Living in colour

May 30, 2020

Have you been moved by music, nestled in its hold, made humble by the beauty of sound? Have you cried in a film or at a play when words have brushed against your unseen hopes and fears? Has a photograph made you laugh out loud, or brought a silent tear? Have you connected so completely to a sense of time and place that by remembering it, you will never be truly lost again? Have you stood in silent wonder? Have you received kindness? Have you been made to feel that you are worthwhile? Does someone make you feel special? Do you make someone feel special? Do you believe in your soulfulness?

How do you measure any of this? What metric is there for the things that move us?

The more I think about the world of work, the more I have a sense of its tendency to diminish us rather than to build us up. We live in a world of vivid colours, but where work is all too often monotone and dull.

Back in the last century I once had a proper job. I was a young lawyer in a suit that was smarter than my contribution, anxious to find a way to be comfortable with my life choices. One afternoon I was in my boss’s office, it was appraisal time. “What do you want to do next?” he asked me… And I said something about “Well, I would like to manage a team some day?”

“Why?” he asked, with more than a hint of “yeah, sure?”.

My answer was as hesitant as my confidence, and I stumbled into sentences like a drunk man navigating a room full of chairs. What I tried to say was this, “I don’t want to be in charge, or to tell people what to do, I am not bothered by grade or job title, but I do not want people to feel like I do when I come to work.”

A year or two later I was managing a team, and even as I write those words I am struck by the absurdity of the language.

“Managing a team” is meaningless in its familiarity. It is just another unsophisticated synthetic dilution of what is in truth a simple act of being with people, caring about people, and helping people. Is it any wonder that for some, managing a team is not about people, but an inconvenient imposition on their time, the compensation for which is an additional line on their CV.

Back in that appraisal meeting so many years ago, I can still feel the uncertainty and discomfort of my younger self, but I also see that I was on to something. In the years that followed I have been blessed to learn from others who have touched my life with indelible kindness and moments of truth.

It perhaps risks trivialising meaning to mention specific moments, but I want to show you what I feel.

Few people sit with me better that Hilary Gallo sits with me. To sit with someone is such a generous act. To be still in another’s presence is to honour whatever might be said next and it is such a gift.

No one asks me how I am feeling with more kindness than Richard Martin. The pause he offers after the question is a place for honesty not superficiality.

To know that being a good person does not make anyone immune from ethical pressure is a thought I reflect on every day and owe to Richard Moorhead. As I do his need to challenge kindly, but with rigour and purpose if we want things to be better.

To see Martin Shovel and Martha Leyton working with the most sophisticated minds, but asking them to play with the power of words they learnt when they were four years old, is a revelation of communication.

To watch John Sutherland quietly deconstruct the most complex economic or corporate puzzle is to be invited to sit next to a master of his art. And in a world that until I met John, I always felt excluded people like me.

Charles Grimes is the best in the world at what he does, but he asks nothing of me except the opportunity to work together again. How could you not love that thought?

To see Jonny Searle lean into a conversation to explore an idea, is to realise that humility sits most comfortably with those for whom achievement has always been a shared endeavour.

And then to observe the way Carolyn Kirby, who with so many extraordinary and unique life achievements, ignores the free-wheel to an easy chair. Instead each day she brings positivity and selfless duty to the causes and people that mean so much to her. Leadership as a privilege, not for the privileged.

They have shown me how leadership is a tapestry of thoughtfulness, an infinite story of small acts that are both personal and universal, specific to me, but also for everyone.

In my life they have made leadership as vivid as the music, films, plays and photographs that have moved me. They are my sense of time and place when I pause to wonder what leadership means. They have offered me the key to a treasure trove of ideas and values that are now mine to explore and use. They have given me moments that have touched my soul and I now see leadership in colours of kindness and care, not in the monotone soullessness of process and superficial theory.

I urge you to find your palate of vivid colours in the people around you so that you can shine your brightest and lead in your true colours.

Take care. Paul x

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