For leaders everywhere there was a significant but subtle scene in the blockbuster movie, Gladiator, one that would have been easy to miss but from which we can learn a great deal.
The scene has Emperor Marcus Aurelius, encamped with his troops in battle, sitting in his tent writing by candlelight. Marcus Aurelius, ruler of a vast empire, in the front lines with his troops, yet disciplined in keeping a journal � remarkable! In his journal he recorded his reflections of who he was and how he believed he should rule. He called his journal, ‘To Himself’ but centuries later it came to be renamed, ‘Meditations’.
Recently I was sitting with a senior manager within the finance department of a national wholesale group. His boss, the Financial Director, has been experimenting with some pretty whacky stuff within the department in an endeavour to significantly transform the mindsets and behaviours of the 70 plus staff within the team. Some revolutionary things are taking place and the place is buzzing with energy and creativity‌and yes, we are talking about a financial department here! They have renamed their part of the corporate turf the, ‘Crazy Zone’ and any visitor to their turf is greeted by a large colourful sign warning them that they are about to enter ‘The Crazy Zone.’ Having entered the zone one is confronted by another sign above the desk of the first person one encounters which reads, ‚Director of First Impressions‛. The tremors emanating from this area are beginning to be felt throughout the company. I heard of some amazing things taking place that were shaking loose individual creativity that of course had always been there, but had remained hidden like age-rich timber flooring under old worn carpets. An environment is been crafted where anything is considered possible and ‘miracles’ expected. It is an unfolding story that I have no doubt will one day be told with pride and no small measure of amazement.
With this in mind I turned the conversation with the manager to how he felt in all that was happening and in which he was a key role player. He spoke of new insights that were gaining ground in his thinking as well as some of the adapting and changes he was making to his preferred style of management. As he spoke, it was obvious that what was taking place here could only be described as, ‘authentic personal growth’ � the real thing!
He was being invited to replace a habitual management style, one orientated around working from memory – doing it ‘the way it had always been done’ with one that was being shaped by innovation. His enthusiasm was infectious and he had far more questions than answers‌something I like in a leader and a sure sign of someone eager to grow!
I encouraged him to take a lesson from our friend Marcus Aurelius and to record the journey. To begin a kind of, ‘Captain’s Log’ as done by the intrepid Captain Kirk of Star Trek, who dared to venture where none before him had gone. After all, it seems that my manager friend and Capt. Kirk have plenty in common! The challenge was to write a journal that would record his journey and perhaps even serve others who may wish to follow.
But there are further lessons for those in leadership from the writings of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
In the early part of his reflections he muses about those who have influenced him and contributed to shaping his own character and style of leadership. The lesson is the need to learn from others � and yes, even Emperors it seems can learn from others! One of the tragedies of so much of current leadership, influenced as it is by modernity, is the prevailing undertow that leaders cannot be learners. Somehow it seems that once the mantle of leadership is grasped, answers replace questions and certainty replaces doubt. Often this is as much the conditioning of external expectations as it is internal mindsets and attitudes. Leaders are not permitted to admit they remain learners and there can be no big red ‘L’ signalling ‘Caution: ‘Learner Leader’, pinned to their back. After all, by virtue of their position as reflected in impressive titles, they are expected to have the answers, know the direction and maintain control.
Or so it seems.
Smart leaders are those who understand learning to be a life long process with the responsibility of leadership simply offering even more enhanced growth opportunity. These are the leaders who don’t mind the big red ‘L’ sign and who even place under it yet another sign that asks, ‘How is my leading?’ Their journey is marked by reflection and searching: reflecting about those who have shaped them and searching for those who will continue to influence them. They are also smart enough to know that in their search they will encounter teachers in the most unlikely places‌a child, a homeless person, the fruit seller, a pensioner, the person who serves them their coffee or washes their car.
Yet another lesson to heed from our friend Marcus is the danger of leaders becoming embroiled in the busyness of leading. Slowly like an antelope trapped in ever deepening quicksand (I had wanted to write ‘like an elephant caught on a peanut butter sandwich’ but after all, this is a serious article!), perspective is lost and the ‘big picture’ becomes blurred. Soon they are trapped in the detail or perhaps retreat to the comfortable. The balance shifts and tilts dangerously towards the ‘doing’ (activities) of leadership at the expense of the ‘being’ (character) of leadership. The tyranny of the urgent squeezes out the important in their daily routines and, like the smoker who will always tell you that they can ‚give-up the habit at any time‛ � they don’t (and perhaps can’t). And so they carry on until some or other crisis stops them dead in their tracks, by which time it is often too late!
Regular visits to a journal will help prevent such crippling arthritis from creeping up on a leader. Learning to be honest in a journal is a challenge all of it own. But the evidence of such will be soon become apparent in the daily transactions and challenges that characterise the ‘display-window world’ of corporate leadership. After all, if you can’t be honest with yourself, how can you be honest with others?
Finally (for our purposes at least), the lesson that we take from this wise Emperor who took time to write to himself (and I believe primary for himself) is that of personal renewal. His journal offered the gift of recharging, energizing and empowering himself. Today we are encouraged to locate external sources for all this and hence the role and place of ‘motivational speakers’. However, authentic, lasting motivation can only come from within oneself.
Last year whilst in Hawaii, I interviewed Professor Nick Barker, a good friend and the Director of Leadership Education at the University of Hawaii’s East West Centre, for our ‘Resources for Busy Business People’. Answering the question what would be the advice he would give himself were he able to go back to when he was beginning his career, (a real ‘back to the future’ type question if ever there was one!) Nick replied that it would be to remind himself to always work at holding up mirrors that would enable honest reflection. It was a wise answer from someone who is helping shape leaders from throughout the South-East Asia Pacific area. Reflecting on who we are and what we encounter, is the very soil from which meaning, purpose, perspective and motivation grow.
So where to start?
Why just today, I attended the memorial service of an amazing 81 year old who had, to borrow from Scott M. Peck, ‘lived, loved and left a legacy’ before succumbing to cancer. The service had her unmistakable imprint and was an inviting pause to reflect on life, death and all that is important. But woven into the day’s tapestry was also the continued conversation with the manager, the unexpected meeting of old friends at a coffee shop (while writing this) â€? and the added delight of meeting their still freshly gift wrapped baby (and marvel at the contagious glow of new parents!), not to mention the many other ‘small’ and ‘coincidental’ conversations that have taken place; all of which offer hidden treasures for learning and growth…if only I take the time to pause and look. The gift of serendipity is all around us!
Why not make that cup of coffee, pick-up a pen, the promise of a blank page, and reflect on your day‌

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
-TS Eliot, Four Quartets


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