‘Where words fail, music speaks.’ (Hans Christian Andersen)
Music, like all forms of art, can bypass the rational filters of our minds and transport a message, a mood, deep into our bodies and souls. Many of the earliest musical influences on my own life had a profoundly existential feel, including Pink Floyd’s Time and Supertramp’s Logical Song. These songs have continued to carry that same resonance throughout my life, reflecting and reinforcing a deep sense of restlessness, resistance and reaching.
Others have had a more overtly spiritual influence, including Tim Rice’s and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar and U2’s Under a Blood Red Sky. They lifted me out of myself, helped make sense of what I knew and felt intuitively and galvanised my stance of faith. Some gave voice to the deep angst and discordant dissonance I felt in my life and in the world, including David Bowie’s Scream Like a Baby and The Saints’ This Perfect Day.
What music or songs have had the deepest resonance or impact in your life?
‘There’s nothing more dangerous than a resourceful idiot.’ (Scott Adams)
15 minutes before I was due to lead an online change leadership workshop in Germany, I stepped outside briefly for a breath of fresh air. I wanted to clear my head, focus and pray. Then…oh no, I heard a gentle click behind me and discovered, to my alarm, that I couldn’t open the door without a key. It hung tantalisingly on the inside and I could see my mobile phone staring at me blankly from the table. Aha, I thought. I will ask my hosts to let me in. Oh, they were out. Mild feelings of panic rising, I rushed to a neighbour. Thank God they were in, could understand my Englisch-Deutsch, had the hosts’ number and could call. Now, with just 2 minutes to go, my host appeared and saved the day.
It was a timely reminder that sudden change can come from anywhere, unexpectedly and often from left field. It was also a helpful reminder that leadership, resilience and agency aren’t simply inward, intra-personal qualities or strengths. Our ability to handle the impacts of changes and transitions often emerges from an outward-facing resourcefulness, looking outside of ourselves openly (and, for me, prayerfully) for people and-or other resources who can co-create and co-enable a solution with us…or – if no solution is possible – sit with us in the midst of discomfort, disappointment or pain.
'The one thing we owe absolutely to God is never to be afraid of anything.' (Charles de Foucauld)
I once heard a psychotherapist say that she always pays special attention to the final words a client says, often as they are touching the door handle and about to leave. It’s where a client may reveal the core of an issue, perhaps because they feel safe to do so now that they are leaving, or sometimes because a new insight emerges just as they approach the boundary that the doorway represents.
A close friend’s father had fought with the German Wehrmacht on the Eastern front in World War 2. He was a young man at the time and, along with his peers, had taken part in terrible atrocities. As he approached that final boundary, the end of his life, he felt deep despair over what he had done and a terror of meeting God. I met with him, an Engländer. We hugged and cried. Now he could die in peace.
This feels very poignant to me as we approach Easter. Jesus Christ’s final words, ‘It is finished’, hold special meaning for me. I spoke with an EMDR therapist recently about a painful boundary, a traumatic experience, that I went through as a teenager. It was a brutal ending. My life was finished. Yet Jesus, Saviour, found me there. It is finished. That life was finished. Resurrection: a new life began.
Rediscover the human
‘How is that human systems seem so naturally to gravitate away from their humanness, so that we find ourselves constantly needing to pull them back again?’ (Jenny Cave-Jones)
What a profound insight and question. How is that, in organisations, the human so often becomes alien? Images from the Terminator come to mind – an apocalyptic vision of machines that turn violently against the humans that created them. I was invited to meet with the leadership team of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in East Africa that, in its earnest desire to ensure a positive impact in the lives of the poor, had built a bureaucratic infrastructure that, paradoxically, drained its life and resources away from the poor. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
I worked with a global NGO that determined to strengthen its accountability to its funders. It introduced sophisticated log frames and complex reporting mechanisms for its partners in the field, intended to ensure value for its supporters and tangible, measurable evidence of positive impact for people and communities. As an unintended consequence, field staff spent inordinate amounts of time away from their intended beneficiaries, completing forms to satisfy what felt, for them, like the insatiable demands of a machine. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
A high school in the UK invited me to help its leaders manage its new performance process which had run into difficulties. Its primary focus had been on policies, systems and forms – intended positively to ensure fairness and consistency – yet had left staff feeling alienated, frustrated and demoralised. We shifted the focus towards deeper spiritual-existential questions of hopes, values and agency then worked with groups to prioritise high quality and meaningful relationships and conversations over forms, meetings and procedures. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
Academics and managers at a university for the poor in South-East Asia had competing roles and priorities, and this had created significant tensions as well as affected adversely the learning experience of its students. The parties had attempted unsuccessfully to resolve these issues by political-structural means; jostling behind the scenes for positions of hierarchical influence and power. They invited me in and we conducted an appreciative inquiry together, focusing on shared hopes, deep values, fresh vision and a co-created future. The challenge and solution were to rediscover the human.
Where have you seen or experienced a drift away from the human? Curious to discover how I can help? Get in touch!
Small things with great love
‘You are a sign of God, the proof of his living love.’ (Mother Teresa)
As we walked to the local shops, the sky was foreboding grey, the ground was wet with muddy snow and the air felt freezing cold. We passed by various people on route, trudging with heavy bags and looking faintingly-tired in the fading half-light. Each time we approached someone, the petite Filipina walking beside me sprang spontaneously into a wild, animated greeting with wide open arms and a beaming smile: ‘Good evening!’, ‘Merry Christmas!!’ The strangers looked up with astonishment, surprise. Then they would smile (some laugh), greet her back and look happier and more energised.
I laughed too. ‘What made you do that?!’ It feels unusual in this UK culture to speak to those we don’t know, and especially with such vibrantly-extroverted enthusiasm. She commented, ‘They looked weary and alone. I wanted to do something small to brighten their day.’ It brightened my day too. This woman shines Jesus. She models Mother Teresa’s invitation to do small things with great love. I found myself looking forward to being outside with her, to witnessing her acts of kindness and their deep, detonating impact. She made the winter dark seem lighter and the bitter cold feel warmer.
When have you witnessed, experienced or done small things with great love?
[See also: Seen and unseen; A radical heart; Candles]
A nuanced new year
I spent 5 years learning French, 4 years learning German, 3 years learning Greek, 2 months learning to teach English and 1 year learning Hebrew. I've also learned a smattering of words and phrases in languages as diverse as Japanese, Arabic, Spanish, Filipino and BSL. Whereas traditional language-learning often focuses primarily on vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, I find myself especially interested in social-psychological dimensions such as confidence, context and culture. Manoeuvring between languages often calls for a nuanced interpretation rather than simple translation, paying attention to, say, intention, meaning and relationship before mechanics like spelling or word order.
I find there are similar dynamics at play in other (and equally-complex) human-relational arenas such as leadership, teamwork, coaching and facilitation. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung commented astutely: ‘Learn your theories as well as you can, but put them aside when you touch the miracle of the living soul.’ Textbook techniques will take us so far, yet real transformation often emerges through the sensitive manifestation of human-spiritual qualities in our relationships and practice including: presence, contact and trust. This calls us continually to explore questions such as, ‘What does this person (or group) need in this situation at this time?’ This is very different to a simple, ‘If X, do Y.’
As we enter the New Year, I’m aware of so many complex challenges that are impacting dramatically on people, communities, organisations, nations and the entire natural-environmental ecosystem. In such circumstances, it can be tempting to grasp hold of simplistic, mechanistic solutions that, we hope, will help us to feel less anxious, less vulnerable and less out-of-control. We may risk closing in on ourselves to defend and protect those beliefs, behaviours and interests that provide us with a sense of reassurance, safety and security. In 2023, I hope and pray, with open mind and heart, that I will stay close to the call-principles that guide my practice: prayer, presence, participation.
How about you? Happy New Year! Light shines in darkness. We can be hope.
'The first Advent was the embodiment of God's peace plan.' (CMEP)
Advent is the anticipation of an arrival. Not just any arrival, but a re-living of the first arrival of Jesus Christ in this world. It’s also a looking forward in anticipation to the re-arrival of this Jesus in the future. In this sense, Christmas, for Christians, represents a fundamental pivotal event, a radical Kairos moment in human history. Against that backdrop, a Nigerian visitor commented in astonishment at how, in the UK, the Christmas miracle appears to have been drained of all life, vitality and meaning. We seem to have exchanged this amazing earth-shattering event for superficial, glittery materialism.
Some Iranian friends asked me to explain what Christmas does mean for Christians. What’s its significance for us now? I drew on Francis Spufford’s words in Unapologetic (2012) that, if we look honestly at our own lives and across the world today, we can see evidence of the ‘human propensity to f*** things up’ everywhere. In biblical language, that’s the impact of sin (an unpopular word and concept today!). In essence, Jesus came to save us from it, to reconcile us to God and, that way, to transform humanity. We can see the effects of authentic spiritual transformation in people’s lives:
‘Mine was a happy family. I had one brother and one sister, but I do not like to talk about it. It is not important now. The important thing is to follow God’s way, the way he leads us to do something beautiful for him.’ (Mother Teresa) ‘Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. He's allowed me to go up to the mountain top. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land.’ (Martin Luther King) ‘I have lost everything. Now I just want to know Christ, to become like him’. (Paul in Philippians, the Bible)
For me, Advent is a period of critical reflection on my own faith and stance in the world, to consider how far I’m allowing God to arrive in and transform my life. As we approach the New Year, I think of Advent as preparation to venture out on a new advent-ure in faith, to discover God afresh who arrives there before us. ‘I’m not saying that I have this all together, but I am well on my way, reaching out for Jesus who has so wondrously reached out for me. I’ve got my eye on the goal where God is beckoning us onward – to Jesus. I’m running and I’m not turning back.’ (Paul in Philippians, the Bible)
What does Advent mean to you? May God give you peace and hope.
[See also: Arrival; Advent; Discovering our true selves]
‘The people living in darkness have seen a great Light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a Light has dawned.’ (Matthew 4:16, the Bible)
‘Death is a thick black wall, against which every soul is hurled and shattered.’ I don’t now remember who said that, but I do remember my philosophy lecturer quoting it when we studied existentialism. These are very dark words indeed and have, for me, a deeply foreboding and chilling feel to them. I sat down and avidly wrote an essay in response, doing my best to present what, I believed, were convincing rational arguments to counter such a nihilistic and hope-less outlook.
When I got my paper back, the mark was nowhere near as high as I had hoped for or expected. The lecturer had commented simply yet profoundly that an existentialist writer would have absolutely no interest in my reasoning. It’s not about objectivity or logic. It’s about how it is and feels to be in the world; a phenomenological cry of angst in the face of fragile, fathomless, futility. It was as if, in my attempt to offer ‘correct’ thinking, I had totally missed the point. It never was about thinking.
As the years have passed by, I too have known that angst, at a times an almost irresistible magnetic-like pull towards my own death. Sometimes, it has felt like half-clinging on weakly to avoid being pulled over the edge. In the face of unbearable and irreparable heartbreak, suicide can feel like a least-painful solution. Tom Walker’s moving song, Leave a Light On has deep emotional resonance here. Jesus is my life-saving Light. ‘At the end of the day, it’s either God or death.’ (James Wallace).
Whatever Advent means to you, Light shines in darkness. Hold onto hope.
‘If you want to know what your true values are, have a look at your diary and your bank statement.’ (Selwyn Hughes)
Take any example of an important-to-you decision that you have taken during this past week. Consciously or subconsciously, directly or indirectly, it will have reflected something of your underlying beliefs and values. At one level, every decision we take with awareness represents the outcome of a choice point, analogous to a choice of a direction at an intersection in a road. Guiding principles are a way of choosing to align our decisions and behaviour with our beliefs, ethics and values.
I worked with a group recently where, during feedback, participants commented on how they felt impacted by what they saw and experienced as my ‘distinctive’ style and approach. They were curious and asked me what, if anything, lay behind this – that which they had experienced – for me. What is it that makes the difference?
I held up a small, yellow, post-it note to the screen. On it are written 3 words in my own scrawled handwriting: Prayer, Presence, Participation. These are, if you like, the guiding principles that underpin me personally and all of my work professionally. I carry them with me and have them stuck on my desk, beside the monitor. I pause and focus on them consciously and deliberately before, say, writing a message, joining a conversation or running a workshop. They really do matter to me.
Prayer is inviting and opening myself to God’s insight, wisdom and power. He is able to reveal, do and achieve things that are truly impossible for me alone. Presence is ensuring quality of attention and contact with each person or group that I will meet. It’s viewing and approaching each person, each moment, as a sacred encounter. Participation is an invitational spirit that calls for humility and courage. It means engaging with people, not simply technology or any materials that we may use.
At the end of the conversation, I invited each person in the group to reflect for a moment – for as long as they needed – and to write down 3 words that, perhaps, they would choose to underpin their own practice. They did this thoughtfully, alone, then each shared with others in the group what they had written. This felt so much deeper and more meaningful than simple words on paper could capture or convey. It was about integrity, authenticity and congruence: choosing to take a stance.
What core principles guide the focus and parameters of your decisions and behaviour? What stance are you willing to take?
Power of love
‘It’s a question of what the relationship can bear.’ (Alison Bailie)
You may have heard the old adage, the received wisdom that says, ‘Don’t try to run before you can walk.’ It normally refers to avoiding taking on complex tasks until we have mastered simpler ones. Yet the same principle can apply in relationships too. Think of leadership, teamworking, coaching or an action learning set; any relationship or web of relationships where an optimal balance of support and challenge is needed to achieve an important goal.
Too much challenge, too early, and we can cause fracture and hurt. It takes time, patience and commitment to build understanding and trust. I like Stephen Covey’s insight that, ‘Trust grows when we take a risk and find ourselves supported.’ It’s an invitation to humility, vulnerability and courage. It sometimes calls for us to take the first step, to offer our own humanity with all our insecurities and frailties first, as a gift we hope the other party will hold tenderly.
It's an invitation, too, for the receiver to respond with love. John, in the Bible, comments that, ‘Love takes away fear’. To love in the context of work isn’t something soft and sentimental as some cynics would have us believe. It’s an attitude and stance that reveals itself in tangible action. Reg Revans, founder of action learning, said, ‘Swap your difficulties, not your cleverness.’ A hidden subtext could read, ‘Respond to my fragility with love, and I will trust you.’
I joined one organisation as a new leader. On day 3, one of my team members led an all-staff event and, afterwards, she approached me anxiously for feedback. I asked firstly and warmly, with a smile, ‘What would you find most useful at this point in our relationship – affirmation or critique?’ She laughed, breathed a sigh of relief, and said, ‘To be honest, affirmation – I felt so nervous and hoped that, as my new boss, you would like how I had handled it!’
In this vein, psychologist John Bowlby emphasised the early need for and value of establishing a ‘secure base’: that is, key relationship(s) where a person feels loved and psychologically safe, and from which she or he can feel confident to explore in a spirit of curiosity, daring and freedom. It provides an existential foundation on which to build, and enables a person to invite and welcome stretching challenge without feeling defensive, threatened or bruised.
How do you demonstrate love at work? What does it look like in practice?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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