Proteus changes everyone
It’s almost always impossible to describe deep personal change to those who ask, because facts can do a bad job of conveying true experience. Here, Academic Director, Nigel Nicholson talks about the Proteus effect.
You meet an old school friend, Lottie, who you’ve not seen for many years. She looks different, and as you catch up over a coffee she tells you how much she feels transformed through all the unexpected and dramatic events that she has lived through since last you met.
You are impressed by her confidence, wisdom and how she talks about her experiences, yet the more she talks the sharper come into focus your old memories of her, and you are increasingly struck by how much she seems fundamentally unchanged. It is faintly disturbing, not least because when you reflect on your own life, you too have a strong sense that you are also really different from how you were decades earlier, but your encounter with Lottie after such an interval makes you wonder if you are both deluded.
Can we truly change who we are?
Maybe nobody really changes. If feels as if you’ve experienced profound transformation, but could it be that all you’ve done is switch costumes, metaphorically speaking, from time to time? The surface may have altered but the inner depths – the real you – hasn’t.
This kind of thinking is muddled and misguided but easy to get suckered into it, because our sense of identity is so continuous yet transforming. Personal change emphatically IS a reality, profoundly important, and never predictable. We have built the remarkable Proteus programme at London Business School as a living proof of this, for every year, after one intense summer week with a group of hand-picked senior executives and professionals we witness how important personal change can be delivered. Before I explain how let’s be clear about what can change in a person’s identity and what is not likely to.
Stretching the Self through experience
From a scientific point of view the Self remains a great mystery. From an evolutionary point of view, self-awareness and self-control is the key to our supremacy as a species over this planet. It is also why we are a threat to our own global future, for the Self is a major source of our woes – such as our ability to deceive ourselves, frustrate ourselves, fail to control ourselves, and worry ourselves to distraction. Yet it is the most changeable part of us. The narrative of who we are, why we are, and what we care about – identity, purpose and values – are all capable of profound shifts. Science also tells us that identity change has limits for many of our instinctive reactions, tastes, and personal drivers are rooted in our DNA. But the biological basis of personality is not like an arrow flying inevitably towards a target but a river that has a source within a landscape but many possible ways of flowing outwards.
This is what the Proteus Programme at London Business School aims to prove. It attracts senior leaders who want to take time out to consider their life purposes and legacy, and to stretch their minds through experience, for this is no classroom course.
We spend most of our time out and about:
- Walking around the zoo with a primatologist, thinking about what it means to be a human animal
- Watching global development through the prism of London, past present and future, in the company of a macro-economic expert on global development
- Visiting science start-ups in Cambridge and meeting the leaders who turn discovery into advancement
- Working with artists and a theatre director in an open space where we can explore how creativity is tangible and accessible to individuals and groups of all kinds
- Exploring the leadership proposition from radically different perspectives of teenagers in a deprived part of the city.
Write the story of your own life
Proteus is named after the Greek mythical shape-shifter on the principle that these experiences following hard on each other take our participants, our Proteans, across intellectual and experiential boundaries, where they can recalibrate their beliefs and ideas about the transformational capability of leadership and institutional design.
My co-Director, Patricia Hodgins, and I also take our Proteans on a much more personal journey. We draw pictures of our lives and challenges as we see them; look at some of the more fixed reference points of the Self using personality measurement, and conclude with an in-depth workshop around biography and legacy.
This takes place over 7 days in June each year. The participants are highly selected. All are interviewed so we can be confident they will both give and receive – that they come with definite developmental purpose and a desire to be part of the Protean fellowship. Starting on a Sunday evening and finishing at a high summer lunch in the garden on the following Saturday, we witness several kinds of transformation.
A new perspective
First is the amazing melding of 24 people into a real fellowship – a true meeting of hearts and minds in a deep and lasting bond through the intensity of challenging shared experience. Second is the immediate change that many find in areas of interest and possibilities that they will take away with them. But the deepest impacts are much more of a slow burn. Proteus plants seeds that we have seen time and time again flowering in the future life changes of participants. People tell us how they have changed the way their organisations operate; how they restructure their personal work life balance; how they have taken completely new career paths and made important new personal life choices – all bolstered by the Protean confidence that it is never too late to take control of your story and write it your own way.
Let’s come back to Lottie. When you think about it, a lot happened to her. She got married, had child, divorced, got a false start in one career, found a new path, joined a political party and then left it, read a book that completely changed her perspective on important areas of her life, found love, and changed many of her personal routines. The fact that she is the same old Lottie – what makes her laugh and how she expresses herself – her character, is not so much a deep wellspring but a platform on which identity can be continually built and modified. What matters to Lottie and to you is that life can turn out to be a real transformation adventure. That is the logic of Proteus.