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On Frankness… …and Charisma

July 21, 2009

It’s a curious looking word, ‘Frank’. It looks a bit old fashioned, it gets played around with because of also being a name and it is connected, via Middle English from the Old French ‘Franc’ and the late Latin ‘Francus’, to that ancient European people – the Franks.

The most common dictionary connotations are with openness and with honesty. It then extends into outspokenness and (a word I will want to come back to) directness.

Even better, given my attraction to the word, ‘Frank’, it turns out to be derived from the Middle English for ‘free‘. The Franks must have been regarded as, in some way, the free people.

Perhaps the whole point of this blog is that I am endorsing ‘frankness’ – so I had better be pretty thorough in my groundwork. But that’s probably enough linguistic and historic set-up for now.

I’m advocating frankness in individuals, but I’m also particularly interested in how, why and whether organisations should pursue frankness. By organisation I mean everything from a loose association of individuals to a highly structured and organised corporation, institution or ‘party’.

So, starting with individuals, why should we avoid the Bull and ‘be frank’…?

In the case of individuals there are a couple of theories that I need to summarise for the sake of context – no doubt badly mauling them along the way. To be honest <muffled cheer>  I have to give credit to none other than Paul Mckenna for writing about these in terms I was able to understand, though I’m not sure whether they originate with him.

The first I shall call the three-layer self. This is the idea that we begin our lives in some kind of pure human state – all equal, all possessed of the same potential and, I can hear some saying, without sin. This remains our innermost layer.

As life goes on, particularly in the crystallising years of childhood, we acquire all sorts of doubts, fears, inferiorities, conditioned responses and generally bad stuff. This isn’t necessarily seriously disfunctionally bad, though it can be, but the point is that it somehow gets in the way of being our best selves and of being at ease.

In order to function, in order to prevent the bad stuff from seriously compromising our relationships and careers, in order to ‘manage’, we acquire a third layer – a veneer or varnish. This is the outward, polished, cultivated self that we use to interract with the social world. Most importantly it is the way we create a degree of consistency and continuity in spite of the contradictory bundle of modified fight and flight responses, and fragmented self images, that lie in the second layer. It is our edited story… our constructed identity.

According to my simplified version of this theory there are some key problems with this as a way of life. The first is that this veneer actually locks in the middle layer – making it much less accessible for us to sort out and defuse. It’s like painting a nice coat of hardy shiny gloss over rotten wood. In doing so, it buries the original self, the first layer, even deeper. The second problem is that it takes more and more energy and effort to sustain the veneer, to keep it consistent and coherent, because it has to some degree to be rationally calculated – it is, almost literally, self-conscious. We can also get stuck with it because it is what people see, so they reflect it back to us and it conditions how they respond to us. Those responses can shape us to a remarkable degree.

It’s a compelling theory – partly because it makes some sense and partly because it starts to offer up a recipe for action… that is, to remove the veneer in order to deal with the unconsciously and primitively acquired middle layer. If sounds easy, it’s because you are discounting the power of the acquired responses and discounting the emotional, sub-conscious and sensory level at which they operate. It’s a potentially difficult path. But, before you write it off as too daunting, there are a couple of very important compensations.

The first is that, if you are wondering what there is left for you to orientate and navigate from when you to give up on the veneer, the answer is that you still have that first layer – the original fundamental human self – to draw upon.

The second, if you are sceptical about what this inner self has to offer, is the theory of Charisma. That’s my second and final subject for today.

I’m not going to waste much time defining ‘charisma’, I’m sure volumes could and have been filled in doing so. I’ll keep it simple as the ability of an individual human being to attract, inspire, motivate and move others by simple force of their personality, bearing and demeanour. Vitally, at this point in proceedings, I make no  reference to arguments, theories, stories, policies or any other form of analysed ‘content’. We are talking about what people do as a result of how they are.

The good news, and I won’t leave this unexamined in future pieces, is that there’s a growing belief that such charisma stems from manifesting that inner unmediated self, from living in the first layer. It appears that, for whatever reason, we recognise, and respond to, this immediacy at a fundamental level. Charismatic people are ‘just being themselves’, they are comfortable with themselves, they don’t waste energy on veneer and they either haven’t acquired or have managed to shed, the middle layer. So it would seem that if you take the trouble and the risk to take down the veneer and start working on the accumulated messy reflexes below you are on the way, at least, to becoming a remarkable person. You may also, crucially, be confirmed in that ‘authentic’ self because that is now what other people react to.

It can’t be that easy. Can it? Well, ‘simple’ doesn’t mean ‘easy’, anyway – though I’m sure ‘simple’ helps.

I certainly won’t crack that in one blog post – either in explanation or in action.

But I hope I have started to set up the manifesto and create the lead into the next two questions;

1. what has all this got to do with my focus on ‘Frankness’, and

2. how, if at all, can it be applied at the level of organisations, institutions and parties?

I think my medium-term objective is to answer those two questions and, if I succeed, I think I can show how relevant they are to the times that we live in… and maybe even how they point to future actions, and to the obstacles that lie in the way of those actions.

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