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Starting to Share the Next Set of Natural Laws

#13: “It’s all out of control!”


About 25 years ago my partner Paul started talking about the idea of Natural Laws of Business; laws that—like gravity—were simply true. All thriving businesses, he suggested, were living in harmony with those Natural Laws. About a decade later I took Paul’s concept and fleshed it out further in Part 1Secret #1: “The Twelve Natural Laws of Business.” We’ve been teaching the Natural Laws regularly for over 15 years now. I’ve spoken about them from the stage thousands of times and we’ve used them internally to help guide our work over the years.

Unlike legal codes, Natural Laws are not reversible. They can be seen at work in organizations of all sizes and shapes—for profits, not for profits, in Indiana or India. They play out in basketball and in business. They honor human nature and they also give any of us who want to work in harmony with nature a good framework with which to help make our plans and decisions—both with humanity and on the planet at large. When we honor them, good things happen; when we violate them, we exhaust ourselves. As Paul Goodman wrote, “Those who draw on natural powers find it easy to be inventive,” while those who don’t, “live every minute of their lives without the power, joy, and freedom of nature.” The results we get when we are not working in harmony with them may sometimes seem like “success” in the short term, but only in the same way that over-extracting natural resources from the earth or plowing up large tracts of land to plant thousands of acres of commercial corn look like they’re “working well.” As Masanobu Fukuoka writes, “If we throw mother nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork.”

Some of the Natural Laws—like #1 about visioning, #5 about giving great service to the staff, or #6 which talks about the importance of training—encourage us to take action. Others—like #9 about success meaning you get better problems, or #10 discussing how strengths lead to weaknesses—are less about initiating new projects and more about acceptance. By understanding that the latter are Natural Laws—i.e., they’re just true—we can stop fighting against nature and go with the flow. Which reminds me to share this lovely little quote from Fritjof Capra’s compelling book The Systems Way of Thinking to sum up beautifully how Natural Laws play out—while the principles are universal, the actual application would always be local. As Capra explains, “The water’s downward movement is determined by the law of gravity, but the irregular terrain with its rocks and crevices determines its actual pathway.”

For quite a while now, I’ve been realizing that there are additional Natural Laws of Business that I had not quite worked out back when I wrote the original essay. Many of you have heard me reference them, but this is the first time I’m putting any of them into print. I don’t know how they’re going to go over, but in the spirit of the anarchist belief that the means we use need to be congruent with the ends we want to achieve, it only makes sense that I push myself to put this particular Natural Law out in the world well before I “have it all figured out.” Ready?

Natural Law #13: Everything is out of control; all we have are varying degrees of influence.

While this has become clear to me over the years, most of the modern world tells us the opposite—“control” is a near constant drumbeat of business. Even folks who coach constructively on more mindful forms of self-management still regularly suggest we focus on the “things we can control” while (appropriately) “letting go” of what we can’t. While I suppose that’s better by half, it’s still missing the point. Here’s a bit of what I wrote in Part 2 about accepting that it’s all out of control:

Think about frequently used phrases like “span of control,” “cost controls,” and “quality control.” Management meetings are peppered with people saying things like, “We have to get that situation under control.” In bigger companies, they even have a job that’s called “the controller.” You’ve probably heard the word control used a hundred times in the last week alone. But the frequent use of the word only exacerbates the issue. Although it is hard to accept, the truth is it’s all out of control. I prove the point every time I teach leadership, simply by asking the class: “Who here has been in a situation where you knew you shouldn’t do something, but you went ahead and did it anyway? And then instantaneously regretted the action?” I wait fifteen seconds for almost everyone in the room to raise their hand, and the point is made. If we can’t even control ourselves, how much control could we possibly have over other people and outside events? In truth, all we have are varying degrees of influence over outcomes.

If we all admit that we can’t fully control ourselves, how then would we possibly control our purveyors, customers, or co-workers? What about the weather or the latest crisis on the other side of the planet? How about the price of wheat or the search for world peace? The last year has certainly made proving the point a bit easier. It’s all out of control; all we have are varying degrees of influence.

I’m not sure exactly when or where all this became clear to me. One contributing factor, I know, was finding Peter Senge’s now classic book, published in 1990, The Fifth Discipline. Its main focus is on encouraging leaders to create learning organizations, but there is a lot more in the book that significantly shifted some of my beliefs. As Dr. Senge said, “Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life.” And, in the spirit of Natural Law #13, Senge said, “You cannot force commitment, what you can do… You nudge a little here, inspire a little there, and provide a role model. Your primary influence is the environment you create.”

One of the many things in the book that caught my attention was a story in which Senge talked about roller skates. It’s a section with title that tells this whole story—“The Illusion Of ‘Being in Control’”:

Beyond money, beyond fame, what drives most executives of traditional organizations is power, the desire to be in control. Most would rather give up anything than control.

Imagine that you have two roller skates, attached to one another by a spring. You use the first roller skate to control the motion of the second. It’s a bit tricky, but doable. Now, add a third roller skate, attached with another spring—and, moreover, give that new spring a different “spring constant” (i.e., make it either easier or more difficult to extend than the first spring). Now, try to control the third roller skate by moving only the first. It’s much trickier. Keep adding roller skates, each attached by springs with different spring constants. It doesn’t take long to give up any hope of controlling the roller skate at the far end of the line.

When I read that paragraph it immediately resonated. I realized why I was having so much trouble getting things to happen as I’d seen them so clearly in my head. When I grew frustrated I started to just imagine trying to shift the fifth roller skate in Senge’s story and really, all I could do was smile. It didn’t fix the problem, but it did reduce my stress and helped me focus on new, more effective, ways to influence the outcomes.

The second influence on my thinking was internal. I’d grown up with these same commonly held beliefs about needing to control myself, that good managers should be able to control situations, and to be able to “control my emotions.” As the roller skate scenario shows, that concept is kind of crazy. It didn’t work for me at home, at the Deli, or anywhere else I went. Therapy helped. I began to learn to own my choices, and to understand that others were going to make theirs. That strange and wonderful and also stressful things would happen in the world that I couldn’t stop from happening became painfully, clearer and clearer to me. Part of that work on self-study led me to more and more books by people like Thich Nhat Han, Brené Brown, Sam Keen, John Bradshaw, and Ram Dass. It’s all, I was starting to understand, out of control. Instead of trying to clamp down harder to gain control, what I needed to do was figure out how to manage myself more meaningfully; to make peace with the world and myself as part of it.

It became clear to me that trying to control the uncontrollable inevitably leads to break down. While it can work for a while, it’s not sustainable. The belief that we can and should exert control, leads to authoritarianism. In the workplace it looks like “command and control,” closed meetings, a wide range of rules, and centrally mandated consequences. As Robert Greenleaf writes, “The prevalence of the lone chief places a burden on the whole society because it gives control, priority over leadership. It sets before the young an unwholesome struggle to get to the top.” On the land it looks like mono cropping and pesticides. In our heads, it appears as harsh self-criticism. Over time, authoritarianism provokes anger, antipathy and apathy. At the mild end of the spectrum, it leads to what Rollo May called “passivism;” in more extreme situations it leads eventually and inevitably, towards violence. It might be emotional, intellectual or physical; it might be directed at ourselves or at others. But it’s never good.

Making peace with the reality that it’s all out of control, that we have only varying degrees of influence, is a prerequisite for making peace with ourselves. And with others. Because, as the Dalai Lama said, “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”

What would accepting this Natural Law mean in everyday life? A good place to start might be the way we speak. Poet Sandra Gustin writes:

I think how

language is fragile, how a breath

could leave a sentence and not return,

In the same way that letting go of the phrases “I have to,” “I should,” and “I can’t” helped me reclaim the internal freedom I had unwittingly surrendered, leaving behind the word “control” could be big. Since the way we speak is tied, inextricably, to the way we think, and the way we think is tied to what we do (see Secret #38 for more on this), then we would benefit greatly from shifting what we say. As Daniel Berrigan and Thich Nhat Hanh stress in The Raft Is Not the Shore, “The bridge of illusion must be destroyed before a real bridge can be constructed.” A new approach might look/sound something like:

Old wayNew way
“We need to get that situation under control.”
“How can we influence the situation to get better outcomes?”
“He’s out of control! What should we do about it?”
“He’s not doing a great job of managing himself. How can we help him?”
“The leader has lost control.”
“The leader’s behaviors aren’t working effectively. What can we do differently?”
“I need to get my emotions under control.”
“I’m working to understand and manage my emotions more respectfully and effectively.”

Even writing these sentences out puts my mind at ease and leads me towards more mindful living. I encourage you to find options that feel, and sound, right for you. The intent is to do what Susan Sontag once said: “The ideal or the dream [is] to arrive at a language that heals as much as it separates.”

Accepting that all we have to work with are varying degrees of ever imperfect influence in our worlds leads us towards any number of positive outcomes. It’s rooted, appropriately, in humbleness. It can help us understand that we’re all interconnected, that life is precious, and that living mindfully in the present is really the most we can do. It leads us to notice the small things; and to pause—even for a second or six—in awe and appreciation for what is happening around us. Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is the willingness to show up and be seen when you can’t control the outcome.” When we’re able to do that I believe we are then well positioned to move forward more positively towards the sort of loving and lovely organizational ecosystems I’ve been writing about and that we’ve described in our 2032 Vision. If we stay stuck in the old belief that we can and should have control, we will lose out on love. The two are wholly incompatible. As bell hooks writes, “Genuine love requires a recognition of the autonomy of ourselves and the other person.”

This morning I read a touching, inspiring note from a manager to his team. It was real, it was honest, and he made himself vulnerable. He talked about how—both for better and for worse—he had gotten to where he is today, and about what he was going to work on improving. It was awesome. The note included no commands. Only honesty, high hopes, humility, care, and connection. Twenty minutes after he sent it, a member of his team responded with an equally inspiring note of support. Both brought tears to my eyes. I don’t know how others to whom he sent it will respond. He—and they—will collectively continue to move forward, ever imperfectly, out of control, but with ever greater degrees of inspirational influence. By accepting the limited nature of our influence, by accepting that human beings and the planet will never really sustainably “follow orders,” by focusing instead on things like appreciative inquiry, visioning, living in harmony with the Natural Laws of Business, we have a chance, as James Hillman writes in Kinds of Power, to “try less for control and actually gain more power.”

As we shift our approach, accepting that “control” is only an illusion and that we can gently shift our efforts to creative and caring influence, we can access the beauty in ourselves, in each other, and in the world around us. While we don’t have control, we do have a lot to learn and much to say. And do. Positive influence, we know, can inspire. As John O’Donohue offers, “If you send out goodness from yourself, or if you share that which is happy or good within you, it will all come back to you multiplied ten thousand times. In the kingdom of love there is no competition; there is no possessiveness or control. The more love you give away, the more love you will have.”

The original Natural Laws of Business essay is Secret #1 in Part 1, A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business. We also have it available as a pamphlet, or a PDF.

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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