A Wise Word

 

At another 50th birthday lunch, another milestone was also celebrated, his mothers 80th.

Close family and a few friends chatted over the meal; laughter and light memories.

(You know how it goes, the deeper, fraught family matters are parked for a while)

In a quiet moment, I turned to his mum, a few seats away and asked if she had some wise words for the table …

“No”

Point. Blank.

In that instant, I retreated into myself. She must be shy, evidenced by her gregarious husband holding centre stage.

And felt awkward about my clumsy attempt to draw her out and even a little chastised for unintended impertinence.

The day passed, as they do, and yet on the drive home from the mountains, I noticed that her ‘No’ remained.

And returned to mind in days that followed.

Until I asked myself.

What if her emphatic ‘No’ was in fact her answer to my question?

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Tempus Fugit

Around me, my friends are passing 50.

As a gift, last Saturday I trawled through more than 30 years of photos, digital and pre-digital, collating images of an old mate.

What an absorbing and enjoyable activity, traveling back in time, revisiting shared adventures, mischief and life’s milestones.

In all this looking back, what struck me was how quickly the years roll by.

The inexorable and most obvious metric being the sprouting upward of children …

Our past time is spent, invested, splashed and frittered; who can really discern in the midst of all the living?

Only later on reflection, the accretion of choices and how we used our allotment maybe makes sense.

So I ponder out another 30 years (touch wood), how quickly will they pass?

And what will be the view in looking back from then?

Perhaps like gazing upwards through leaves into the sky …

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On Plateaus

I grew up on a plateau, literally.

A strong formative memory is of sweeping views across hills to a saddle-backed mountain range.

These days however, reaching a plateau in your studies or career or business or personally, is typically viewed as a negative, we’ve stalled.

Isn’t progress an ever upward, straight line to mastery?

Perhaps it takes a while, but eventually we may notice that life and growth are non-linear.

Periods of success, learning and gains are often followed by dips and regression as things get hard or old habits re-assert. Two steps forward, one step back, if we are fortunate and persistent.

But what about times when nothing much changes? When we circle in one place? When ennui or staleness haunts us? When we reach a plateau?

Shouldn’t we be cracking on? Breaking through? Figuring it all out and innovating relentlessly?

How exhausting …

On a plateau we are granted time to look around, to take stock, to consolidate, to noodle on the side gig, to rest and regenerate.

Old salts know that when the wind doesn’t blow, it’s time to attend to the small jobs neglected when sails are full.

We can count on it, the next burst of activity or challenge will appear.

And in this way, we are ready.

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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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