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Getting serious about humanism in administration: The real unsolved mystery

A while back my wife and I took our granddaughter to her favourite-friendly-Scottish-family-restaurant for lunch. We were handed some information about fire safety to read and use as place mats. During our repast, I asked my granddaughter what she would do if there was ever a fire at her house. She said that she would call Rescue 911 and Unsolved Mysteries. Her reasoning involved calling the former to get immediate help and calling the latter to find out how the fire got started in the first place so she could keep it from happening again.

As a bit of warm-up humour, I shared this story at a workshop for administrators and supervisors who serve children and young people. As the participants introduced themselves and described their greatest job-related satisfactions and frustrations, one participant said she could really relate to my granddaughter’s perspective on things. It was simply not enough to act responsibly in the face of crises and change. There needed to be another number to call: one that would assist in peering past the fire-of-the-moment; past the rhetoric of organizational change, paradigm shifts, and transformation espoused by academics, politicians, and managers; and along to "doing empowerment" rather than just talking about it. To my pleasure, the group unexpectedly galvanized around a fun and somewhat irreverent metaphor, repeatedly invoking and recasting it to move things ahead for the remainder of the workshop.

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Playwright, humorist, and actor Ken Campbell recently visited our shores again, this time with his newest, one-person show titled Jamais vu. Jamais vu, in Campbell’s bizarre, funny, and perceptive world, is the opposite of déjà vu. Campbell uses the term, the French phrase for never seen, to describe being in a familiar place, or situation, but failing to recognize anything familiar, as in: "I’ve never been here in my life!"

Campbell is always starting from scratch, unlike Ivan in P.D. Ouspensky’s The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, whose deal with the devil enables him to live life over with memory intact. Ivan is so preoccupied with his regrets that he fails to weave together a larger scheme of things or to learn anything of value from his experience. Unable to alter, or reinvent the meanings and assumptions he has assigned to his own experience, Ivan is doomed to recreate his life as a mirror image of the previous one.

At the opposite extreme is the alien in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, who walks around with almost no preconceptions at all. Like Campbell, this child-like alien is adept at unearthing the assumptions supporting an activity and in so doing gives "new understandings" to things that earthlings take for granted. In the face of others agreeing to a definition of a situation that precludes change, and typically in the face of empirical evidence to the contrary, these Campbell-aliens are constantly opening up options for new behaviour for themselves and others with whom they come in contact.

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Careful examination of certain contemporary management philosophies and practices ought to produce a joyful noise from practitioners in child and youth care. Many of their assumptions about change, growth, development, adaptation, and the human condition are consistent with the tenets of good practice with children and young people. They allow for the evolution of understanding and learning. Consider the following principles culled from Drucker (1973, 1985), Osborne and Gaebler (1992), and Senge (1992):

  • respectful communication

  • promoting trust through mutual understanding

  • accountability to the consumers and benefactors of the service

  • teamwork

  • rewarding quality and competence

  • working to a shared sense of purpose and predetermined goals

  • appreciating the power of symbols and meaning in utilizing and shaping experience

  • constantly looking for new ways to clearly express in practice the values, philosophy, and assumptions that support the work
    avoiding the laying of blame

  • legitimizing fun as a valued component of learning and productivity

  • supporting balance and well-being in all areas of one’s life

  • reaching for negative feelings and learning from mistakes

  • fashioning plans around exceptions and examples of success rather than around acceptable standards [mediocrity] and the avoidance of failure

  • remaining flexible to new information and learning opportunities.

Imagine the options for working with children and young people that could result if all administrators worked to shape the workplace around these notions. I suppose the more important question for someone to tackle is why are these perspectives not used more extensively in the administration of organizations, given that they are not new?

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Sure, we should maintain some skepticism. These Campbell-aliens really do need to start with a clear statement of their values and philosophies. Without that, all this focus on changing definitions and co-creation draws criticism that it lacks substance. There are folks around who talk the language of empowerment but still make decisions behind closed doors. And who knows what potentials and pitfalls are inherent these days as economic rationalists and grassroots change agents come together to shape policy? It is as "natural," I suppose, for the former to be ever-vigilant for opportunities to cut costs as it is for the latter to insist on the involvement of personnel, community leaders, families, and other service consumers in solving problems and having a say in decisions that affect them.

What does all this come down to?

  • There will always be people around who say that there is nothing new under the sun and that nothing works. What they often mean is that they are shaping the future to be a mirror-image of their own past failures.

  • The notion that there is a "paradigm shift" going on is a useful metaphor for encouraging people to overcome obstacles to good practice and to stimulate creativity.

  • Jamais vu is an infectious condition spread by touching the pages you are holding.

  • From the mouths of babes, the uninitiated, the curious, and those who disagree with us comes ... well, just about anything. It’s hard to say. We have to listen to know what it is.

  • You don’t have to dial the Rescue part of Rescue 911. Captain Kirk and Robert Stack don’t answer their own phones, they are "just actors" and that is "just TV." But they help people.


Drucker, P. (1973). Management: Tasks, responsibilities, practices. New York: Harper & Row.

Drucker, p. (1985). Innovation and entrepreneurship: Practice and principles. New York: Harper & Row.

Heinlein, R. (1991). Stranger in a strange land (rev. ed.). New York: Putnam.

 Ouspensky, P.D. (1947). The strange life of Ivan Osokin, a novel. New York: Holmes.

Osborne, D., & Gaebler, T. (1992). Reinventing government: How the entrepreneurial spirit is transforming the public sector. New York: Plume.

Senge, P. (1992). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Random House.

A Guest Editorial in the Journal of Child and Youth Care 9.3