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Sixth Century Wisdom for 21st Century Changemasters
By Eileen McDargh   Printer Friendly Version

Despite a strong U.S. economy, unsettled change continues to bombard us. Mega-mergers boggle the mind with the endless zeros streaming behind a behemoth's financial size. We gasp at the number of employees cast off from a consolidated giant. We see plant closures and layoffs in everything from clothing manufacturing to banking. Overnight web companies turn almost under-age youth into millionaires and executives at age 40 are left scratching their heads or unemployed. Technology shifts overnight. Medical research makes DNA a poster child for both dreams and nightmares. There's so much, so fast.

Despite statistics that put this as the lowest employment rate in decades, there's pain and inaccuracy behind these cold numbers. And in all of this, we're working more but feeling as if we're earning less. There's too much to do and too little time.

The cry echoed across business publications, employee surveys, human resource conferences, and on-line chat rooms is this: help us with chaos and balance! Within a 48-hour period, the headlines of the Los Angeles Times business section, a cover story in the latest issue of Fast Company, and the lead article from Fortune all proclaimed the same thing: workers want help with turbulent change and work/life balance.

In the January 11, 1999 edition FORTUNE, you'll uncover an array of work/life balance practices found in the top 100 companies to work for in America. Rather than give a category of these practices, this article offers some thoughts on how to deal with the second, and equally challenging issue: how to deal with the chaos of unending change.

Surprisingly, history can often provide invaluable lessons and solutions to today's challenges. In the sixth-century, the Rule of Saint Benedict asked monks to take vows of stability, conversatio, and obedience.

Stability emphasized the need to work for the good of the community. Hence, all actions taken were in the context of "will this be of assistance to all rather than just a few?" Certainly this wisdom must be at the center of the top-ranked place to work in America Synovus Financial, whose employees say it has " a culture of the heart." Obedience meant that once the monastery had made a decision (after a practice of hearing from the many members of the community), the monks followed. Independent thinking in business is good to a point, but the team has to always move and take action in the same direction.

Of even more significance is the ancient word conversatio, a term that is difficult to translate. Conversatio connotes a commitment to live faithfully in unsettled times and to keep one's life open. Such a paradox: remain settled; stay open to change! For the monks of the Middle Ages, living faithfully meant listening to an inner voice and responding to the call.

For those of us in the 21st century business world, living faithfully also means listening and responding. Here's what we need to listen to: the stories we tell and those around us tell, regarding an organization's consistent adherence to values shown by actions that match core beliefs. If there are no stories, there will be trouble. It means listening with empathy and responsiveness to the needs of others within the organization as well as to your own 'inner voice.' How well do you practice conversatio?

At a time when we hear terms like "spirit" and "soul" more and more frequently in the workplace, the wisdom of a sixth century monk might help us all deal with the realities of this demanding world.


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