Character

Moral courage, depth, resourcefulness—being capable of originality and surprise, not being easily destroyed by criticism or failure. In the authoritarian state, character in this sense is a nuisance, unpredictable and hard to seduce with cant; the state’s task is therefore depersonalisation, making people mild, dependent, programmable with imposed and universal principles. In the Lean Economy, by contrast, character will be built, by slow prudence, to make a mild people rugged.C64

The idea of character is out of phase with a depersonalising culture that places its confidence in process, technologies, regulations, rights and the unchallenged guidance of economics. But it is central. A clue to it comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay “Politics”. He is arguing in favour of small (lean) government—and then comes this:

Hence the less of government we have the better, the fewer laws, and the less confided power. The antidote to this abuse of [the powers of] formal Government is the influence of private character, the growth of the Individual; the appearance of the principal to supersede the proxy; the appearance of the wise man; of whom the existing government is, it must be owned, but a shabby imitation.

. . . followed by one of the most remarkable statements in the literature:

The appearance of character makes the State unnecessary.C65

The same word shows up in Tony Gibson’s study of people joining together to take control of their own neighbourhoods, using “sweat equity”, renovating and caring for the houses they want in the way they want them:

What counts is the borrower’s potential—the personal ability to make the most of a promising situation—and behind that, what can best be called character, the quality which sustains the enterprise in spite of setbacks. This staying-power means that the community will still be around whilst the neighbourhood takes shape and grows.C66

And in different words, Max Gammon, the doctor who reviewed the impact of the National Health Service in 1976, and revisited the subject thirty years later, notes:

By definition, nonbureaucratic systems are “voluntary” systems. Their working depends on a mixture of knowledge and wisdom, i.e., soundness of personal judgment.C67

Although character is not the same thing as leadership, the two ideas have much in common, leading into, and reinforcing, each other. Qualities of character imply qualities of leadership. Here are seven of those qualities noted by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan in their study of “unreasonable people”, and the leadership they bring:C68

1. Enthusiasm. There is an intense desire, a yearning, for a particular aim—not an ideology, but engagement with a place, person, pragmatic idea. The enthusiast expresses inspiration, in a clean uncluttered way, without feeling it necessary to bring along a lot of other baggage at the same time.

There is intention—and this gives relevance to events and circumstances which would otherwise have none. Someone comes along and asks if she can build a boat in your church hall: a what? But, come to think of it, this is exactly what you need at that moment. It would not have occurred to you, but when luck drops by, you recognise it. Your intention turns an anomaly —a ripple of random noise—into a godsend.C69

2. Local knowledge. When you see things from outside, you will miss the detail, so you have to stereotype. From inside, you can accurately observe. And when you are inside with enthusiasm, you can feel the detail.

3. Mind. The intelligence available in the community is its central asset, and it is applied when it has something to focus on. The leadership’s enthusiasm wakes the community’s mind to options it had not been aware of.

4. Visibility. The leader-character as a person is visible (i.e., seen around) . . .

5. Flexibility. . . . and is able to be flexible, to respond quickly to opportunity; he or she is open to information and ideas which, if listened to and understood, may require a change of mind.

6. Affection. Character is not embarrassed by affection. It does not see why professional standards should insist on emotional paralysis. There is affection for the project, the place and the people in it. The indifference—the impersonal procedures and hate that spread through a managed bureaucracy—does not happen. The subjective and emotional are not embarrassments: they are critical assets.

7. Irrationality. Creative projects are irrational in that at the time of conception their implications are unknown, and those that are known may look absurd or impossible.

Here are some examples of these at work:

• Bunker Roy’s Barefoot College in Rajasthan, founded in 1972, has taken generations of people without formal education, living on less than $1 a day, and trained them as solar engineers, water engineers, IT specialists, teachers and architects. The College, preferring to train women students (men tend to use their certificates to get jobs in towns), has transformed the quality of life of rural communities in India and around the world. These are communities and people without the financial resources for the purchase of plant and expertise —a market invisible to any assessment of the economic opportunity. By rational business standards—since it is advisable to make sure that you are working in a market which has some money—this is not a promising idea, and for Roy himself, his decision as a young man to leave behind his glittering opportunities in the Indian diplomatic service was perverse. Only by the standards of his insight about the latent talent of the rural poor was this a rational thing to do.C70

• The inspiration of Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank—which began as a research project in 1976—providing small-scale credit to the urban poor, and applying the principle of “group credit” to bring peer pressure to the commitment to repay loans, along with very small-scale deposits. This, too, was irrational, or seemed to be, not least because it looks for a return on its investment expressed in terms other than money: in benefits to people and the planet.C71

• A third instance of the power of unreasonable people is Andrew Mawson’s sustained commitment to Bromley by Bow, a district in east London with little evident potential. The Centre that has grown up there following his inspiration and character has brought more than jobs and a degree of wealth and confidence: it has empowered the place.C72

A project which is securely rational after the event may well be irrational before it: it can’t be done until it is done. Leadership of this kind is a form of do-it-yourself (DIY)—like Mrs. Beeton’s reputed recipe, “First, catch your rabbit”, it starts at the very beginning: First, invent your logic.C73

Is there a risk of excessive focus on the leader? Probably—but there is a greater risk in suppressing that talent. People with the ability and imagination of Bunker Roy, Muhammad Yunus, Andrew Mawson, Rick Aubry (the Rubicon Programs of housing for the homeless), and Cristóbal Colón (the La Fageda company with its workforce of the mentally ill), are assets which no organisation can afford to lose. The good ones have no particular desire to be seen as heroes or for power and permanence; as John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan write,

Any group of entrepreneurs, business or otherwise, will have its share of egomaniacs, but the social entrepreneurs we have met and worked with to date seem strongly skewed to the good-fun-to-be-around end of the spectrum. . . . Indeed, one of their most striking characteristics is their ready admission that the challenges they relish are way beyond any single entrepreneur or enterprise. . . . [They] have a great deal to offer and teach the rest of us.C74

And then there is the flexibility that comes when character and motivation survive in an organisation with a lean freedom from heavy regulatory control. Mawson demonstrated this when he went along with the passionate enthusiasm of Billy, an unemployed builder, about his idea of landscaping the park round the centre. Billy proved himself to be one of the best garden designers in the country, transforming the Centre. And Margy set up the pottery business there on the strength of seeing an advertisement, kiln wanted. These were not committee decisions. There is a risk of error in such an approach, and developing a community centre in an urban borough is not the same as building a whole Transition community, but an informal organisation has the flexibility and individual engagement needed to bring on the potential and character of the people in the organisation or community. There is a sense here of “leader” and “servant” fusing into a single role—the ancient idea of the “servant leader” found in Lao Tzu’s treatise on leadership (c.600 BC), in the Gospels, and in the literature of our own time.C75

When in due course more formal organisation is needed, there is a range of options, and they include, of course, the elected committee with defined areas of responsibility for some or all of its members. But the principle, as summarised by Mawson, remains: “People before structures.” And the responsibility, insight and enthusiasm of individuals—which create the local leadership, build cooperation and make things happen—are in direct opposition to a culture whose values are defined in terms of rights. Mawson recommends,

Give more personal responsibility and hold individuals to account for what they do. This is difficult in a culture that has chosen to go down the legislative route of human rights. The litigiousness which results from it breaks down relationships and severs the bonds of trust that make any community possible. It will, I believe, bring with it a terrible price and fracture for some of Britain’s poorest communities.C76

In the long run, it is likely that natural leadership will emerge for aspects of community life. In seventeenth century England, writes Peter Laslett,

. . . the plain Richard Hodgsons, Robert Boswells, Humphrey Eltons and John Burtons of the English villages, the labourers and husbandmen, the tailors, millers, drovers, watermen, masons, could become constables, parish clerks, churchwardens, ale-conners, even overseers of the poor.C77

Communities of the past hung on to their talent. The assumption that it should be captured and carried off to urban centres in the name of social mobility —leaving the locality as the embodiment of serve-you-right failure—will not persist in a culture in which the action that matters is local.

 

Related entries:

Assent, Calibration, Constructivism, Cowardice, Frankness, Fortitude.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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