Located in lush, green countryside in south east England – and another location in Singapore – Roffey Park is the pioneering training institute that delivers training and development programmes, qualifications and research for a wide range of clients that want to make the world a better place. Recognised internationally for developing innovative learning approaches, Roffey Park is a charitable trust which supports less well-off organisations.
Roffey Park was founded in wartime Britain as a rehabilitation centre for returning soldiers, who were suffering from ‘shell shock’ and other war related ailments, as well as those affected by long working hours; those with anxieties over the bombing raids on Britain; and those with family fighting abroad.
Today, Roffey Park has a new CEO at the helm: Dr Robert Coles has worked alongside some of the world’s biggest blue-chip organisations; has vast experience in human development, having completed his PhD in Collaborative and Confucian Leadership; and, has recently cofounded the Centre for Alternative Leadership and Management – a Place of CALM.
As one of this year’s Meaning conference partners, we caught up with Robert to find out more about the brilliant Roffey Park, his personal mission, and what gives him hope…
“Well that’s two very different questions… How am I settling in? I think I’m okay – that’s a continuous work in progress.
“What attracted me to it? That’s probably more complex in the sense that I’ve come from a big business and corporate background, to a financial services and professional services one, but I also spent a long time in executive education prior to that… I think post-financial crisis, I became very interested in what the role of leaders and managers was, in creating the dynamics for the crises.
“I went on to do a PhD on how different methods of dialogue could influence the way managers and leaders work. And Roffey Park in many ways fits some of the conclusions I came to: that there needs to be an alternative to the slash and burn method of management and leadership that gets promoted by the vast majority of business schools – which are businesses masquerading as schools.
“Roffey Park is probably the last one standing that is willing to make a significantly different contribution to that debate.
“Leadership and management are way too important to be left in the hands of a very large band of neoliberal business schools that have a very tight agenda around power and elitism, and financial measures of success. So, that was what brought me here – it was a very different ethos around human welfare and human flourishing.”
“Probably more so.
“It’s interesting. If you go right the way back to 1947 when Roffey Park was founded in response to British employers realising that a lot of their employees were coming back from the Second World War deeply traumatised – I guess what we would now call PTSD – and they needed help but weren’t getting it.
“The Roffey Park Hospital was set up by some large British companies, ICI and Marks and Spencer among them to detoxify, treat and help those people in order that they could contribute more effectively and adjust back to civilian life. The Roffey Park Institute spun out from there.
“It was here that the so-called discussion therapies – which work very well – came from. They were very much developed and thought through in the early days of the Roffey Park Hospital and indeed of the institute. We continue that to this day.
“We see dialogue and collaborative effort and the arising ideas and decisions, as the basis for those decisions and practices being sustainable and being ethics-oriented and being inclusive, rather than held by a small elite.
“Post-financial crisis, we know that you can’t leave millions of people’s lives in the hands of an elite. It’s just nonsense. We are the last standing radical representatives of the dialogic approach to inclusive and welfare-driven organisations. I think we’re more needed than ever.
“We’re not far away – in my mind – from another crash, largely built on the remains of the previous one, because lessons have not been learnt and elites are still untouchable. I believe Roffey Park is probably more relevant than we have been since 1947.”
“Outside of work my purpose is to climb as many hills and mountains as I can – I love to be outside. Climbing is the ultimate team sport.
“I guess I’ve always had a concern with the underdog. I’ve been involved in various things where unfairness, or misrepresentation, or discrimination have been rife, and it’s always been a theme in my life to be on the side of the underdog, and campaigning for the people who are not particularly well heard or indeed represented. And that’s a big thing for me. I’m a huge believer in lifelong learning and in all things remaining possible.
“If you have your health and you have your vitality, you can do anything and that, certainly at a personal level, is something I preach every day to just about everybody I come across.”
“Probably a bit of both.
“I think it’s tempting to look back and invent reasons for why you did things – but honestly, at the time – things came along, and they were just interesting.
“I remember just after graduation I got involved in a philosophical group, where our basic premise was using dialogue, learning and drama as ways of understanding each other and as ways of making sense of the world.
“It made me realise that there is an alternative way of seeing the world other than the one we tend to be educated in. I’d love to say there was some higher reason for it, but ultimately it was just sheer curiosity.”
“It is. I’d love to reinvent my past and say I’m some deeply ethical person – I’m not – at the end of the day, I’m just deeply curious.”
“Yes. My PhD.”
“It’s one of the things that’s come out of my tendency towards curiosity.
“One of the interesting things about Confucianism is the concept of appropriateness – behaving according to your expectations of yourself, but also according to the expectations others have of you. There’s a mutuality in that, that is constantly under negotiation.
“It seemed the very antithesis of the appropriation model that Western business thinking tends to adopt under deep consumer thinking: How much can I appropriate? How much can I own? How much can I take? Versus: To what extent am I behaving to others as they wished me to behave? And to what extent am I managing myself in order to enable others to flourish?
“And they just seem to be two very opposing but equally possible ways of being.
“I wanted to investigate the degree to which Western business can take on that kind of idea. I did my field research in the USA and it was very successful.”
“Capitalism thoroughly deserves the bad press it gets; because despite the constant narrative of change; capitalism hasn’t really changed at all. And if it has changed, it’s just become better at exploiting X amount of people and paying them less money.
“Capitalism does innovate in the sense of products, services and ideas, but it has not innovated at all in the way that it understands human value and human flourishing. Not at all, in fact it’s gone backwards.
“When you hear of some technology companies whose employees are so broke because of their wage levels, that they’re homeless in the night time in order for them to get to their jobs in the morning – that tells you just how badly broken capitalism is.
“The problem is we don’t have a viable alternative. We know that socialism, in so far as it’s ever been tried, has not really succeeded at all. And the cooperative movement and self-managing movement has never really had the credibility – in modern times anyway – to make its voice heard.
“That eventually is where we ought to be going, but there has to be a credible behavioural model and business model built around ideas of self-management and cooperatives. Right now, those ideas are far too utopian and cannot encompass seven billion people.
“This is our challenge – one of the things that capitalism can do, is employ billions of people; a utopian agrarianism is just no replacement at all.
“We need to find different concepts of value and we need to find different concepts of human flourishing if we’re going to find an alternative to capitalism. I’m not sure we’re even close to that yet.”
“I think we’re almost at the point where we as human beings have become so poisoned by our need to consume, that even if there was an alternative, I somehow doubt we would listen because we are all so busy comparing ourselves with each other. We’ve lost that sense of appropriateness and balance.
“Getting seven billion people off that consumption addiction is going to prove a very hard thing to do. We’re in danger of poisoning ourselves with our own problem rather than looking for, simply, a different way of life and the different way of being; a different sense of what it means to be a human society.”
“I’d go back to the Confucian theme of appropriateness. We need to be able to have a dialogue with ourselves about the things that we do, and the extent to which they are constructive to the community around us; or destructive of the planet we’re in. If we could simply have the discipline to ask ourselves those questions and have the honesty to listen to our answers, I think we’d do things very differently.
“Modern media has given us a total sense of learned helplessness; a sense that we don’t have any choices anymore. Which is why we’re electing ridiculous people, because at least they have ridiculous ideas… We’re struggling to have a sense that we can and should do this for ourselves, just by asking better and different questions. That would be the path that I would want us to take.”
[laughs] “Well, they do say where there’s life, there’s hope…
“There are alternatives that are being tried out. There are alternative models moving out of Brazil. There are alternative models in the USA too… It’s interesting as the Americans get a lot of bad press; but the cooperative movement is alive and well in many parts of the USA.
“If you go to Greece there are alternative models of organisation and community which are being tried out, which I think are potentially world-changing… So, what gives me hope is that there are people investing their lives – not just their money, that’s an easy thing to do – but, investing their lives into an alternative. There are lots of people doing that on a small scale and they are beginning to find robust and interesting ways of living and being.
“There is potential and whilst there is human ingenuity mixed with a bit of humility, there is always hope.”
“No – I hate the idea of heroes. I think that’s one of the diseases of our time. We need to be our own heroes and I think we need to hold ourselves to account and be self-disciplined; and then there’s your hero staring you in the face every time you look in the mirror.”
“Yes. There’s a few I’m reading at the moment; one called Leadership as Practice by American author Joseph Raelin. He has some lovely ideas about collaboration and dialogue and inter subjectivity as ways of being in management and leadership. I’m also reading a book which is much more academic I guess, but still very interesting, called the Power of Dialogue by Hans Herbert Kögler. It’s a bit of a theoretical and academic discourse around dialogue, meaning, social power, and agency. But, in the context of the Meaning Conference, I’d encourage everybody to read both books.”
“I think the call to action is to step away from utopianism. There’s too much in the alternative space which is utopian and not scalable. The thing we must think about is how can we find alternatives that are sustainable for seven billion people – a lot of the alternatives that are being considered are so small scale, they almost imply that half the world’s population has to walk into a corner and die.
“We need to take on the challenge of finding meaning in life; meaning in organisations; whilst at the same time sustaining the aspirations of all human beings on the basis that all life is equal. And I’m not sure we’re up to that challenge yet.”