For many people today, it’s not enough to say that they like or love something. About things that are really important, you should be passionate. They should be your passion. Apart from the fact that I am not familiar with that sort of language, I ask myself: what could it possibly mean to be passionate or to have found your passion. A short google exercise reveals that many people think that knowing and practicing your passions is key to a rewarding life. Many confessions suggest how life after discovering the power of passions has made a qualitative turn for the better. “Too many people live lives of quiet desperation not understanding what their passion is.”“Almost three decades of my life had passed before I discovered the power of passions.” It is often assumed that “passion” is something hiding deep in your inner self, waiting to be discovered. There are entire websites devoted to ‘discovering your passion’ or even to discover that you are pursuing ‘passions’ that appear to be no passions at all.
Passions of the authentic self …
I could fill more than twenty pages with quotes like this: “Your passions can only be uncovered from your own unique story. There are things inside of you that you may have not tapped into yet because of fear. It’s scary because when you find your passion, it pushes your limits and calls you out to levels you thought you were never capable of reaching.”
The popular idea is that passions are the expression of deep desires of the authentic self, often still blocked by fears or conventions, ready to be freed by a mixture of honesty and courage. The message is: deep inside you have tons of unrealised potential to become the person you deserve to be and develop amazing insights and skills you have long only dreamed about. The remarkable thing is that following or developing your passions is mainly a question of letting go: removing the blockades that have been making your life mediocre or even miserable. This should not be a surprise, as passion literally means: being passive.
Spinoza: ‘agere’ and ‘pati’
Many people today use the word ‘passion’ to show how they follow their deepest desires and try to be their most authentic self. However, ‘passion’ still is the opposite of ‘action’. Our great Dutch philosopher Spinoza formulated this nicely in his Ethica. In the Latin language, the difference is between agere (to act) and pati (to suffer).
“I say that we take action [agere] when something comes to pass, in us or outside us, of which we are the adequate cause, that is, when something in us or outside us follows from our nature, which can be clearly and distinctly understood through it alone. On the other hand, I say that we suffer [pati] when something comes to pass in us, or something follows from our nature, of which we are only a partial cause.” from http://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3599&context=gradschool_dissertations
Passionate people, passive people
In personnel recruitment advertising, the word “passion” is a fixed ingredient: “Is Inspiring Transformation for Businesses one of Your Passions? If so, learn how you can earn substantial income as a certified Passion Test for Business Consultant.” It’s part of the empty business language on corporate websites: “We are … …. To us, growth is more than a target. It’s a passion.”
The modern use of ‘passion’ appears to deny Spinoza’s clear distinction between ‘take action’ (agere) and ‘suffer’ (pati) or ‘be passive’. People who blindly follow the (irrational) impulses of their passions are not active at all. They surrender to forces they hardly understand. If Spinoza were still alive, he would be very surprised (and worried) about the ubiquitous enthusiasm for suffering instead of taking action. He would be very surprised when hearing someone say: “violin playing is my passion”. Maybe he would say: “Do I understand well that you are not playing the violin, but that the violin is playing you?”. The same with: “Being a PWC Cyber Security consultant, is my passion”. “Have you been converted into a PWC slave now that your work has become your passion?”.
Take reponsibility. Be active …
I don’t have the illusion that the fashionable use of the word “passion” can be abolished. Nevertheless, it could be useful for many people to realise that, not only in the original meaning as elucidated by Spinoza, but also in its vulgarised disguise as used by amateur psychologists and management gurus, ‘passion’ means ‘being passive’ or even ‘avoiding responsibility’. Perhaps some people will change their language from “my passion is playing the violin”, into “I am working like hell to master this extremely difficult instrument.”
Fighting Corruption: a project with Russian wood suppliers
Traveling along supply chains
Much of my work since the early 1990s has been travelling along supply chains: from cotton field to T-shirt, from platinum mine to automobile, from palm tree to margarine, or from tree to newspaper. Actually I enjoyed very much walking through African villages in cotton producing regions, visiting Indonesian palm oil plantations or working on ecologically responsible sourcing for a Norwegian paper mill.
The responsible sourcing agenda has been continuously changing over time. In the beginning, it was all about ecological impacts, but gradually labour safety and human rights issues were moving to the foreground.
Including social issues, labour safety and …. corruption
After doing some ground breaking work for Axel Springer and Norske Skog on responsible forestry and supply chain traceability in Norway, my next contributions were much more related to social issues, including labour safety. Axel Springer took the lead here, not on the basis of huge complex projects but through strategically important small and quick projects –Axel Springer’s sustainability officer, called them “fast horses” – to communicate a simple message and to invite others to follow in the same direction.
We made some attempts to work on labour safety with the Volga paper mill near Nizhniy Novgorod, but for some reasons we then increasingly concentrated on anti-corruption issues in close cooperation with the Finnish-Swedish paper company Stora Enso and their wood suppliers in Tikhvin. The leading global anti-corruption organisation Transparency International eventually joined as a critical and independent project partner.
The Tikhvin project: from Russia with Transparency
On March 4, 2004, we met in the St. Petersburg office of Stora Enso: the Russian director, Axel Springer’s sustainability officer, three ladies from Helsinki, some other managers and experts and myself. In close cooperation with the participants, I had prepared the agenda and a presentation.
After agreeing on a project outline and a basic idea of the project budget, we had dinner together. The following morning we drove to Tikhvin, a small town (60.000 inhabitants) somewhat more than 200 km East of St. Petersburg.
We arrived at the forest company’s office (Lespromkhoz) around 10 am.
Unfortunately I had to go to the toilet and what I saw there I did not like at all. Apparently, the water flow was blocked and the toilet was filled to the brim with an indescribable brown stinking substance, to which I delivered my modest contribution. Welcome to Russia!
After the meeting with the forest people, and the representatives from Stora Enso and Axel Springer, we did some interesting sight-seeing.
We walked through the snow to the beautiful Marian Tikhvin Assumption Monastery and later on we paid a short visit to the house where the composer Rimskiy Korsakov was born in 1844, now a museum. After a visit to the local wood processing company, we concluded the day with a copious meal in a good Russian restaurant. From that moment on, the project was called “From Russia with Transparency”, a variation of the 1963 James Bond film title (from Russia with Love with Sean Connery).
The next day we drove back to St. Petersburg. After these kick-off meetings, I was not very much involved until I facilitated a meeting at the IACC conference in 2008 in which the results were discussed (see below).
In September of the same year, I was participating in a study trip to the Russian forests near Novgorod, 195 km South of St. Petersburg. It was organised by the German Publishers Association VDZ. Representatives of paper companies and environmental NGOs (including WWF and Greenpeace) were among the participants. Before the trip to Novgorod, there was a meeting in St. Petersburg, which I had agreed to chair. I arrived five minutes before the meeting was scheduled to start. Actually, I should have arrived the evening before, but I had terrible problems in Moscow. First I lost my luggage, which had been deposited in a large lost-and-found storage hall (because I did not know that I was responsible myself to take the luggage to the airport where my flight to St. Petersburg would take off) and then the flight to St. Petersburg was cancelled.
I spent the entire night in the closed airport restaurant together with some Chinese travellers. Later on I discovered that there had been an announcement in Russian only in which a free night in a hotel near the airport was offered. But I don’t understand Russian. Neither did the Chinese. So when I finally arrived at our meeting venue, I had not had a shower, I had not brushed my teeth and I had not had an opportunity to shave. I was so happy that the little table, reserved for the chairman, was at least 2 meters away from the first person in the audience. Most probably, nobody in the audience could smell their chairman, I hoped.
After this memorable opening session, we left for Novgorod. It was a highly interesting trip, not only showing problems and solutions for environmentally responsible forest management, but also the absurdities of Russian forest law and its implementation.
After visiting the Novgorod forest, we were invited by an Austrian company that had started some operations in the wood processing industry in the region.
We learned a lot about doing business in Russia and about the unavoidable risks. Our Austrian friend told us that there are many factories that employ far more people for security than for production.
He then asked whether anybody of us knew why the shops are all open day and night. Nobody knew. The answer was simple: unattended shops will be robbed immediately. As there should be somebody in the shop at all times, why not keep it open?
The next day I had an appointment in Moscow. My colleague from the World Resources Institute in Washington, his assistant and I would meet with Greenpeace people there.
I went to the St. Petersburg airport, but when I tried to check in, I was told that the flight was fully booked and that I had to wait for another flight several hours later. I did not like it at all. I was desperate to meet my Washington and Moscow friends for discussing a very interesting project on ecologically responsible forest management in the Kirov region and FSC certification.
Socialising in Russia: a bribe at the airport
So I went to the check-in counter again and I only saw only one option to get on the reserved Moscow flight. I folded two € 20 banknotes into my passport and asked the guy in the check-in office whether he could organise a place for me. He did not look at me, but saw the Euro notes, which he immediately took from my passport. Two minutes later I had a boarding pass. I was well aware that someone else who had booked on this flight had now lost his or her place. So be it. After receiving my precious boarding pass, I quickly looked into the check-in office again. Behind the check-in guy’s computer, I saw a huge pile of banknotes. I suddenly realised how quickly I was socialising in Russian society. A little bribe here and there makes life bearable.
Almost two hours later, I arrived at the Greenpeace office in Moscow. I told my Greenpeace contact my story. He seemed to have mixed feelings. On the one hand, he was not surprised. This is the way it works in Russia. On the other hand, he did not entirely agree. The only thing he said was: “You should not have paid € 40. The current rate is € 20.” So even in bribery, there are transparent markets and fixed prices.
Corruption: an expression of intelligence
As mentioned, in the beginning of 2004, I played a role during the kick-off meetings of the Tikhvin project. Initially the project included many aspects of responsible sourcing. Gradually, especially after agreeing with Transparency International on their critical role, the emphasis shifted towards corruption and the private sector’s role in fighting it. Axel Springer’s sustainability officer started to frame the project in terms of ‘corruption free paper’. In 2008, Transparency International was planning their big international conference on Transparency and Corruption, which was going to take place in November of that year. The title was: “Global Transparency – Fighting corruption for a sustainable future.” In April, Transparency International’s EU Liaison office, with strong input from some German people, organised a discussion in Brussels to provide inputs into the November event.
I was invited as an expert on supply chains, private sector and sustainability. Half an hour before the meeting, I was asked to prepare a presentation about ‘sustainability’ and its potential links with Transparency International’s work, which perfectly made sense given the theme of the November conference.
At hindsight, I can say that I gave a pretty good presentation in which I stressed the utopian nature of the sustainability concept and made clear that there is no simple and obvious link between ‘sustainability’ and ‘anti-corruption’. The only linking pin I saw (and still see) is ‘good governance’. I don’t know how useful my contribution actually was at the time. I myself was deeply impressed by Albena Azmanova’s contribution. Professor Azmanova was (and still is) a professor in political science. She was strongly involved in the political transition in her home country (Bulgaria) and published her work, originally refused in Bulgaria, in the US and Europe.
Her presentation and her discussion contributions during our Brussels meeting were real eye-openers for me. In discussion the nature of corruption, she emphasised its intelligent nature. Corruption is of course a problem, but it only exists because it provides intelligent solutions to problems inherent to non-functioning social and political systems. My own translation: if you don’t know the problems for which corruption provides a solution, you won’t be able to effectively fight it. At least, my act of bribery had corrected my problem that was caused by the bad Russian booking and check-in system.
The need for transparency: the Athens conference
The International Anti Corruption Conference (IACC) is generally being held every two years. The 2013 conference, held in Athens, emphasised the need for good governance and building institutions that can be trusted. It explicitly formulated expectations to the private sector’s role.
“To restore peoples’ trust and rebuild the credibility of institutions, governments must move beyond expressions of political will to concrete action; private sector must put a check on bribery and fulfil their obligations as corporate citizens and civil society must demand accountability.” (from http://13iacc.org/ , my underlining).
During the conference, several workshops addressed the private sector’s responsibilities for fighting corruption. I happened to chair workshop 4.4: “The Private Sector’s Role in Fighting Corruption in the Wood Supply Chain: An Example from Russia”, which was entirely built around the experiences of the so-called Tikhvin project as mentioned above. After my introduction, Florian Nehm (Axel Springer) and Pirjetta Soikkeli (Stora Enso) were on the speakers list, followed by some critical remarks by Elena Panfilova from Transparancy International Moscow. In my introductory remarks, I stressed the business risk of weak governance in supply chains and optimistically said “fighting corruption is becoming part of supply chain management.”
Practical limits to transparency: getting things done in Athens
After my presentation, Florian Nehm wanted to show a video that was made in the context of the Tikhvin project. During our preparatory discussions, the conference management made clear that they were not in favour of showing the Tikhvin film. They thought it would not fit into the character of the conference. Maybe they suspected it to be too commercial or too superficial. In any case, the video proposal was declined and Florian Nehm was kindly asked to show a classical PowerPoint instead. In the morning before the presentation, the PowerPoint was delivered to the central conference desk, as agreed. However, one hour before the start of the workshop, Florian Nehm and I sneaked into the workshop room where we met the technical staff responsible for projecting slides and videos. We gave them a memory stick with the video and the instruction to disregard the material coming from the central conference desk.
After my introduction, Florian Nehm, much to the surprise of the conference management, showed his film. It proved to be a very good introduction into the subject, which was then further elaborated by the Stora Enso and Transparency International people. That particular day in 2008, we again discovered something everybody already knows. Sometimes, you cannot be too transparent about what you are doing or what you are planning to do. Even at the Transparency International Meeting, there were practical limits to transparency.
 I am not sure whether this experience was in the Tikhvin Lespromkhoz building or in Kovernino (Koverninskiy Leskoz, March 2003). Wherever it was, it was pretty awful.
Iedereen die mij kent, weet dat ik onuitstaanbaar word als ik serieus probeer te zijn. Ik ben de laatste twee weken voortdurend onuitstaanbaar, maar dat is niet mijn eigen schuld. Het is de schuld van ongeremd hallunicerende beleidsambtenaren en hun leeghoofdige consultants. Wat is er gebeurd? Ik denk dat het ongeveer zo gegaan is.
De wethouder van Recreatie, Natuur en Andere Onbelangrijke zaken zit achter zijn bureau in Warmond. Hij heeft zijn dag niet en kijkt uit het raam. Op zijn bureau liggen stapels papier, onder meer van de Provincie. Die provincie heeft aan zijn mooie gemeente Teylingen het beheer over nogal wat stukken land gegeven en daarbij een smak geld om een en ander op te leuken, te ‘ontwikkelen’ zoals dat in beleidsjargon heet.
Kijkend uit het raam schiet hem niets zinvols te binnen. Tja, een fietspad misschien, nog een wandelroute en een vogelkijkscherm, maar veel verder reikt zijn fantasie niet. Dan maar een stelletje beroepsfantasten van een adviesbureau inhuren. Hij pakt zijn mobiel en belt zijn contact bij Arcadis.
-“Hallo, met de Wethouder. We moeten praten!”
-“Zeg het maar, wat is probleem?”
– “Een ernstig probleem! Ik heb een bak geld op mijn bureau liggen.”
– “Wij zien dat nooit als een probleem, dat weet je! We kennen elkaar al langer, toch?”.
– “Ik moet dat geld proberen op te maken aan veranderingen in natuur, landschap en recreatie. Hebben jullie een idee?”
– “Zodra er geld is, hebben we altijd een idee. Het leuke is dat ons bureau Arcadis is voortgekomen uit de Heidemij. De Heidemij was ooit kampioen vernielen van natuurgebieden. Woeste gronden heetten ze vroeger. We doen te weinig met dat verleden. Hebben jullie daar bij Warmond nog wat woeste gronden voor ons? Dan kunnen we die, bouwend op een rijke traditie, naar de donder helpen!”
– “Ik wist dat je een weer zo’n geniaal idee zou hebben, maar dat het zo goed zou zijn, daar had ik niet op gerekend!”
– “Laten we spijkers met koppen slaan. Ik heb hier toevallig een paar consultants lopen die werkelijk helemaal niets met rust, ruimte en natuur hebben. Ze kunnen daarom heel creatief met het landschap omgaan, ongehinderd ook door kennis. Tja, we hebben wel eens biologen in dienst gehad, maar die beginnen te zeuren bij elke bomenrij die je wilt rooien. Dat is niet bevorderlijk voor een creatieve cultuur in ons bedrijf.”
– “Kom morgen meteen even langs met die lui. Dan gaan we aan het werk. Ik kan je de contouren van de opdracht al even doorgeven. Maak voor ons een visie, waarin alles verandert en waarin we gegarandeerd dat provinciegeld over de balk kunnen gooien.”
– “Ik kom morgen om 10:00. Het hoeft niet lang te duren. We weten al waarom het gaat.”
– “Misschien goed om die consultants al vast een lijstje mee te geven met de minimumeisen aan het eindrapport. Je krijgt de opdracht als je de volgende woorden elk minimaal 50 maal gebruikt: rust, ruimte, kwaliteitsimpuls, samenwerking, harmonie, natuurbeleving, samenspel, betrokkenheid en nog een paar, maar die schieten me even niet te binnen.”
– “Uitstekend, tot morgen!”
Het resultaat is bekend. Een waanzinnig plan en een brochure waar de honden geen brood van lusten. Na een slapeloze nacht heb ik mij aangesloten bij het massale verzet tegen deze onzin. Mijn bijdrage is een akelig serieuze website.
Many years ago, I wrote a report on supply chains for organic cotton from Africa. My client was a United Nations organization. The results were discussed at a workshop in Paris. Not only in the report, but also in my presentation, I stressed the need for a good business case. My presentations was about business drivers for sustainability: costs, brand and reputation risks, etc. I emphasised that just noble goals and good intentions would not work. If there is no money to be made, forget it. And I showed that making money in organic supply chains would not be easy.
After the presentation, a representative from a Dutch social NGO came to me. He said.
“Reinier, I have read your report and listened to your presentation. I had the feeling that you had written your report for a private sector company, not for a UN organisation.”
I did not exactly understand what he meant, and asked:
“What do you mean? I wrote a report on the opportunities for organic cotton supply chains from Africa and I summarised my results both in a report and in a presentation. What should I have done differently?”
The NGO representative: “I mean that such an organisation would certainly expect other issues, another tone and conclusions in a somewhat different direction …”.
My reply: “You may be surprised, but I always give the same answers to the same questions, no matter who asks the question.”
Some days later a friend and colleague called me, saying:
“My colleague from the Dutch NGO apparently met you in Paris. He was very surprised about your answer to his question. He had never met a consultant like you, he said. Consultants always write different stories with different conclusions for different clients. He expressed some doubts whether you are a consultant at all.”
Why do you think we hired you?
More than 10 years ago, I was asked to organise a strategic discussion on pretty complex issues in the Dutch Ministry for Environment. It was an interesting project with many participants with widely diverging views. It was not easy to produce results acceptable to all participants, but eventually the group managed to agree on a number of important issues and it was my task to write a report, which was certainly not easy. I asked the team leader in the Ministry: “What sort of report do you wish that I produce? A politically cautious report with all conflicts hidden in complex language? Or a direct account of what I saw, heard and thought during the process?”. His answer was short and simple. Actually it was a question: “Why do you think we hired you?”