A Tale of Two Cities: Listening to the System

Back in 2003, Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York, was asked in an FT interview ‘So what’s your legacy?’. He replied, ‘To have changed the spirit of this city’. Mayor Giuliani did not say ‘To have changed the culture of this city’ or ‘To have reorganised this city’ or ‘To have changed the values of this city’. He said ‘To have changed the spirit of this city’. What does it mean to change the spirit of a city? What does it mean to change the spirit of an organisation? Only by entering into the mysterious world of systems thinking, the ‘S’ of the FACTS coaching model, can we make sense of these statements.

An organisation, a city, a place is a living system. When I stepped off the plane in New Orleans for the Vistage International conference two weeks ago I started to listen to the system that is New Orleans. What sort of a place is this? I got a clue when I asked the concierge at the hotel for help with organising a bike tour. He produced a brochure for a Segway tour and I remarked I was looking for a bike tour not a Segway tour.’ I know what a bike is’ was the curt reply followed up with the words ‘you stick to your job and I’ll stick to mine, ok?’  An isolated incident or an early warning sign as to the system that rules New Orleans? Over the next four days, there was a 25-strong street brawl outside the hotel at 4am in the morning, four fatal shootings and a homeless guy knocked down dead outside the hotel by a passing car. The system that is New Orleans screamed at me from every street corner. A dark place. An edgy place. I started to feel the spirit of the city.

On my way back from New Orleans to the UK I met my wife in New York. Again, I listened to the system. What sort of a place is this? Switching the systems antennae on, I scanned the environment and I sensed a different governing spirit. The hotel concierges went out of their way to anticipate our questions and concerns. The 9/11 memorial museum is a place that exudes respect, care and dignity. The service in the restaurants was fully deserving of the expected 20% tip. No street brawls. No drug pushers. No over-your-shoulder glances. Yet I hear from my colleagues and friends that this was not always the case. Thirty years ago Central Park was a ‘no-go’ zone,  unsolicited drugs were pushed into your hand, you had to run from A to B to avoid getting mugged, prostitutes splayed themselves across police car bonnets. New York in the eighties was under a different governing spirit.

rudy guiliani

Therefore, it seems Rudy Giuliani (pictured above) merits his intriguing legacy. He changed the spirit of a city. And for business leaders and coaches it ought to make us think about the spirit of our organisations. Do we live in the corporate equivalent of New Orleans or do we live in 21st century New York? How would your staff describe the spirit of the places in which they work? And if you want to change the spirit of a place, how is that challenge different from changing the culture or changing the values or changing the leadership style? Do you even believe that a city or an organisation has a ruling spirit? How would it change your approach if you assumed this were the case?

In the systems thinking chapter of Challenging Coaching we talk of ‘giving the system a voice’ and ‘sensitive listening’ as being core skills for mastering a systemic perspective to coaching and leadership. Yet to do this we have to go beyond what we can rationally prove to be true. For we cannot prove that a city or an organisation has a spirit. We have to rely upon our intuition. We have to imagine that the ‘system is a living entity with a will and a purpose and resources and power’ (p.164). Only when we first make that leap of faith can we then use the system as a resource in our work. As a Christian, it has become natural for me to think this way, though I respect that not everyone sees the world through such a lens.  As a visitor to New York I was grateful that Rudy Giuliani believed in the spirit of that city, engaged it fearlessly and found a way to release its grip.

So how did he do this? The clue lies in another of his memorable quotes – ‘ With the spirit of my administration, New York City is poised for dramatic change. The era of fear has had a long enough reign’. He didn’t say ‘With the intellect of my administration..’ or ‘With the heart of my administration..’. He said ‘With the spirit of my administration…’. It is only spirit that can engage spirit. And once we recognise that a city can have a spirit then it follows that we must have one too!

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