- I believe in a God called leadership
- And this God is capable of everything
- And, I believe that people are born with different degrees of leadership, different innate abilities and dispositions
- But, all the same, many aspects of leadership can be learned
- And some can be taught
- And the best way of teaching leadership, always respecting different local traditions, is experiential
- And the teaching of leadership must be informed by ethics and morality
- In as much as they do not really interfere with the bottom line
- And I believe that leadership can be taught in many places
- Of which, the great business schools of the world, are the greatest.
- And I believe that this God called leadership has various apostles on Earth
- Of whom, X is the greatest. (X = any leader that currently seems to do no wrong.)
Friday, 28 October 2011
A large part of current scholarship on leadership represents a questioning of the heroic model of leadership. This a model of leadership that has long dominated discourses, according to which larger-than-life leaders inspire their followers to extraordinary feats. It can be found in many different areas of leadership from political to business, from military to educational and from football to the arts. Heroic leadership is presumed capable of dramatic turnarounds, rescue missions, inspirational motivation and truly spectacular results. Based on material provided by six top leadership academics (Doh, 2003), I have parodied this model in a Creed (see Gabriel, 2005), whose main principles are:
The heroic model of leadership is not only to be found in the regular presentation of business and other leaders in the media but suffuses a huge industry on executive development and coaching and inspires a substantial part (though not all) of leadership education. Its essential qualities, the emphasis on the leader’s traits, on the extent to which such traits may be standardised and cultivated continue to preoccupy many scholars. A corollary to heroic leadership is inspirational leadership, a softer version, but still one that lionizes the leader and credits him/her with the ability to inspire followers by listening and responding, teaching and explaining, shows respect and cares for his/her subordinates.
What are the main challenges to heroic leadership? Foremost, the realization that even when leaders appear to deliver miracles, they fail to repeat them on demand. This leads to the realization that success attributed to leaders is often the product of diverse factors including the qualities of followers, situational factors and even luck. Hence the importance of the leader-follower relation assumes greater significance than the qualities of the superman/leader. The psychological contract between leaders and followers becomes very important. Emotion is a crucial dimension of this contract, hence emotional intelligence is greatly discussed in connection with leadership today.
The management of emotions is closely linked to the management of meaning. This is currently being discussed in connection with the way leaders communicate, the words they use, the metaphors they deploy and the stories they tell, in short, narratives. Management of meaning can and often does backfire, so power, control, politics and contestation remain major issues in leadership scholarship. The management of meaning (and its dark twin, spin-doctoring) is also linked in our culture with the management of the media and leaders’ ability to come across effectively to television and other audiences.
Uses and abuses of power by leaders remain a very major area for scholarship. In the wake of Enron and other corporate scandals, a wide range of leadership dysfunctions is currently pre-occupying scholars. Toxic leaders who may be authoritarian or narcissistic personalities can, for a time, appear to deliver results, when in effect they are covering up for decay and failure. Leadership dysfunction is also discussed in connection with political, military, business and other failures.
The increasing emphasis accorded to followers has raised the profile of distributed leadership. Originally used in connection with education, the idea that leadership may suffuse an organization at all different levels instead of being located at the top is gaining some attention in different areas.
An area of scholarship that appeared to hold the promise of major break-throughs but, in my view, has rather slowed down concerns the differences between leadership and management. Following well known arguments by Burns, Zaleznik, Bennis and others, it was argued that leaders and managers are fundamentally different in terms of their:
• Attitudes to change, restlessness, turbulence
• Attitudes towards efficiency and waste
• Attitudes towards details and grand picture
• Emphasis on logic, plans and rationality as against hunches, intuition and gut feeling
It seems to me that, following the work of Bass, the extreme polarization of leaders and managers has given way to more convergent views, i.e. those that regard management and leadership at least as partially overlapping social practices.
One area of scholarship that has impressed me is the attempt to bring the concept of negative capability into the study of leadership. This concept, originally used by the poet John Keats, suggests that there are times where inaction is preferable to impulsive (and potentially reckless) action. The Chinese concept of wu wei has sometimes been used to the same end.
Finally, it seems to me that the area of management of diversity is one that will increasingly dominate many studies of leadership. In a diverse and heterogeneous world, the management of difference will assume increasing attention. Diversity can be a force towards creativity and innovation but it can also lead to break-downs of communication, rancour and acrimony. Leadership, in all spheres of social activity, will be confronting issues of maintaining unity within highly diverse and differentiated domains and creating synergies across different types of boundaries. Hence, the management of boundaries, organizational, psychological, moral and others, will assume great significance in both the theory and the practice of leadership.
Doh, J. P. 2003. Can leadership be taught? Perspectives from management educators. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 2(1): 54-67.
Gabriel, Y. 2005. MBA and the education of leaders: The new playing fields of Eton? Leadership, 1(2): 147-163.
Thursday, 27 October 2011
Τι μεγάλος καλιτέχνης είναι ο Αγγελόπουλος! Όταν απελπίζομαι για τη χώρα μας, βρίσκω στις ταινίες του τόσο δικαίωση για την απελπισία μου αλλά και κάποια ελπίδα ή τουλάχιστο κάποιο ενθαρρυντικό μήνυμα. Η κάθε ταινία του σου κάνει την καρδιά κομμάτια και μετά σε προκαλεί να ανασκοπίσεις και να συλλογιστείς.
Η πιο πρόσφατη ταινία του, Η σκόνη του χρόνου, είναι ένα ελαττωματικό αριστούργημα. Ελαττωματικό οπωσδήποτε, αλλά αριστούργημα σίγουρα. Κατ' αρχην, η αγγλική γλώσσα που διάλεξε για το έργο δεν συμβιβάζεται καθόλου με την αισθητική του Αγγελόπουλου, ειδικά όταν ομιλείται από ηθοποιούς για τους οποίους δεν ειναι η μητρική γλώσσα. Εξίσου ανεπιτυχής μου φάνηκαν οι ερμηνείες των τριών από τα τέσσερα μεγαλα αστέρια του κινηματογράφου που πρωταγωνιστούν, της Irène Jacob, του Willem Dafoe και ιδιαίτερα του Michel Piccoli. Και οι τρεις, μεγάλοι ηθοποιοί, είναι, κατά τη γνώμη μου, ακατάλληλοι για τους ρόλους τους, έξω από τα νερά τους, κάτι που υπογραμμίζεται από τη συγκλονιστική ερμηνεία του τέταρτου, του Bruno Ganz. Παρά τις ελλείψεις της ηθοποιίας, στο τέλος της ταινίας βρήκα τον εαυτό μου εντελώς στραγγισμένο. Αλλά και παράξενα ενεργοποιημένο - σε τέτοιο βαθμό, που χρειάστηκα να κάτσω και να γράψω αυτές τις γραμμές, ενόσο η ταινία ήταν ακόμη νωπή στη μνήμη μου.
Τι κάνει τον Αγγελόπουλο τόσο μεγάλο καλιτέχνη; Κατ’αρχήν, με όλες τις ταινίες του, ο Αγγελόπουλος έχει δημιουργήσει μια «νέα» Ελλάδα, μια Ελλάδα εντελώς αντίθετα με τις συνηθισμένες στην «τέχνη», τη λογοτεχνία, τη φωτογραφία και τα τουριστικά έντυπα. Είναι μια χώρα βυθισμένη πάντα σε αγωνία, μια χώρα της οποίας ζοφερή και ομιχλώδη αισθητική ταιριάζει με τις θλίψεις, τη ντροπή και την απελπισία των χαρακτήρων του. Είναι μία Ελλάδα που τώρα, ιδιαίτερα τις ημέρες που περνάμε, αναγνωρίζομε ολοι μας: μία Ελλάδα σε συνεχή πόλεμο με τον εαυτό της.
Η τελευταία ταινία γυρίστηκε εξ ολοκλήρου έξω από την Ελλάδα (στη Γερμανία, στο Καζακστάν, στον Καναδά και αλλού), αλλά ο Αγγελόπουλος συνεχίζει να καταπλήσει με εικόνες που δεν μαγεύουν μόνο το μάτι αλλά προτρέπουν το θεατή να γεμίσει τα κενά, τις ελλείψεις. Όρια και σύνορα δεσπόζουν σε όλες τις ταινίες του, και ιδιαίτερα στη Σκόνη του χρόνου, όπου οι χαρακτήρες συνεχώς ταξειδεύουν από χώρα σε χώρα, από ήπειρο σε ήπειρο και κυρίως από τον ένα χρονοτόπο στον άλλο, από μία κουλτούρα στην άλλη. Ποια είναι τα σύνορα του Αγγελόπουλου; Είναι τα ποτάμια, οι τοίχοι, οι μπάρες που χωρίζουν τις χώρες, τα σημεία ελέγχου των αεροδρομίων και κυρίως η τεράστια συναισθηματική και ψυχολογική απόσταση που χωρίζει τους χαρακτήρες του. Κι όμως - χαρακτήρες του, ακόμη και όταν άσχημα παιγμένοι, είναι χαρακτήρες με ιστορίες και ιστορικά. Δεν είναι απλώς πολυδιάστατοι, σε απελπισμένες σύγκρουσεις με τον εαυτό τους, τα ιδανικά καί τις αρχές τους αλλά και με τον κόσμο γύρω τους. Οι χαρακτήρες του Αγγελόπουλου χαρακτηρίζονται από το πνιγμένο πάθος, τη βουβή και παράξενη ευαισθησία τους. Η τελευταία αλλά και οι παλαιότερες ταινίες του (Ταξειδι στα Κύθηρα κλπ) είναι πραγματικά μοναδικές στο καιρό μας σαν ταινίες στις οποίες οι γέροι (και όταν ακόμα δεν είναι καλοπαιγμένοι) δεν εμφανίζονται σαν καρικατούρες (με λιγότερο ή περισσότερο προηγμένο Alzheimer), σαν αντικείμενα γήρατος, αλλά σαν πραγματικές οντότητες με πάθη, πόθους, ιστορίες και υλικό που συνεχώς τους ενώνει και τους χωρίζει μεταξύ τους. Και τα πάθη τους; Όχι απλώς «συναισθήματα», αλλά ζωντανά, καυτά και συχνά καταστροφικά πάθη, όπως βέβαια σε κάθε τραγωδία.
Βλέποντας τις ταινίες του Αγγελόπουλου συνειδητοποιώ πόσο γρήγορα οι Έλληνες ως έθνος έχουμε ξεχάσει πώς να υποφέρουμε και πως να υπομένουμε. Ο πόνος τώρα πρέπει να βρει άμεση εκτόνωση και συνεχή έκφραση. Και φυσικά πολλαπλασιάζεται, όπως σε κάθε τραγωδία. Ο Αγγελόπουλος έχει πολλά να μας διδάξει, ιδιαίτερα τώρα, πριν από το μεγάλο σκοτάδι μπροστά μας.
What a master Angelopoulos is. When I despair about Greece, I turn to his work and find my despair validated. But I also find hope. He tears your heart to pieces and then he invites you to reflect.
His most recent film, The Dust of Time, is a flawed masterpiece. Flawed to be sure, but a masterpiece all the same. To start with, the English language sits very uneasily with Angelopoulos aesthetic, especially when English is spoken by various non-native speakers. Equally uneasy seem to be three of the four stars of the film, Irene Jacob, Willem Dafoe and especially Michel Piccoli. All three are badly miscast and truly out of their depth, something underlined by the shattering performance of the fourth star, Bruno Ganz. In spite of this, by the end of the film I found myself totally drained but also strangely energised – so much so, that I felt I should sit down and write these lines while the film is still fresh in my mind. What is so great about Angelopoulos? Throughout his films, Angelopoulos has demonstrated an uncanny ability to create a ‘new’ Greece, a Greece entirely unlike that of conventional ‘art’, literature and tourism brochures. It is a country that is always in agony, a country whose bleak and misty aesthetic matches the sorrows, the shame and the despair of his characters, a country constantly at war with its present and its past, a country at war with itself – but a country all the same.
This latest film is shot entirely outside Greece (Germany, Kazakhstan, Canada and elsewhere) but Angelopoulos continues to come up with images that do not merely bewitch the eye but prompt the mind to fill the spaces, the gaps. Boundaries are everywhere in Angelopoulos’s films, frontiers, rivers, walls, as well as vast emotional and psychological distances between his characters. And yet – his characters, even when played badly, are characters with histories; they are not just multi-dimensional, in desperate conflict with themselves and the world around them, but they display passion and an uncanny sensibility. It is truly brilliant to see a film in which old people are portrayed not as caricatures, objects of old age, but as genuine subjects with agency, subjects that carry a history wherever they go. It is this history that constantly tears them apart but also brings them together. And they have passions too! Not mere ‘emotions’, but vibrant, burning and, as in all tragedy, destructive passions.
Seeing his films made me think how quickly the Greeks as a nation have forgotten how to suffer and hence how to endure. Angelopoulos has much to teach us in advance of the great darkness ahead.
Tuesday, 25 October 2011
“Leading is imagining, willing, inspiring and driving”. This emphasises leaders, when engaged in relations with others, as agents for change. In the first instance, leading is imagining. Without imagination, no leadership. And imagination means being able to envisage new possibilities, new products, new ideas, new methods, new alliances, new ways of using words and language and even new needs and desires. Leaders then are dreamers, drawing on their unconscious wishes to conjure up what to others may seem, unrealistic, impossible or absurd possibilities. But leaders are not just dreamers. Many people have powers of imagination, creative artists and scientists, for example. While dreaming is an essential part of leading, it is not enough. In order to lead, a man or a woman must also have a strong will, a burning desire to see the dream become reality, the vision become fact. Willing means that the dream is not an ‘idle’ fantasy but becomes a strong motivator towards action. Imagining and willing together are essential for leadership. But again, they are not enough. An aspiring athlete may have the vision of herself climbing the podium of the Olympic Games to receive a golden medal; she may have the drive to train and practice with dedication to get there. But she is not a leader if she does not engage with others, if her vision does not become a shared vision, if it does not inspire and drive others. A leader will drive others by emotionally engaging with them, being able to communicate, elaborate and share a vision, inspiring them and winning them over, but also occasionally by cajoling and exhorting them. Engaging with others is a feature of all aspects of leading, including imagining. Leaders do not just sit and dream waiting for a vision to arrive. Still less do visions arise from vision statements carefully prepared by hired consultants. Instead visions emerge from active engagement with others, understanding of collective aspirations and wishes and flights of imagination that push the bounds of possibility.
It will be noted this definition is one that runs against the current tendency to emphasise dispersed, diffused leadership. While acknowledging the relational aspect of leadership, in the last resort, the relation between followers and leaders is asymmetrical. It is a relation that can never escape from the template of someone being set apart from the others, someone taking charge and responsibility for others, and someone who, ultimately, through words and actions, is capable of providing the basis on which the others identify with each other as followers.
It will be noted this definition is one that runs against the current tendency to emphasise dispersed, diffused leadership. While acknowledging the relational aspect of leadership, in the last resort, the relation between followers and leaders is asymmetrical. It is a relation that can never escape from the template of someone being set apart from the others, someone taking charge and responsibility for others, and someone who, ultimately, through words and actions, is capable of providing the basis on which the others identify with each other as followers.
It will also be noted that this definition does not lionize leaders as people who can consistently perform miracles. Leaders can and at times do inspire others to achieve what appear like miracles. But such 'miracles' can hardly be delivered consistently on demand. Hence, all too often, yesterday's miracle-man or -woman turns out to be tomorrow's rejected leader or, worse, tomorrow's tyrant.
Monday, 24 October 2011
- What is the importance of storytelling and why are old stories and myths relevant to the world of organizations?
Stories are narratives that people, in and out of organizations, tell each other to communicate their experiences, entertain, influence or warn others. A great deal of storytelling takes place in organizations and we can learn a lot from it. In stories, the requirement for accuracy is subordinated to the need to offer a gripping narrative that stimulates emotions and keeps the attention of the audience.
Ancient myths address powerful themes of power, legitimacy, hubris, love, disappointment, and above all, the discontinuity between human intentions and the outcomes of human actions. These are the same issues that we encounter in every organization today.
2. Does an understanding of storytelling and stories help the management of organizations?
Understanding how to learn from organizations stories can help, by:
- offering better communication and understanding of organizational objectives
- offering examples for imitation and avoidance
- allowing the generation of positive emotions, like hope, enthusiasm and commitment
- allowing the containment of negative emotions, like anxiety, anger and fear
- allowing the leaders to understand the concerns of followers
- enabling followers to understand, share and influence the visions of leaders
3. How can and how do today’s leaders use stories?
Some leaders make regular use of storytelling in communicating with their followers. In general, some leaders make more effective use of stories than others. Effective stories are fairly simple, they have a clear message but do not appear to be ‘manufactured’ to manipulate their audiences. They are spontaneous and sincere. The leader does not use them to boast in an evident way about his own achievements.
Good leaders also learn from listening carefully to stories; instead of responding angrily to a story by saying ‘It is not true’ they ask themselves why some people want to believe such stories to be true.
4. All in all, why is storytelling relevant to our highly advanced technological society?
Most organizations today are drowning in information overload, which stops people from effectively managing knowledge. In contrast to information, storytelling cuts straight to the quick, addresses directly the problems and concerns of organizational members in their daily reality and enables them to learn from each other’s experiences. Sharing a story is a more powerful way of sharing knowledge than offering large sets of statistics, complicated theories or formalistic graphs.
The twentieth century may rightly come to be known as the century of the consumer. It was the century which saw consumption change its meaning – from its associations with withering away and decay to a source of vibrancy, pleasure and life. Throughout the century, industrialized countries saw standards of living increasing, vast new ranges of products came into existence, and consumption moved constantly away from a mere survival activity into a pleasure activity, a meaning activity and an identity activity.
The century started with the Fordist Deal, a far-reaching social arrangement which married mass production with mass consumption, inspired by Henry Ford’s deal to his employees -- quiescent, monotonous work in exchange for unimagined consumer delights, comforts and riches. Of course, Ford's outrageous arrogance towards the customer "You can have any color you wish, so long as it is black" gave way to a far more deferential attitude, where pleasing customers, pampering to their every whim and offering them choices became de rigeur.
Today's organizations as well as Western societies are dominated by the cult of the consumer – the consumer is not longer an outsider to the world of organizations, but a palpable presence, whose desires and tastes dominate what goes on in most workplaces. Nor is the consumer absent from the world of public sector organizations, hospitals, universities, schools and even government bureaucracies, as they increasingly address their constituents as customers, seeking to offer them excitement, pleasure and choice. Our society is gradually dominated by what Ritzer calls cathedrals of consumption, settings which "allow, encourage, and even compel us to consume so many of those goods and services." (Ritzer, 1999, p. 2). These settings include theme parks, cruise ships, casinos, tourist resorts, hotels, restaurants and above all shopping malls. The idea of cathedrals of consumption suggests their quasi-religious, enchanted qualities of spiritual renewal, accomplished in spaces where children and adults can allow fantasy to run free, to become reality.
Which is the 'real' cathedral?
Contemporary management has redefined itself in a major way – shifting its attention from the toiling worker to the fantasizing consumer. What management does is to furnish, in a highly rationalized manner, an endless stream of consumable fantasies linked to specific products, inviting consumers to pick and choose. Thus the grey, rational and impersonal world of modernity becomes re-enchanted in post-modernity, through mass festivals, riotous colour, wild flights of imagination and a pandemonium of temptations. In the new cathedrals of consumption, consumption is constantly advocated promoted, enhanced and controlled, not so much through direct advertising, as through indirect means such as spatial arrangements, uses of language, festivals, simulations and extravaganzas, as well as the cross-fertilization ('implosion') of products and images. Thus consumption gradually colonizes every public and private domain of social life, which become saturated with fantasizing, spending and discarding opportunities. If Henry Ford was the manager who epitomized mass production, Walt Disney has posthumously become the emblematic figure of our time – the manager redefined from agent of rationalized production to orchestrator of mass fantasies.
Yet, as the as the consumer assumes centre-stage in contemporary societies, his/her image becomes less distinct, his/her desires less comprehensible and his/her thinking less predictable. Like those furtive images caught by surveillance cameras, the face of the consumer is indistinct and his/her motives opaque. Many claim their consumer as their turf -- economists, sociologists, social psychologists, cultural critics, postmodernists, advertisers, journalists, pop-semioticians, marketers and marketeers, historians of ideas, environmentalists and activists. Yet, each of these groups all come up with their 'own' visions and images of who the consumer is, and what he stands for and there is little agreement about it. In my own work with Tim Lang (Gabriel & Lang, 2006, 2008), we identified various conflicting images of contemporary consumers, each highlighting different features and disguising others.
Dominant among them are
- Choice-maker versus habit-forming. Choice is possibly the biggest trademark of contemporary consumption. The profusion of choice confronting today's consumer is prodigious. Equally, when consumers are denied choice, for example by state organizations, private monopolies or occasionally other organizations, there are anguished howls of 'foul play'. No organization, private or public, can today appear to oppose consumer choice. Yet, choice is a double-edged sword. Too much choice is confusing and frustrating; choice between identical alternatives is easily perceived as meaningless; and choice without information is valueless. The cost of exercising choice is formidable; and like customers at a Chinese restaurant, many consumers give up trying to exercise choice and opt for ready-made combinations which alleviate the need for choice. They form habits, appearing to be displaying loyalty towards specific brands, when in fact they are only seeking refuge from the hailstorm of alternatives. Don't get me wrong. When alternatives are not available, consumers are the first to rebel.
- Conformist versus rebel. If choice is the trademark of contemporary consumption, cool is the ultimate objective for many of it practitioners. "Cool" is a beloved word of advertisers and traders. As Pountain and Robins argue, cool means living on edge, skirting with danger and disaster. "Cool is still in love with cigarettes, booze and drugs. It still loves the sharp clothes and haircuts, but has discovered a preference for winners over losers. It still loves the night, and flirts with living on the edge. … Everyone is a rebel now, no-one is ordinary, no-one wants to be a face in the crowd, everyone wants intense experiences: indeed everyone wants more intense experiences than their friends and neighbours" (Pountain & Robins, 2000). And yet, this rebel, this unique and obstinate individualist appears incapable of resisting the endlessly mutating trends of fashion, compulsively imitating his neighbours, those same Jones with their irritating habits of being a step ahead in their tastes of clothes, holiday destinations and even venues for children's parties. When is rebellion not rebellion and becomes merely following a crowd, all wearing identical badges reading 'rebels'?
- Individualist versus tribalist. Even if not a rebel, the consumer still will maintain that he is an individualist, possessing unique tastes, desires and styles. In short, the consumer according to many experts surrounds himself with objects which fashion his identity. Identity – that mark of uniqueness, individuality and continuity – is crafted through hard working of appropriating and intermingling commodities, discovering unique combinations which reflect what is a personal style. Yet, those same identities are derivative of those real or imaginary groups, referred to by Maffesoli (1995) as neo-tribes. Tribalism rather than individuality provides, in the view of many experts, the basis for identities which are too fragile, unstable and provisional to withstand the next wave of tribal upheavals.
- Sovereign versus dependent. The sovereignty of the consumer is taken for granted – the consumer is the only figure in contemporary societies free to exercise prejudice, bias and discrimination towards that which he likes and against that which he dislikes, without having to feel guilt or account for his prejudices. It is on this freedom that the success of capitalist economies is seen to be founded. The obliteration of the old Soviet economies offers proof evident that only markets can generate economic growth, reconcile demand and supply and generate innovation, creativity and progress. And markets rest on the absolute sovereignty of the capricious consumer. Yet, if the consumer is sovereign, why is he in constant need of support, help, education and protection? Why is there no shortage of advocates and spokespeople ready to take on his cause, defend his rights and act on his behalf? And what type of sovereignty is one founded on shopaholism, addiction, compulsion and ignorance? Why is every company seeking to discover a niche where dependent consumers may be cheerfully provided for?
- Meaning-seeker versus spectacle-devourer. The objects we use communicate meanings about their owners and users. This has always been a feature of consumption, yet never as prominent as today, when it is possible to make more inferences about a person from the brand of car they drive than from any amount of self-professed views and opinions. The views we profess can easily be lies, the objects which we use may mislead but they do not lie. Moreover, consumption has moved in a big way to fill the meaning-vacuum created by the decline of religious, political and other large-scale ideologies and meaning-systems. As McCracken (1988, p. 136) has argued goods are "both bulletin boards for internal messages and billboards for external ones." But how much meaning do such messages carry, when any codes needed to decipher them fragment and mutate daily? As Baudrillard has argued, the quest for meaning becomes futile in an era of flying signifiers, whose message are at best spasmodic, intermittent and fuzzy. Meaning-seeking, according to this view, represents a quaint relic of the days before the rise of the new cathedrals of consumption, which replace the search of meaning with the enjoyment of pure spectacle.
- Rational versus emotional. Rationality does not get a good press these days. Cold, constipated, masculinist and hopelessly old-fashioned, it yields the ground to the easy sway of emotion and its displays. Whim, caprice, gut feeling and cool emotion become the guiding forces of the consumer, according to these views. And yet, rational considerations of utility, value and economy are far from dead. One need look no further than the majority of press advertisements, the success of value-for-money mega-stores and the persisting consumer delight in obtaining more for less to realize that requiems to consumer rationality and parsimony are exaggerated and premature. Far from the hurly-burly of street spectacle and cathedral consumption, lurk armies of sober, quiet and methodical consumers counting pennies and comparing prices.
- Explorer versus comfort seeker. Whether seeking spectacle, meaning or value-for-money, contemporary consumers are portrayed as living on high adrenaline, seeking the excitement of the new. Malls, high streets, shops, magazines and internet locations, all become arenas for exploration, affording thrills akin to those of tourism and travel. This is the spice of consumer society. Consumer explorations frequently take the form of a quest of difference, which stands in direct opposition to the comforts of uniformity. Comfort calls for familiarity, sameness and absence of risk. "No surprises" proclaims the logo of a famous hotel chain, making plain the dilemma. Who wants to travel to far away places, visit different people and experience different cultures, and yet meet no surprises? Comfort-seekers, of course.
These are by no means the only conflicting images of the consumer that we can observe, though they suffice to suggest that the consumer has become a hotly contested terrain, the point where so many contradictions of contemporary society converge. Many claim to understand the consumer, speak on his behalf or address his needs and desires, yet the picture that emerges is fuzzy, self-contradictory and ultimately unsatisfactory.
Of course, much hinges on the consumer, whether for example, he or she is seen as sovereign (requiring no self-appointed spokespeople to defend his or her interests) or victim (easily manipulated and outwitted by the apparatuses of capital), explorer (thirsting after new experiences and meanings) or activist (campaigning on behalf of collective rights), communicator (using objects as bridges to relate to fellow humans) or rebel (using objects to express rejection and rage), identity-seeker (trying to find a real self in the objects which he or she consumes) or hedonist (concerned above all with personal pleasure). These are all attempts to frame the consumer, and, more often than not, to sell particular self-views to the consumers themselves, either by flattery, by cajoling, by moralizing, by seduction or by straight manipulation.
But while all these battles are raging above and around the heads and wallets of the consumer, people get on with their everyday lives, trying to make the best of them, whatever their lot, and also to make sense of them. It would be plausible and attractive to envisage consumers in this way, i.e. as oblivious to the consternation they are causing to the chattering classes and discourse makers. At a stroke, this analysis would halt any systematic attempt to understand people's behaviour as reflexive, self-conscious consumers, leaving the terrain to those who have an interest in defining them in particular ways. However, consumers themselves would be unwilling to allow themselves to be talked about, without voices of their own. For better or for worse, many of us think of ourselves, at least part of the time, as consumers. Whether reading the consumer pages of newspapers, listening to exhortations from politicians or consumer organizations, visiting theme parks and supermarkets, or trying to stretch the family budget at the end of a week, we unavoidably have to confront ourselves as consumers, and make decisions as consumers. Why else do individuals become so pre-occupied with what they buy, give and eat? Why do they seek advice, turning to consumer agony aunts which fill the media? One cannot opt out of being a consumer, living in a non-consumer fashion, in a non-consumer landscape. Consumerism has become part of our daily reality.
But consumers themselves are divided up and set against each other. Inequalities among them are already sharp, leaving substantial numbers of them window-shopping with only restricted opportunities to make a purchase and many, in the Third World, without even windows to window-shop. This is contributing to the fragmentation of consumers' experiences. It accounts, at least in part, for the diversity of images of the consumer pursued by intellectuals and cultural commentators. While some consumers, in the First as well as in the Third Worlds, may spend inordinate amounts of time deliberating whether to invest in a new swimming-pool, a new yacht or a second home abroad, others have to choose between feeding their children or buying them a new pair of shoes. Given such social chasms, it is difficult to talk about all consumption and all consumers as coming under the same ethos or constraints, i.e. as being uniform entities or acting as a unified force. We can now see why the fragmentation of images of consumption is itself a symptom of the malaise of contemporary consumerism. Under the accelerating influence of environmental factors, growing Third World anger, and increasing social fragmentation within the West's own backyard this malaise is likely to get worse.
The same fragmentation of the consumer may keep academics busy, since each tradition can claim the consumer for itself, exaggerating those features which fit its arguments, while blatantly disregarding the rest. But this stops them from recognizing the overall historical trend. Just as most Marxists were censorious about consumption, many cultural theorists have tended to celebrate it. Neither is adequate. We recognize that the fragmentation of consumption is itself a feature of contemporary society. But the matter does not rest there. The weakening of the Fordist Deal suggests that Western consumerism as we have known it may have entered a twilight phase. During the high noon of consumerism, its Golden Age, the face of the consumer was clear, as was the significance of his or her every movement. The pursuit of happiness through consumption seemed a plausible, if morally questionable, social and personal project. Today, this is far more problematic. The economic conditions have become fraught, the social inequalities have once again widened, insecurity is experienced across social classes, poverty and homelessness have resurfaced on a massive scale. Cultural fatigue threatens to overcome even the well-off. The brashness has been knocked off the consumer society. To many, experimenting with drugs may be more exciting than the wares of the fashion industry. Downshifting and a move against brands and logos cannot be ignored. (Klein, 2000; Schor, 1998) Proponents of consumerism live in the belief that tomorrow will see another bright day. This vision may well be the product of wishful thinking, at least for the West.
A more realistic picture is that casualization of work will be accompanied by casualization of consumption. Consumers will lead precarious and uneven existences, one day enjoying unexpected boons and the next sinking to bare subsistence. Precariousness, unevenness and fragmentation are likely to become more pronounced for ever increasing sections of Western populations. Marginality will paradoxically become central.
In a world where everyone claims the consumer for her or him self, the consumer must now be deemed unmanageable, claimed by many, but controlled by few, least of all by consumers themselves. The notion of unmanageability seems to be entirely appropriate for an era where the capacity to plan must give way to opportunism. In a world where future labour is exhorted to be flexible, multi-skilled, taking each day as it comes, what calculations can consumers make about the day after?
To retailers and producers of goods and services, this may not be a terminal difficulty. We are not for one minute suggesting that people will cease to consume, that they will stop furnishing their houses, clothing their children and enjoying themselves. We do, however, think that such consumption will become increasingly spasmodic, ad hoc and reversible. So long as a certain proportion of the population at any one time is in a position to consume with energy and gusto, there will be markets for the most unusual of goods. To increasing numbers of consumers, however, a future based on mortgages, careful husbanding of resources and long-term financial commitments will become problematic. Opportunism will feature on an ever increasing scale.
Unmanageable consumers behave in arbitrary, unpredictable and inconsistent ways. They may reject what seems sensible, alluring and rewarding for what appears inferior, decrepit and second-rate. They may be ridiculously amoral one minute and overwhelmed with moral considerations the next. The may seek comfort while they claim to desire excitement, may seek solace in the familiar or look for the dangerous. To producers, advertisers and marketers they represent quite simply a chaotic environment, an environment in which connections between causes and effects melt away or become increasingly ad hoc and unpredictable. An off the cuff remark, like that made by Gerald Ratner, may bring down a company, just as a bunch of disenchanted petrol consumers may threaten the stability of a government. Within highly complex environment, successes and failures cease to be explicable – they become chance outcomes of the endlessly rotating wheel of fortune. Any attempt to play the game by rational rules and calculations become doomed. Uncertainty becomes endemic.
One thing is certain, the consumer of tomorrow will not be the same as the consumer of today. The endlessly mutating meanings of 'the consumer' - now destroyer, now generator of waste, now creator - suggest that for all we know the consumer may vanish altogether.
Gabriel, Y., & Lang, T. 2006. The Unmanageable Consumer. London: Sage.
Gabriel, Y., & Lang, T. 2008. New faces and new masks of today's consumer. Journal of Consumer Culture 8(3): 321-340.
Klein, N. 2000. No logo: Taking aim at the brand bullies. London: Flamingo.
Maffesoli, M. 1995. The time of tribes: The decline of individualism in mass society. London: Sage.
McCracken, G. 1988. Culture and Consumpton: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Pountain, D., & Robins, D. 2000. Cool rules: Anatomy of an attitude. London: Reaktion Books.
Ritzer, G. 1999. Enchanting a disenchanted world: Revolutionizing the means of consumption. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Pine Forge Press.
Schor, J. B. 1998. The overspent American: Upscaling, downshifting and the new consumer. New York: HarperCollins.
Wednesday, 12 October 2011
In 2005 Steve Jobs delivered his commencement address at
which had honour him with a degree. It consisted simply of three stories. The first was about dropping out of college as a 17-year old, aware that his education was costing his parents the earth and offered him little. He did, however, benefit from a course in calligraphy, which many years later came handy when he incorporated multiple typefaces and proportionally spaced fonts in the Apple Mac. The second story relates the pain and disappointment he experienced when he got sacked by Apple, the company he had founded; yet, his sacking turned out to be ‘the best thing that ever happened’ to him. It allowed him to start a new career as a creative spirit rather than as company CEO, enabling him eventually to return to Apple as its saviour. The third story describes his early discovery that death may be around the corner and his determination to live each day as though it is his last. This led him to see death not as an enemy but as the natural destination of all life and helped him to survive cancer. Death is the friend who prompts him to make the most out of life. He concludes by invoking the words of a creative publication that, in its final issue before closing down, urged its readers to ‘Stay hungry, Stay foolish’. Stanford University
Three stories of life and death, achievement and disappointment, hope and loss. No commentary, no sermon, just three deep expressions of his life experiences he wanted to share with his college-going audience. Steve Jobs regularly uses stories in his presentations, as do numerous leaders in business, politics and every other field of social endeavour. In his thought provoking book Leading Minds: An anatomy of leadership, Howard Gardner (1995 #3047} argues that telling stories is one of the most important things leaders do.
examines the lives of 11 men and women from the last century who left their marks as leaders and argues that much of their effectiveness in inspiring others came from the power of their stories and the extent to which their own lives embodied their story. Gardner
Storytelling has long been a feature of human societies, groups and organizations. Stories are pithy narratives with plots, characters and twists that can be full of meaning. Successful stories have beginnings, middles and ends. While some stories may be pure fiction, others, like those told by Steve Jobs at his commencement, are inspired by actual events. Their relation to events, however, is tenuous – in stories, accuracy is often sacrificed for effect. Stories pass moral judgements on events, casting their protagonists in roles like hero, villain, survivor, fool and victim. They are capable of stimulating strong emotions of sympathy, anger, fear, anxiety and so forth. A hundred years ago, many scholars argued that traditional storytelling was on its way out, silenced by the rise of different forms of entertainment, of electric light, and different media of communication. The easy availability of quick and reliable
information and the advance of scientific, evidence-based knowledge, it was thought, would strike the final blow to stories. Today, however, many scholars, like many leaders, are rediscovering the power of storytelling. Amazon currently lists over 26000 books with ‘storytelling’ in the title, of which no fewer than 3470 are located in its business department, indicating that it has become another fashionable fad for many managers. A far greater number of books are themselves personal stories or memoirs, many relating the stories of ‘ordinary people’ who want to relate a personal experience, for example, how they made their first million, how they survived cancer or how they discovered the power of storytelling.
Why do stories matter?
- stories help us make sense of our experiences, especially when these draw us outside routines and habits;
- stories enable us to learn from the experiences of other people and to share our experiences with others;
- stories are powerful at influencing hearts and minds;
- stories enable us to express our emotions, ranging from admiration to anger and from pride to disappointment;
- stories can be effective triggers of change, but can also act as stumbling blocks undermining change;
- stories are vital ways in which we construct our individual and group identities, and sustain our bonds to our communities, whose stories we share;
- Stories entertain, console, divert and warn us.
A few years ago, I was stuck in
’s international airport due to a storm brewing in the American Midwest. At one of the airport restaurants, I was overhearing the conversation of four pilots, like me stranded due to bad weather and waiting for their flights to resume. And guess what they were talking about? They were each describing the most dangerous escapes that they had had while flying their planes in bad weather. In these stories, the planes, 747s, 727s and 757s, were not just flying machines but characters with distinct personalities, likes and dislikes, that required special and careful handling. Listening to such scary stories was the last thing I needed just prior to taking off, but it taught me many things. Clearly, each pilot was competing with his peers in recounting a more dangerous situation and a more brilliant escape. At the same time, however, they were all sharing knowledge, knowledge about particular weather conditions, knowledge about different planes, knowledge about different risks. The pilots were what we refer to as a community of practice, learning from each other’s experience through the medium of storytelling. Denver
There is much talk these days of communities of practice, groups of people who share similar problems and have complementary skills and outlooks. They are mostly occupational and professional groups, like pilots, managers and academics, but they can also refer to people sharing hobbies or interests, like plane spotters or amateur gardeners. Within such communities, a great deal of knowledge is transferred and this knowledge is not scientific; it cannot be codified into generalizable laws and formulas. Instead, it assumes the form of stories, recipes and direct accounts of experience. Within communities of practice, storytelling is the natural currency, and stories present facts-as-experience rather than against facts-as-
information. Stories delve in the subjective, the intimate, and sacrifice accuracy for effect. Learning from other people’s stories is what we now call narrative knowledge. One of the fascinating discoveries of the last twenty years is that the very professionals whose expertise rests on the authority of their scientific disciplines (the pilot, the medic, the accountant, the lawyer, the technician) also make extensive use of narrative knowledge in their professional practices. For example, the treatment of diabetes as a general condition may be determined by the up-to-date scientific knowledge available to a physician (based on randomised control trials and so forth), yet, the treatment of a particular person’s diabetes with specific complications and idiosyncrasies may well be informed by stories of how other physicians treated similar cases. And by the same token, the diabetes sufferer will consult his/her physician for the most up-to-date treatments for his/her condition, but will also consult other diabetes sufferers to find out how they learnt to live with their condition, tame it and manage it.
Research on organizational storytelling accelerated considerably since the 1990s when stories started to make regular appearances as ‘data’ for organizational analysis, allowing scholars to delve into the cultural, political and emotional lives of organizations. Numerous PhDs are currently based on storytelling research as are some major projects in social research. I am currently involved in two such projects, one major and one small one. The former, funded by a major grant of the Service Delivery Organization of the National Institute for Health Research has looked at patient care and leadership in three British hospitals. A large part of the data we collected was in the form of stories, told by clinicians, administrative and other staff, about the quality of patient care in their hospitals and about their relations with their organization’s leaders. The latter, a much smaller project, looked at the experiences of senior managers and professionals who found themselves unemployed in their 50s, trying to establish the most suitable type of coaching that will help them resume their lives after a traumatic event. Like the other project, it relied on the stories told by these people as a way of understanding the way they made sense of their experiences, trying to incorporate them into their life stories sustaining their sense of self and identity. As someone who has carried out research using stories for many years, I must say that I have found they open windows into profound aspects of our experiences as humans that other research methods cannot emulate. Listening carefully to stories can teach us a lot about different organizations, their cultures, politics and challenges. More generally, learning to work with stories, to listen to them, tell them, question them and translate them can be a powerful way of enhancing our practices as managers, leaders, communicators and researchers.
If you are a scholar, a PhD student or a professional interested in story-based research, you may wish to attend a storytelling seminar, details of which can be found at
Tuesday, 4 October 2011
[Being unemployed] it’s a bit like walking on ice, when the water’s frozen and you know at some stage that ice could melt, and the thing about that is that you know you can swim but don’t know where the land is so it’s like a sense of drowning really.
Robert – Senior Systems analyst, unemployed at the time of the interview
The much awaited first report of the massive UK household longitudinal study confirms that the current economic crisis has hit young people disproportionately, raising talk of another ‘lost generation’ in the labour market. Unemployment rates are highest at 15% among workers under 25. This has rightly prompted calls to help young people as they try to enter the labour market. An equally interesting finding of the survey, which drew data from 40,000 UK households, however, was that being out of work by itself does not substantially affect the happiness of young people. By contrast, unemployment has a severe effect on the reported physical and mental well-being of people over 55. While these people are less likely to be directly hit by the recession, when they lose their jobs, the effect can be catastrophic for their personal and family lives.
Prompted by concerns about the effects of unemployment on this age group, the government has sponsored a number of coaching programmes aimed at helping mature professionals and managers cope with unemployment and re-enter employment. Research undertaken by Bath and Surrey universities  looked closely into the experiences of a small group of mature executives and professionals who had lost their jobs. These were people who had recently held powerful positions and enjoyed high salaries, but were then dismissed under more or less acrimonious conditions. We talked to them repeatedly over two years, listening to stories they told about their plight and seeking to find out whether the type of story they each told related to how well they coped with the experience of unemployment.
Some of our results were predictable. Each one of our unemployed professionals viewed their job loss as deeply a traumatic event which had left long-lasting scars. None of them sought to make light of their predicament or minimize its effects. All of them had an overwhelming sense that the labour market was biased against them due to ageism and institutional factors that favour younger employees. All of them saw themselves as having much to contribute but being unable to find an employer who could make use of their experience and expertise.
Well you know, at sixty, fifty six years of age – I keep calling myself sixty, I don't know why – it's not pleasant to be not working, it's not pleasant to have to watch every single penny, and, I mean, there's millions of people in this country that have to do that, but you know, what use is a [queen’s decoration] if you can't afford to put bread on the table? What use is it having, you know, a glorified past if you can't actually front up and do a day’s work? You know, I find, you know, and these are sort of conversations I don't have with people very often you know, I find it terribly distressing to actually think of, you know, am I going to be in this situation for the next ten years? And it's not a very pleasant thought.
Matthew, unemployed senior executive at the time of this interview
Yet, the stories they told were different. Unemployed managers may create stories in which they cast themselves in different roles – from wronged casualty to dignified survivor to dejected victim, from angry and rebellious fighter to resigned and apathetic sufferer. Their accounts followed three main storylines, each representing a different way of coping with their situation. The first of these, described as temporary derailment, was to view their current unemployment as a short-term disruption, a setback, but one from which their career would soon recover without serious implications. A different strategy was to see their job loss as marking the end of their career and the beginning of a new, post-career phase in their life – this was described as end of the line. Finally, there were some who cast themselves in a kind of limbo-land, not knowing what lies ahead, whether the disruption of their career is a permanent or temporary one, but seeking to make the best out of their current situation, through part-time jobs, voluntary work, self-employment and a substantially reduced pattern of consumption.
Individuals expressing the most profound despair (those for whom job loss was the ‘end of the line’) were those whose stories had achieved ‘closure’. In contrast, most of those who maintained more open-ended narratives, were better able to contain their emotions, either by holding on to the belief that unemployment was a temporary career aberration or by abandoning the idea that life is the same as career and by moving on to a new stage by making the best of their situation. The crucial issue was not whether the story had a compelling or completed plot (however distressing) but whether they could fashion a story which allowed them to discover their voice as a person who is unemployed but whose identity is not defined by their unemployment.
Over the two years of the study, all of our unemployed executives and professionals had worked at some point but only four of the thirteen re-entered the fast lane with high-paying corporate jobs and one of them had subsequently been made redundant again. The others had ‘downshifted’, accepting less well paid jobs or done casual, part-time or voluntary work. A couple had started their own businesses but they were both struggling in the current economic downturn. Some, after two years, were still experiencing the most profound distress, either still troubled by the circumstances of their dismissal or desperately seeking to regain high-paying jobs by writing literally hundreds of applications and having no success.
By contrast, there were those who had accepted that life may or may not return to what it was. None of them could be described as ‘broken’, though the philosophical attitude proclaimed by several could be seen as a front for resignation. These were people who had successfully stopped defining themselves in career terms. They did not feel that life without a career was meaningless or empty. Instead they tried to make the best out of the opportunities that came their way without despair or anxious urgency. Financially, they made the best out of their resources, having no major debts and moderating their aspirations as consumers. Their attitude might be described as one of bricolage, making the best out of the resources available, being on the look-out for opportunities, living within their means and, within these terms, feeling in control of their lives.
In the years and decades ahead we are likely to find more and more ‘successful’ professionals in late career confronting the reality of unemployment, vastly reduced income, power and status. What can coaching do to help? Our study reveals that coaching can play a modest but significant part in helping such professionals come to terms with their predicament, realize that there is life outside the corporate iron cage, that happiness is not synonymous with riotous consumption and corporate success.
[The coach] stretched my thinking or my concept of myself, he helped me to gather all the bits and pieces I think and to fit them together so that there was substance to it rather than kind of being fragmented by my life experience. Heather, unemployed manager mid-50s
Some people are far too badly traumatized by job loss to be much helped by coaches. Coaches can hardly take over the role of professional counsellor or therapists. What they can do is offer emotional support to the unemployed professionals and help them clarify the options available to them. Most importantly, however, effective coaches seem to help the unemployed professionals redefining themselves. Coming to terms with unemployment, we discovered, requires more than a talking cure, more even than the construction of a plausible, gripping or completed story to account for trauma. Instead, it is more likely to happen when unemployed professionals can construct a protagonist for their story which enables them to move on as a person who has experienced trauma, endured trauma, but is no longer defined by trauma.
 (Understanding Society: Early findings from the first wave of the UK’s household longitudinal study, available from http://research.understandingsociety.org.uk/findings/early-findings)
Απο τις διάφορες συνιστώσες του σημερινού δράματος της χώρας, ούτε τα βάσανα τού λαού, ούτε ο πανικός της δεθνούς οικονομικής κοινότητας μπροστά στη προοπτική της κατάρευσης του ευρώ, ούτε καν η αδυναμία Ευρωπαίων και Ελλήνων πολιτικών να αποτρέψουν την επερχόμενη καταστροφή αρκούν για τον χαρακτηρισμό της κατάστασης σαν τραγωδία. Αυτό που χαρακτηρίζει αληθινά την κατάσταση της χώρας ως πραγματική τραγωδία είναι μια γενική ανικανότητα να βρεί μία συνεπή αφήγηση, μια «ιστορία» ή καλύτερα πια εξιστόρηση για τα αίτια της σημερινής κρίσης, τους υπαιτίους της, και για το τι πρέπει να γίνει τώρα. Όπως ο Οιδίπους, που αποφασισμένος να ανακαλύψει ποιος έχει φέρει το μίασμα στην πόλη του χωρίς να ξέρει ότι είναι ο ίδιος ο δράστης, όλοι, φαίνεται, ψάχνουν τον ένοχο και πολλές εξηγήσεις ανταγωνίζονται η μια ενάντια στην άλλη, χωρίς καμμία να γινεται πιστευτή. Στην Ελλάδα, αντίθετα από το τι συνέβη στην Ιρλανδία και την Πορτογαλία, καμμία σαφής αφήγηση δεν έχει προκύψει ακόμα που να αποκαλύπτη πειστικα το νόημα της κρίσης.
«Όλοι φάγαμε μαζί» δηλώνει ο Θεόδωρος Πάγκαλος, υπονοώντας ότι όλοι έχουμε ίσες ευγήνες για την κρίση, αγνοώντας την απελπισία εκείνων που απέτυχαν να πλουτίσουν όταν φαίνεται ήταν τόσο απλό! Ο ίδιος και άλλοι πολιτικοί με τη σειρά τους κατηγορούνται εύκολα από τους αγανακτισμένους (πολλοί από τους οποίους μέχρι προ τινος υποστήριζαν φανατικά κάποιο πολιτικό κόμμα), οτι έφεραν την καταστροφή στη χώρα, ανοίγοντας δεκαετίες ξένης κυριαρχίας. Η τρόικα, με τη σειρά της, που φαίνεται να κρατάει τη μοίρα της χώρας στα χέρια της, παρουσιάζεται ως νέος εισβολέας, χειρότερος από οποιοδήποτε άλλον του παρελθόντος, ενάντια στον οποίο καμία αντίσταση ή αντάρτικο δεν είναι εφικτό. Ακούγονται συνεχώς διάφορα σενάρια και θεωρίες συνωμοσίας. Τα πιό ισορροπημένα κεφάλια, όπως εκείνα του οικονομολόγου Paul Krugman και άλλων, προειδοποίησαν από την πρώτη σύσταση του μνημονίου, ότι οι όροι των περικοπών, της λιτότητας και της φορολογίας εγγυούνταν τη βύθηση της χώρας σε βαθύτερο οικονομικό τέλμα. Για πολλούς Γερμανούς και άλλους βόρειους Ευρωπαίους, όμως, φαίνεται ότι όλοι εμείς οι Έλληνες είμαστε τα παράσιτα της Ευρώπης, πού σήμερα ζούμε μόνο χάρη στην φιλανθρωπία των Ευρωπαίων, και που απειλούμε να γκρεμίσουμε ολόκληρο το ευρωπαϊκό οικοδόμημα. Αντίθετα, για πολλούς ουδετέρους, ο τρόπος με τον οποίο οι ευρωπαϊκές και άλλες τράπεζες δάνεισαν τα χρήματα στους Έλληνες μεχρι το 2009 ήταν περίπου σαν να δίνει κανείς φθηνό ουίσκυ σε αλκοολικό. Τέλος, για μία μερίδα Ελλήνων, η χώρα μας θυσιάζεται τώρα από τους αλλοδαπούς στο βωμό του ευρώ.
Αυτές και άλλες πολλές εξιστορήσεις, άλλες περισσότερο και άλλες λίγο εύλογες, ανταγωνίζονται τώρα για να δώσουν κάποια εξήγηση στη κατάσταση της χώρας και το μέλλον της. Κάθε ιστορία τροφοδοτεί διαφορετικά συναισθήματα, συμπεριλαμβανομένου του φόβου και της οργής, της ντροπής και του φθόνου, της περιφρόνηση, της απελπισίας και, προ πάντων, του άγχους. Μια βαθειά σύγχυση βασιλεύει ακόμη και μεταξύ εκείνων που υποστηρίζουν ότι ξέρουν τι συμβαίνει, είτε επειδή έχουν ανακαλύψει τον αληθινό ένοχο είτε επειδή καταλαβαίνουν τις αόρατες οικονομικές δυνάμεις, ή τις βουλήσεις των Θεών που κυβερνούν τα γεγονότα στο έδαφος. Αυτό που έχουμε τώρα στην Ελλάδα είναι μία χαώδης εξιστόρηση, μία αφήγηση που δεν περιγράφει απλά μία χαώδη κατάσταση αλλά που είναι χαώδης στην ίδια της φύσης της. Είναι μια αφήγηση σε πόλεμο με τον ίδιο τον εαυτό της, με τις διαφορετικές πλοκές που η μία καταβροχθίζει την άλλη. Τέτοιες αφηγήσεις χάους προκύπτουν όταν άτομα, ομάδες ή και κοινωνίες έρχονται αντιμέτωποι με ξαφνικές καταστροφές που εξαντλούν τις ικανότητες τους να βρούνε κάποιο νόημα στα γεγονότα και τις δυνάμεις που τους απειλούν.
Άτομα που χτυπιούνται απροσδόκητα από μια ανίατη αρρώστια, ομάδες που εκτίθενται ξαφνικά σε οικονομική καταστροφή, έθνη ή οργανώσεις που εγκαταλείπονται ή προδίδονται ξαφνικά από τους ηγέτες τους, συχνά βρίσκονται ανίκανοι να αρθρώσουν την εμπειρία τους και βασανίζονται από συναισθήματα χάους. Μπορούμε λοιπόν να φανταστούμε τους γηγενείς λαούς της Αμερικής που ερημώθηκαν από την ευρωπαϊκή κατάκτηση να υποφέρουν από μία παρόμοια εμπειρία συνολικής απώλειας και ακατανοησίας. Ετσι και εμείς οι Έλληνες, λαός που γνώρισε πολέμους, κατοχές, δικτατορίες, πτωχεύσεις, σεισμούς και πλημμύρες, βρισκόμαστε σήμερα σε μια κατάσταση εντελώς διαφορετική από όλες τις προηγούμενες καταστροφές, αντιμέτωποι με μια συνολική εμπειρία κατάρρευσης και χάους. Καμία περασμενη κληρονομιά δεν μας έχει προετοιμάσει για αυτό, καμία προηγούμενη σελίδα της ιστορίας μας με ένα ευτυχές τέλος δεν μπορεί να μας φέρει ελπίδα και φως. Από τη σημερινή κατάσταση μας φαίνεται αδύνατο να βρούμε κάποια διέξοδο ή κάποια λύση. Η αναζήτηση αποδιοπομπαίων τράγων είναι ένα από τα πρώτα συμπτώματα της εμπειρίας του χάους. Ο Οιδίπους γύρίσε ενάντια στον Τειρεσεία. Οι κάτοικοι της νήσου του Πάσχα, όταν βρέθηκαν αντιμέτωποι με την οικολογική καταστροφή που οι ίδιοι προκάλεσαν στο απομωνομένο νησί τους, προσπάθησαν αρχικά να εξιλεώσουν τους Θεούς τους στήνοντας τεράστια πέτρηνα αγάλματα (moai). Αργότερα όμως, οταν είδαν οτι η σωτηρία δεν ερχόταν, ανέτρεψαν τα αγάλματα αποδίδοντας στους Θεούς την ευθήνη για τα δεινά τους. Άν η αρχαία τραγωδία μας διδάσκει ένα και μόνο πράγμα είναι ότι οι προσπάθειες να απομακρύνουν το μίασμα για να καθαρίσουν την πόλη ή την κοινωνία (π.χ. με θυσίες και υποσχέσεις) ενισχύουν το μίασμα και επιταχύνουν την τελική καταστροφή. Φοβάμαι ότι η τρέχουσα απελπισμένη αναζήτηση των αποδιοπομπαίων τράγων για τα δεινά της χώρας θα έχει την ίδια έκβαση.
Τι λοιπον μπορούμε να πούμε για το μέλλον; Εάν η σημερινή κατάσταση προσεγγίζεται πράγματι ως αρχαία τραγωδία, τα παλαιά κείμενα μας λένε οτι όταν οι πρωταγωνιστές πιστέψουν ότι έχουν φθάσει στο πάτο, ανακαλύπτουν οτι υπαρχουν ακόμα χειρότερα δεινά στο μέλλον, ότι ένα αμυδρό φως της ελπίδας συχνά επιδεινώνει την τελική κατάρρευση. Οι αρχαίοι Έλληνες δεν ανακάλυψαν ποτέ απλές ή ενθαρρυντικές λύσεις σε αυτό που είδαν με απόλυτη σαφήνεια ως την τραγική μοίρα των ανθρώπων. Άν είχαν βρή τέτοια λύση, ίσως να είχαν αποτρέψει τις διάφορες καταστροφές που επέφεραν το τέλος της αίγλης τους. Αναγνώρισαν εντούτοις κατι σημαντικό: ότι το χάος μπορεί μόνο του και για δικούς του λόγους να οδηγήση σε νέες μορφές ζωής, δημιουργικότητας, γνώσης και, τελικά, τάξης. Εάν οι σημερινοί απόγονοι τους μπορέσουν, με ή χωρίς τη βοήθεια των Ευρωπαίων φίλων τους, να ανακαλύψουν μία νέα αφήγηση αποκατάστασης, θεράπευσης και ανανέωσης μόνο το μέλλον θα δείξει.