Statues as metaphors

Yesterday, in Richmond VA, I walked several times, to and from our hotel, past two statues – one the Reconciliation Statue, by sculptor Stephen Broadbent, part of the reconciliation project that emerged from apologies for slavery issued by officials in Liverpool, England, and Benin in West Africa.

The other, Thomas Crawford's statue in the Capitol's grounds of George Washington on horseback imperiously pointing a direction.

I'm not a great fan of tons of bronze cast into shapes and memorials but stuck in my memory are The Awakening (1980) which is a 100-foot statue of a giant embedded in the earth, struggling to free himself, located at National Harbor, Maryland, and Edith Cavell's statue in London's St Martin's Square that has words, Sacrifice, Humanity, Devotion, and Fortitude carved around the base.

During the evening these four statues seemed to collectively call up images of organization in my mind. I started to wonder if organizations could have a challenge around designing a sculpture that encapsulated their organization – not a branding logo, but a kind of bronze-cast description/metaphor of it.

I was mulling over the George Washington one – his imperious pointing finger annoyed me. I was reminded of Star Trek's Captain Picard and his phrase 'Make it So'. Both these are kind of typical leadership gestures of "follow me, I know best, oh and incidentally if we can't afford all the equipment for you, that I deserve as leader you'll be fine wading through mud and organizational chaos in pursuit of my dream for you. Further I don't have a clue how to implement my vision for you, but I'll leave all that to you and woe betide you if you fail."

Maybe this was unfair. I am not a George Washington scholar and was simply responding to the visual impact of the statue. I haven't seen many Star Trek episodes, and haven't read the Wess Roberts' book Star Trek: Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek: The Next Generation (and the Amazon reviews suggest it isn't worth reading anyway) but implied imperious leadership is not what gets an organization through the good and bad times: a point not lost on John Chambers, Cisco, who in his delightful 6 minute You Tube video clip Teamwork and Collaboration confides that he's 'a command and control guy', and struggles to be participative and collaborative in his new order of things.

The reconciliation statue really did appeal to me. Visually, it's very simple and dignified – just an outline of two people embracing with panels designed by schoolchildren around the hem of the couple, but it seems to imply respect, integrity, and people trusting in each other. It's very moving on the 'less is more' principle.

Organizationally it represents mutual support, the power of networks, a higher goal achieved for the benefit of all, and the acknowledgement and coming to terms with a legacy with the chance to move forward: a kind of inclusiveness based on mutual reliance, respect for what people can bring regardless of position in hierarchy, and sensitivity to each other's inheritances. Organizations that manage this are few and far between. (Nominations welcome).

The Edith Cavell statue I've written about before. The power of this statue is much less in the cast of Edith herself, but in the words carved in the pedestal. 'Fortitude, Sacrifice, Devotion, Humanity'. Worthy organizational values indeed. Maybe the 'devotion' doesn't play out well in a world where the average length of North American/European, CEO tenure is around 3 – 5 years, depending on whose figures you're looking at, and job mobility and 'transferable skills' are touted as success factors for today's workforce.

Indeed 'devotion' to an organization is one that in many cases has betrayed loyal workforce members (think Enron), but this could be because the other three values were not in place at all levels in the organization. I'd like to think that the four words could be applied fittingly to some organizations, perhaps leavened by the additional word implying 'fun' or 'great place to work'. Just the four suggest unremitting seriousness.

The Awakening is a wonderful sculpture and I was very sad when it was moved from one of my running routes where I saw it on a regular basis, to National Harbor – a place too far to run to, with difficult cycle routes, and impossible to get to on public transport. (I don't have a car). This statue typifies many of the organizations I work with. They are struggling to get out of the holes they have buried themselves in – by default or not paying attention, or numerous other reasons.

Suddenly they realize they are in deep difficulty and have to do something to extricate themselves if they are to survive. Recent weeks have shown several companies unable to do this – Borders being the latest. My suggestion? Miniature versions of the statue are cast in thousands, and given to all employees in large organizations to remind themselves of the need to stay continuously alert – a difficult call as everything needs to sleep at some point, but only for the healthy number of hours that rejuvenate rather than enervate.

With these for sculpted pieces in mind, and having just returned from seeing further sculptures at the Picasso exhibition I wonder what statue or sculpture is an organizational metaphor for you?