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The Red Nile and the crisis of corporate character

What is a river? What is an organisation? I have been reading Robert Twigger’s marvellous and magical new book “The Red Nile – A Biography of the World’s Greatest River. In his unique and idiosyncratic way he explores the geography, the biology, geology, history and mythology of this most evocative of fluvial phenomena. One of the earliest challenges Twigger faces is to define exactly what the Nile is - in particular where it starts.

The hunt for the source

This idea of the source of the Nile has haunted the imagination of men - the search for the first impulse that creates this mighty river. It has involved an army of the deluded, passionate, heroic, naive, villainous, philanthropic and demented. It is as if knowing the source somehow is a prerequisite for giving it an identity. But Twigger makes it clear the Nile has many arguable beginnings in the network of river systems, swamps and lakes of the African continent.

The journey to the sea

Saying what exactly the Nile is, is quite tricky for the Nile can be vaguer even than its uncertain source; sometimes it’s not even a river really.  The flow rate through the Sudd swamps is so slow that “As with a patient in a coma, only the most advanced equipment can detect if it is alive or not”. Nor can it be defined by the water in it; it is very unlikely a molecule of water entering in the centre of Africa will ever make it to the sea as the river rejuvenates and replenishes itself on its long journey.

But catch my language, we all sense that something is making the trip; A river is largely defined by the story of the journey it takes to the sea.   Twigger argues that rivers have ‘character’, indeed a moral character shaped by this journey – a kind of compass pointing to what the river means and what it stands for.  The Nile’s character is one of ‘dependability – its regular flooding from pre-history providing the primordial culture soup from which civilisations have emerged. And it is through the story of this journey that the moral character is captured and communicated.

Moral Character

So with organisations. When you ask the identity of an organisation it is traditional to highlight the when and where it got founded and maybe point to the character and motivation of the founding fathers. But for many organisations today the line to the past – the source - is not clear. Mergers, acquisitions, re-launches, the trading of brands etc. make the source disputable. The stories are confused, not shared, or are even covered over - as not reflecting our aspirations. We turn instead to define ourselves, not by the adventures we have made in the lands through which we have travelled, but by asking others -consultants, experts, academics -to tell us who we are.  People who think in abstracts and abstractedly. An exercise which is patronising, provoking and usually pointless.

Does it matter? Where it starts? The hidden journey, the stories that define our identity?  I think so. An organisation is so much more than its business model. A company that has no story has no identity and it is difficult to belong to a company that has no identity. An organisations can lose a sense of itself and therefore the relationship people will have with it (whatever it is!) will be transactional and provisional and disconnected from the moral character of the organisation. The last 20 plus years have seen a welter of mergers, acquisitions, and the creation of shadowy unreal organisations, particularly in the financial sector. Is this the unseen hand that has meant that behaviour born of principle and moral character has been so dissipated?

Robert Twigger's book is avaliable to buy on Amazon click here

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