Interview with Betty Sue Flowers, Part 3: Libraries, Little Voices, and the Hidden Common Ground

This is the final instalment of a three-part interview with Betty Sue Flowers – you can find the first part here, and read the whole piece as a PDF download here.

Betty Sue Flowers, Ph.D., is a writer, editor, and international business consultant, Emeritus Professor at the University of Texas, and former Director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum.

She has been a consultant for NASA and the CIA, Visiting Advisor to the Secretary of the Navy, Public Director of the American Institute of Architects, and editor of scenarios for organisations including Shell International, the OECD, the University of Oxford, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

She has written scholarly works on Robert Browning, Adrienne Rich, and Christina Rossetti among others, as well as serving as a consultant to television series including PBS’s Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. You can see more of her work and her extensive publication history here.

In September 2020, I talked with Betty Sue about her career, her accomplishments, and her understanding of the diverse fields she’s worked in, from foresight and healthcare to poetry, literary studies, and library leadership.

Your work on a television tie-in book with Joseph Campbell led, indirectly to you working on scenarios at Shell. How did that come to pass?

After I’d written the Campbell tie-in, people were calling me all the time for help with their books, and I turned them all down except for one person, Joseph Jaworski.

He was writing a book on leadership, Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership, and though I’d never met him, I decided to say yes to his proposal.

I’ve always gone by this little voice inside that says “Yes”, and if it says “Yes”, I never go against it. It’s gotten me into a lot of trouble – good trouble. I didn’t have time, I was running the honours program at UT, I was a professor, I had a small child, and I wasn’t interested in his topic either – he wanted to write a book about the American Leadership Forum.

The little voice said “Yes” when he called, and when that voice says yes, you follow it, but the project doesn’t have to work out. I thought I’d give it my best shot, but it’s hard to write a book, especially if you’re very busy, as he was – he was among the top ten per cent of trial lawyers in the United States. I thought it was unlikely he’d finish, so I had him dictate pages and mail them to me every Friday. I just tossed them in the corner, thinking he’d give up – but he never gave up! After a few months, he said we should meet, so I thought, “I’d better read this stuff!” It was very boring, except when he talked about his own life, so I re-dictated those parts and shanghaied my brother into retyping my dictation.

Out of about a hundred pages he’d sent, there were maybe ten pages that I truly thought were good. I thought, “Now he’ll give up,” because it’s so disheartening to have just ten pages out of a hundred or more. But he didn’t give up! It turned out, he had a little voice too, that was driving him to write this book. It changed his life when he completed it, forming the basis of his own publishing company.

A year into our process, he became head of scenarios at Shell – their first and only outsider in that role. He took the job on the condition that he could bring in his own editor, me, even though they questioned why they would need this Texan to help them write the Queen’s English!

He wanted to finish his own book after hours, so at five, he would come to my office and I’d have him tell stories which I recorded and then would edit, leading to the bestselling book.

Once I’d done that scenarios round, Shell asked me back for the next one, three years later, and that’s how it started!

Alongside this corporate work, there’s also a concern with the very biggest issues of life and death, of our global future. The Presence book has this ecosystemic and existential perspective, and includes this wonderful anecdote of a man who has a terminal illness and takes the opportunity to let go of many petty things which have been troubling him. On hearing that his condition is in fact curable, he breaks down and cries, because he fears returning to those old, petty ways. And you wrote also on the “bald scenario” of death, arguing that the idea of an afterlife, even if untrue, is valuable because of the perspective it gives us on our temporal existence.

We don’t realise the freedom we have to shape the world, often, because we’re living by a story of the future which has been handed to us. But the future is always and only a fiction, and we can make a better fiction that can change the present.

This is why I’ve been so interested in politics. Leaders articulate the story of the future: from Moses’ talk of the Promised Land to Martin Luther King saying “I have a dream”. It’s the job of leaders to tell the story of the future we will live into as a society. We should have better, more thoughtful stories of possible futures, and more of us coming together to devise stories and scenarios, not just accepting whatever inadequate story a leader is telling us. We should be telling these stories together.

You said we can create a different story, a different future. Is there a particular choice, in life’s garden of forking paths, where you really rewrote the story of what you could do next at that point?

No. I feel strongly about planning for the future, for strategy, as groups, but not as individuals. You might plan how to achieve a goal in life as an individual, but I don’t think I’ve set an overall pattern for my life in advance. I think there’s more mystery and variety in individual lives than communal lives, and so as an individual I’ve always just followed whatever called to me. That’s so individualistic, you can’t organise a company around that principle.

Right. Although I’m really intrigued by the possibility of new kinds of collective organization. There’s a Dutch nursing cooperative called Buurtzorg which has been very successfully operating non-hierarchically, in self-organising teams of ten nurses; in some ways the collective approach they take reminds me of scenario conversations.

You’ve spoken about following a little inner voice in your own life. It almost sounds like the scenario process is the effort to find the communal version of that little inner voice.

Yes, although it moves much more slowly than the individual, who can flit from one thing to another. That’s the really high point, as Adam Kahane writes very beautifully in his book, when you’re in a room and the group collectively senses the future. The vision of the future emerges and everyone recognises it; those moments are wonderful, and very rare.

It connects to this emotional aspect of scenario work and strategy. We’ve talked about political leadership as theatre, we know that decisions about what we do next can’t just be boiled down to numbers.

I’m reminded of Jerry Ravetz’s comment that after Descartes discarded the humanities in favour of geometry, “Many practitioners who nowadays receive emotional security from the belief that their spreadsheet will tell them precisely what to do with a project or company are living with the consequences of Descartes’ desperate grab for certainty.”

And James McMicking, presenting scenarios for the UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute last year, said: “We can manage by numbers but we can’t lead by them, the narrative matters.”

In this data-driven world, how do you see the power of the story?

I think we’re seeing some of the negative effects of the data-driven society, of algorithms that drive us into our rabbit holes, and lead us to the polarisation we’re now seeing in the States.

It’s very difficult to make any headway with people who are living in totally different realities. People won’t recognise the validity or bearing of statistics or other evidence because that information comes from another bubble. We have to make a conscious effort to learn other stories of reality.

We have theorised numbers very thoroughly, and the high priests of our civilisation are the economists and technologists. We don’t have an equivalent theory of stories, and we’re only just beginning to recognise the effect of these algorithms which drive us into ourselves, into those furrows, in a pernicious way.

We don’t yet have a sense of how new stories could rescue us, but we’re hungry for them, because otherwise there wouldn’t be these really insane conspiracy theories gaining credence all over the world.

We need think tanks about stories, not just economics and geopolitics. The closest we have to that right now is the scenarios programme at Oxford. You have the weight and prestige of the institution, and a commitment to thinking through this process methodically and putting it to use in the real world.

I would be keen to see this approach grow into a fully fledged think tank, and the development of those academic theories which, even if they never gain a wide readership, would still trickle down and enrich decisionmaking and the stories we tell ourselves, in communities, in organisations, more generally.

Adam Kahane’s work on reconciliation also speaks to this. In the age of QAnon, conspiracy theories, fake news, will we need something like a truth and reconciliation process where communities polarised by algorithm will be able to come together?

I chair the board of a nonprofit called Public Agenda, which researches the “hidden common ground” between these parties which seem to be at odds.

We put the results of our research on the front page of our partner newspaper, but it is yet to make a dent in the political conversation; again, I think it’s in part a question of having the right theoretical underpinnings to give the story part of this work the same rigour and method that the polling data benefit from. It comes across as an opinion poll, whereas what we’re trying to find is a new basis for political conversation. Even if we find the hidden common ground, people will still face the choice of one or the other political candidate who usually embody two extremes rather than any common ground.

Policies may address that common ground, but people don’t vote on the policies. They vote on the drama, wanting to see what a Boris Johnson or a Donald Trump does next. People can’t take their eyes away.

But perhaps, even if that work hasn’t found purchase yet, it’s a step in the right direction. Those three words, “hidden common ground”, are as evocative as “jazz” was for those scenario planners. It implies a long termism; it implies a field in which new seeds can be sown; it implies a perspective that has nothing to do with the blunt either-or of which elderly white man is in the White House next.

I think we can bring this round to the question of libraries which we were talking about earlier. You headed up the LBJ Presidential Library, and libraries are also very close to my heart, and in a strange way I think the library is still this hidden common ground.

It’s a space where the user isn’t instructed or dictated to, where they explore the shelves, choose a book for themselves, make meaning for themselves. Unlike teachers, preachers, doctors, lawyers, the relationship between the librarian and the members of the community they serve is very different.

Everything you said in your piece “Research Libraries in the Digital Age” in 2009 still seems relevant in 2020, which is either a marvellous tribute to your insights, or a sign that the sector has been evolving very slowly. Back then, you cited Auden, “We must love one another or die”, calling for solidarity as institutions face turbulent and potentially tough times.

What’s your take on libraries now, in 2020?

They’re more important than ever. They’re a space that has not been colonised by an ideology, or any particular mission besides freely offering everyone this space to explore. In the US, it serves as a polling place, a place where people get vaccines; anything and everything can happen in a library. Even if they are now more about the computer than the book, which is not what I feel comfortable with, given my generation, I can see that it’s still a portal into the same things which books gave us.

They’re the humanistic form of a church that’s always open, the way that medieval churches used to be. A place of shelter, a place where your soul can be nourished. If there’s one in every community, it can serve everyone as a haven.

I often went to the New York Public Library, and I’d see homeless people go there, and lay their heads down to sleep in these beautiful reading rooms, next to a scholar working away, and no one would bother them. That was very moving to me.

The successor to that in 2020 is something like Rachael Rivera in Auckland Libraries devising services tailored to the needs of her homeless library users. Her work led to this amazing debate in New Zealand, and international recognition via the US Library Journal’s Movers and Shakers award.

Libraries are underappreciated, and perhaps it’s good that they fly under the radar of a political system that doesn’t know what they were doing.

Perhaps that’s the beginning of tilling the hidden common ground, and helping people develop the capacity to sow their own future seeds in that soil.

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