By Ian Chisholm

Five years ago, I sat across from Dave Mowat (former CEO, ATB Financial) at a long table in Edmonton’s Caffè Sorrentino. What made the Italian spread in front of us particularly rewarding is that Dave and I had each captained a team of ATBers that afternoon in Caffè Sorrentino’s kitchen, preparing this meal. Sitting down to actually eat it represented the ultimate phase of a very colourful, competitive and energetic duel between two fairly affable captains with a strong preference for winning, and equally psychologically prepared to do whatever it took to “get up in their opponent’s kitchen.”

Perhaps it was prompted by the intensity of our duel, or the Italian context, or the amount of time we took to share the meal together — I’m not sure — but Dave began telling me about a rehabilitation community in the province of Rimini in Italy called San Patrignano (“Sanpa”). It was a special place that he had visited in person a few years before.

It was hard to imagine that Dave’s description of Sanpa was actually possible. He described to me his first impression of the dining hall, and seeing the impeccable standards to which that building had been constructed in order to house all of the community members together for meals. He told us about the detail with which the tables had been set for 2,000 people, each place setting carefully laid so that it would send a message straight to the heart of every person there that they belonged, they were loved and they were important.

Dave also told me that, if I believed in the power of enterprise, pride in one’s work and the dignity inherent in human endeavour, I had no choice but to go and see Sanpa for myself. I could tell that he meant it, so I did a little homework.

San Patrignano was started almost 40 years ago, a corner-of-the-desk project of businessman Vincenzo Muccioli. Muccioli credited the rising numbers of addictions in Italy to a society struggling with a loss of important values. He believed the answer required “life-positive” solutions to bring people back to experiencing just how beautiful life is.

While Sanpa has a colourful history with plenty of triumphs and tribulations, it is best assessed by its legacy today: nearly 2,000 residents at any time, all of whom are recovering from serious addiction. They do not pay a single euro for their cure, and the program’s success rate is estimated to be north of 70%. Over 40 years, that means thousands and thousands of people who have their lives back.

* * *

On May 29, Anne-Marie, our sons Oscar and Jameson, and I arrived at the front gates of San Patrignano to spend the day. Two resident guides who had volunteered to spend the entire day with us welcomed us warmly.

There is no program or process that people are moved through at Sanpa; rather, belonging to this community creates the context for individualized healing which on average lasts just shy of four years per resident. Vitality occurs through a carefully nurtured passion for one’s work, one’s internal experience, balance and life in community.

The 42M-euro operation includes practice groups comprising approximately 10 individuals who live and work together in 54 areas across 22 industries. Each group produces a top-shelf product, service or experience. They create world-class cheeses, specialty meats and wine. They raise first-class horses and train award-winning dogs. Their graphic design and commercial printing operation runs day and night and is a multi-million-dollar euro operation. Recently Sanpa was awarded the contract for hand-screened wallpaper for a 1,000-room hotel in Mumbai. They also run 5-star restaurants, including what has been recognized nationally as one of the top 10 pizzerias in the country. All of the shops are united by their members’ common commitment to the highest quality of craft and a deep desire to be well, addiction-free and a contributing member of society.

We would need a very long dinner together for us to communicate to you all that we observed and experienced. The best way for me to portray my experience is to tell you that I was on the threshold of tears (in a wonderful way) for hours at a time. The beauty of the human spirit revealed itself to us around every corner of this remarkable community.

Personal impact aside, I was on the lookout for some leadership principles for our clients, a group of leaders who pay as much attention to their organizational culture as they do to their strategy for the future. What kind of leadership does it take to ground a place like Sanpa? What is its guiding philosophy? How do they sustain the intensity? How has Sanpa grown to be so special in a mere 40 years? What characteristics of Sanpa can Roy Group and our clients seek to emulate in our own operations?

With these questions in mind, I plucked out the following four themes:

1. Taking Initiative Without Hesitation

One thing that you will notice when you go to Sanpa — see how I did that? There: you’re going! — is the immediacy with which people learn to craft beautiful moments. When people are in conversation over lunch – SNAP! – that and only that is what they are doing. No distractions, no cell phones; even the coated waiters (who are residents themselves) are mindful and don’t interrupt.

When someone can’t reach a tool they need in the workshop – SNAP! – someone hands it to them.

When someone asks for help – SNAP! – a community member will follow them without asking how they will be assisting.

When a group of (obviously) non-Italian-speaking guests nervously crosses the threshold – SNAP! – people stop what they are doing to look them right in the eyes, smile and say, “Ciao!”

In each moment at Sanpa, there is no hesitation: only presence, focus and a deeply practiced balancing of all that is going on. During our tour, the residents were present and gave a clear response to whatever was happening around us. It appeared they have learned (and are learning) how to weed out all of the nonsense and clutter that gets in the way of their (and our) ability to create a quality moment.

2. Engaging Conflict for All It’s Worth

One of the most fascinating aspects that we took away from our experience was Sanpa’s transformational use of conflict.

With people being in community, living in close quarters with each other and working together to attain such high standards, conflict is not only inevitable, it is the magic sauce — and in Italy, that’s saying something! In addition to uncovering opportunities for finding a better way forward, emerging interpersonal conflicts provide the fodder for all residents to convert a deeply engrained pattern of escaping what is difficult, to engaging what is important.

The very nature of conflict requires the parties involved to articulate themselves, outline personal boundaries and endeavour to understand other and self to a much deeper degree. At Sanpa, conflict is recognized as the arena in which we all deepen our awareness, re-find right action, advance, and learn to do so without judgment.

3. Valuing Apprenticeship and Mastery

Another aspect that you will notice is the seriousness with which people take their work, their learning and their craftsmanship. After the smile and the “Ciao!”, members return to whatever piece of work lies in front of them. Whether graphic designer, vintner, butcher, furniture-maker or chef, each has a visible desire for what they are working on to be better than any that have come before: a deeper expression of practice, and one step closer to masterpiece.

Where does this high degree of discretionary effort come from? By design, it comes from inside. No one is paid for their work. No one is acknowledged or rewarded publicly for their accomplishments. Consultation and specific feedback on pieces of work is sought and offered, but in the absence of any flattery or flowery encouragement from others. Intrinsic motivation is awakened, kindled and stoked, with people knowing deep down that they themselves are giving all they have and by doing so, are responsible for unleashing their own potential.

It looks, at times, as if their lives are on the line — which, in a very real way, they are. The community thrives on the intensity of each person’s journey towards mastery. Over 40 years, Sanpa has learned that neuroplasticity — our brain’s ability to rewire, change, heal and reset itself around the trauma and damage it has experienced — takes time, patience, practice, repetition, honesty and immersion within a totally new setting.

4. Setting Standards That Defy Reason

Interestingly, whatever work is in front of an individual is relatively new to them.

Residents are placed into working groups bearing little to no resemblance to their former livelihoods. One of our guides who had started in the dog-training barns had never even had a pet; the other had come from a world of high-risk investment. After beginning in the swine barns, our guide was now in charge of marketing Sanpa’s Barrique Project, which asked 40 designers from Milan and Florence how woods from wine barrels could have a “third life.” The answers were breathtakingly beautiful. The task now for the woodworking and marketing practice groups at Sanpa is to replicate these luxury pieces and to create a worldwide demand for it.

Newness to task is no excuse for a substandard product at Sanpa: the standards are zealously high. This is no therapeutic activity designed to keep people busy for the afternoon craft time. Learning curves are steep and intense – and there is a lot at stake. This is business: sophisticated, high-standard, luxury business. Every corner of the property is impeccably maintained. Its farm machinery is mostly Ferrari and Lamborghini. Its buildings are beautiful and every corner of the property is maintained by the Landscaping and Gardening practice groups like palace grounds. One is reminded often that this place exists on amore per la qualità — the love of quality — in both our inner and outer lives.

Commercial activities like this project generate 18M euro per year toward the 42M-euro annual operating budget. Sanpa accepts zero government funding, finding it easier to exist without the fickle, complicated, distracting, political and short-term nature of government funding. The rest of its annual operating budget is provided by friends — wealthy, powerful and influential friends — who are drawn to Sanpa’s story, its standards and its significance. Many of these friends spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve at Sanpa for their own inspiration and recovery. Thousands more visit each year and become supporters — all starting with a welcome as warm as the one we received.

* * *

Going on a field trip like this, on the advice of a good friend, was a reminder in itself to keep venturing out into the world to find incredible stories that will leave a dent in you. We toured most of the day and did not see all of San Patrignano, which means we will undoubtedly go back someday to learn more from all the Sanpa community is doing.

The lessons from that day continue to inspire and inform our approach to the work of leadership development. We are actively weeding out our tendency to hesitate and / or avoid conflict. We are hungrier to learn new things and are setting our standards higher than is reasonable. We are also building time for friendship into our day-to-day operations. And we are eating better food, with the kind of people who tell you that you have to go and see something to believe it.

If you are planning on being in Italy and would like to visit San Patrignano, please be in touch and we can introduce you to their International Coordinator. And then we can share the wonders of the experience (over dinner) when you return.

 


Ian Chisholm is a founding partner of Roy Group.