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.
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.”‘
‘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.