A rougher ride

Last week I went on a couple days’ walk to hear the music again.  Once again led by John Jones of Oysterband and his Reluctant Ramblers, though this time was different: the winds were much stronger, the views panoramic, the walking tougher.  It was a good experience, connecting with nature and the landscape, connecting with people who were there for the shared experience, and focusing.  

On this kind of walk your whole attention and concentration has to be on the next step: where you’re staying that night, where your few necessary belongings are, putting each foot in front of the other when you may hardly be able to see or hold yourself up in the blustery wind.  I didn’t reckon on being out in gale force gusts of reportedly up to 70 miles per hour.  I’ve never before had the experience of being literally blown across a track, nearly ending up in a ditch, unable to resist the forces greater than me.  It was a strange feeling.  If I withheld the inclination to tense and brace myself against the wind, it was liberating and enjoyable – up to a point.  I felt almost uplifted though at the same time desperately trying to keep my feet on the ground.  But when the force crossed that point, if I didn’t resist I would have been damaged (or that’s how it felt).  Struggling on, you could lose the will to live.  I had to walk with my legs wide, sort of like a cowboy, and even then I sometimes had to wait till the gust passed.  I was literally winded.
I was definitely at my edge.  But there was another edge awaiting me on my return.

Walking up to Stanage Pole

When I saw the missed call on my phone earlier this week from someone who only calls me when it’s something really important, I couldn’t return it straight away as I was going in to teach a yoga class.  How lucky that was because when I returned the call after the class then I discovered the message was about the tragic, shocking and untimely death of a man who I deeply admired as a human being and a leader.  I was struck to the core with disbelief, sadness and shock.  All death stops you in your tracks, this one was a huge downer.  He was one of a handful of leaders I have admired through and through.  He stands out for me as someone who was holding on to his values and ideals in this time of budget cuts and a lowering of personal standards and behaviours right across the board.  Of all the people to lose right now, his loss will be felt most keenly. 

Once again, I was winded. 

Too many unanswered questions.  As the days have gone by, I have found some comfort in one of my favourite quotations.
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.” – Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Somehow these words seem particularly apt this week. Even when some of the more obvious questions are answered, I will still be left wondering what does this tell us about what is happening in our society at this time.  Stating the obvious – This Should Not Have Happened. 

It seems to me that there is a pattern, I have touched on this in previous posts.  As our society goes in to this phase of relentless cuts to public services, using the public sector as its whipping post for others’ excesses, I am witnessing strange and irrational decisions in organisations where people are struggling to rise to the challenges being set them.  I am seeing behaviours that trouble me, even amongst people who are basically humane and good-hearted.
I remember the last meeting I had with him.  We touched on the fact that despite his deep conviction that collaboration and coaching, working alongside others, are the ways to achieve change and get results, under the increasing pressures he was finding himself sometimes resorting to a much more authoritarian style.   Time was too pressing, and it felt like these other better styles took too much of it.  I shared with him that I had noted similar tendencies in myself.  I knew that the time I had with people was now so much more limited, I felt myself feeling inside that I just didn’t have the time to help people in the right ways, the way I believed in.  I was moving to a much more ‘cut to the chase’ style and just telling them how it is, even in some cases what to do.  All very well, but when the messages are tough and bleak, not always the best way to be putting them across.  Not wanting to be leaving people in a stark landscape with no shelter in gale force winds.
I hesitated for a couple days before I could bring myself to get out my file of notes from our meetings.  I remembered with gravity that in our last meeting the last thing he had told me was about a friend’s death which had shocked and saddened him.  I never thought this would be the last note I would make.

He was a man of fine sensibility and with a great command of language.  When we were preparing the description for a leadership development programme, the vision of what he believed was needed in the current environment, rolled off the tongue:  leaders who would show ‘resilience without brittleness’, able to cope with ‘endless turbulence and uncertainty’; who could be role models for getting there without resorting to command and control; demonstrating the ability to trust and genuine collaboration; people who would return authority to teams and individuals, able to show humility (a word he used often) when engaging with communities and yet also have pace.  He wanted his leaders to achieve the goal of ‘being themselves with skill’.  This was something he was always trying to do, honing and refining his approach. 
He was a leader who met his own brief.  We never know another from the inside and I can only hope that he recognised his own integrity deep down.  He was a man of humility, always ready and willing to check whether his behaviour was really meeting his own demanding criteria.  I remember how he would ask these questions and there was real keenness to discover the impact he was making, he would brace himself for any slackness or criticism and genuinely absorb the messages for improvement so they were imprinted on his soul.  Early on he called me his nemesis which worried me, then he changed it to muse – someone to bring ideas and information to inspire change.  I felt a real desire to live up to his expectations and it was a shared endeavour to make things better.

The world became a much tougher place in the course of these conversations.  In our last meeting which was a week into this financial year, he made a side comment at one stage, breathing a sigh of relief but also extended tension – ‘one week down’.  It was and is a year with the challenges stacked high, not least the pain of dismantling services he deeply believed in with immediate tangible effects on the community as well as staff.
In the midst of our talks about organisation development, leaders, the imperatives for change, the challenges hitting this year’s budgets – we managed to find the odd moment for snippets of conversations about skiing (he loved the mountains and the outdoors), walking and music.  His favourite singer was Neil Young who he regularly quoted for relevant effect. 

Neil Young had been caught off guard by the success of his album ‘Heart of Gold’ in 1972.  Wikipedia says that ‘his first instinct was to back away from stardom. He would later write that the record “put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”‘  

Like Neil Young, this leader was never ambitious for himself.  Instead, he was ambitious for the people and communities he served. He liked meeting the interesting people out there.  This ambition for others is the sign of a true leader.  Cutting back on that ambition cut him to the quick, it wounded and winded him.  It took him to his edge and maybe it took him over that edge.In the middle of some notes, I find scrawled this quote:

‘I was bored by being middle of the road, so I headed straight for the ditch.’ 

That was how he misremembered Neil Young’s words.  I remember him smiling with pleasure and savouring the words. 

 What better epitaph for a leader I will always remember.

Summit View, Mount Bear, California - painted by Vanessa Hadady

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15 Responses to A rougher ride

  1. souldipper says:

    Karin, you’ve woven a tapestry of love. May your friend have had some inkling of his rich contribution – perpetuated by his friend Karin.

    I adore good leadership. I adore those people who give it the time it requires. I bow to those who achieve it and can be remembered by its indelible results.

    • Karin says:

      You are so right, Amy. Good leadership does require time and effort. His phrase about ‘becoming yourself with skill’ is part of it and at the heart of it. Too many people these days take good leadership for granted, as though you just do it. People like this man understood the practice and effort required in being both a good leader and person. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Viv says:

    It sounds like this was a massive shock to your system; be gentle with yourself as you work it through. This was a fine tribute and your admiration comes across well.

    • Karin says:

      You are right, Viv, you picked that up well through the ether. It took me back in time to a different but equally sad situation faced by one of the other great leaders I’ve worked with, which was probably a wake-up call for me in terms of my own role and the boundaries of effectiveness. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. psimon5 says:

    Dear Karin. Your thoughts are beautiful. Thank you for writing them down. I’m quite sure R would be bowled over and deeply honoured by them.

    You’re right, his loss will be felt keenly, but I think he will be missed more than most people will realise, because of the unfulfilled potential. I will remember R as one of a very small number of truly great and genuinely inspiring leaders I’ve had the privilege to meet. I know colleagues are saying the same in corridors and offices all around. Although his work was far from complete, and he won’t be there in person to lead us now, I think he already made it clear which direction we should head, and showed us how to behave during the journey. Your writing reminds us of that. I intend to continue that direction and pace and encourage others likewise; I think R would want that as his legacy above all else. I look forward to discussing this more with you in person.

    To his great credit, you clearly had the highest/deepest regard for R; so as Viv rightly says, please do be gentle and patient with yourself.

    Warmest wishes, speak soon, Simon

    • Karin says:

      Thanks Simon, I hugely appreciate your feedback and hearing your own thoughts. I spent some time today with colleagues (not immediate to yourself), in a group I facilitate and they were able to reflect on the impact of this collectively. Everyone is clearly still feeling stunned and reflective. As you say, it is so important that people like you and others continue to hold onto what R embodied – vision, direction and behaviours. Look forward to talking soon. Take care and have a good weekend, Karin

  4. Chris says:

    I didn’t know the man who died. But your words have made him live for me and I feel cheated that I never knew him. Leadership is the ultimate skill because it releases in others the ability to reach their own potenetial and a bit beyond. The world is a sadder place. And you, and all his colleagues, have my love and sympathy.

    • Karin says:

      You would have liked him, Chris, and the two of you would have worked well together. I just spent a bizarre moment imagining him in your dimly-remembered office. Strangely I could see him in there laughing with you – I must be hallucinating! and no, I haven’t been drinking! No need to feel cheated because I believe a lot of his values and qualities are reflected in yourself. And you almost did know him, as you know. He even offered you a lift.

  5. Chris says:

    I feel humbled by your comments. Thank you.

  6. Stephen says:

    As always Karin you have triggered the old grey matter and it has gone off in all directions. The death of someone who is close, either a colleague, friend or relative is always difficult and even more so when it is someone who had special skills and holds one’s respect. Of course we are all here temporarily and this is something that should never be forgotten however there is a risk of keeping attachments at a distance for fear of getting hurt, however to do this excludes so much that is valuable in life: ‘Tis better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all (Tennyson).
    And although we all like to feel that when we die we will leave a vacuum the truth is, as in physics, a vacuum is soon filled. Sounds harsh but that’s how I see it.

    • Karin says:

      Thanks, Steve, everything you say is true as ever. I think the departure of this particular individual holds a significance for me because of timing and context – it is very sad in its own right and I probably have given it a special meaning. Who knows whether that is true or not? A new week and time the news is still shocking, yet life is happening….as my good friend Jinny says, ‘the only real legacy we leave behind us is in the effect we have had on how other people choose to live their lives.’ I am bearing this in mind on various levels. Hoping you are well and let me know when you get the comments sorted on your blog!

      • Stephen says:

        I won’t go into techie speak about my own blog but hopefully it will be back up and running by the weekend. I note your theme has changed slightly (try scrolling through the comments window!)
        As for changing the way people live their lives, I’m not so sure. All the years I was teaching I hoped I was making a difference but it’s impossible to say what the long term effect (for good or ill) was. I used to think about the impact the kid’s parents were having on them (I did work in some quite deprived areas) and then I stopped worrying about any detrimental impact I might have had (Pinl Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”).
        It sounds like your colleague had a significant, positive, impact on many people and the world was a better place for his existence. Something we all aspire to.

  7. Karin says:

    Hi Steve, yes, the theme has changed – most irritatingly. I find technology changes get in the way of my thought processes. Spent the morning on the change theme today and was highly impressed by a presentation given by one of my group – a woman who shows the makings of a great leader in a completely different way than the subject of this post but with a lot of complementary, overlapping qualities. Good to see them in action, as there is a lot of leaden leadership around at the moment. I do believe people can influence the way others choose to live their lives, there are loads of examples, and I’m sure that you influenced some of your pupils positively. I am not clear why you would have thought your influence might be detrimental?
    The leader I’ve written about here is a man you would have liked and respected, and would have had some things in common with, probably overlapping humour, and a tendency to reflect hard on self-performance. You share with him a valuing of time well spent on people learning to be themselves with skill. He did have an extraordinary impact on many people, it is still startling to me when I remind myself he is gone. You do get used to things as days go by, but it still does feel just so wrong. Anyway….thanks for taking the interest at a time when I know you have a lot going on. Now let me see if this comment posts properly……

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for your assumption that I wasn’t detrimental on my pupils and in my heart of hearts I always hoped that I was having a positive effect on the staff I was responsible for. I was so aware of managers around me who believed that they were doing a good job but it didn’t seem that way from where I was sitting. Your wonderful description of your colleague left me wishing I had met him and from your comments I hoped he was a kindred spirit but my modesty got the better of me and I didn’t wish to allude to us having any similarities. He does sound like a great man.
      It’s good to hear that you are coming into contact with some exciting people, it would be awful to be constantly facilitating in areas where there is little hope and all is doom and gloom. I do believe the goodness in people that was around before the recession is still there, It’s just harder for these people to find the time to be themselves.

      • Karin says:

        That’s really true, Steve, it is much harder right now for people to find the time – and space – to be themselves. Reflection is falling by the wayside in a lot of places, but there are still a few leaders who are holding on to their understanding of its value and somehow preserving a place for it. The man who died was one of these and he had huge influence over a lot of people, encouraging and giving them permission/resources to keep valuing their development as leaders and people, hence another dimension of the loss.
        Steve, thanks for sharing some of your reactions here. When I thought about putting this post up, I hesitated because I didn’t want some readers to feel this man was somehow more special. When someone dies – especially completely unexpectedly – and the circumstances conspire to make it a symbolic loss, even larger than it already is, you (I) feel a need to commemorate the person and the event, which is also a way of trying to make sense of why it’s so important – but at the same time my intention was not to give a message that he was more special than others. I did think about this and hesitated about putting it here for these reasons – but it did help me a lot to write it, so in that sense maybe it was a selfish choice.
        We all compare ourselves with others which is unproductive and can have adverse effects on our self-esteem. We wonder, was this man a better leader/person than me? Does this person admire/like him more? etc I catch myself doing this too. Better is to recognise our own strengths and also the things we are less able to do with skill, and see whether we want to and can address these. I am thinking about these issues a lot as part of my yoga practice so it seems relevant to reflect on them here.

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