Ronan Loughney
Aug 5 · 14 min read
Part of our four-stage woodland exhibition on leadership

On 27th June, our April 2019 cohort of the Associate Programme set off to Embercombe, on a weekend designed to bring us closer together as a group and to explore how we might address the unique challenges currently facing our world. The retreat was many things, but fundamentally, it was a lesson in how to find the answers we, as a group and individuals, hold within ourselves. Our course facilitators’ — Kanada and Johannes — role was to create a space in which we felt, both tacitly and explicitly, that we had the permission and support to ask ourselves the questions that would arrive upon these answers: ‘what is the type of life I want to be living?’, ‘what sort of leadership will help us get there?’ and ‘how can nature be our teacher in the process?’

Although there were endless points of reflection from the weekend, I have decided to focus on our main group task, as it was an endeavour common to everyone. This was to create a four-part woodland exhibition of the kind of leadership required to meet the current challenges our world faces, each connected by a narrative thread.

Before launching into the specifics of the exhibition however, it is important to understand the structure of the weekend as a whole (and the structure of this blog post itself) which was vaguely spiral like, repeating on itself but growing.

‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time,’ TS Eliot

The retreat was an iterative process whereby we uncovered what in fact we already knew, the paradox behind the journey towards a truth which already lies within us. In unlocking an answer from within us to essentially existential questions, the weekend bore elements of a group therapy exercise. Whilst to some the concept of a dormant truth lying readymade within us will sound mystical and vague, it is an accepted element of psychotherapy that the patient holds all of the answers to their own healing within themselves. The psychologist is merely a guide, someone to hold space for the patient to cure themselves. Similarly we, as agents of the world, hold the answers to its betterment just as we did its sickening, and only need to listen to what comes up when we allow space. (As a theme, in order to show that the ideas we developed over the weekend have legitimate application in the world at large and that we did in fact learn from nature, I have tried to show the wider philosophical, psychological and scientific basis for those ideas where possible.)

Moreover, the weekend could be seen as a microcosm for how we might implement change and realise progress in our lives more broadly: reflect, act, reflect, act; each step informed by the lessons of the former. Similarly, we would alternate between individual and group reflection, to highlight the mutual relationship between the two, as well as between informal and more prescriptive reflection, as if to give space to the flow of understanding between our conscious and unconscious minds, between the different facets of our lives which require different manners of thinking.

To return to the task itself, this also had a spiral-like, self-reflective dynamic: in its completion, we had to demonstrate the very leadership skills that we were to espouse. That is, our success or failure in the task would be a reflection of whether the qualities of leadership we were proffering and embodying could work; additionally, each quality of leadership both contained and went beyond the one preceding it.

The qualities of leadership we decided upon were as follows.

1) Authentic Strength:

A resilience that flows from firm values

A strength which has its basis in vulnerability

A holding true to one’s own course, without embarrassment or apology

‘If you were born with the weakness to fall, you were born with the strength to rise,’ Rupi Kaur

Whereas, traditionally, leadership has been seen as an individualistic pursuit, an almost birth-given right bestowed upon those who embody the traditionally masculine hero archetype, the group imagined instead a strength which was built on the integrity of the individual and thereby accessible to anyone who would take pains to find this strength within themselves. A strength which was as giving as it was firm, as inclusive as it was pure in its vision, and which found strength in its very vulnerability, rather than in its masking or denial. The notion of maintaining a ‘stiff upper lip’ must be replaced by a deeper, more holistic strength, which is not a veneer but rather something running through us, not something rigid that could therefore be cracked but something supple and giving. The gnashed teethed, strongman strength of the past, defined precisely by the individual’s ability to rail against the flow of life and force it under his grasp, has self-evidently displayed its limitations. Rather, in Authentic Strength, there is a lightness and joy because there is harmony with nature. Struggle (and therefore suffering) comes from antagonism, a pushing or pulling against. Through a more gentle, harmonious strength we may lean into the pain inherent in growth, in order to accept and ultimately supervene it.

2) Compassionate Connection

Is generous, trusting and balanced

Is listening with kindness without trying to rescue the other

Is knowing when to lead and when to follow

Is truly seeing the people around you and helping them realise their potential

‘We are here to remove the illusion of our separateness,’ Thich Naht Hanh

Individualism has marked the way in which humans perceive themselves in the world for so long that we have forgotten that it relies upon a mental construct. Neurologically speaking, over the past few thousand years, we have become more and more left-brain dominant (which is to say the hemisphere that deals more frequently in rational calculation and planning, as opposed to the right hemisphere, which deals more in intuitive perception of and integration with experience). The stronger our left-brain dominance becomes, the stronger our conception of ego (viz the notion of a somewhat fixed self-created through a construed narrative running through our experience) gets. Though the ego has obvious utility, especially in terms of ensuring the survival of the individual, it is also that which builds walls up: between me and you, between us and them, between me and my own self (which parts of my personality do I dislike and therefore deny even to myself?). We build up these walls and cannot see that they are no more than mirrors, reflecting the limitations we hold within ourselves back onto us. When we see these walls for the illusions they are, we see that we are one and the same with the world which we inhabit (our cells are regenerated with previously external matter approximately seven times in our lives for example), and part of returning to a healthy society will simply be through reconnecting with nature and thus with this reality.

Nature may also give us more direct lessons of the need for a more connected and compassionate society. For example, in our induction from On Purpose founder Tom Rippin, we learnt about the manner in which the human body distributes nutrients to its different parts, as indicative of the structure of functioning systems. There is no ‘trickle-down’ effect, where resources build up in one area of the body before ending up in other underfed areas of their own accord. Rather, when one part of the body is in need in a healthy body, nutrients will flow towards that area, since no part exists in isolation from the whole. Necrosis occurring in one area of the body because of a nutrient deficiency will ultimately poison the other parts.

Authentic Strength then is only possible through Compassionate Connection, because Compassionate Connection allows us to see that we are in fact part of the same whole, and that in this whole lies our strength. Again, this need not be taken in a spiritual sense. Imagining my own existence without nature is an incoherent concept: trees produce the oxygen which we need to live as we produce the carbon dioxide they need in turn; human beings are defined largely by their sociability, which in turn is defined by a ceaseless reciprocal exchange.

Moreover, through supporting one another, we can unlock a strength far beyond what we can achieve as individuals; by creating an inclusive world, we can unsilence the voices of the marginalised, who will hold, intuitively and consciously, the solutions to the problems they themselves face. (It is common knowledge that even large corporations are coming round to the idea that diversity is not only ethically desirable but economically so too, mirroring the fact that a complex world requires solutions from a complex combination of backgrounds and perspectives.)

At the same time as encouraging mutual support however, Compassionate Connection must give space for Authentic Strength, and we must not stifle personal growth through intrusiveness. Kanada told us the story of a wonderer in the woods coming across a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, where in seeing the struggle of its wings as they beat against the walls encasing it, the wonderer breaks open the wall and in so doing kills the butterfly, misunderstanding that it is in this very effort that the butterfly achieves enough blood flow to its wings to give them the strength to fly. Similarly, we must be attuned to one another’s needs, but this must include a respect for when that need is to be left alone to grow, even when this is painful.

3) Vision in the dark

Is bold and shared

Is comfortable in chaos

Is the torch which finds its light in distinction to the blackness

Is true to its own vision, yet finding its structure in the group

‘Ideology is not the false consciousness of a (social) being but this being itself in so far as it is supported by “false consciousness,”’ Slavoj Zizek

We cannot see beyond our current situation, because its ideology has consumed our perspective. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues, ideology is not a layer placed over our experience, but is instead the frame in which we view our experiences, and thus is indistinguishable from them until it is shattered. We need truly visionary, entrepreneurial characters, who can begin to divine what might lie ahead although it is hidden; who understand that this divination is not a passive process but is inherently creative — the path does not exist and so we must build it. We have created complex problems and so must become accordingly complex in solving them, which will require ingenuity and adaptability.

Again, systems approaches are emerging which tell us that, no matter how complex life’s challenges have become, the key to flourishing is in mimicking the solutions life presents and changing in response to the signals nature gives us.

Kanada’s butterfly story can be seen to show something else for example. The philosopher and systems theorist Daniel Schmachtenberger uses this same example to show that phase shifts in nature — transformations from one fundamental mode of existence to another — happen both when they first can but also when they last can or must. That is, the butterfly could not have emerged any sooner nor later from the chrysalis: any longer and it will be suffocated, any sooner and its wings will not have developed the capacity to sustain their own beating. Additionally, the emergence of the next state in a phase shift is not predictable from the transitional phase. No one could have guessed the caterpillar would decompose and then reemerge as a creature with entirely different properties. What can look like decay is in fact just the gathering of the necessary elements for the phase shift. Thus, whilst it may seem to many that the world is in an irreversible state of degradation, in this global decay there is the scattering of parts which may afterwards combine into a new and unpredictable form. The internet and all facets of the infrastructure of globalisation mean that the barriers between us have never been more flimsy, more transcendable, and may hold the key both to the termination of our current phase of being as well as laying the groundwork for the next. (This has been a trend throughout history: empires stretch to formerly unparalleled reaches of the globe, before eventually decaying, but then leaving in place the trade routes, language and customs which allow for an increased interconnectedness thereafter — an observation made by Harari in his book Sapiens).

We see here then, how the first two characteristics of leadership inform the latter. We must have confidence and strength in ourselves, whilst also being intimately aware of the never-before-seen extent and necessity of our interconnectivity, in order to plot a course through an unprecedented phase shift which may be the biggest in human history.

4) Power Reimagined

Through the path which we have yet to beat,

We now see the wholeness that we have yearned towards,

Like nearly breaking branches entwining into strength,

Grounded and yet soaring,

Pointing outwards and yet bound,

Their very structure yet a doorway which points beyond itself

“Truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two,” George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

As the last feature of the four we developed, Power Reimagined is the synthesis into a new form of each of the previous three features. When we try to picture what must lie on the other side of the dark, we can only make abstractions, working with loose mental models that adapt as nature reveals to us the new requirements for its flourishing. Strength, connectivity and perspicacity will all be necessary to create new power structures, but these structures must also include elements we do not as yet understand.

The group felt that a balancing act must take place here between making sure that our current system — ie both what are the values we hold individually and as a society as well as how we measure them — is supplanted but also that it is not forgotten. It is important that what has ceased to serve us is completely replaced such that we are free of its inherent trappings, namely in this case, the apparently innate corruptibility of power centred around an individual. In his book Happy, Derren Brown makes the point that what replaces defunct systems often does so through the mechanisms of those systems and is thus susceptible to the same limitations. For example, hierarchical power dynamics are useful for organising groups, therefore revolutions utilise these structures to organise themselves and, once successful, create the same corruptible hierarchical dynamics again, and thus the cycle continues.

We must maintain awareness of the old system insofar as we must not repeat it then, but we must also remember there are strengths within it too: the need for each of us to be strong as individuals as well as within groups, the need for the rational planning capacity of the left brain, the need perhaps for a healthy form of competition which is not cannibalistic but rather brings a sense of playful inspiration.

This, for Hegel, is the dynamic of the historical development of progress (or truth more broadly), which is understood in terms of the universe’s increasing levels of awareness of itself. It is a spiral because it both surpasses and includes the lessons of the past. Whilst we must return to humanity’s pre-egoic harmony with nature, we must do so through the increased self-awareness (ie in a post-egoic manner) which will prevent us from falling back out of step with it. ‘He who does not know history is condemned to repeat it,’ George Santayana.

Presumably too, through a deliberate choice to come into relationship with nature, rather than a reflexive, unconscious one as in previous times, our relationship will become ultimately richer, as with a marriage which has gone from a phase of unforced infatuation, through a rocky middle age, before becoming something unshakeable through the shared commitment, dedication and even compromise of both parties.

5) Cultivating Curiosity

Is seeing risks as opportunities

Is falling back in love with life

Is reconnecting with our inner child

‘The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing,’ Albert Einstein

In keeping with the iterative and exploratory process by which we developed our four features of leadership, right at the end of our stay a fifth feature was suggested. Importantly, the idea came from someone outside our cohort — Embercombe site manager Faze Al — reflective of the need to constantly expand our sphere of influence and integration such that it includes new perspectives.

Our inherent traits of curiosity and imagination — which come naturally to us as children before being unlearnt as adults — are the foundations of the creativity required to tackle contemporary challenges. Curiosity, when let loose, fearlessly challenges the world around us in a constant cycle of probing, listening and learning. It is in this playful, exploratory state that questions are born and by asking questions, we stimulate creativity, provoke emotion, inform our reality and crucially, we inspire informed ideas. The problems of the modern world are so vast and overwhelming that we need to hold onto the optimism that between us we can find the right answers once we ask the right questions. Rather than facing these challenges with a grim fatalism, we must learn to laugh, find and hold onto joy, and let our minds create the fairer, more sustainable society that we are wholly capable of building together.

Homo sapiens can be known by many other names, but perhaps the most appropriate is homo adaptabilis. The feature which runs throughout all human societies is their adaptability to the most diverse environments; it is hardwired into our biology. We spend so much time in a dependent, ‘passive’ state, as opposed to other mammals (eg a horse can walk within hours of birth, whereas we remain unable to lift our own head for four months) precisely because our functions have not yet been defined for us and rather will be by the unique circumstances that present themselves in our lives. Our brains remain plastic and malleable throughout our lives, but especially so in this early state of total dependency, as we wait for life to tell us what we are needed for. We are thus inherently curious cultivators — we examine life before we are even aware of doing so with a profoundly open mind, and we form ourselves in the image it presents to us.

Now we enter an unprecedented epoch for humanity, and it is time to embrace this innate malleability. Again, we must learn to mould ourselves around the shape of the world rather than to twist it into our own image. How could we ever bend life to our will when it is the substrate upon which we stand? To try to subjugate nature to our whims is only ever pulling ourselves down by our bootstraps.

— —

The above throws up as many questions as it does answers, and is more abstract than practical. The usefulness of such insights can only be understood in terms of what the challenges facing us are demanding — if indeed they require more of the typically logical, pragmatic thinking which has defined most of human history, then our learnings bring us no further along in developing any solutions. If though, we acknowledge that currently there are no hard and fast answers, and in fact our task is to begin to ask the right kinds of questions, what is first required is a reimagination of our modes of thought and our approach to problems and life in general. Rather than seeking clarity we must in fact seek to become confident in the lack thereof, and trust that we will learn to laugh in darkness rather than blindly groping for a switch. — Kanada’s website — Johannes’ website

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