ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition - June 2001


Issue Highlight — A Sad and Grateful Remembrance
- Peter Block reflects on the life of friend and colleague, Joel Henning. Read about his lifelong contributions and what we can learn from his vision for a brighter future.

 In This Issue...
A Lesson In Leadership
Holding On
Microfiching For A Solution
Solving The Presentation Puzzle

Reopening "The Diary Of A Shutdown"

Peter Block Column
Views for a Change

Brief Cases

Return to NFC Index

  One From Column B                                                                         Peter Block

A Sad And Grateful Remembrance

On May 29, 2001 Joel Henning, a voice for all who strive to make organizations more honest and humane, passed away. While you may not have known Joel personally, his thinking and his work most likely have sent a ripple that has touched you in some way. Having been in close contact with Joel’s ideas for twenty years, I want to acknowledge and remember some highlights of the trail his work has followed, for the path he has taken is all of our paths.

Harsh Realities
The center of his ideas focused on the deeper, more difficult and personal dimensions of our work lives. His early work was centered on the need for us to talk about the harsh reality of our experience. If we want to find meaning and self expression in our work, it begins with acknowledging that life is difficult and that real optimism comes from a willingness to discuss the undiscussables. Real relationships come from facing our difficult issues, putting them into words with those we work with and doing it in a team setting. What follows are some of the arenas into which Joel brought his insights.

Unstated Emotional Wants
One of the difficult issues Joel shed light on was how unfulfillable many of our expectations of each other truly are. This is especially true of bosses and subordinates. We want a level of support, acknowledgement and affirmation from our bosses that most likely will never be there to the extent that we seek it. The boss in turn wants a level of honor, loyalty and compliance from his or her subordinates that is also too much to ask. And even if bosses and subordinates occasionally get what they want, it won’t help. Joel believed the response to these emotional wants has to be NO.

  The same holds true for personal, family relationships. It is too much to bear when we expect a partner to make us feel good about ourselves. When we realize others cannot give us the self esteem and confidence we seek, then we are prepared to experience our freedom and acquire them on the basis of our own actions.

People in the Staff Function
Joel’s book, “The Future of Staff Groups,” was another step in his commitment to face the difficult issues. In the staff role, when we do not get much support for our ideas, we often blame either the line management or define the problem as our own lack of skills. The more difficult issue is a bad fit between who we are and what the line management needs. Joel pushed hard for staff groups to clearly define their unique contribution to the business. This requires taking a firm stand and understanding that each staff function competes in an open marketplace and line management always has a choice about the service they receive. This is a wake up call for staff groups that have traditionally been protected from competition.

   Joel took an additional stance. That the role of staff groups is to distribute power and capacity from the centralized unit into the line organization. This kind of thinking forces staff groups to face their wish to be a monopoly operation. It asks that they put themselves at risk in betting their future on their willingness to give more power and choice to line managers and teach managers the competencies that previously had been reserved as the special province of the staff specialists.

The Cause of Behavior is in the Future
Much of Joel’s thinking was based on the existentialist writings of Martin Heidegger. In recent years Joel returned to the writings that had formed the basis for his doctoral dissertation. At the core, the most difficult issue each of us has to face is the brutal and ennobling fact that we are personally responsible for the world around us. We decide what exists in the world and we are accountable for creating the world we long for.

   Joel at times expressed this with the phrase, “the cause of behavior is in the future,” meaning that our actions are based on the future we wish to move towards. This is in contrast to the belief that our actions are a result of our own personal history. We relate to people in the context of a future we seek. If people serve that future, we experience them as allies. If people seem in opposition to that future, then we consider them adversaries.

   It is critical that we own our vision of the future and accept the fact that we are constructing our version of who other people are, in light of that vision. This viewpoint confronts our tendency to hold other people responsible for what we can or can not do. Even our fundamental decisions about life, whether we think life is a competition, life is a trail of hardship, or life is an opportunity filled with the possibility of grace; these are personal choices we make, not inevitable outcomes of our experience.

Change the Culture, Change the Conversation
This commitment to personal responsibility brought Joel’s attention to how to use our conversations to transform institutions. We determine, in our conversations with each other, the kind of world within which we live. Joel knew that traditional business conversations, which talk of changing other people or departments and then proceed to list goals, objectives and measures as a way of doing it, limit our capacity to change and grow. This kind of “other-directed” business talk reinforces the world we inherited.

   Discussion of the human spirit will change the world.When we explore what constitutes a life or organization worthy of our existence or what would bring forgiveness, compassion and authentic commitment to our work, a more fundamental shift becomes possible. What we discover in this kind of dialogue, is the experience of the future which most of us desire to live. In this way, the future is brought into the present.

   What Joel stood for is best expressed in his own words. Here is the closing statement he made in a recent article he wrote for my consulting fieldbook:

“When looking at the future, each of us will take a stance born of disappointment, the pursuit of advantage, or creating worth. Nothing I do can replace or substitute for the starting place—finding myself in a world with a stance and future to choose. No matter what we name others or am named myself, no name, notion, or concept will rob or relieve me of the freedom and responsibility for taking a stance and pursuing a future. No one changes you or me. Cultures, organizations, strategies, techniques, programs, visions, values or leadership do not transform us. In the end, we choose to change ourselves.”

The Person is the Point
Any discussion of Joel’s ideas vastly understates who he was as a person. He gave every ounce of his energy not only to articulating these ideas, but also to living them. He brought intensity and passion into a room that few could defend against. When he consulted, he made a long term commitment to the people and the place, not caring whether he was dealing with the emperor or the core worker. In fact, I think he liked the core worker a little better.

   Regardless of whether it was good times or hard times, and there were plenty of both, Joel was a friend of mine. And yours. Joel leaves us with the most difficult issue and harsh reality of all; the thoughts and voice that once brightened a conversation and a filled a room, will now be replaced by silence. His deepest wish was to be worthy of a life. Given the ways he touched the lives of those he came in contact with and those who were touched by his ideas, he can rest in peace, finally.

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