I wrote a letter and slipped it into Keegan’s luggage before he set out on his overseas adventure that would last a year (at least) having finally done with school. It was one I had long been composing in my head and would be the expression of so much that I wanted to say but knew there would be little opportunity to do so in the frantic scramble of the days leading up to his departure.
The last time I wrote such a letter to him was on the occasion of his thirteenth birthday, a habit which I replicated with Tamryn and later with Sipho. Thirteen is a significant marker that indicates a whole new territory about to be explored. I don’t know what it is about thirteen, but something confusingly profound happens when that thirteenth switch trips. Somehow your sweet, compliant, obliging child goes to bed the night before and then, WHAM, the next morning it is all so different. Anyway, I will leave it to others more clever than I to ponder this mystery.
It was by accident that I stumbled across the letter I wrote when he was thirteen when the more recent letter’s trail was still fresh in my mind. As I reread what I had written those many years ago, I was surprised to find that two dominant themes had repeated themselves. The first was encouragement for Keegan to continually grow in his understanding of who he is – which I suggested would be a dynamic, lifelong engagement of a task. In this context I reminded him that who he was would always be more important than what he achieved. The theme is echoed by Meister Eckhart who wrote that ‘people should not consider so much what they do, as what they are’.
The second theme was one that I admitted I had been spared for most of my life but that was nonetheless inescapable: that we often learn more from the pain and challenges that life serves us, than we do from experiencing the flip side. The encouragement therefore was not to avoid or shrink from the lessons that arrive in uninviting giftwrap, but rather to accept and embrace the gift of growth that is on offer.
As I thought about letters for auspicious occasions my mind turned to what I would write to you, a leader, if you were about to embark on some or other journey.
It would look something like this.
You may recall that in an earlier series of ‘Survivor’ one of the participants had the unenviable career description of ‘rocket scientist’. ‘No, really,’ must be something he is used to saying after having had repeatedly to answer the stock question we all get asked: ‘So what line of business are you in?’ I can only guess that one advantage of being a rocket scientist is that he must get to meet a lot of brain surgeons and helicopter pilots as others try to match his apparent wit and creativity. I mean, come on, how many rocket scientists have you met?
I use the word ‘unenviable’ because with the job of rocket scientist must come huge expectations, and also some scepticism and no small amount of mystique. Take, for instance, my reaction to the very first challenge the two tribes encountered in their Amazon adventure. I sat there in front of the TV thinking, ‘How can the men (the tribes were split according to gender) lose this one? After all there is a rocket scientist on board!’ Wrong again. Rocket scientist notwithstanding, the women put one over the men in no uncertain fashion and no one was more surprised than the men. It seems sisters are indeed doing it for themselves!
In some ways the description ‘leader’ in its various guises – Chief Executive Officer, Managing Director, President, Chairman of the Board, Principal or whatever – runs a similar risk of association to ‘rocket scientist’ and has to run the same potential gauntlet.
Much is expected of people who carry lofty titles. Both the failures and successes of corporate leaders are glaringly over-exposed in our ‘instant-saturated’ culture thereby only heightening the scepticism and mystique that surrounds the subject. In pursuit of the elusive holy grail of leadership, an understanding of just what it is and how it is lived, some offer complex explanations that emerge from detailed research. Others would have us believe that effective leadership is as simple as following a tried and tested recipe in much the same way as one would bake apple pie (and more often than not such approaches originate from the land of apple pie). While undoubtedly we can learn from both approaches, the reality is that the art and form of leadership is changing. This should hardly come as a surprise as it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (see what I mean about that job?) to work out that the world of business, and therefore the responsibility of leadership, is changing.
Nick Segal, Director of UCT’s Graduate School of Business was quoted in the Financial Mail (July 25, 2003) as saying that what is important in the study of leadership is recognising the style and context which has an element of cultural specificity. For many leaders navigating the change can be something like attempting to paint a running rhino from a moving vehicle in the African bush. In anyone’s language, it is a tough ask.
What then, are some helpful navigational points for leaders negotiating such complex times? Perhaps the best ‘navigational points’ available are those that would have leaders look both backwards and forwards, embrace both the old and the new in their endeavour to provide authentic leadership.
In 1992 two worlds representing the past and the future, the old and the new, came together in a poignant manner at the equator in the Pacific Ocean. The Hawaiian people, desperate to reacquaint and connect with their heritage, had constructed a replica of the ancient canoes that had once transported their ancestors in what is known as the Polynesian Triangle, an area spanning some ten million square miles and embracing some of the wildest seas imaginable. Using only the stars and the currents, together with their own considerable affinity for the ocean, these intrepid seamen of old purposefully navigated their canoes over 2000 miles of uncharted open sea between the islands dotted in this vast expanse of ocean. That such voyages were both deliberate and repeated, and not the result of random luck, was something many contemporary anthropologists and historians believed impossible until they were proved wrong by the recreated voyages. The reconstructed replica canoe, christened Hokule`a after the star whose scientific name is Arcturus, was completed midst a blaze of publicity in the spring of 1975. It was to become a significant cultural symbol and icon for the Hawaiian people. An article in the Honolulu Magazine at this time referred to the Hokule`a as a ‘space ship of our ancestors’. And so, fast forward to 1992 where Hawaii astronaut Charles Lacy Veach onboard Challenger makes contact from space with those sailing the Hokule`a as they both crossed the equator. One orbiting the future, the other navigating the past.
The contrasting and paradoxical image that this picture conjures becomes a guiding metaphor for effective leadership today.
Leaders need to undertake a ‘journey of discovery’ – a personal Hokule`a, in order to discover and connect with the most vital of all leadership ingredients, that of character. More so than ever, leadership is about the who rather than the how and the what. What matters most is the ‘content of character’, as Martin Luther King coined it during the cauldron that was the Civil Rights movement in America. Many leaders have spent years constructing impregnable walls around themselves, masking shortcomings, concealing vulnerabilities and in the process have become strangers even to themselves. For such leaders it may seem that undertaking this inner journey goes against their every survival instinct on which they have relied to keep themselves alive in the shark-infested waters of the corporate world. And in some ways it does.
However, effective leadership demands an authentic understanding of who we are and the active development of what Daniel Goleman refers to as ‘emotional intelligence’. This is not attained by attending a conference or reading a book. The journey that is required takes courage and determination and means embarking on a life-long pursuit. It can take many forms and will certainly at times mean embracing risk and uncertainty. During the course of such a journey feeling lost, exposed and adrift is to be expected. Author Richard Barrett, in an interview with Fast Company put it this way: ‘This is not work for the tentative heart. The benefits of it are immeasurable. Yet it requires personal struggle. Only when you change internally will you see those benefits reflected in the outside world. You have to go through a process, and it is painful. You have to show up fearlessly.’
The ancient Polynesian adventures were guided by Wayfinders, skilled men to whom the task of navigation, and by implication the lives of their fellow sailors, was entrusted. These Wayfinders navigated by the stars and the currents and trusted their own instincts. Leaders who have not embarked on their own inner journey and who have neglected finding the means by which to undertake such a voyage, cannot serve as trustworthy Wayfinders for others. Finding the constellations and guiding instruments must initially seem difficult, but they are there and each must find his or her own to use and trust. Learning to trust them may prove hard at first, especially in a world where we have been schooled to use detailed maps that offer true north through seven habits, ten easy steps or 21 laws to ensure we find the promised land.
Whilst the Hokule`a is a journey of rediscovery, the Challenger offers a journey of unique perspective. The Challenger enables us to see and understand the world from a whole new perspective and if Hokule`a represents the way of leadership, then the Challenger points to the task of leadership.
Effective leadership creates the kind of perspective which enables individuals, companies or even nations to see themselves differently. It is seldom about ‘having the right answers’, but rather about ‘asking the right questions’. This is a shift from many traditional models of corporate leadership. For leaders to gain this kind of perspective and better understand their complex world, they need periodically to turn away from that world and hold it at a distance. It is that discipline which procures the breathing space in which perspective is developed. Without the understanding that comes from such perspective, meaningful change of any kind is impossible. Today, more than ever, leaders are required to break the stranglehold of industrial-age thinking that shackles so many corporations. An entirely new system of thinking is needed, one that realises the rich promise of the emerging relational/connection economy in which the primary focus is people and relationships rather than products and goods. In today’s world, leadership is no longer about preserving the status quo (however tempting that may be), keeping others comfortable and ensuring balance. Leaders have to be able to help others cope with an ever-changing world, and not merely survive in such an environment, but learn to thrive in it.
Just as the voyages of the Hokule`a and Challenger were mysteriously linked, so is the way of leadership linked to the task of leadership. To attempt one without the other is tempt fate and endanger others.
What, then, am I saying? Well, to record it in the Captain’s Log Book for fellow travellers who may be tempted to think it impossible, the entry under today’s date would simply read:
• Effective leadership involves an inner voyage of discovery. It is not without risk or reward, but nor is it optional for those who truly desire to provide authentic leadership.
• Failure to embark on such a journey distorts the necessary perspective that enables a clear understanding of the task of leadership. Without this, change is not possible.
• Effective leaders are contemporary Wayfinders. There can be no greater responsibility.
Bon voyage and stay in touch as much as you are able!
Stuart Coleman’s excellent biography, Eddie Would Go (MindRaising Press, Honolulu), is the story of Eddie Aikau, who sacrificed his life for his fellow adventurers on board the Hokule`a.