ReWilding Leadership Conversations

Image. Open Nature

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”

“Minds are of three kinds: one is capable of thinking for itself; another is able to understand the thinking of others; and a third can neither think for itself nor understand the thinking of others. The first is of the highest excellence, the second is excellent, and the third is worthless.”

Machiavelli

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.

The Possibility Virus

We are the most creative, resourceful, inventive form of life yet seen on the planet of which we are part. It is what has got us into this mess, and what will get us out of it.

I have to confess to becoming quite frustrated by the constant stream of helplessness being unleashed by many sources in the media, and the attitude of businesses that have made billions for shareholders in recent years as they display various forms of learned helplessness.

a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression.

Psychiatry

Whether it manifests as businesses whose future relies on continuing the damage they cause, or talented, unique individuals waiting to be rescued by one initiative or another, it underestimates us.

Of course it’s tough. On many counts. The old system that got us to here no longer works effectively except for a very few, who have already garnered more from it that they can reasonably use. We do not yet have any idea what the future will look like. Old data is of limited use and the future hasn’t arrived yet.

We are in a place between.

Every major change takes a similar form.

There is a place we are leaving to which we cannot return, Departure.

A time of reflection, insight, fear, and transformation. Liminal space, A place between.

And a point where we take our experience before, what we have learned, and emerge into a place where we integrate it with what we need to do now. Integration

Right now, we are in the place between.

Can’t go round it, can’t go under it, can’t go over it, got to go through it.

Playschool

We are at a point where we discover the real difference between resilience – an ability to get back to some form of where we were, and anti fragility – the ability to harness what’s going on and grow from it. Personally, as a Society and as a Species.

Money is only a tool, a servant. We have maybe forgotten that.

We need to think differently.

Risk is the wrong measure

For all of our lifetimes we have been operating in a system we thought was the way things are, rather than what it has been, a moment in time.

We have made a fetish of assuming it would continue by turning risk management and efficiency into mantras. Risk as a function of probability and impact, and efficiency as leaving nothing in reserve in pursuit of short term gain.

We have known about the possibility, indeed the inevitability of a pandemic, but have chosen to choose it wouldn’t happen on ourwatch. Oops.

We now have to invert thinking from risk to possibility. Same formula, different mindset.

There is a well known framework created by Dave Snowden in 1999, at the beginning of “VUCA”, that I keep on my wall

Cynefin Framework, Dave Snowden

It is similar to a much older framework – The Maori idea of turangawaewae, meaning a place to stand.

In a place between, we are in the chaos space. Our approach has to be to cling to our sense of meaning, our own individual purpose as our compass, try things and adapt. Darwinian evolution at its best. The survival not of the most fit (for the old place) but of the most adaptable to fit into the new place, wherever that is.

Agility, not as a model for consultants, but as individual practice, for real.

Release the Human

Nietzsche tols a story about a Master and his Servant, and how over time the servant subverted the master thinking he could do a better job. It didn’t end well.

We have been going down the same path, believing that systems, AI, processes would make us more efficient in an economy somehow frozen in time. There is of course, no process, no AI that will sort out where we are now. Covid is a symptom as well as a problem. We have created an economy where other symtoms are available, and waiting their turn.

This is a time for humans. For those unique qualities we have. For our ability to work together.

Together

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far go together”

African Proverb

This is a well known, and well worn saying. That doesn’t stop it feeling true.

Now is the time to choose who you’re together with. Not as a herd to shelter in the middle of, but as a small group (rule of thumb – five as a leadership group, no more than 150 in total) to do something meaningful.

Look at your LinkedIn Group, and ask yourself how many of them you have had a dialogue with in the last three months and what the relationship is. Are you hanging on them, are they hanging on to you, or are you doing something together?

This is a precious moment, where none of us know. That gives us the opportunity to entertain the possibility of doing something new.

For the short time we are here, we are here for a reason.

What’s yours? The possibilities are many.

Move.

Paddle!

As we get into week two of lockdown, it reminds me of those times I’ve had to move, when I didn’t really want to . 

Moving house to a new area for a job, because the current one had gone stale. 

Being made redundant. 

Or not getting the move I’d been expecting – the promotion, selection for the first XI. 

There are familiar sensations, the things we know of grief and change.

Denial, anger – at loss of status, of increased uncertainty, a feeling we are not as much in control as we were a moment ago. The strain on relationships, and perhaps above all, the sheer unfairness of it. We convince ourselves we can make it better – to  somehow go back to normal. When that doesn’t work we get really down. 

And then, the things we hadn’t seen – some of which we knew were there, but discounted, and some of them surprises – things we never even knew of – turn up. We get traction. We move on and wonder why we didn’t do it earlier.

I think we are all going to have to move. Maybe location, maybe job, maybe expectation, maybe all three but the same emotions will likely apply, and the difference between a good move and an indifferent one will be mindset.

Mindset

“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”               

Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

“Normal” is a much used word at the moment, particularly by businesses who want to go back there, where they feel in control, and by the politicians who want to convince us they can take us there.

I suggest the reality is that normal is an illusion. It means we take a set of circumstances, and effectively convince ourselves they are a constant whilst the real world moves on. 

Sometimes slowly, sometimes very suddenly – like now. When that happens, all the things that have been changing, that we have been wilfully blind to, all turn up and throw a party.

“How did you go bankrupt?” Gradually, then Suddenly

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Always Rises

We can adjust and adapt to cope as best we can with our new circumstances, or we can choose to use this period to rethink. 

It’s about mindset. We can see this as a problem which we are victim to, or we can choose to do what humans do best – harness our imagination and determination, learn and innovate. Move.

Nassim Taleb introduced us to the idea of “antifragile” – the idea of treating unexpected shocks as less something to be resilient to, but to be altogether more assertive. 

Using the energy of the shock to grow.

To do that, we need not to wait for permission, for somebody to sort it out for us. We need to choose ourselves, and act.

To do what we need to do right now

Right now, there are countless opportunities, not just for business but for ourselves. 

The 750,000 volunteers have chosen themselves. 

Our local farm shop have turned their business model around in 48 hours, to generate greater protection for their customers and staff, and help their business survive. They have chosen themselves.

Gin Distilleries switching to making hand sanitiser are choosing themselves.

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of people and businesses making important small moves. Choosing themselves,

(Unfortunately, it’s many of the large Corporates who are using their cash reserves to wait for normal, thinking that they are protecting their shareholders interests. Managers with only upside looking after the interests of transient shareholders with no agency in the business. In effect, hiding. Not, I think, a good place to be. Particularly for the soul.)

Then, imagine what comes next.

What do we do when we can’t plan?

The reality is, none of us have a clue what this will look like in 2021.

Even in “normal” times, the very best forecasters rapidly become unreliable after 400 days, with most of us reaching unreliability after around 150 days. And these times are not normal.

So what do we do?

We Prepare.

Here’s my own checklist:

  1. Focus. Choose yourself, care for others. Be clear in your mind where you’re headed. Fit your own oxygen mask first, then help the people next to you. Be prepared to lead if needed. Pay attention to who you surround yourself with. Jim Rohn suggests you will become the average of them. Experience and research suggests he’s right.
  2. Stay Aware. Stay exquisitely tuned to your surroundings. Notice the changes, particularly the tiny ones that start gathering together. They are signals. Do not assume.
  3. Get Grounded.. Be calm. Find that centre of you that understands the bigger picture, the things that make your life worthwhile to yourself and others, and keep that in mind. It will determine the small steps you take.
  4. Stay agile. Whatever you expect to happen, something else will. Be ready for that. In start up terms, be prepared to pivot. Don’t get bogged down. Recognise “sunk costs”. In many ways 2021 will be a start up.
  5. Own it. Whatever you do, whether you have your own business, or you’re in a brand new squeaky clean role at the bottom of the ladder, own it. You have “skin in the game”. Be grateful for help, but neither expect nor wait for it. Do what you need to. Help others do what they need to do, but don’t steal other people’s problems. It’s wrong.

Enjoy the ride

If you set off for a paddle on the lake, and find yourself in white water, it’s not good. 

If you realise the white water is unlikely to kill you if you stay calm, go with the flow and paddle when needed, it’s exciting.

Relax. Go with the flow.

Paddle.