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BOOK REVIEW

The Ten Thousand Things: A story of the lived experience of the I Ching

Paperback, 227 pages, A5 format. Published by G.P. Martin. Released August 2010.
ISBN 978 0 9804045 3 1

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Review by Andrew O'Keeffe (author of The Boss and Hardwired Humans)

Glenn Martin's book The Ten Thousand Things is a novel about leadership set in a not-for-profit community organisation. One suspects the story is based on true events. In search of his life’s meaning, the main character moves from the city to a regional town. He becomes the head of a community organisation. But after turning the organisation into a thriving service he finds himself under attack from unethical forces with the organisation. How does he respond?

The book works on three levels. The first is as a vehicle for the author to share the philosophy of I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of changes. I Ching documents the meanings of the 64 figures made from the combinations of six horizontal lines. The figures assist the book’s main character explore the meaning of situations he faces and how he might respond.

The second level is as a book on business ethics. It portrays how unethical situations can emerge, and the tensions that are generated. The book reminds even the most ethical organisations of the need to be vigilant and to have control systems in order to attend to any exceptions when they occur. An important ethics message, subtly and hence cleverly captured here by Martin, is that the courageous people who play the apparent lonely role of standing up to dishonesty might actually discover that they are not in fact alone; there are others who were just waiting for some other brave soul to take a stance.    

The third level of the book is about management. The main character, unprepared for leadership, takes on the role as manager of the organisation. As with most managers when first appointed, he was ill-prepared for the task and has to work out for himself the key operating principles that will guide him. For example, he finds, with the help of I Ching, that when a group acts together it is stronger than the parts, but to do so the group requires a strong leader who has within themselves the means of peace and harmony.

The main character discovers that management is about balancing the demands from above (the executives) and below (the staff). A good manager resolves these tensions creatively and ethically. The main character learns to be a pragmatist. For example, “to be more innovative” is not an actionable concept. For him it is about creating clarity about the future and energising his team with what was possible, captured in the call to action, “how good could we be?”

As a tip to other readers, I found that I got more from the book the moment I shifted from being focused on what I wanted to gain from the book to going with the flow and taking what was being made available. I assumed the I Ching was guiding me in this shift. Like a good wine savoured, the book lingered.

The book is a significant addition to the literature on business ethics as it reveals, through the novel form, how unethical situations emerge and the dilemma that challenges good people in the face of unethical behaviour by high-power people. Either: a) no one stands up to the perpetrators, or b) what can happen to the brave souls who do.