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.