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.



by Ruth Feldman

I took a long time getting here,

much of it wasted on wrong turns,

back roads riddled by ruts.

I had adventures I never would have known

if I proceeded as the crow flies.

Super highways are so sure of where they are going:

they arrive too soon.


A straight line isn’t always the shortest distance

between two people.

Sometimes I act as though I’m heading somewhere else

while, imperceptibly, I narrow the gap between you and me.

I’m not sure I’ll ever know the right way,

but I don’t mind getting lost now and then.

Maps don’t know everything.


We’re All Adults, Right?

When exactly do we become an adult?

Is it at 18 years old when we can legally vote and fight and marry? Or in our early 20’s when we move into a career and relationships? Or is it later, perhaps when we begin a family (but what if you never do)?

And once you reach adulthood, is that who and what you are for the remainder of your life?

Well, no. Not necessarily.

In fact from a psychological perspective there are now thoroughly researched stages of adult development.

Of the various models, I prefer Beck and Cowans version called Spiral Dynamics. But for simplicity, Kegan and Laheys model (diagram below) gives a clear indication of the maturation continuum which exists and is potential in every one of us.

  • By early adulthood we are at Socialised Mind, where we are largely moved by and oriented toward external forces. We are reactive and dependent, we perceive problems and threats, we seek safety and to fit in with the group. Some 70% of adults are associated with this stage of development.
  • For some, the next stage of development, the Self-authoring Mind emerges, whether through attraction, disonance or crisis. Here we are more independent, creative, oriented toward living from our own values and goals. Perhaps 30% of adults mature to this stage.
  • Beyond the masses arises the Self-transforming or Integral Mind. Here risk, ambiguity, holistic vision, scale, volatility, tension etc are appreciated and embraced as interdependent elements of life. Less than 1% progress to this breadth.
  • Posited to exist even further along the development continuum is Unitive Mind … but I’ll leave you to research that for yourself 😉

So yes we are all adults; but we are not all adults at the same stage of psychological development.

Given that, it strikes me that the lifetime challenge we each face is to keep on ‘growing up’.

That is, we are never fully and finally ‘adult’ … isn’t that a refreshing idea!

Deliberate Practice

Practice and repetition are vital elements in learning.

We know this is true for our children. Whether learning to crawl and walk, to read, to remember the times tables, to play a musical instrument or to bowl a cricket ball. Practicing over and over, what is awkward and difficult at the beginning, becomes tested and understood and eventually second nature.

However if your children are like mine, the discipline of practice is an acquired skill!

As adults, parents and leaders we draw upon our learned self discipline and determination in taking on new challenges.

When the challenge faced is working at our own maturation and growth, I notice a multitude of competing priorities and demands on time, doubts and fears, inertia and resignation, difficult colleagues, old habits and even past successes all colluding to undermine our commitment and our will to practice.

So many excuses.

Just do it.


World Class Leadership

Toward the end of Leadership Formation, each participant selects a world class leader for immersion study.

Criteria are intentionally vague and as a result we’ve explored the lives and leadership of people such as Steve Biddulph, Kelly Slater, Sir Winston Churchill, Marie Forleo, Pastor Brian Huston, Steve Jobs and John Quincy Adams.

The unusual diversity creates a rich base for leadership insights to emerge.

At the most recent Leadership Formation Retreat, we heard the stories of four inspiring people.

  • Elizabeth Broderick AO, who recently completed 8 years as Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner and is a committed advocate for improving gender equality.
  • Louise Voigt, former long-serving CEO of Barnardos Australia whose advocacy on behalf of foster children helped introduce Open Adoptions to Australia.
  • Norman Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. An Iowa farm boy, his later research into wheat produced high yielding, disease resistant varieties introduced to Mexico, India and Pakistan in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was credited with saving many millions of lives worldwide.
  • David Griswold, founder of Sustainable Harvest, a company bringing transparency into the coffee supply chain, helping farmers move from subsistence to sustainability.

It is very confirming to see how closely their stories align with the ‘follow your bliss’ road map:

  • Notice what you care about whether it’s gender equality, or that every child deserves a safe home, or helping people feed their families and rise from poverty, each leader has commitment to something they care deeply for, over a long period of time.
  • Get started anywhere, it’s all connectedtracing back through the lives of those who eventually make significant contributions, their origins are generally humble and modest, but easy to connect to their future impact. A young female lawyer, a social worker, a farm boy or a social entrepreneur, in many ways each continued the same ‘work’ as when they started, only on a widening platform.
  • Learn as you go of course, no world class leader arrives fully formed. Whether it’s from early experience, a failed business, listening tours, or a South American farmer, every leader continues to learn and grow and to demonstrate a life-long curiosity.
  • Perseverance being courageous; willing to be unpopular in pursuit of what you believe is right; persistence in the face of institutional (Indian bureaucracy) and cultural (foster child rights) obstacles; bending rules and breaking new ground; grit, determination and even stubbornness.

The stand out insight is that leaders generate power by connecting to a deep sense of purpose or calling.

The work of Leadership Formation challenges us toward this clarity.


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!

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.

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.

The Road Not Taken

Road Not TakenThe Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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 …