The most difficult place to be is in the shoes of another.
The next most difficult place to be is to ask another stand in your shoes.
Legend has it that when Alexander the Great asked the defeated King Porous how he should be treated, he responded as a king must treat another king. But then, a king does know how the king must be treated.
The purposes of its participants in most systems that we have designed, our friendships, our family, our classrooms, our companionships our employment systems, our clubs, our markets, our banking systems, are sadly different. The different participants are, therefore, driven to act by different events, or by the same events in different ways. Consequently, the different participants experience the system very differently from each other. The system as they experience is a different place from the experiences of each of the others in the same system.
In systems jargon some have been describing this as the participating actors having a different skin-in-the-game.
This makes standing in the shoes of another the most difficult thing one may do, if at all. Many of us who mentor for leadership use swapped role plays in systems leadership workshops to allow the participants from a system to take turns to stand in the shoes of another.
Swapped role play is a kind of satyagraha. It provokes response to the experiences of another. It not only exposes the participants to the purposes of another, but also to the actions driven by the experiences of the system by another. Importantly it allows the participants to examine their idea of justice, dignity, liberty, and equality in a system that may have very different perceptions of these from their shoes.
In most leaders it provokes a response of recognizing the asymmetry of the skin-in-the-game in the systems we have designed. In extraordinary leaders it invokes the courage to not just respond in the opposite of what they normally did, but even to alter their purpose for participation such that it does not violate justice, dignity, liberty or equality of the other participants. Some extraordinary leaders even use the experience to find common purposes or a very reciprocal interdependence that ensures the experiences tilt in the same direction and with similar intensities for all participants at the same time.
In her Nobel Acceptance speech Mother Tressa pointed out “When I pick up a person from the street, hungry, I give him a plate of rice, a piece of bread, I have satisfied. I have removed that hunger. But a person that is shut out, that feels unwanted, unloved, terrified, the person that has been thrown out from society – that poverty is so hurtable [sic] and so much, and I find that very difficult”.
Unfortunately, many of the systems that we have designed do exactly what Mother Tressa describes. They shut out people. They not just exclude, they make them unwanted, unloved, and terrified. They treat people as untrustworthy. They humiliate, even punish the others in the system. They are irreverent of the system.
Sadly, many participating actors experience “successful” outcomes in some of the systems that they participate in as their accomplishments, grow larger egos, and even feel independent of the other participants in every system they participate in. They do not take feedback, let alone stand in the shoes of the other. This makes it even more difficult for the successful actors to even see, let alone understand the indignity or injustice they inflict in doing so.
In an extraordinary statement of awareness of systems, Pope Francis reminds us that “we all need each other, none of us is an island, an autonomous and independent “I,” separated from the other, and we can only build the future by standing together, including everyone.”
The absence of systems awareness, what the system is, who its participants are, why they interact, what their interdependencies are, makes it impossible to recognize the value of others, react with shame, or correct the system, when we harm them.
Life is an experiment of participating in different systems. Mahatma Gandhi’s experiments with life can be viewed as just that. Gandhi experimented with a willingness to interact with different people.
He experimented with the outcomes he chose to react to. He experimented with the way he chose to react. He even experimented with the purposes he and others would choose to participate in the systems. The focus on experimenting with life is yet another way of liberating oneself from the short term and focusing on the lifetime of the system or the Short Now.
Mahatma Gandhi used non-violent satyagraha of participating in systems he did not belong, to provoke response. To illustrate inequality, for example, he would take become the unequal, the oppressed, the downtrodden, or the one whose dignity had suffered a blow in any system, even where he was not part of the system. He made himself vulnerable like those whose causes he took up. His act of courage to do the opposite of what was expected was his way of insisting on recognizing the truth. His participation called out the absurdity, the mal design, the unfairness. His action, usually, reversed the inequality, even if for illustration.
By taking the tray from the servant and serving the members of the Indian National Congress tea, Gandhi put shocked the members and questioned their action on equality. He not only stepped into the shoes of another, he made the others in the system step into the shoes of the other through him.
The pandemic has amplified the indignities, injustice, inequalities and even the failure of liberty in most of our human systems. Did you experiment with your systems? Did your experiments with the systems you participate in result in protecting the dignity, justice, equality, and liberty of all the participating actors? Did your experiments celebrate the others in your system? Did your experiments celebrate your inter-dependence? Did your experiments ensure a symmetrical experience with similar intensity for all participants in your system?
Were you focused on the Short Now, the lifetime of your system, or were you trapped by the short term? Will your experiments leave behind a system that is just, treats its participating actors fairly, protects their dignity and ensures their liberty?
Are you one of those extraordinary systems leaders?
#All views expressed in this column are those of the author and/or individuals or institutions that may be quoted and Pune365 does not necessarily subscribe to the same.
He can be reached @AnupamSaraph