I received a thoughtful question through the anonymous link (above) in response to last week’s post about New Year’s resolutions  for institutions. The reader, after complimenting the post, said he (or she?) found that a culture as reflected in the resolutions was a hard one to sustain, even when people mean well, and even when they are aware of what needs to be done. And that—and this is a valuable thing in ethical awareness—he/she was guilty too. The question was, “how do we sustain that willingness, energy, and mindset?”
When I read this, I thought of something one of my ballet teachers said in a class once many years ago. She had just demonstrated an adagio combination for the center, then turned and said, “Very easy. But difficult to do.”
What that means in ballet is that what looks effortless (anyone who has been to the ballet knows what I mean) and may even be made up of very basic elements that you already know can be hard to pull off. It requires practice, practice, practice, for automaticity, grounded in reverence for the ideal. Discipline, control, even sacrifice. Focus—on the end point (literally). A center. Ear and body in perfect balance, working as one and moving, aware, through space, but with a model, and collaborative support—a partner, a corps in synch.
I think ballet is a good analogy for what it takes to build and sustain the organization one really wants. First, you have to know what your goal is—the ideal you’re striving for. That alone sounds simple, but it is actually hard work in and of itself to define that combination that will resonate. In organizational ethics, it is a choice-making process. Then you need to talk about it—all the time: that is your version of practice until a behavior becomes second nature. “Discourse ethics”—bringing issues into the open, discussing them, and continuing to talk about and refine thinking on them no matter how hard, is similar to the process of continual repetition and what is called correction in ballet.
But you don’t just repeat on your own. You have guidance, modeling, and encouragement toward the ideal. While the term correction in ballet sounds a little harsh, it is really a form of expert advising. It captures two important notions for our purpose: that you cannot be expected (nor expect yourself or your organization) to develop an organizational culture overnight; and the idea of steadily, and persistently in the face of conflict and failure, moving forward toward achieving that “center”—the place of balance and emotional detachment from self-concerns and self-consciousness—that allows you to act on your choices.
And you have collaborative support. Even the greatest dancers rely on other dancers who share their technique and their understanding of the goal, whether for partnering or complementary support. So in addition to finding an adviser whose only interest is in helping you advance your ability to create an ethical culture (and this is someone from outside), find—through talking—others within your organization who share what you want, and engage them. Keep the goal visible through constant dialogue, and build your corps. If you set the stage, they will come to you.
Creating an ethical culture is ultimately an act of leadership. It’s interesting that we use many of the same terms in discussing leadership and ballet—the need to find the center; the value of detachment; the focus on the long-term vision, which is always an ideal; the motivation toward change; the highly attuned ear and environmental awareness; the hardiness; the integrative capacity it requires. It’s often said in the organizational literature that it requires a centered person to lead organizational change. If we can achieve that as individuals, we can be to our organization not only a dancer, but a choreographer of great work of enduring value.