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EPISODE 10: LEADING OTHERS INTO THE DARK

In my initial Turning Left, which led me across the States ... I’d start each day with coffee in-hand looking at the map in the general direction of the West Coast. My destination each day was a colour: Blue.

Water is literally part of our existence. It makes up 60% of our bodies, and 71% of the earth. Homio Sapiens - indeed all life forms - came from water and continued to evolve in proximity to it. It maintains the integrity and communication within the cells that constitute us. But also the integrity and communication between ‘the cells’ that constitute our families, communities and larger societies. Seaways were - and are - the axons and dendrites of civilisation. Which is why one of our greatest innovations was the sail, which enabled us to move between ourselves.

The sail was invented on the Nile River where the currents and winds go in opposite directions. It was a transformative technology. Most technologies enable us to do what we can already do faster or easier. They’re useful. But not necessarily transformative. Those that transform make the invisible visible. The implicit explicit.

Consider the microscope, the telescope, the MRI … indeed the advent of the book, which itself was born out of one of the cleverest human inventions: The space between words. Prior to ‘the space between’, language was written as one continuous string of letters making reading difficult indeed (which is one reason why the Lab of Misfits celebrates 'in between'). 

Transformative inventions - like the sail - enabled us to see landscapes we’d never seen before - even light years away. Interact with people we never knew existed who have radically different ideas of truth grounded in radically different lived experiences shaped by their foundational geographies. To see inside our bodies while still living. And even travel in our minds … to imagine experiences of ‘what could be’, which affect how we will perceive ‘what is’ in the future. Each challenges what we thought to be true already, and in doing so reveals the larger hidden unconscious self to the conscious one. Prior to the advent of the lens, our earth was the centre of the Universe. Afterwards, it became a small blue dot moving alone without intention through an expanding cosmos. But not without letting go of one’s previous ‘truths’, which almost always requires energy-input … a struggle … even a fight, which defines a protest at its most fundamental level: The input of energy into a system to enable it to ‘let go’ … to go from A to Not-A!

What you see, know and believe ... each ‘now’ of your life … is an emergent manifestation of the trial-and-error process of experience, which gave rise to the assumptions and biases that define you. Strategies that enable (and enabled) you (and your ancestors) to use your past to usefully predict the future. But most of your assumptions and biases are invisible to you. Which is why, when you adventure with openness into the wild beyond you, you will see that what you thought to be ‘a truth’ has always been a ‘contextual truth’. Change the context and the truth itself can change. The result is self-awareness (self-honesty).

I was traveling through Montana … fast. It’s civilised there: One can go 75 MPH on a two lane, undulating highway through inspired landscapes. I came over the brow of an incline. Before me was a straight descent that disappeared over the next hill. My temptation to fill that descent was strong. So I accelerated … and continued to do so. Passing three cars moving fast in the opposite direction. The middle one had POLICE written on its side. What happened next would - I assumed - be obvious. It proved not to be.

I immediately pulled over … and waited. After several minutes, that same middle car, now speckled with flashing red and blue lights, found itself parked behind me. Its driver was Jack. A State Trooper. His manner was present, official and (surprisingly) open. He knew what he needed to do. As did I. But his reason for doing so is what matters.

He asked if I knew how fast I was going. “No” was my answer, as I truly didn’t. But, I said, “I know it was a good deal faster than 75 MPH”. So he told me. The relatively large number felt about right … and proved to be expensive (and rightly so).

An aside … Why didn’t I try and lie to Jack? Well, for one, he had technology on his side. But, more importantly, it was me who decided to ‘fill the space’ in the way that I did. So it’d be silly to pretend otherwise. As noted in a previous episode, dishonesty creates the necessity for further dishonesty … it’s a pyramid scheme made up of cards that will eventually fall or require large amounts of energy and stress … and no wind ... to ‘hold it together’. Which is why continually turning Left in life is - for me - a practice in building a more modest … more resilient … and less stressful way to live.

Jack then asked “Why? Why go so fast?” I said … in all honesty ... “look at the space! … it’s beautiful … stunning”. Admittedly, it wasn’t such a rational response. But it was my contextual truth. And … he understood. Even agreed: “Yes, you’re right. It IS gorgeous!”.

“So why pass through beauty so quickly?” Jack said.

I love good questions. That is where the cash is! (Not in the right answers as many assume.)

Next time you’re at a dinner party - most likely post COVID - notice how the conversation around the table ebbs and flows. Also notice how most of it is information-based. Data. “Did you know? …”. It can be ‘interesting’, but usually not transformative. Because it only offers one part of what is required for transformation: Diversity of experience. But, notice what happens when someone asks a ‘great question’. The conversation stops. Everyone’s attention is piqued. “Yes … that’s amazing … I never thought of it that way before” … people will say.

Questions - which is a word beginning with the word quest - initiates an adventure into what is unknown. And the result is visibility. Visibility of one’s previously unknown assumptions upon which one’s truths were grounded. In physics we call these theorems. And in any paper of physics - as in any scientific paper worth its salt, these assumptions and biases are stated up-front. Questions are our brain’s greatest technology. It’s a technology that embraces … indeed requires … the humility to utter one of the most difficult collections of words in our lexicon: I DON’T KNOW!

But our world is driven by knowing. We are rewarded by how much uncertainty we turn into certainty ... how many blank pages we turn into blueprints. Indeed, every religion is an instruction manual for living. Which is why one of the most dangerous things in life is not an action … it is an upturned tonation in one’s voice, since every revolution begins with doubt.

Jack’s question was a brilliant one. Simple. To the point. For which I had no answer. His question revealed to me my assumption of ‘moving fast’ at the expense of ‘clarity’. It was also the manner in which he asked his question: Humble and curious. He wasn’t being critical or condescending. Though had I been more defensive, I might have heard it this way. But, having accepted that I was the cause of my own cost, I’d nothing to defend (which he too felt).

The result was a 45-minute conversation on the side of a Montana road between strangers who were becoming companions in adventure … in travel. We talked about many things, including the nature of policing (and leadership). He shared with me the difference between those - like himself - who are trying ‘to serve and protect’ vs. those who are there ‘to enforce’. A fundamental distinction, which translates into radically different ways of leading.

The conversation expanded my thinking, as it revealed hidden assumptions and biases about myself and the world - including his world. It also offered a new direction in my route Left. As I was leaving, he pointed out a road on the map which deviated from the main highway (as is my wont). It led me into a landscape of beautiful aloneness through high, rolling hills. Of blues, greens and oranges. Of water and land and wilderness. While passing through, there was a moment when I felt the salt water from my eyes rolling down my face from the joy of a diminished ego that felt integrated with the landscape around (observed at a - slightly - slower speed than before) … which is the moment of awe. I ended the day’s journey walking along the Three Rivers that pass through Missoula, Montana.

While driving along Jack’s route, I reflected on our fortuitous meeting, one of many chance encounters on my Left Turn across the States in the lead-up to a remarkably contentious election.

Which brings me to the point of this Episode: What defines a good leader is how you lead others into uncertainty.

It’s how one uses power that matters (for good and evil) ... toward a lover, towards friends and family ... towards those in one’s institutions … and, yes, towards yourself. Do you use it to protect, care and enable or disable, dominate and control?

Let me take you back to the dinner party where a remarkable question was just asked. Think about how you felt at that party. And then think about how you felt in relation to its host. I don’t mean … how you felt about the person. I mean, think how the feeling of the party (the group) itself was a manifestation of that person. If one’s host is exuberant and generous, then the whole gathering IS exuberant and open. If the host is quiet and introverted, then the whole gathering IS quiet and subdued  

I call this the ‘Host Effect’, which describes how the way-of-being of the host becomes embodied in the way-of-being of the gathering. What is remarkable is that this effect spans whole organisations, societies and even countries. And it can endure. The personality of Facebook and its priorities (as an organization) are the way-of-being of its host. The Founders of Target and Walmart came from the same town around the same time. But their personalities were very different: One resulted in a nickel-and-dime store, the other a ‘department store’ (i.e.., one focused on cheap stuff and the other on service). Target to this day maintains the identity of its host: It donates millions of dollars to charity every month and has one of the highest loyalty rates of any store in the US. Whereas the loyalty to Walmart is as low as the costs of its products. Consider New York City. It’s ‘Founders’ came from Amsterdam, which at the time was the seat of religious diversity and acceptance. That diversity and acceptance remains to this day, several hundreds of years later.

For the brain, smiling is contagious. Laughter too (given a certain density of people and that the laughing person is no more than 3-people-away). So too is stress and unkindness. We know from neuroscience that brains infect other brains with their way-of-being. Perceptions contage. Intolerance transmits. But so too does toleration and respect. So too does kindness. Hosts create a context for others to be or not to be. To be creative or stagnant, afraid or open, cruel or compassionate, it begins with the Host (as well as the architecture of the space in which the host exists - though the power of architecture for expanding perception is for another Episode). 

It’s not just who you surround yourself with that shapes you. It’s the leaders you choose to surround.

So be conscious of who you follow, because when you combine ‘perceptual contagion’ with the fact that your brain ‘continually redefines normality’, you will in a sense become them. Your brain is adapted to adapt. It evolved to evolve. The context in which you find yourself now is a context into which your brain will adapt. It’s just what it does, and often it happens without you noticing. When you walk into a cinema from a bright afternoon day to watch a matinee, at first you cannot see. So you stop … and wait. In time, your eyes and the rest of your brain then adapt to the average level of illumination. In the same way that your visual perception anchors itself to the average illumination of your ‘surrounding’ environment, your beliefs and concepts are anchored to the average (as well as dominant) beliefs and ways-of-being of the society, culture, country that also surround you.

So remember to periodically ask yourself of your life: “Is this ‘a normal’ to which I want to adapt?” … because in time you will. And when it becomes society’s normal … your brain will be less and less likely to see it as anything other than ‘normal’. It will become the average illumination of our societal world. And from this new normal, all else will be compared. What is ‘bad’ now was once ‘good’. Equally, what we perceive to be good now (e.g., kindness, integrity), can be perceived as ‘weakness’ in the near future. 

This is what is happening to you now in US politics (whether you’re on the right or left … or top or bottom). You are - and always have been - experiencing the consequences of the Host Effect. The normal ways-of-being of your host (for better or worse) have – or will soon - become your normal.

The qualities and pathologies of your leader matter; Their qualities and pathologies … their way of being and interacting … will become normal to all of us. But you have the power to choose this. It just doesn’t happen ‘to you’ or ‘to us’. Leaders are manifestations. Embodiments. Not impositions. This is because the most important person in a movement is – ironically – not the leader. Alone the ‘leader ‘is just another person wildly dancing on a hill in the middle of nowhere. Leading no one. Infecting no one. But as soon as that solo dancer is joined - and their way of being embodied - by another, the mad dancer becomes a leader and the madness normalised (which, again, can be a great thing if that madness is, for instance, toleration, compassion, as opposed to division and spite). There is no host without a party.

Given its importance, is there an evidenced-based way to choose - indeed create - leadership that is predicated on what we know about perception? Yes. It comes back to Jack and the Three Rivers to which he led me.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” (From ‘A River Runs Through It’)

I stayed next to many great rivers, lakes and two oceans in my Left Turn across the US. One of them were the Three Rivers that pass through Missoula, which was the town in the story and film A River Runs Through It. It’s a story of leadership of self and others in times of great uncertainty.

These rivers, like all bodies of water, enable people access to other landscapes and communities with very different assumptions and biases hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away. In doing so, they exposed one to many. And we know - from biology - how essential diversity is for thriving, whether as an individual, organisation or culture. Indeed, diversity is the engine of evolution itself. However, what bodies of water also do, which is so often overlooked, is that they integrate across that diversity.

Consider port cities - which are my favourite cities in the world. They are often outliers of their own civilization. Why? Because they are the places where the diversity of the world integrates. Singapore, Amsterdam, NYC, London. They are ‘human ecotomes’. Ecotomes are the transitions between spaces: where sea meets land ... the forest meets plain. These zones contain the greatest speciation of life on our planet, as well as the greatest speciation of culture in our societies.

While we no longer rely on rivers, lakes and oceans to connect us, we are still connected. In fact the world is more interconnected than it ever has been through the advent of social media. And as it becomes so, it will be increasingly unpredictable. One antidote is to cut these connections. To become an island, with the hoped-for consequence of self-determination. Which - I argue - is the perceptual foundation for Boris Johnson’s BREXIT in the UK and Donald Trump’s America-First Isolationism. The problem is: It literally cannot work. While we can control the interaction along waterways, we cannot apply the same strategies to the modern age. In such a world, the concept of leadership itself must change. Fortunately, evolution - as it almost invariably does (as it has been experimenting for billions of years) has given us a solution: a way of being in your brain that embodies five principles.

I • Celebrate uncertainty: Encourages questions that spawn from the perspective of gain, not loss.

II • Foster intrinsic motivation: To have the process of creativity be its own reward, which will enable persistence in the face of tremendous adversity.

III • Be open to possibility: Encourage the diversity of experience that is the engine of change, from social changes to evolution itself.

IV • Collaborate: To find value and compassion in the diversity of a group and system, which expands its space of possibility … ideally combining naïve with expert … by finding integration across the diversity.

V • Act intentionally with criticality: Ultimately to ACT with awareness … to engage consciously with the reason for why your cells move forward.

What do we call the way of being that embodies these 5 principles? Science. This is because science does not reduce to the ‘scientific method’. That is the craft of science. To be a good scientist is a way of being that defines how you engage in the world. What is more, the first four principles are those that are embodied by play. Which means the way-of-being that evolution gave us to engage adaptively with an increasingly uncertain world is: ‘Play with Intention’. Indeed anything that is creative including art, music, architecture … and leadership, are - I argue - play-with-intention (i.e., science - at least as defined here).

So how, then, can we select - and create - the leaders who will enable themselves and those who follow them to thrive in uncertainty? Well … it turns out that the success of any company is associated with only three qualities: (•) Lead by example; (•) Admit Mistakes; (•) See Qualities in Others. Why these three?

“Lead by example” is a leader who is trusted and who creates an ecology of trust. This is important since one can only play (explore, challenge, and feel agency) within a space that is trusted. “Admit Mistakes” creates an ecology that celebrates questions as the primary currency for innovation. This too is important since nothing interesting begins with knowing. It begins with not-knowing. To see the qualities in others creates an ecology that enables, not just diversity, but integration across that diversity, which is an inherent quality in the most adaptable natural systems. Which means, the three qualities of successful leadership are the qualities that enable the five principles above that are essential to be good scientist … to be a good creator … to enable play-with-intention.

In short: What defines a good leader is how she/he leads others into uncertainty … into the dark. Good leaders … powerful leaders … empower.

So … coming back to our current socio-political world. Ask yourself - irrespective of which ‘side’ you’re on - is the context in which we find ourselves the context you’d like your brain to adapt to? And are the qualities of leadership the ones that you’d like to be ‘normal’ in the future, as they will become the way-of-being from which future perceptions will be created?

But then also ask yourself whether you exhibit these qualities. Are you creating an ecology that expands or contracts those around you. Are you creating complicated silos, which often require dishonesty, unreliability and thus conflict within yourself and with others in order to maintain the assumptions and biases that you fear to doubt? Or does your way-of-being seek integrity and understanding through questions that take you out-of-you … away from the perpetual self-focus that we so often have (often motivated by the intention of personal enlightenment) ... and back out into nature … back out into the lives of others for whom you can become a sandbar. It is being a sandbar for others that is ironically where true personal insight and expansion lives.

Remember, leadership is not restricted to leaders of countries or institutions. Nor is leadership a person. It’s an embodiment of principles and ideals. A thing we become.  And each of us leads within our larger families, our children, our friends … our romantic relationships. We lead those who rely upon us practically and/or emotionally. And each of us is simultaneously led by the very same family members, children, friends and lovers … i.e., those who effect us emotionally and practically … including the different yous that are inside you. 

Asking these questions may initiate a quest that reveals assumptions that you didn’t know you had about what you thought to be true already about your and your context. If that happens, what will you do then?

As I’ve noted in a number of previous Episodes in this series, you don’t really reveal yourself when your context is wonderful. You reveal (and create) yourself when your context is difficult. Since it’s only in that conflict where you have true choice. Thus, it is ‘losing the election’ where our current leadership will be revealed … and IS being revealed right now.

Which is why I will leave you with this last thought: In leadership - as in life - grace is a silent hero. Grace is silent but active. Grace is a practice. An exercise. Grace is hard. Harder still is knowing when we’re not being graceful.

 

Written by: Beau Lotto.

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