Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Wabi-Sabi Leader - A First Foray

When I set out to write this blog I was motivated in part to explore the subject of wabi-sabi for the sake of expanding my own grasp of the concept and determine ways that I could apply it.  There is little actually written about it in English (compared to Japanese) and there may even be a dearth of materials on the subject compared to other components of the arts and aesthetics in Japan. One thing that may undermine the impulse among Japanese writers may be the simple self-evidence of the aesthetic and the relative comfort with which Japan and perhaps other Eastern cultures accept change, imperfection and decay.

From a creative perspective, it has been easy to integrate aspects of wabi-sabi into my work, especially as a photographer. It has, in particular, clearly influenced my approach to subject and there is a desire on my part to elevate and bring attention to subjects which are in decay or heed change as it occurs to them - be they leaves, buildings, or driftwood, to name but a few things.

Beyond that realm, my writing on this blog has brought me to the cusp of a discussion of leadership or management and I have hovered around the subjects of authenticity, artisanal attentiveness, agility, holistic approaches, interpersonal connection, mindfulness and sincere integrated work at a task. The risk of adopting too-sentimental an approach to leadership or business has kept me from staking out too-tenuous a limb in asserting that there is a need for an approach to leadership that is influenced by wabi-sabi theory.

There is the simple point, however, of acknowledging that change is inevitable -- in an organization as much as in a man-made object or our natural surroundings.  From a wabi-sabi perspective, the response to change would begin with recognition and acceptance. Recognition of change or decay would, for instance, motivate a more proactive approach to addressing these as they occur.  The approach would also prompt a more holistic response to change and a tolerance for a lack of resolution.  These would be a significant contrast to a more technocratic approach, which in contrast may be too optimistic about technology's capacity as a panacea to fend off change of decay indefinitely.

To take the wabi-sabi and technocratic paradigms a step further, a wabi-sabi approach to leadership would be more people-oriented while a technocratic approach would be more oriented to process and technological solutions. If we were going to acknowledge that change is inevitable, then we have to consider which direction to take when addressing change or trying to influence or control an inevitable decline or change.

A technocratic approach, with an orientation toward or emphasis on process, would look to control the errors in a process to reduce or even eliminate the decay that occurs. This could consist of maintenance or replacement of machinery in a blue collar or assembly line setting, but there is still the temptation to adopt and implement an industrial theory of some sort to maximize the efficiency of a group of workers whether they are in a blue-collar or white collar setting. Like fad diets, new management approaches and techniques are rolled out as a means of maximizing individual performance and there are metrics that would guide the measurement of performance and the responses that could be made when decay and decline threaten to dent productivity numbers.

There is the likelihood that the management model itself goes into decay and the human factor in the organization, being overlooked in the pursuit of some efficiency, proves to be too random or eccentric to fit a machine model of productivity. In short, the efforts to stamp out such the (admittedly) error-creating randomness that will occur when employees become disengaged, or lax in their approach to work may actually exacerbate a decline in productivity - unless the work is designed to regard the employee as a depreciating input that would be replaced as other capital inputs would be.  Turnover is calculated in advance and employees are replaced quickly because of an available formula prompts easy anticipation of depreciation and/or departure.

Such a technocratic model is not talked about as much of late. There are more and more cases of efforts being made to engage employees and to be proactive in response to the changes that would occur in employee-employer relations, especially in smaller organizations.  Instead of striving for quality assurance processes to ensure that work is standardized and rationalized, a more personal, authentic approach to leadership would show a tolerance for individual approaches to work that would enhance autonomy among employees and heighten engagement to a level that improves retention and kindles a spark of creativity and commitment among employees. A scan of the distinctions between wabi-sabi and modern, more technological approaches to [management] would cite the characteristics of reflective thinking, humility, mindfulness, flexibility and listening as qualities that a leader could integrate into a wabi-sabi approach to leadership and management.

The distinction between a wabi-sabi approach and a modern, technological approach raises the question about whether the preference is to control processes for the sake of minimizing the exposure to risk from errors or variation or to influence the relationship with the employees and team to engage them and encourage them to work in a way that activates the creativity and passion that they can and want to bring to their work. Neither model is ideal, but a wabi-sabi approach, in my opinion, is one that can be refined and adapted to respond to the changes that will occur to a team, rather than lower the bar to control processes under the glimmering facade of a more rigid management theory. Ultimately, it is a matter of what a leader or manager aspires to influence.