Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding“, about the journey of returning a large estate to the Wild. The battless that were fought with both officialdom and neighbours is a testament to vision, character and determination and the book deservedly became a best seller.
We are strange animals, us humans. We have developed sufficient hubris to believe we are separate from and somehow superior to nature, that it is for us to own, and that somehow we can improve it. Our journey to a more deep seated truth is proving costly, painful and possibly terminal.
Our ingenuity is that we have the capability and creativity to interfere for profit. Whether it is extracting natural resources at a rate at which they cannot be replenished, or “regime change”, or our own welfare, we have a huge ability to bring about temporary change without really paying attention to the systemic costs of that change.
I think the same is also true of something as basic and vital as our basic form of communication. There are thousands of books listed on Amazon on something as fundamental as conversation, one of the defining attributes of humans. With a two year old in the house at the moment, I get a privileged view of seeing conversation develop. It doesn’t need any instruction, and it is awesome to see what drives his emerging conversation as his sense of his own identity develops, he explores the world around him and he works out how to describe it to us in terms that we respond to.
We do not need to be taught how to have conversations, we just need to have them. Over the past year at Originize we have been having conversations about what we notice going on around us, and bringing as much diversity as we can into those conversations. The results haver been both a joy and immensely powerful. Conversations with no set agenda, where expertise has no place, allows the human in us out and when we do that, remarkable things happen.
We seem to have done the same with Leadership. Scholars of leadership go back to Sun Tzu, Plato and of course. Machiavelli, but it is only really in the last few decades we have made it the subject of academic study. Since then we have had a torrent of books on the habits, traits, and characteristics of leaders, and apparently spent over three hundred billion dollars on leadership training in 2019.
You would think that, with a spend of that size, we would be awash with effective leaders. A quick glance around at who is shaping the World at the moment in politics, government and business would suggest otherwise. Very few of them list the study of leadership on their resumes, although many have chosen to write “just do what I did” books on the subject after the event.
I think the uncomfortable truth about both conversations and leadership is that we can teach them as much as we like, but unless we have something important to talk about, or something that matters enough to die for they are academic, not practical subjects.
I think they would both benefit from extensive rewilding. To be taken back their basics. And before leadership became a sellable training programme, those basics were made pretty clear. Sun Tzu emphasised intelligence, humanity, credibility, courage and discipline. Plato talks about the importance of “navigating by the stars”, vision and the importance of teaching. Machiavelli gets a bad rap – he could have done with better PR – but his insights contain real lessons. One my favourite quotes”
As in many things, Nicolo served up inconvenient truths with some flair. We value people who understand the thinking of others more than those who think for themselves, or as I think Richard Feynman put it “The problem is not people being uneducated. The problem is that they are educated just enough to believe what they have been taught and not educated enough to question what they have been taught.”
Which brings us to what I think is the heart of the challenge. If we take all of the above, it boils down to two things; Character and Purpose. The personal qualities to stand up for what we believe in for ourselves, and the spirituality to strengthen it with unshakeable purpose. Everything else is management.
When Isabella Tree and her husband were Rewilding the Knepp estate, it appears to have followed an almost alchemical process. First, they let it grow for itself. This infuriated all sorts of constituencies who accused them of “letting it go” and vandalism. Secondly, it adjusted, which involved being often temporarily overrun, variously by insects and wild flora and fauna until the third stage, where it has started to not only stabilise, but thrive, bring back wildlife and restore the health of the soil and the entire ecosystem. It has taken a couple of decades, and is still in progress. There is still much opposition from those who prefer recent tradition, but it is changing both attitudes and landscape.
Perhaps we might do the same with conversation and leadership. Left to it’s own devices, like the Knepp estate, it knows what to do and how to thrive, and we should interfere far less with it.
In a post Covid world, we need real conversation and genuine leadership, not synthetic alternatives.