by Robert Frost
No doubt there are greater self-leadership challenges in life, but the loss of my dad tested my ability to navigate the emotional and logistical ripples caused by close, sudden death.
Fortunately I received good counsel early and whilst by no means perfect, largely managed to act upon it.
Slow down. The collective emotion and whirlwind of activity tended to press me into a sense of urgency. Tempering this was a good friends voice saying ‘slow down’, speaking from experience. Allowing three weeks for the funeral enabled various family and friends to alter plans and be present. And slowing down remains ever pertinent as our family resolves longer term matters.
Say ‘yes’ to all help. Immediately I realised I needed help and literally told myself ‘accept all offers’. I was surprised how quickly assistance materialised right across the spectrum of need. Close friends helped secure properties; my brother and two aunts arrived to pack and clear house; the assumptive sale by the funeral director was double fine; and help flowed from local police and neighbours, the Mens Shed, dads artist friends, an aunt who acted as funeral celebrant, an old boys school network. Phone calls, photographs and stories poured in.
Take reflective time. A mentor told me to make room for reflective time. That the loss of a parent prompts inner shifts in being and consciousness that are inexplicable and deeply personal. Obvious reflections on mortality and the choices and sacrifices my dad made to live an artists life are underway. I also notice myself now more curious and empathetic towards others whose parents have died. Still, lurking deeper I’m sure, are feelings and moods and realisations barely formed.
Clearly she meant take reflective Time, with a capital T …
Alongside goodwill and warmth, healthy friction is one of the vital ingredients for human growth.
Overwhelming antagonism defeats us before we even get started. ‘Nice and polite’ leaves us in an uninspired vacuum. Between the extremes there exists a sweet spot where opposition, conflict, challenge and obstacles become the material of self development.
A good enemy respects their opponent, focuses attacks on concrete issues, has clear intentions and seeks resolution for mutual benefit. A good enemy engages in education combat, tests our limits and motivates us to stretch into our potential.
Whether setting boundaries with our children, giving critical feedback to a colleague, or demanding accountability from a supplier, approached with sincerity each of us can be a good enemy.
Celebrate whenever you encounter a good enemy, you are on the cusp of new growth.
[For further inspiration read ‘The Way of the Owl’, by Frank Rivers]
The 13km round trip sets out from the Eagles Nest above Thredbo, accessed by a thrilling chair lift ride. In Summer the high granite country is dotted with wild flowers, small streams, and patches of residual snow in shadowed pockets. Very beautiful surrounds.
Weather conditions turned misty and cold at the outset, which tested our commitment. Light plastic ponchos were soon tattered yet we kept walking. When we finally reached the summit, a quick family photo was all we could endure, before being driven off by wind blown rain and chill.
Our children (12 and 10) managed surprisingly well over the four hour walk. In fact the adverse conditions turned the hike into an epic expedition, a tale already retold a good number of times. I suspect this adventure will prove a memorable childhood experience!
Which makes me reflect on the nature of adversity.
If the walk to the summit and return had been easy, would the experience embed as a lasting memory and would it feel like such an accomplishment?
Adversity tests us. Trials require us to discover and draw upon resources we perhaps ignore in the every day. And significant adversity strips away comfortable illusions, bringing reality into sharp focus.
As a leader, how you respond in the face of adversity, will reveal all about your true character. The superficial will not withstand the blast, only words and deeds of substance and quality will suffice. Even as fear and doubt wells upward, we cling to an inner truth or a higher vision. Fortitude is the strength to persevere in the face of adversity.
Neither incessant troubles nor endless sunny days make for a rounded life. Peaks, troughs and plateaus all play their role. Well worth remembering, especially when unexpected turbulence appears from a clear sky.
After the difficult hike we took a table at the snug Eagles Nest Cafe and ordered the children hot chocolate drinks. As we looked out over the misty valley and enjoyed the warmth, with the adventure behind us, I felt a tinge of loss. The harsh conditions had drawn us closer together in our care and mindfulness of each other.
And already this sense had begun to fade …
Matt was one of the trio who wholeheartedly took on the challenge of the inaugural course. A few of his thoughts about the experience and the impact of the work follow…
Q. Why did you commit to and then complete the two year long course?
A. I had encountered some of the thinking in prior short workshops with Thorin and knew it would help me increase my self understanding.
Q. What was the most challenging aspect of Leadership Formation for you?
A. Finding time to complete the reading and thinking.
Q. What specific features of the course format did you most value?
A. The small group format is ideal for deeper and more meaningful conversations. Your peers get to know you and can provide rich personalised feedback from their different perspectives.
Q. What specific insights or tools from the course have you continued to use?
A. The overwhelming insight is the importance of understanding and leading yourself as a prerequisite for effectively leading others. The tool I use most after completing the coursework is the I Ching which helps trigger all sorts of new thoughts and angles on many topics.
Q. How would a colleague, friend or your partner describe the effect of the course on you?
A. Matt is more able to go with the flow and less inclined to analyse and solve all the time. Which means less stress!
Q. What advice would you give some seriously considering Leadership Formation?
A. Speak to Thorin and other graduates to see whether the style of learning is right for you.
Q. Reflecting on your experience, what five feelings come to you now?
A. Interest, curiosity, playfulness, relaxed, calm, contentment, ALIVE.
Over the weekend my son and I camped at Bonnie Vale, on the fringe of the Royal National Park south of Sydney. The camp ground itself is not exactly a wild place, humans outnumber almost all other creatures, apart from a few raucous bird species. Even so, we share a sharp eye for nature and we accumulated a healthy spotters tally.
A hunting Sea Eagle plunged to the waves as we watched from the cliffs (above). Missing her target, she was chased south by harrying gulls. Ben noticed small claw prints in dried mud and nearby scats, likely evidence of echidnas, balled safely in the undergrowth during the day. That clifftop bush land habitat to a playful colony of New Holland Honeyeaters who refused to pause for a photograph.
On the beach, unexpected cloven hoof prints puzzled us. The mystery solved at dusk when we spied deer, a buck and a doe, grazing discreetly off a bush track. One of our first sights was an assertive, nesting Sulphur Crested Cockatoo driving off a prowling goanna, it being attracted by the meaty aroma of campers BBQ’s. Our sketch pads came out after breakfast as two wood ducks browsed the grass around our tent.
Sunday as we canoed upstream from Audley Weir, again surrounded by weekend humanity, we counted more wild sightings. A eucalypt full of drying cormorants, a pair of turtles sunning on a submerged log, a slow moving goanna creek side. As we lunched at the end of the navigable creek, a pair of intelligent and wary currawongs arrived to share a cracker with us.
Paddling down stream, Ben spotted an eel beneath our canoe, near invisible on the dappled, rocky bottom. And then a splash of azure blue as a darting kingfisher flew low along the water line. Natures reward for our vigilance.
Our father and son camping weekend made me reflect on both my own childhood, deeply embedded in the natural world, and the difficulty for modern children to experience the thrill and beauty of wild places. Particularly living in a large city like ours. I feel there is a vital connection between nature and a rich human life. I believe this even more strongly for anyone wanting to offer leadership into the future.
Recently I joined the Board of The Wilderness Society (Sydney). Whilst I am still finding my way in how to best contribute, I already intuit a role for the organisation in linking children to wild places. What better way to enrich future generations and encourage conservation of the earth which carries us?
“What is this silence?” asked Black Cockatoo. His brothers shrugged in puzzlement.
They decided to search for the cause of the silence. Red Cockatoo hunted in the estuary and mudflats. Yellow Cockatoo walked the long beach and looked in rock pools. Green Cockatoo ventured into the dense rainforest beneath the escarpment. Black Cockatoo climbed the sandstone cliffs high above their camp. The brothers promised to return to camp at dusk.
That evening Red, Yellow and Green Cockatoo met, built a fire and cooked the fish and fruits of their foraging. But Black Cockatoo did not appear. They agreed it was a long journey into the cliff country and he had most likely camped there overnight.
The silence in the world around them continued.
Next morning each brother again ventured out, vowing to return that night. Again they did not find a cause for the silence. Again Black Cockatoo did not return. The brothers cooee’d into the night but no reply came. Red Cockatoo wondered if a faint light high in the cliffs was a campfire but his brothers argued it was a low star on the horizon. They agreed to travel into the cliffs the next day to search for Black Cockatoo.
The Cockatoo people were skilled trackers and traveled quickly. They followed the trail left by Black Cockatoo high into the cliff country until they saw a faint plume of fire smoke from a distant ridge.
They knew they had found Black Cockatoo.
The brothers cooee’d and called his name. Black Cockatoo appeared on the ridge line and beckoned for the brothers to join him.
As they traversed the ridge they began to notice carvings on the flat rock shelf and strange ochre paintings and images beneath overhangs. They felt power in the art.
Black Cockatoo looked tired and hungry. Food was scarce in the dry sandstone country. He invited the brothers to his fire and spoke. “Here our ancestor’s spirits live. Carved onto the rock is the lore and dreaming of our tribe. We forgot our people’s stories and caused silence to come to our country.”
“I am glad you are with me” Black Cockatoo continued, “Together we can once again learn our culture. We can bring it anew to our tribe.”
So the brothers studied the rock formations and ancient art and gradually they learned afresh from their ancestors. Red Cockatoo learned of canoe making for the estuary. Yellow Cockatoo learned of tides and the construction of cunning fish traps. Green Cockatoo learned the healing properties of forest plants.
Black Cockatoo however stayed on the sandstone ridge. He learned to be a custodian of tribal lore. To this day you will sometimes see Black Cockatoo fly down from the high escarpment and hear him calling to his people, reminding them of kinship and reverence to country.
Inspired by a recent return to ‘Leadership and the New Science’ my thoughts circle around the idea of patterns in nature. Is it true nature comprises many deep and recurring patterns? Or is nature nothing more than randomness and chaos? If patterns exist, where do I see them and what can they teach me?
It didn’t take long for my swirling thoughts to arrive at the beautiful and terrible image of a vast hurricane seen from space. The pattern repeated in an obvious parallel with stars in a spiral galaxy. And on a much smaller scale, in a kitchen sink, I recall the image of water twisting down a plughole!
As I follow the patterns tangent, seasons and life cycles come to mind. Human development along the Hero’s Journey. The ebb and flow of tides and currents, like the rise and fall of cultures. Structures like trees with their branching crowns mirroring our brains branching complexity.
Patterns everywhere once noticed, suggesting an implicit ordering via great natural forces. Which leads me wonder what these insights can teach?
I imagine what lies beneath that vast magnificent hurricane, down on the ground at a human scale. There the experience is one of unimaginable raw power, of smallness and of destruction. There our vision is understandably narrow and survival the primary hope. Yet we know the storm will pass …
This takes my thoughts to everyday challenges and change in our lives. As we experience the hurt of disappointment or the high of a success, do we ever look outward and wonder what larger patterns have played a role? How often when we hunker down, sheltering from a personal cyclone, do we comprehend the larger patterns and forces of nature at play?
For while what lies within or in front of us may look like a disaster, from a different scale, perspective or time frame, we may suddenly appreciate a phenomena of beauty.
That evening my son Ben said to me “I want to make a sculpture”. So I offered that the next day after school we ride over to a nearby bay and see what we could find and make.
Which is what we did.
The absence of any autumnal trees and their fire-coloured leaves initially left us scratching around … until we found sticks!
On a lovely slab of natural sandstone we began to build a stick tower. Pentagonal based, about a foot in diameter and after maybe an hour we had a 2 foot tall structure with a platform roof of smaller sticks. And a leaf topped flagpole of course. What fun!
As we’d started building, a couple of sticks wouldn’t stay where Ben wanted them and I suggested we didn’t need to worry about that, rather allow them to find their own place in the structure. He was very happy to think like that and repeated it a few times to himself, like a quiet mantra.
At dusk and under a stunning sunset, we left our tower standing, imaging what people who wander by might think of it.
In everyday reality we are constantly making choices and faced with conflicting options. In contrast to having-it-all, we need to select one course of action while relinquishing alternatives.
Failing to do so, we advance divided and weaker, glancing sideways, wondering and second guessing. Renunciation is the skill of making a conscious inner decision to let go …
It is natural for us to face conflicting options; to be forced to choose between desires that lead in divergent directions. How then do we best recognise these contradictory issues and decide upon a course of action?
Karen Horney nominates four preconditions:
- we must be aware of what our wishes are, or even more importantly, what our feelings are. Most of us find it difficult to answer simple questions about our real feelings and desires; i.e. we do not know what we really want or feel.
- we need to develop our own set of values, beliefs, guiding principles and convictions. If not merely adopted from others, these beliefs will connect us with our Real Self. Failure to do so and we will drift along the path of least resistance instead of facing a conflict and making a decision one way or the other.
- once we recognise a conflict, we must be willing and able to renounce one of at least two contradicting options. The capacity for clear and conscious renunciation is rare because our feelings and beliefs are muddled – and perhaps in the end we are not secure and happy enough to renounce anything.
- to make a decision presupposes the willingness and capacity to assume responsibility for it. This includes the risk of making a wrong decision and the willingness to bear the consequences without blaming others i.e. being able to feel that “this is my choice, this is my doing.” Taking self-responsibility like this requires levels of inner strength and independence not commonly found.
Karen Horney concludes writing “To experience conflicts knowingly, though it may be distressing, can be a valuable asset. The more we face our own conflicts and seek our own solutions, the more inner freedom and strength we will gain.”
Are you up for a challenge? Where are you feeling conflicted, frustrated, upset, doubtful, guilty or stressed? Can you articulate the conflicts involved in making you feel like this? Can you apply the preconditions above to better understand your situation and options? Are you able to wholeheartedly commit to a course of action – while calmly renouncing the alternatives? Give it a try …
Reference: Karen Horney ‘Our Inner Conflicts’ page 25 – 27.