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Systemic Reflection: Spirit

Sometimes, when wandering around my hometown, I wonder why it is that some businesses, such as shops and restaurants, are here to stay, while others do not survive. Economic factors are at play – consumers buy differently these days. 

But there are other factors, and some are not so tangible. One is what I call spirit. And it applies to all organizations, not just retail.

Spirit is something you sense when you enter a shop or an office. It is hard to describe. Is the atmosphere lively or suppressed? Are people walking around with their heads up or down? Do you want to stay, or leave?

Is spirit the same as the life-energy of the organizational system?

The concept of morale is very similar to spirit. In business literature, it has been recognized as a key success factor, and is also hard to grasp, and hard to influence. To me morale is more related to the human beings in the system, and not so much to larger, systemic layers. Morale seems to be able to re-appear, but what about spirit?

Spirit is obviously related to the origin and the founders of the organization. I sense, when working start-ups, that they have a lot of spirit. And it is highly attractive, to both (potential) employees and customers. Corporates love to mingle with start-ups, investing time and often money. Maybe those corporates, with less spirit, hope to gain some when engaging with these start-ups.

Having a clear purpose, as an organization, will help. But it is not sufficient, or even always necessary. I can think of organizations with no clear purpose, but a lot of spirit, and the other way around too.

The systemic principle of exchange comes to mind. Systems seek balance in exchange. My thought: a system with a lot of spirit has more exchange: employees seem willing to give more, but they take more too.

Another question: are organizations with high spirit “perpetrators” by nature, and not victims? Are they – in their own way – trying to conquer the world? Companies like Booking, Amazon or Tesla have that nature, cause victims in their own way and seem not to lack spirit.

Maintaining spirit is an important leadership theme. But it seems to be complicated: leaders can’t just pour spirit into their organization. They have to do things that enable the spirit to thrive, and avoid things that cause the spirit to decline. How often do leaders really reflect on this, before making decisions?

Back in my hometown: I remember a recent visit to a very good restaurant. We had just been seated, and were having a drink, when the chef (whose is also the owner) entered the dining room. He was carrying a large open box with mushrooms, and showed it to the guests. The waiters paused to enjoy the spectacle. With a big smile, he said it had just been delivered and promised to make a great mushroom dish for us. That’s the spirit!