While theories are like maps that describe already existing territory, practices actually create new territory as one engages in them.
At Decurion, we are creating new territory through the interaction of our ideas, our commitments, and our practices. Servant leadership, systems thinking, confronting the brutal facts, and spiraling the quadrants (to name just a few examples) are not only ideas but also practices in which we can directly engage. We are continually doing our way into knowing. And we have identified four levels of knowing. The levels are: understanding, practicing, internalizing, and building. It is one thing to understand how a certain practice might enhance our effectiveness (level 1). It is another to engage in the practice (level 2) until we have internalized it as a settled disposition (level 3). And it is a significant step to see that disposition as object, not subject (as something we have rather than something we are) so that we can apply it or build systems based on it (level 4).
Our approach is aligned with that of Aristotle, who maintained that excellence is a state of character arising from habit and that we acquire virtues of character by practicing them. According to Aristotle, excellence applies to our character, not to an individual act; to what we are, not to what we do. Our character is a composite of our habits or dispositions. And these habits or dispositions are created through numerous acts—or practices—over time.
It strikes me that this Aristotelian approach is similar to a Buddhist take on character formation. In Mindfulness and Money, Kulanana and Dominic Houlder ask us to consider these scenarios:
Jim grabs a sandwich from a sandwich bar for his lunch. The smallest bill he has is a fifty, and he receives two twenties and a five in his change. He puts them in his billfold, leaves the coins as a tip, and goes back to work. One of the twenties is counterfeit, but Jim’s a little nearsighted and doesn’t notice. On the way home that evening he stops for some groceries, the shopkeeper accepts the fake twenty, and Jim knows no more about it.
Now rewind the tape and play a different scenario from the point where Jim gets his change. As he takes the cash from the person at the counter, he feels that there’s something a little odd about the bottom twenty. The texture of the paper isn’t quite right, but he’s in a rush to return to work so he stuffs the notes into his billfold and returns to the office.
That afternoon, a friend in the office passes by. “Hey, Jim,” he says, “check your wallet. Someone in the neighborhood’s been passing off fake twenties.”
Jim has a dim recollection of feeling that something wasn’t quite right about his change. “No,” he thinks. “Forget that. Too much hassle.” And so in a state of willful ignorance he just lets things lie. On the way home he spends the twenty on groceries. But he didn’t do that knowingly. Well, not altogether knowingly.
Rewind again. His friend warns him about the counterfeit bill, and Jim recollects that sense that there was something wrong with his change. He leafs though his billfold and comes to the twenty. Yes, it’s a counterfeit bill. After thinking about it for a while, he decides to pass it on as soon as he can. He needs some groceries, so on the way home he selects a shop where he knows there will be a new immigrant behind the till. He makes his purchases, hands over the twenty, and collects his change.
Now rewind again to the point where Jim leafs through his billfold and spots the counterfeit bill. He sighs. “Oh, well—win a few, lose a few.” On the way home from work he stops in at the local precinct and hands the fake bill to the officer behind the desk. Then he goes off to buy some groceries.
What kind of person does Jim become as a result of the way in which he handles the fake twenty in each of these episodes?
I don’t think we need to review Kulanda and Houlder’s analysis of each scenario to see that their question is exactly right. Aristotle believed that we become courageous (that is, acquire courage as a habit or settled disposition, as part of our character) by doing courageous acts. These Buddhist authors make the same claim. We create the sorts of individuals we are, the nature of the communities in which we participate, and the society in which we live through our acts or practices. So, as we build Decurion, in what sorts of practices do we engage?
Our practices include surfacing and working with individual and collective mental models, balancing advocacy and inquiry, using Chris Argyris’ Left-Hand Column technique, and identifying where we are on the Ladder of Inference. When working with others, either inside or outside the company, we follow these principles and guidelines:
Principles of Community
- Communicate with authenticity
- Deal with difficult issues
- Welcome and affirm diversity
- Relate with integrity and respect
- Balance holding on and letting go
- Tolerate ambiguity and learning anxiety
Learning Community Guidelines
- Use “I statements”—don’t generalize
- Recognize that we are equally responsible
- Respect confidentiality
- Include yourself and others equally
We use these practices, principles, and guidelines as ways of making our values standards of action rather than statements of intent. They are the ways we create new territory, the ways we pursue Decurion’s purpose of providing places for people to flourish.