A room of blessings feels like the best place in which to reflect as we move towards the end of the exhibition and this story. What could be better than to pause in the room where all the things that really matter to us have been placed safely to see and to hold whenever we need to feel their warmth and encouragement?
You may remember that we began this story twenty-three years ago in a café on Baker Street in London meeting Lawrence for a coffee and discussing a report that would change my life forever for the better. I can tell you now that we will end this story with Lawrence in a different café, this time in a Cotswold village twenty-three years later.
Before we get there, however, I would like to take a moment to reflect with you on your story.
I hope you will have known for a while that I have not wanted to take you around this exhibition to tell you my story, but to show you yours. I am not writing to see if you notice me, but to ask whether in my words you have noticed the light that you shine. I want to explore this further with you before the exhibition ends; because I need you to walk away holding your story, not mine.
My work as a mentor began long before I even used the word or knew its meaning. It was simply what I did when I gave someone a little time to care about some of the thoughts and ideas in that person’s life; to listen to their words, as they wanted to share them with me. There was no expectation of anything changing as a result, or of handing back little parcels of perfectly wrapped wisdom; it was just the act of being still with the thoughts of another fellow traveller. A bench on which to rest for a few moments before the long walk starts again.
In those early days, I realised that to pause, to listen and to care had a value, and I settled comfortably into a way of thinking that this was enough. For some people I met, the sadness was that their working lives were so depleted of anyone giving them any time in this way, that there was no need for me to do any more. They were grateful enough.
However, as time went on, and as some of the stories I heard became all too sadly familiar, I knew that just to listen would not be enough. I needed the people I listened to, to begin to feel the power of their own story, first to help themselves and then to help others.
One of the most inspirational people I have ever met is a former soldier called Justin Featherstone. Justin’s career in the Armed Services is the stuff of action movie film scripts, but it is not those stories that stay with me so much as the soulfulness of his manner and the poetry of his words. Justin has become integral to all our programmes and he is for me the embodiment of values-based leadership. In a tumultuous world, what Justin stands for and lives by, is a North Star for all of us lucky enough to know him.
I first met Justin on the recommendation of a mutual friend in a small café in Taunton in Somerset. (Maybe for my next book I should write about cafes rather than exhibitions!) I was looking for someone to fill a gap in our leadership programme. However, I was not looking for wall-hung cliches and action heroes, what I needed was someone to show us the power and potential of humility, and who could show us that our vulnerability, instead of making us weaker, was where our humanity to others begins.
I have never believed that leadership was about status or hierarchy. I do not believe it is about daring do, and I do not believe it is the preserve of the self-confident egotist who can easily put their self-regarding decisiveness above reflection and kindness.
Justin’s story is so powerful because with his background he could easily have chosen to skim anecdotes across the surface of his boys-own adventures; and he could have puffed himself up to blow rollicking good yarns into our small, intimidated lives. It would fill a slot at a cheap cologne sales conference for sure, but it would only be a sticky sugar rush that would then leave us empty and unfulfilled.
Instead, Justin confounds the all-action stereotype. He is a quiet man. He is also a man of beautiful words; he has a way of holding an idea for us with the same care that we would hold a child’s hand. He presents not as “look at what I have done”, but as “look at what we might do together”. Above all he starts from understanding where everyone is beginning their journey with him. He then comes back to that point with each of us, sits quietly with us for a while to just be, and then says, “when you are ready, let’s go together.”
It is a style of leadership that is understated, almost unnoticed, but then it is also profoundly affecting. It is the essential style of leadership for our times, because our families, our communities and our planet do not need the disposable spin of slogans and cliches, but to harness the power we all have to care a little more for each other.
There have been (too many) days of unimaginable violence in his life, but the calm assurance of sitting next to him when there is no need to speak unless it is something you want to say, is powerful and of itself is almost overwhelming. I think it is a kind of love; a loving respect for a person in a moment when the only thing that matters is that they are worthy of all the time they need for their words to be heard.
What Justin has shown me more profoundly than he may himself have realised, is that mentoring is so much more than just listening. It is an act of honouring an individual as a complete person, without judgement or comment, and to offer them your entire unconditional attention.
The mentor should never assume their role is that of the wise interpreter, but the mentor should always be the person who slows things down enough for our words to have the space to find meaning, for silence to move us and for our thoughts to rest in the light of another’s kindness.
As I have reached that part of my working life when there is far more to my past than there will be to my future, it is impossible not to reflect and to notice. In part that is why I have written this story. I have wanted to show you how moments shape us, but more importantly to show you how the answer to everything is all around us, if we can only take the time to notice and to reflect.
In the pages that follow I will share a little more of how I believe we can help each other to navigate and narrate our own stories, and to notice what we have placed in our own exhibitions without even realising that this is what we have done.
The exhibition of our story is the foundation on which we build the difference we will make; it is what gives us hope even in our setbacks and gives meaning to our triumphs. The exhibition of our story is how we can be present enough in the moment to see that the answers are indeed all around us in the stories of others. And, as I have already said a little earlier, we will explore this further before the exhibition ends; because I really do need you to walk away holding your story, not mine.
To be continued…
Take care. Paul xx