An Old Tree and an Older Story

It’s September, though in the cool wind blowing across the Yorkshire Sculpture Park it feels like late autumn. The blue sky and sun on our last visit have been replaced by grey cloud cover made darker by a morning mist. Last week it was the autumn equinox so the days and nights are roughly equal now; another sign marking the turning of the year.

Autumn; harvest complete, hedgerow fruits bowing branches with their weight, yellowing leaves signalling the impending leaf-fall. In the Lakota Sioux Sacred Hoop this is the time for transition from the richness and bounty of summer, the southern direction, to the west and to autumn. In this part of the Hoop the thunder-beings sit along with the life-giving rains; the place where there is the power to both create and to destroy – coupled with the wisdom to know which is needed. Equally important, it is a time for going inwards for personal reflection and deeper thinking.

That is why our small group is gathered together for the first day of the Four Seasons programme; a year-long opportunity to experience walking the land through all four seasons and to understand how story and narrative can help create a deepened awareness of ourselves, our community and the places we live in. The autumn, the western direction, is a good place to begin.

I choose to start the day by the oldest tree in the park; an Ash tree, broken and twisted but still throwing leaves out in defiance of its three hundred or so years and its physical decay. Ash is tough, that’s why it was used for tool handles and spears, for rafters in ancient roundhouses; anywhere strength and flexibility were required. In old tradition and folklore it is also a tree that can heal; the wood has blood-cleansing properties. It is a guardian tree and so was often planted at the entrance gates to farms and estates. Some traditions say that the spirit of Ash connects, links and bridges between inner and outer worlds, above and below. I’ve learned a lot from this tree over the years.

Trees, woods and forests are embedded in the cultural memory of those of us who live in northern Europe; for hundreds of years our land was forests and we lived and worked, literally and metaphorically, in their shadow. This comes through in our old stories and because of this Ash tree and the woodlands we will be working in, I tell a story from the forest at certain points through our walking today. This is a story of transition and change, growing from the creation and destruction embedded in the natural cycle of the life of trees and woods. If we listen hard enough we can hear the wood speaking back to us through the narrative. As we walk we see the land and the woods through different eyes.

And, strangely you might think, the story and the woods help us to see ourselves through new eyes. A key part of this story revolves on the moment when the wicked witch gets tricked and then pushed into a huge metal oven; the door is locked and she burns to death. On her dying, ‘Little Brother’ and ‘Little Sister’ are free to wander the witches’ house and discover great treasure. Something dies to create space for something new that is rich and life enhancing. Once more we see the power to create, the power to destroy and the wisdom to know which is appropriate to our lives and particular situations. The group spent time on their own and together reflecting on which particular ‘witches’ in their own lives needed to “go into the fire”.

A story of the forest, told in the autumn wood, in a place where a group of people had taken the time to sense the trees and wood in a different way. Each took their insights away, back into their lives but still carrying the story, the Ash tree and the woods with them.

The old forest story? You might know it as the story of Hansel and Gretel, mostly dismissed as a children’s story, a “fairy tale”. Perhaps it is rather a combination and connection between our human language and the language of the Earth itself – a connection we have let go of to our cost as we drift through our industrial and post-industrial world. I believe this is a connection we need to re-establish quickly to pull ourselves back from the edge.

I need to go and sit by that Ash tree more often.

Walking the Park - story, land and the strategic plan

A midweek day in early July, a day at first suffused by a pearly grey light; sun filtered by a sky full of cumulus that by mid-morning disappears to let us feel the heat and light full on our faces. It rained earlier and the day has that wonderful northern ambiguity of the warmth and the damp in collusion together.

I arrive at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park at about 9.30am and start to unload the car; my laptop, flip chart pens, notebook plus my battered walking boots and equally battered canvas and leather shoulder bag that has travelled the world with me. No Powerpoint slides, no hand-outs just an old Italian story and some laminated pictures of some of the works out in the Park with accompanying background information. On strategy days such as this, I travel light.

Walking over to the Visitor Centre where the event is taking place, I look across the valley, appreciating once more the flowing, green undulation of the valley sides, the curved shapes of the woodland and the shimmer of the Lower Lake constructed over two hundred years ago. That word..... ‘constructed’; the whole of the land laid out in front of me has been made by human hand, landscaped for the visual pleasure of the owners of the Bretton estate over hundreds of years. And yet now, it looks natural and bedded-in to the contours of the land, a ‘lived-in’ space. Definitely a useful metaphor for strategy and change, I reflect to myself with half a mind on the opening session of the day I am spending with this young, dynamic film company who are my clients.

Entering the Centre and making my way to the ‘Board Room’ which will be our base for the day, I am reminded, not for the first time, of the actual quality of the experience the YSP creates for its customers – the physical space, the customer service from the staff, the quality of the food and drink as well as (always a key indicator) the state of their loos, though the cut flowers seem to have disappeared from them this year. This business is a good example of best practice in the care it takes; another reason why I like to work here with my clients.

It doesn’t take long to get set; the laminated pictures laid out on the table, some words from Lorca handwritten in blue pen onto the flipchart:

‘Poetry exists everywhere, in the ugly, the beautiful and the loathsome; what is simply difficult is finding the means to seek it out and stir the deep lagoons of the soul’

and I’m ready.

The five members of the team arrive, get coffee and pastries, I briefly sketch out the day and we’re off. Stepping into my storyteller shoes, I let this old, old story unfold and take breath, finding the ears and hearts of this particular audience in this particular time. This is the story of a poor farmer who goes to seek some kind of reparation from the North Wind because every summer when the farmer’s wheat is ready to harvest, the Wind blows through the valley and destroys most of the crop, leaving the farmer always struggling to make ends meet and feed his family. It is a comic and dark story with violence, cunning, tricks, a greedy, manipulative prior who gets his come-uppance and a happy ending for the farmer and his family after the suffering they go through.

It is a story that draws a whole range of resonances and responses from the film team, just as it does with all the audiences I share it with. These old stories often dismissed as ‘fairy stories’ or ‘folktales’ are as relevant today as when they were first told. Recent political events have shown that we have created a world empty of the stories and narratives that connect us back to our deeper soul, to our natural ground, to our understanding that we are all connected. When we lose our stories, our poetic images, we lose this common ground, that which holds us and grounds us in a sense of the whole. Into this vacuum come the narratives of conflict, separation and hate pedalled by those whose self-interest is served by such division. As we participate in the storytelling we begin to see the connections, to witness the story being made anew through us, here, now. It’s a little piece of life witnessing itself through the lens of the story.

Then, a brief orientation to the next stage of the day outdoors in the Sculpture Park encouraging the team to be aware of what draws them both in the natural environment and the sculptures themselves. I also encourage them to look for any patterns or themes that they become aware of relevant to themselves and the business. Out we go into the Park under the now blue sky and bright sun.

I always start my work in the Park with movement through what I call a ‘threshold space’, an activity that helps clients leave behind their busy world of work and life to create a more mindful, conscious approach to our time together. For this James Turrell’s ‘Skyspace’ in the old Deer Shelter is ideal because it creates a meditative, enclosed space in which to pause and stop. As always this works its magic and we exit in a different ‘space’ to that which we entered. Again this is relevant to leadership at work – we need to understand how to create ‘liminal space’ through which teams and individuals can make transitions as part of change processes as the business develops.

Just by the Deer Shelter is the oldest tree on the estate; a four hundred plus year old Ash tree. Split and opened up by age, rot or lightening it defiantly throws new leaves out from its twisted and gnarled branches; a testament to resilience and longevity. Again the natural environment provides a powerful metaphor – a mirror to reflect on our own sustainability and resilience and as Lorca suggested, we can find the poetry in this twisted and broken tree.

And so the morning goes, walking the woods up Oxley Bank pausing at David Nash’s ‘Seventy-one Steps’, Andy Goldsworthy’s ‘Hanging Trees’, Hemali Bhuta’s ‘Speed Breakers’, ‘Outclosure’ another piece by Goldsworthylooking like a large, circular sheepfold with no entrance. Then down the hill to the Upper Lake and there at the old head of the lake, now left stranded on land as the lake level dropped and the waterline receded, we pause at the Boathouse and reflect on ‘Eddy’ the installation created by three artists collectively known as JocJonJosh.

This piece has never failed to provoke thinking in the leaders and teams I have worked with in the Park. A round boat sits under the renovated roof of the boathouse with its three oars; a physical symbol of the challenge any collective piece of work encounters. Whilst it might be row-able, the boat captures the dangers of a collective dynamic; as people work together it can become a wrestle preventing any forward progress. There is a sense in this piece that each time one rower would attempt to move forward, their movement would be countered by the action of the other two, leaving them going round in circles. The boat is also in its landlocked space; a further symbol of the struggle to start the journey. Anyone who has worked in or managed a team will recognise this. The key question for any leader is what can we do to prevent this dynamic sabotaging what we are trying to achieve?

And that was one of the key insights that was unpicked and discussed when we returned to the Boardroom once lunch was over. I also shared a traditional homily that strikes me as very relevant to business growth, taken from the Alice Pattrullo ‘Of House and Home’ exhibition of prints inside the Centre:

 ‘Sow four grains in a row,

one for the pigeon,

one for the crow,

one to rot

and one to grow.’

Good advice for strategic planning!

It might seem that spending time like this as part of a strategic planning or leadership development process would count as a waste of resources. I think that the exact opposite is true; creating a space to work at deeper levels, tapping into our emotional and spiritual intelligence, actually has the benefit of enhancing the more sequential business planning process because it frees leaders from habitual thinking and planningpatterns to which they default as a general way of running the business.

Story, poetry, art, sculpture, the landscape and a sense of place all create a literal and metaphorical space to see with new eyes and tap into these deeper intelligences we all have within and often forget to use, especially in the pressure of the working day or when faced by a business challenge. I believe we need to facilitate as much of this kind of leadership development as possible because we need leaders who can operate from this deeper place and help others to do the same.

Leadership - what's poetry got to do with it?

I live and work in two apparently different worlds; one is the world of leadership and business, the other the world of the arts, writing and particularly poetry. For some people these worlds never meet, or if they do it is as a collision of different values, beliefs and priorities tumbling together in some kind of street brawl – often over who owns the actual street.

However, I would suggest that a poet is someone who reflects and reframes the world she observes and feels to create communication and narrative in new ways. The poet’s job is to bring together ideas, people, things that might otherwise have lived apart. This includes the inherited stories of different groups and cultures, always with a view to framing them in a language that works at a deeper emotional level as well as a conscious thinking level. Poetry taps into and at the same time creates feelings; it enables us to connect to our own and others’ Emotional Intelligence (and in many cases Spiritual Intelligence as well).

Now we have reached a collective point as human beings in which the language and narratives of industrial and technological success, the stories that have sustained us in an illusion of control and power for so long, have led us over the precipice and onwards to our own inevitable destruction as we drain the planet of its ability to sustain us any longer.

In this current situation the narratives of leadership are pretty threadbare; the language used clanks like an old tin bucket. Often the only narratives that seem to galvanise groups of people and their communities speak to old divisions, of difference and separation, of ‘them’ and ‘us’. How we connect up and create a sense of community and then how we create helpful positive bridges between communities is the only way forward surely? In order to do this we need to find the poets, the storytellers, the leaders, who can find what holds us together, our deeply shared centre, rather than focussing on our difference. Those who can also take us out of our separation from the planet, a separation that enables us to see it as a resource to be exploited rather than it being part of us and we being part of it with our health and well-being inextricably linked.

In my experience, it is not a stretch for me to recognise that my health and spirit as an individual is directly related to the health and spirit of those around me and the health and spirit of the planet in which I live. I use the word ‘in’ deliberately because that is the truth of the complex interconnected web that holds all living things. ‘On’ is another word of separation, one implying dominance and control.

In the poem ‘For/From Lew’, the American poet Gary Snyder imagines what his old, close friend, now dead, would tell those he left behind:

‘There’s a basic fear between your world and

mine. I don’t know why.

What I came to say was,

Teach the children about the cycles.

The life cycles. All the other cycles.

That’s what it’s all about, and it’s all forgot.’


And that applies to us all – and most of us know it deep down inside. We just need a poet, to remind us. That is, after all, what any effective leadership needs to be built on.

It will take the poet, the storyteller, to break through the current ways we frame ourselves in the world because they are the ones who can get in under our defences and mind-sets to help us connect at the deeper levels I am suggesting we need. We live in a world of system and process that have been developed over hundreds of years – an apparently ‘rational’ world that, as events over the past decade have shown, is smoke and mirrors and beginning to crumble. Financial systems that help a small wealthy minority at the expense of the majority, science and technology with by-products that destroy the health and well-being of people and the environment, political systems based on old groupings and archaic ideas of what politics means in this post-modern world.

Put simply, the poet is the one who can help us find the new language, the emotional and spiritual intelligence that we need to guide us through these difficult times to a new way of living and working together. In all the variety of Leadership work I have been part of over the last few years with public and private sector, large and small, only a handful of businesses are managing to develop new ways of working and communicating together. Many start, and then go back to the old ways.

It’s time to bring in the poet......before it is too late.

Leadership & Community

Once upon a time in a blog post far far away I wrote: “When people talk about leadership they tend to focus on people who are perceived as leaders on the global or national stage, whether in politics, business, sport or any other arena. These leaders are often seen as 'special' or 'talented', somehow above everyday life and living. Yet the reality is very different; successful leadership is mostly about so-called ‘ordinary people' and their stories. Leadership is a special kind of action, not a special kind of person.”

That was written in July 2010 and seven years later we still appear to be falling into the same trap of allocating leadership to people or groups of people who actually are bereft of any ability to find new ways to develop approaches to the challenges we now encounter. They continue to apply the same strategies over and over again despite the clear evidence that they are not working. There are also the more subtle, sometimes underground, leadership dynamics that are driven by profit at all costs, tribal groupings that create battles (literally) as one tribe seeks to win and destroy the other tribe or even the old, old leader story of personal aggrandisement, corruption and power –seeking.

So what do we do? It seems to me that we need to find approaches to leadership that create new outcomes, that support the development of communities that are committed to taking positive, social, political and environmental action. These are not tribal communities that operate self-protectionist strategies based on the idea that ‘our way is best’ but communities that can link effectively with other communities to have a bigger impact. They are communities that are also committed to developing their own conscious, mindful approach to living in the world – an approach that values all views and works within that. The community of the open space, the collaborative conversations in which everyone can have a contribution to developing an action plan.

Where to start? Well, in one of our recent Mirror of the Wild webinars, Sue, one of my clients, came out with the wisdom that “these conversations and communities start around the kitchen table and move out from there”. Our challenge is to work out what the ‘moving out’ dynamic is and put it into action before it is too late.

Zen and the Art of Mindless Learning

Learning – I’ve engaged in it all my life, worked in it with young people and then later in life with businesses, leaders and managers. So I’ve earned my money throughout my working life from it apart from the odd stint as an actor and director. I’m not sure why in the end I chose it over forestry or anthropology; two of my other options….or becoming an estate agent which was another, albeit one that I quickly snuffed out. Maybe it is in my blood – my Dad was a teacher all his life. He started his career by working in a remand home (these days known as Borstals) for boys in Lower Wortley – this meant that a number of my early playmates were from the remand home; some people say that has had a lasting effect that is still there today! He went on to work in a number of Leeds schools and then moved into Adult Education, firstly in South Leeds and then north of the river.
Having a teacher for a father didn’t seem to help me very much in my learning experiences at school. I spent most of the time bumping along the bottom of the learning pond; the structure and process of schooling didn’t really fit with my preferred approaches to learning. The sport and theatre part of school suited me perfectly, the rest was a struggle.

I remember a school report at my Junior School when I was seven years old that said: “David is always getting up out of his seat” – that was pretty much all it said actually; they liked brevity in those days. I like to think it was because I was social and liked to share my learning experiences with others, others might say that I had a short attention span; that was also true then for the kind of experiences I had with my teachers. Another memory about that school comes back as I write – being sent into the corner to stand with my face to the wall because I couldn’t remember my multiplication tables. Everyone, including myself, was surprised when I passed my 11+ exam and went to the local Grammar School where I consistently managed to appear towards the bottom of the class in my academic work.

Looking back I am still surprised at the number of “learning experiences” that were accompanied by threats and physical or mental pain, both in Junior School and Secondary. Fear shuts down learning for many reasons but mostly to do with the effect of fear on the physiology and neurology of our body and mind. Yet during my days at school, education and fear stalked hand-in-hand through the labyrinth of my life. I think it is now different in schools and that can only be a good thing – the focus is more on the learner rather than the teacher.
The rag – bag of my education changed when I finally made it through to the sixth form and encountered the eccentric, talented and learned Dr Mark Burke who taught me English Literature and the more “normal” but equally talented Marshall Grainge who taught me Physical Geography. As different as chalk and cheese, both were passionate and totally committed to their subject areas – they were excited about what they did and that excitement transferred to me. They created powerful, vibrant environments for learning rather than simply trying to “teach”. I got the message very clearly and it has never left me – do what you love and learning will flow. So I promptly immersed myself in the things that I was excited about, that spoke to me because they enabled me to express something inside me whether through, literature, physical geography, sport, theatre…whatever.

Someone once said, “If you think Education is expensive, wait until you see the cost of ignorance.” Openness to learning is the most valuable asset we can develop in our lives and the experiences I’ve briefly outlined above have shown me that the most effective learning experiences are open, democratic and contain lots of opportunities for fun and play as well as focus and practice. The learning dynamic is inside out as well as outside in. Trusting what we know inside and bringing it out into the open through connecting with others we trust, whether as mentors, coaches, teachers or co-learners and co-creators is the most powerful way to accelerate learning.

My learning environments have been classrooms, hotel conference rooms, the mountains of Peru and Chile, Lakota Sioux Sweat Lodges, a Buddhist temple, around the dining table, cutting wood and chopping trees, watching my Rugby League team play, walking in our local woods with my wife and with friends in restaurants. It can be anywhere that you feel “right” in. You are the Hero or Heroine of your own Journey, there is no map, no final destination, and “the road goes ever on” as Bilbo says in Lord of the Rings – enjoy it NOW. Don’t worry where it will take you, though don’t let that stop you making the plans and deciding strategies – just know that what will emerge, will emerge and that the comfortable external narratives we construct for ourselves will often be pulled apart by the complexity, changeability, raw power and beauty of the emergent real ones. The important thing is to be ready!!