The price of finding answers

Part of my day job is writing about management development for UK business schools. One trend is the complicated relationship between big business and social good. There’s been talk of Corporate Social Responsibility for decades, the alignment of corporate goals with projects to benefit communities, but these too often looked like a weaselly form of PR.

Now it’s different. First of all there’s the realisation that customers and employees have started to take more precise notice of what businesses are doing, what effort they’re making around sustainability, ethical sourcing, diversity etc. The other side is that generations of older business leaders are starting to look around at their empires, and wondering what the hell it was all for, and what’s left for them to do.

A new thing is business school offerings that whisk leaders away from corporate life and give them chance to reflect on what their purpose is, what they should be doing next – can they contribute something more than just profit? Having said that, it’s always clear that profit is still paramount, it’s a case of saving souls while still making a shedload of cash. A renewed sense of purpose and motivation, more connection to social issues, will now mean an even more lucrative proposition. One of the latest programmes involves five days getting closer to nature, spending time in the country at a luxury resort: walking, talking, taking boat trips, sitting out by campfires with like-minded searchers after truth and beauty (and ways to complete an already remarkably successful career). The cost? Around £30,000.

Why does it take 30 or more years of sweating, brow-beating, bullying and hammering the competition to reach the conclusion that most ordinary human beings knew all along – that fulfilment and happiness doesn’t belong to the materially ’successful’. I’d be happy to send any CEO some John Cowper Powys novels for free. And look outside, there’s a whole world to explore – and plenty of time to think about it all – so long as you’re not stuck in the boardroom too long.

Tolstoy vs Powys

Tolstoy was my first obsession. After being made to read Anna Karenina as a student (looking at the great lump of it on my bookshelf with some consternation) I quickly couldn’t get enough. And before the days of Internet book sites the search for books by and about Tolstoy took on the character of a quest, the exertions, dashed hopes and heart-jumping discoveries.

It seems a strange leap to make from Tolstoy to John Cowper Powys. JCP was unimpressed by the much lauded Russian, saying War and Peace was “boring”. Tolstoy’s brand of worthy religiosity and didacticism was a real turn off. And it’s fair to suggest that if Tolstoy had lived long enough to have read any of Powys (he died, however, in 1910), he would have found the novels (and many of the ideas expressed in them) totally repellent: the overheated atmosphere, preoccupations with sex, all the irrationality, the weak-kneed heroes.

But they’re closer to each other than either would ever want to admit. Most obviously in their use of lengthy texts to immerse readers in a created world. Being god-like: in Tolstoy’s case being the All Seeing One, and with Powys, being the Magician. They both make use of fine-grained psychological insights as their primary material. More importantly they’re driven by the need to expose the artificiality and superficiality of conventional lives – whether those of the St Petersburg nobility in their salons or the English upper middle-classes – and the existence of a more honest and inspiring plane of seeing and thinking. They both see and feel a special quality in the most ordinary of things and people (‘God’ or ‘poetry’ is in everything); and have complex personal relationships with religion (Tolstoy was by no means a regular believer, he only committed to his re-written version; morality was always something he struggled with, an ongoing contest where he knew he’d always be the loser). While Powys might be noted for his eccentric use of animism, Tolstoy is not so different, making subtle allusions to the consciousness of trees and the elements – and would regularly speak in his writing from the perspective of dogs and horses.