In the Arthurian legends, Sir Perceval, one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, was raised by a mother who taught him the importance of asking questions. The instruction was proved invaluable during his youth when he escaped from a group of knights by asking questions rather than giving answers. By the time he had joined King Arthur, however, his mentors had convinced him to hold back on his questioning. This caused endless difficulties for Perceval because, in living by the rules of others, he started living a life that lacked authenticity. One evening, while at the Grail Castle, he had dinner with the impotent Fisher King who suffered from wounds that never healed. During dinner, a procession passed before them in which a beautiful girl carried the fabulous (holy) grail. Perceval was actually being tested, for if he had asked the critical question, “Whom does it serve?” the Fisher King would have been healed and the surrounding wasteland restored to paradise on earth. He failed to do so – as punishment for adhering to the rules of others and not responding positively to his inner promptings, he was cast under a five-year spell during which he was forced to deal with a succession of strange and bizarre events. Ultimately, exhausted, flummoxed and emotionally drained, not even being aware of the time, day or year (even though it was Good Friday), Perceval stopped to question a stranger: “What day is today?” At that moment, the act of asking a question broke the spell and shortly thereafter, Perceval was reunited with King Arthur to continue a long life of romance and adventure.
Perhaps organisations are today under a similar spell – the only question they respond to is the need to supply positive quarterly results. In fact, down-sizing, restructuring, more of the same – just faster, the use of less resources to make more money, re-engineering, etc., are in and of themselves all about results and the expectations of shareholders and the market. Although these are the answers that the shareholders want to hear and that asking the quarterly results question is one of the questions that should be asked of every organisation, there are many other questions of equal, if not greater, importance that have to be asked. These are questions that relate to heart-beat, to righteousness and to responsibility. They question the impact of the business on society, on contribution and the environment. They determine how positive an internal environment has been created to nurture the growth and development of employees, suppliers and customers. What organisations need is not re-engineering, but renewal. The spell we are under organisationally cannot be broken until we commence asking the right questions and following the promptings of the voice of our respective consciences.
Corporate values should be the moral yardstick used to govern corporate behaviour – in other words, the commitment of management and employees to adhere to a code of behaviour that governs how employees are treated, suppliers are treated, customers are treated and the environment is treated. Corporate values (and subsequently corporate behaviour) invest the brand with dignity and ultimately contribute to the value of the brand itself. Organisations that exhibit signs of emotional and spiritual poverty confuse the market, frustrate suppliers and cause distrust amongst employees.
Perhaps the question that Sir Perceval should have asked with reference to the grail: “Whom does it serve?” is truly the question that all organisations should be asking. Traditionally, the answer for corporations has been the shareholder. The time has come to re-discover our organisational heart-beat and serve our employees, suppliers, customers and communities too.