Is “walking the talk” all it’s cracked up to be?
What is excellent leadership really made of?
I don’t even believe in gurus, but here’s my new one
There’s a well-used tiny book my mother-in-law kept by her bed in her last days that has now come to us. It measures about the same as an old iphone and is covered in scuffed leather, the spine broken, with a faded title embossed in the leather:
THE MEDITATIONS OF MARCVS AVRELIVS.
The Meditations is a kind of manual on how to live (and die) as a fine human being, written by a world leader. (See quotes for a flavour.) Marcus Aurelius, 121 – 180 CE, was born into a patrician family, and eventually became Roman Emperor, ruler over 60-70 million people from the Middle East to Britain. He was also well-known as a philosopher. I find what he says highly relevant today.
This edition was published in 1899, so clearly wasn’t new to my mother-in-law. From time to time, I leaf through it or allow it to open randomly to read a page. Today, I started from the beginning. Book 1 plunges straight in with no preamble:
“From my grandfather Verus, a good disposition and control of my temper.”
“From my mother, respect for religion, and a love of liberality; and the habit not only of checking evil actions, but also of repressing evil thoughts. From her, also, a simple way of living, and avoidance of luxury.”
In the next 19 pages, in considerable detail, Marcus Aurelius lists positive traits, attributes and values he has received from his family, tutors, friends and other people in his life. Don’t you think it’s remarkable – odd even, for a world leader – to start with 19 pages of gratitude?
I thought I’d have a go myself. Once I begin to remember how good fortune has come to me, it’s uncanny: every time I come across something that I think I achieved on my own, I find it’s never so. Indeed, there’s invariably a whole chain of different instances of help I’ve received on the way.
For instance, I was hugely proud of winning one of only two scholarships to an excellent private high school, after performing particularly well in the 11 plus exam. But I was really practised in intelligence tests, having spent 2 years in the top year of my junior Catholic school practising them day after day. My parents thought of that school because my aunt was dancing teacher there. They couldn’t afford it – but a wealthy great aunt offered to pay. I had 2 years in the top class because I was so young that the head teacher advised my parents to keep me at junior school an extra year. I was young for my year because my mother had taught me to read fluently before I ever went to school. I was quick with arithmetic because my father would play endless mathematical games with us when we were small.
And so it continues. I can take any personal achievement, throughout my life and find a chain of interventions from others that helped it to come about. In fact, for later achievements the chain gets longer and the serendipities ever more crucial. It certainly puts things in perspective.
I’m sure you have your own stories. Try it.
I’m thinking about it today, because one of the gifts of gratitude – apart from making you feel good – is the way in which it makes other people more real for you. Gratitude is a reckoning but it’s also a feeling; and you cannot feel gratitude to another human being without catching their humanity. When I feel grateful to the postman for bringing me a wanted parcel, I acknowledge his reality – today it’s the reality that he’s tramping the streets, 8 or more miles a day, in temperatures of 34° to bring the post.
If, on the other hand, you think or pretend that you’ve achieved everything on your own, you neglect the people who are part of your story. Eventually, you actually believe that you got your prestigious well-paid job entirely on merit, forgetting early comfort and advantage, financial or other support, superior private education, connections to powerful people and much else. You forget. Neglecting the relevance of others leads irrevocably to cruelty. If you don’t even notice the mouse, how are you going to realise your foot is on its neck? I wonder idly if any of our classically trained political leaders today have come across Marcus Aurelius at all?
The ancient Greeks – classical education again – tell of the Lethe, river of oblivion, that brings you forgetfulness if you drink of it. Their word letheia means oblivion or forgetfulness. We live in forgetful times, I think.
But they also have a word with the opposite meaning. A-letheia means unforgetfulness, unconcealment – everything laid out in the open – and this is their word for truth.
I really like this definition of truth. The best leaders don’t forget; they don’t conceal. They don’t stand higher than everyone else thinking only of themselves, forgetting connection. No, they see cause and effect laid out in the open; they remember, they see people.
My daughter, as a child violinist, was asked to play viola in the National Children’s Orchestra. She found she loved it. The viola doesn’t usually get a star role; it’s neither the highest string instrument not the lowest; its tone is mellow. She explained her delight. The viola is right in the middle of the harmony, so really matters, and as a viola player you feel the wonderful sensation of bringing the harmony together with the sounds you make. You matter hugely, but your contribution is largely unnoticed until it’s absent.
I think great leaders have that. They matter hugely, but they don’t stand at the front like a peacock, primping and strutting their stuff, bending their small head decorated with a shock of beautiful hair with little knowledge of anything beyond their own superiority (and then leaving the female to get on with building the nest). On the contrary; they’re in the middle of everything that happens, their finger on the pulse. They have an acute sense of the whole, and they value contribution – they know gratitude.
When you notice any enterprise working well in this life, look out for the viola player, that person without whom nothing happens. It isn’t always instantly obvious. Ask yourself, who is the linch pin? For sure, they won’t be sitting in luxury on the top floor or constantly seeking the limelight. You’ll find them down where people are, validating, encouraging, bringing people together to achieve, and inspiring connection and gratitude.
– which of course is where I started.
The Art of Conversation (2014) has sold many more copies so far than The Art of Communication (2019), but to my mind The Art of Communication is many ways the more exciting book. If you have come across both, tell me what you think.
Butterflies and Sweaty Palms will still hit the spot if you are looking for ways to overcome performance nerves, shyness, timidity, awkwardness, stage fright … you know, all that stuff that none of us is really immune to.
Not forgetting: Voice and Speaking Skills For Dummies, the best book for dipping into to solve vocal issues.
And Voice of Influence, my first and fundamental statement of what I’m about – how to find your own voice and use it to influence those around you.
This year of uncertainty is a great time for coaching. You don’t need to be at a particular level professionally or even have a job to seek out a coach. Coaching takes you where you are at and gives you more confidence and sense of being the person you were meant to be. Don’t hang back because you’re not sure if it’s for you. I can scarcely think of anyone it doesn’t benefit. If you want an informal chat to find out more, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Email me at email@example.com if you’d like me to give a talk or run a workshop in your organisation – on communication, conversation, confidence, voice, connection, interactive leadership or the subject of any of my books. I’d be delighted to discuss options with you.