The Receptive brings about sublime success,
Furthering through the perseverance of a mare.
If the superior person undertakes something and tries to lead,
They go astray.
But if they follow, they find guidance.
It is favourable to find friends in the West and South,
To forego friends in the East and North.
Quiet perseverance brings good fortune.
That same evening I took a flight to Sydney, where I was going to meet with a group of people the next day who were working with me on a side project. Nothing really exciting happened during that long meeting; we came together, we talked, we disagreed, we talked some more, we reached a consensus, we decided on action points, and we left. Pretty straightforward stuff.
After the meeting we hang together for a while, for random chit chat. Most of my colleagues are interesting characters in their own way, but I hold a special connection with two in particular from that bunch: Lisa and Abiola. These two could not be more different, and came from very different parts of the Earth.
Lisa is a Queenslander, born and bred, with a rough background, who up until recently lived in Fortitude Valley. If you are not familiar with Brisbane, it’s the equivalent of Hackney in London — edgy but potentially dangerous, or at least that’s how it was about 10 years ago. She is extremely brilliant, and charismatic, and has a heart the size of a mountain.
Abiola and I worked together in the UK for a brief period, but he was originally from Nigeria. He never spoke much about his life back in Lagos, or anything else about his private life to be honest. He was a very reserved person, but very wise. When he did speak, you were inclined to listen intently, otherwise you could miss the golden nuggets pouring from his mouth.
So it was that only the three of us were left at the sports bar where we had gathered for drinks, as it was usually the case. We had just finished a contested game of snooker and were back at the booth, and myself, slightly inebriated, and keen on being argumentative, started to poke Abiola.
“So, Abi, why do you let those guys walk all over you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it took us three hours to reach an agreement today. Most of them work for you, right? I mean, you are supposed to be their leader. Why don’t you just provide the leadership?”
Lisa pulls her head back with a shocked expression in her face “Woah man, what the hell is that? What did you want him to do, just be ‘the boss’?”
Abiola extends his hand, palm down, signaling with a slight nod of his head that he got this. “It’s ok Liz… “ He then faces towards me “Well, that’s what I was doing, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, leadership. I was being a leader”
“How exactly? We could have completed the whole conversation in less than ten minutes if you had just intervened instead of taking a back seat and let them argue over and over.”
“There is a time for being directive, and a time for being receptive. Action must conform to the situation. We are not always in an independent position, most of the time we are acting as an assistant. We can achieve a lot not through direct leading, but by allowing ourselves to be led.”
“I’m not sure I agree. Surely if you see the argument going nowhere, you should intervene and provide direction.”
“And what good would that bring?” Lisa interjects. “If Abi has seniority over them imagine how much influence he must have over them. If he says something, they are bound to listen and have their thoughts biased in that direction. By holding back Abi allowed them to develop their own arguments and make the whole conversation richer.”
“Yeah, there’s that.” Abi complements. “But also that was a time of deciding on what to do. I am happy to take direction from the team if I am to want them to take direction from me. Looking at the dynamics in the room I could see that there were a lot of very good minds, all with something to say. We have to learn from the situation what is demanded from us, and follow the guidance.”
“It’s all well and good, and sounds very noble, but you can’t think this way always, right? Otherwise what’s the purpose of a leader? Isn’t that just an excuse not to take the lead?”
The two of them pause a bit at my directness. I can be a bit obnoxious sometimes. I don’t know why they put up with me to be honest.
Lisa is the first to speak. “OK, granted, taking a back seat is not always the right thing to do. I imagine that, if you are not in a situation where there are creative juices flowing, and you need to provide decisive direction, being receptive is not the right approach. So the Receptive needs to be activated by the Creative.”
“Hmmm yes.” Abiola says slowly. “That makes sense. There’s all these impulses in the room, yeah? What you want to do is to make them real, move from the potential to something with form. You help people in a gentle way, with devotion to the team, but acting with swiftness and strength once things start to take shape, otherwise the conversation could derail. The Creative plants the seeds. The Receptive nourishes them.”
Abiola has to take an early flight next morning and says goodbye. Lisa and I are left. None of us wants to go back to the hotel yet, so we keep on chatting. The conversation still gravitates around the same topic.
“So Liz, I was wondering about something you said before, about the two stances: giving direction and taking a back seat”
“Well, I don’t think it’s that simple… I mean, there are other situations, right? Like, if you are a person with more experience, you will not want to debate everything.”
“Yep, there’s two kinds of work really. Normally if I am having to do some deep thinking, it’s likely that the experience I have will be more easily activated if I am alone. Because we have all these connections right? I mean, in our brain, that we built over the years through pain, and failure, and end up giving us a sense for what is right and what is wrong, that cannot be easily explained. So during planning I need solitude, because I need to be objective. Not because other people remove the objectiveness, but there’s a risk of adding subjectiveness that might not be good at that time.”
“Right, and once things are kind of settled in your mind?”
“Yeah, that’s when you need to bring people in. Once the ideas to be realized are firmly set, we need friends and helpers in the hour of toil and effort. Otherwise the work to be accomplished will not be done.”
“That’s the guidance, right? I mean, you need help to bring in the subjectiveness once the initial form is safe, so that you can smooth the sharp edges and adjust to reality.”
“Exactly. I think that’s the idea. But also to get things done really. For the potential to become real.”