‘rule of the Spirit’, is about Tao used at every level of society, by those who follow as well as those who lead.

It simply not enough only for leaders to act, or not, according to the Tao. We must all become both leaders and followers simultaneously. I believe one of the biggest challenges of our age is not about leadership but about followership. It is not about how those who govern behave but how people who give others the responsibility to govern respond when decisions of government are made. Look at the recent fuel crisis. People refused to allow the very people to whom they had given the mandate the right to exercise that mandate in the long term. Such followership makes leadership impossible, especially if those who lead do so by perpetual reference to the temperature of those they govern. In our age, Soul Business is not about ‘the people getting the government they deserve’, but vice versa and both ways. We need to add the Tao of followership high up on our list of priorities for nurturing Soul Business.

Therefore the Master remains

serene in the midst of sorrow.

Evil cannot enter his heart.

Because he has given up helping,

he is people’s greatest help.

True words seem paradoxical.

There is a story which goes that somewhere in the Tower of London is the very axe which executioners used in the time of Henry VIII. It has had seven new handles and two new blades, but it is the same axe. I believe there is a parallel with our institutions. They have an inner life which is mostly ignored. Access to this inner life may be at the heart of their success. I would like to learn better how to act as if this life was the core of my attention and not just a by-product of it.


The edition of the Tao Te Ching from which I have quoted is the very handy and accessible ‘Tao Te Ching - the Book of the Way’, Translated by Stephen Mitchell, paperback, published by Kyle Cathie, 108 pages, £5.99

Copyright © James Traeger

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