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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Where do we come from Paul Gauguin 1897

“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Paul Gauguin (1897)

In 1891, searching for a simpler, more elemental life, Paul Gauguin left his native France for the exotic paradise of Tahiti. There he painted this masterpiece, about which he wrote, “I believe that this canvas not only surpasses all my preceding ones, but that I shall never do anything better—or even like it.”

Throughout the ages artists and storytellers, philosophers and sages have tried to divine and express the deeper truths within the human experience, to answer the great questions posed so succinctly by Paul Gauguin. For many the answers are clear, yet to some the answers will never be settled and the restless, creative search for your own truth, your own purpose, remains a lifelong pursuit.

In our current commercial, material, informational, transactional and organisational Age these questions tend to be undervalued, overwhelmed and actively denied. Space for a reflective inner life only exists on the margins, a residual if we’re fortunate. Unsurprisingly though, they burst into sharp focus at points of existential crisis.

Working with leaders and teams I regularly encounter questions about purpose. Striving to make more profit, to serve a customer, to meet a deadline, or to earn a higher salary never reaches deeply enough within to generate true human satisfaction. It is difficult to connect corporate goals with intrinsic needs for human growth and healthy relationships, however when successful, a vitality and spirit infuses people and their work.

In the painting, the pair of yellow corners suggest (to me) remnants of a covering or wrapper which has been torn away to expose the complex life beneath. With a glance across the surface, his painting spans every stage of a human life from birth to death, from mundane to mystical. Taking more time, its dream like symbolism registers, I peer more deeply and am puzzled by what it all means.

Gauguin doesn’t directly answer the questions he poses. Instead, the foreign images and decorative style leave an aftertaste, an impenetrability, a faint unease. I sense that life, like his painting, won’t settle for tidy explanations.

Days later … it strikes me that deep answers can hardly sit on the thin, inanimate surface of a canvas painting, no matter how masterful. Re-reading his statement, I now suspect the answers to his questions are embedded in the making of his art, the effort and imagination required, the days and weeks he lived with and worked on the emerging mural, the fevered culmination of his life experience. Purpose then turns out to be more about creating, being, doing and relating than about meaning, things and end points.

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Low Ceilings

BerberThe ceiling of the regime is too low for me to stand! This lament by an elderly Libyan man in a bitter reference to the Qaddafi era struck me deeply. [National Geographic, February 2013]

I imagined a proud and capable man bent low beneath the oppression of that petty and dangerous regime. [A ceiling in place from 1969 to 2011, nearly the span of my lifetime.] Rather than being able to stand tall, breathe freely and live into a full and satisfying life, this man was forced to live hunched and constrained.

In my work with leaders I often refer to the ceiling they create for themselves, their teams and business. This ceiling reflects the limits the leader sets on those around, often unconsciously. In principle, the lower the ceiling, the lower the potential performance and happiness.

People beneath a ‘low ceiling’ leader, particulary within organisations, understand intuitively the dangers in out performing them. A few may rebel and be crushed, most comply to survive, others resign and flee. None of this activity creates an environment of high achievement, growth and success.

Leaders inevitably shape an organisation as a product of their own vision and awareness. This implies an important leadership imperative, the need for constant self development and evolution. If you stagnate, so will your team; and as you expand your horizons, so your organisation is enabled to expand and extend.

In the new Libya, may this Berber man now stand taller.

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Hero Journey

the-hobbit-bookThorin Oakenshield, leader of the dwarven company in The Hobbit, is my namesake. This connection has drawn me to Tolkien’s tale in many different ways. Recently I enjoyed watching the epic Peter Jackson film, the first installment of a trilogy, ‘living’ for nearly three hours in Middle Earth.

Over time I have come to appreciate Bilbo’s experience as the classic Hero Journey.

Hero JourneyJoseph Campbell wrote about the archetypal cycle in his 1949 book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with [new] powers.” p30.

Bilbo is called to adventure by the Wizard Gandalf. Thrust unwilling and resisting into the company of dwarves, his early steps beyond the safety and comfort of his hobbit hole are clumsy and dangerous. Bilbo survives encounters with trolls, elves and goblins largely through the efforts of others.

Gollum-BilboSeparated from his companions in the Misty Mountains, Bilbo descends deep into the heart of the range. In darkness he riddles with Gollum and wins a ring of power. From this point onward, Bilbo transforms from victim to emerging hero. Ultimately he is the key to the dwarven companys’ success in winning the return of the treasure stolen by Smaug.

I understand Bilbo’s riddling with Gollum to represent a psychological struggle with his shadow. Travelling deep within the mountain (into his unconscious) and wrestling with fear or doubt. In winning the struggle Bilbo discovers new powers and strength, represented outwardly by the magic ring.

Like Bilbo, we may need to be nudged into Life’s adventure. To cross the first threshold, leaving the security of the familiar and common. Through the trials and struggles we earn new insight and power. This is the timeless human pattern, the Hero Journey, identified by Joseph Campbell in the worlds mythological stories.

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Living volcano

“Is a volcano a living or non-living thing?”

After my Year 4 ethics students discussed this question with a neighbour, I asked for a show of hands. To my surprise, the majority voted for living.

Can a volcano move around? Yes, lava flows and continents move slowly.

Does a volcano breathe? It smokes and steams and lava expands and contracts.

Does a volcano have feelings, does it think, is it conscious (clinchers I thought)? But the students said we don’t know, how can we tell, it it might but differently to us.

At that point the whole class was in happy agreement, a volcano was a living thing. Outnumbered and liking their confidence, I decided against imposing the ‘correct’ answer.

In the weeks following, their response to the volcano question stayed with me. Whether from their sense of mischief and fun, or from a deeper intuition, they provoked me to examine my own quick classification of a volcano as non-living.

What if these ten year old children are right?

Isn’t understanding the earth as a complex and vastly interconnected living system an emerging world view? A volcano forms a part of the earth so it must be living in some sense. And ultimately, what value is there in separating living from non-living, other than to justify treating the non-living as lesser?

I notice there’s an art in staying open to surprise, respecting the unusual, allowing an awkwardness to dwell within and perhaps grow into new insight.

Our adult busyness often causes us to miss these moments, these small gifts, perhaps as a result making each of us a little less of a living thing …

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Silkworms Again

Nearly a dozen silkworms have not woven cocoons for their metamorphosis. Instead they continue grazing on leaves, getting fatter and slower. Then each half-heartedly spins a few sparse threads before shrivelling and dying.

This terminal omission surprises me.

More than 80% of the caterpillars did spin cocoons. Isn’t this a natural instinct, hard-wired into these creatures? Why have such a significant number failed to succesfully produce a cocoon? Surely such a crucial step in the life cycle of the silkworm is automatic.

Do these silkworms lack a genetic message? Do they just leave their run too late? Are they distracted by the profusion of leafy food available? I don’t know.

But this occurence makes me think about our development as humans. There’s a number of well researched and validated ‘stages’ of human development. I often work with Spiral Dynamics memes of consciousness, or Kegans stages of adult development. Each maps a progression, a healthy trajectory of consciousness evolution. We seem to know plenty about this phenomena … but yet so many of us get stuck along the way.

Perhaps for us there are simply many more complexities and hurdles to navigate in our life-cycle? Versus munching mulberry leaves and timing when to build a safe cocoon for the transition to moth. Still, what strikes me as a fundamental urge for the silkworms, seems no less fundamental for us.


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Our silkworms are spinning their cocoons, readying to make the great leap from two inch caterpillar to delicate white moth.

It’s at this point the ancients (and probably the moderns still) boiled the cocooned grub, killing it, while harvesting the incredibly fine silk threads. Those threads then travelled the world along the famed Silk Road.

Weaving silken cloth from the cocoons of mulberry leaf munching caterpillars, started me thinking about the raw materials and effort involved in the making of everyday items around us. The ingenuity of humans, figuring out over millenia how to produce such a vast array of ‘things’ from often surprising and simple ingredients. There’s so much we take for granted.

Sometimes I wrestle with the ‘thingness’ of my work in leadership and culture development. Working with intangibles, with human interiors, means there’s little solid matter to point to and say, “I made that”. Instead, the output looks like better quality relationships; new awareness and ideas; clarity and confidence; and influence on the performance and happiness of those engaged.

With interior work, I know the real measures can only be subjective and indirect.

We will not boil our cocooned silkworms. Each moth will chew an escape hole, forever ruining the thread, find a mate, lay eggs and die all within one week. Those eggs will lie dormant in a shoebox under my sons bed until Spring arrives again.

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