This article was originally posted as one of Stephen's excellent, insightful LinkedIn posts. Here you'll find more leadership tools, wisdom and wit. Image above is Stephen's own.
I recently spent a glorious 90 minutes or so at the Hayward Gallery’s Louise Bourgeoise exhibition, the Woven Child. I went because I am fascinated by the art she makes, and the exhibition has had glowing reviews. I also went because I love doing different things and simply enjoying being exposed to someone else’s creativity, thinking and way of living and being. I don’t go to art exhibitions because I expect to be inspired, or to make connections with my own practice, but I know how often that happens.
The Arctic Circle 2022: Stephen's video
Many artists and others who want to be creative expose themselves to new stimuli and new areas of expertise to feed their creativity. The video above was made by my friend Katy Schutte, a fabulous teacher, maker and performer (you can find her here). In April, she was an Artist in Residence in the Arctic Circle Project and promised to make a short video for me while she was there. The ‘mission’ I gave her started from my fascination with how one area of practice or experience can throw a new light on another, but otherwise left it up to her to craft something interesting.
You’ll see that she chatted to the Captain, Serge, about dealing with unpredictability – something that improvisers and coaches meet frequently. I am not an arctic captain, but I could relate to Serge’s approach to unpredictability and complexity: simplify and focus on the next step. Serge and Katy went on to talk about how important it is – whether as seafarer or improviser – to hold both the big picture and the current moment in mind. I also recognise this as a coach and improviser.
Joseph Grenny in the Harvard Business Review Jan 09, 2019, argues that “creativity is learnable providence” and that if you want to be creative then obey your curiosity, collect things to connect, even when they have no obvious purpose or utility. And keep them in a ‘shoebox’ – real, virtual or metaphorical.
The things in your shoebox can be
- · Snatches of others’ professional practices or insights that could provide a metaphor for your own
- · Different ways of thinking that transform how you regard a familiar on intractable problem
- · Pithy quotes that freshly express or crystalise something that you (almost) knew to be true or
- · Simply inspiration, energy or some sort of emotional shift.
I draw from my shoebox in myriad ways. For example, when running workshops on mastery in coaching I often quote Michael Clarke – a past Australian cricket captain – who was reflecting on a great day’s batting by his team and said, “Yea, the guys played with great freedom”. That’s what ‘masterful’ coaches do too. Also, I heard one of the actresses from the ‘The Derry Girls’ explain the appeal of the show: “It was the specificity and authenticity of the story that make it universal”What a wonderful insight to quote when I’m next explaining the power of story for leaders.
A simple example of the power of metaphor is when a client of mine says that they are stuck with a work challenge (say how to help a new team improve and perform) and they don’t know what to do. If I know that they are (for example) a keen gardener, I might ask, “If this team were a new flower bed, what would you do?” And they then tell me about seeing what’s healthy and good, think about how to feed it, its position in the garden, whether there are any plants that need to be moved etc. And they are soon unstuck by accessing what they already know from a ‘parallel world’. All they had to do was add something they already had to their shoebox.
So, what did I add to my shoebox, courtesy of Louise Bourgeoise? The excellent curators of the exhibition explained that:
“In a series of ‘pole’ pieces, she displayed garments that were especially evocative of her past …. For Bourgeoise, these clothes were as significant as the pages of her diary in their ability to hold the memory of people, places and events as well as the touch of her own body.”
Now, I sort of – almost – knew that memory works like that. But seeing the work and reading the commentary crystalised the insight and helped me make a connection.
In working with individual and groups of leaders I have become increasingly convinced that memory of what they have learnt is not solely, or even principally, cognitive. Emotions, physical sensation and shifts in mood can be far more powerful and memorable. Louise Bourgeoise helped me see that I am noticing something universal. It gives me a fresh way to talk about how I approach my work and a basis for advocating experiential rather than solely cognitive learning. I have added to my shoebox.
I believe that the shoebox is a fertile receptacle not just for artists, improvisers, or coaches. We can all benefit from thinking inside that box.
The challenge is to add to your shoebox. Not too deliberately – because noticing things to add works best if you have a ‘soft gaze’ rather than laser focus. It requires openness and curiosity, a willingness to be affected. It needs exposure to different stimuli. And sometimes that stimulus is short-lived, so you have to work immediately with the energy or emotion it produces. I find the work and reflections of artists and musicians particularly helpful. But any discipline or professional practice could have just what you need to be creative, to be an artist, in your sphere. You just need to hang out with people who pursue some type of wisdom in a different way to you, pay good attention to what they say, and connect it to whatever occupies or intrigues you.