When Less Is More

A great friend and fine chef first introduced me to this paradoxical idea when we were making pizzas in his brick oven.

Instead of piling toppings on an inch thick as was my habit, he suggested using less and even leaving spaces where the crust was exposed, so the whole pizza would bake crisper and taste better.

Of course he was proved right, as evidenced by my soggy pizza.

I noticed this ‘less is more’ philosophy infused more than just his cooking. Whether in selecting ingredients for simplicity and quality over quantity; the manner in which he used a light touch with his staff; or in serving smaller portions leaving guests slightly hungry but with an enhanced appreciation of the meal.

Over the years I’ve experimented with ‘less is more’ as a leadership principle.

Some of what I noticed … scarcity can draw out creativity and ingenuity; reduced busyness returns the invaluable commodity of time; less force and pressure allows natural self responsibility to develop.

And crucially, less verbiage in a blog offers more clarity!

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Proximal Relationships

It’s ofteTree on Mountainn said that leadership is lonely.

And I’ve said as much myself, but now I wonder if this maxim is true.

Or whether loneliness is a misnomer of the essential aloneness we inevitably feel as we each find our way in life?

 

This question came to me after spending the evening with two friends … though calling them ‘friends’ hardly does justice to the depth of relationship, experiences and worldviews we share.

We did not talk about sport or politics or weather!

We are mentors to each other, good enemies, agents in each others growth. We talk about the blessings and the difficulties and the insolubles in each others lives. We listen and encourage. We care and disagree and digress. We are irritated and refreshed.

And then we part ways and may not meet again for weeks or months. We are on our own, yet we carry the relationships within.

I think of these as proximal relationships.

And they are arguably the most vital element in our development as humans and as leaders, of at least ourselves.

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Uncertainty Principle

einsteinA friend asked, “How do I know if I’m really following my bliss. Perhaps there is an even less travelled road which I somehow missed?”

Albert Einstein at the age of 70 wrote in a letter to a friend: “You imagine that I look back on my life’s work with calm satisfaction. But from nearby it looks quite different. There is not a single concept of which I am convinced that it will stand firm, and I feel uncertain whether I am in general on the right track.”

I relate this to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, from quantum mechanics.

There are fundamental limits to the precision with which certain properties of atomic particles can be known. For example, the more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa.

At the most essential level, uncertainty and doubt are implicit in Nature.

So in our lives, certainty about our choices and beliefs can hardly be expected. Even Einstein wonders about his life’s work. Given that, then the best we can do is make well considered choices, adapt and learn as we go, and enjoy the sun when it’s shining.

Too much doubt weakens us toward immobility; too little doubt and we harden in self righteousness.

A dash of doubt gifts us humility and openness … and odd moments of bliss.

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Taking Time

Saul and MuseMy father died one month ago.

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 …

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Be a Good Enemy

Karate Bow

 

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]

 

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Adversity

Mt KosciuszkoA few days into the new year my family hiked to the summit of Mt Kosciuszko.

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 …

 

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Black Cockatoo

Black CockatooCockatoo tribe woke one morning to an eerie silence. No dawn birdsong, no bushland creatures stirring, no rustling breeze, no ocean roar. The Cockatoo people gathered around the camp fire.

“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.

Sandstone cliffsThe 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 2After some time Red, Yellow and Green Cockatoo returned to the tribe with this new knowledge. On their arrival, the silence ended and the song of country was once again heard by the Cockatoo people.

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.

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Patterns

Leadership and the New ScienceInspired 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?

Hurricane from spaceIt 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!

Spiral GalaxyAs 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?

Hurricane ManI 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.

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Time and Tides

Andy Goldsworthy NestAt their Monday art class my children were introduced to Andy Goldsworthy and his work. They were both inspired by his sculpting of natural bits and pieces mostly in their natural setting.

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.

 

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Pandora’s Box

Pandoras BoxThe mythic tale of Pandora’s Box often comes to mind through my Leadership Formation work.

In Greek mythology Pandora is the first woman. Created by Hephaestus and Athena, who in concert with other deities endowed her with many unique gifts. (Interestingly Pandora translates from Greek as ‘all-gifted’.)

Various traditional renditions tell how Pandora’s curiosity drew her into opening a forbidden box thus releasing all the evils contained within it out into the world – famine, disease, sickness, burdensome toil and myriad other pains. Realising her mistake she quickly closed the box. Only Hope remained trapped inside.

For me, this is not a completely satisfying story. I see parallels to the Biblical story of Eve, where the woman succumbs to temptation and brings evil to an innocent world. Reflecting on our modern world it’s difficult to argue for this theme. Far more trouble appears to be caused by the acts of men!

I want to consider this myth in a different way. As with Pandora, I believe we are each created with unique potentials and gifts. Unfortunately we often experience poor conditions for the development of these deep potentials, especially through childhood.

As Karen Horney writes, instead we each build an idealised image of who we should become. I can envisage this as a kind of mental ‘box’ we lock ourselves into; with rigid patterns of thinking and behaving; full of compulsions, conflicting drives and false solutions all attempting to grant safety in a hostile world.

To grow into our human potential requires each of us to look within the interior ‘box’ we have constructed. Like Pandora, the initial motivation may be curiosity. However many may come from a more painful place; unhappiness or even desperation.

To me the image of ‘opening the box and releasing evils’, refers to the psychological process of confronting our inner conflicts and fears.

Opening the box entails danger to the individual.

Once the box is opened and the ‘evils’ are released, they cannot be forced back into the box. Once these evils are brought into full view, they are in our consciousness for all time. We can either try to create yet another box to contain them i.e. another layer of neurosis; or we can face up to these evils and begin the struggle of growing into our real potential and happiness.

The Ancients were astute in identifying Hope as the saving grace. Hope being the desire and confidence to search for a future good which is difficult but not impossible to attain. Hope gives each of us the strength to persevere in the face of adversity.

Pandora was not the cause of the worlds ills.

I view Pandora as an archetypal seeker of inner truth, confronting her fears in order to realise her gifts and potential. Wise Pandora offers clear guidance for our own inner work.

 

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