Many these days would see leadership development as a specialist field. However, if we look back at what myth and legend have to say, we realise that it is only comparatively recently that we have outsourced the development of leaders to ‘specialists’.
For thousands of years before this, the development of ‘leaders’ has been something handled at the heart of communities. For thousands of years stories of growth and initiation have been passed down in oral traditions which have helped each generation make their way in the world. And our focus these days is often so heavily on leadership competence that we neglect that which was always at the heart of initiation in all cultures in the past – the development of wisdom and savvy.
In the Ancient Greek tradition, this quality is called metis (after the Titaness, Metis, first wife of Zeus) and is associated with a magical cunning, a trickster-like wit. It is metis that gets Odysseus through the trials and ordeals of his ten-year voyage back to Ithaca, for example; a “nous” beyond technical competence in swordsmanship and seamanship. And if we look to the great mythic stories from a number of cultures, threads of insight and advice emerge that were apparent to them, and which we seem to be missing. There are still some who can tell these stories, and here are a few of the things we might learn if we find our way to them.
1. When the culture is in crisis, what is needed often comes from the edge
In many mythic traditions the centre of the village or kingdom is a metaphor for the centre of a culture. If there is sickness or crisis here, there is big trouble. And in many instances, it is from the edges of society, the forestlands and hermitages beyond mountain ranges, that salvation comes.
For example, in Arthurian and Germanic mythic stories of the Holy Grail, the Grail Knight Parzival is taken as a baby by his mother, Herzeloyde, to the far away forest following the news of the death of his father on the Baghdad road. Herzeloyde is disgusted with the chivalric, cultural values of the court that have led to her husband’s death, and acts on instinct to remove Parzival from this environment. Parzival’s upbringing away from the centre, and his difficult return from the edge of society, develop metis in him. It is these qualities that he needs to enter the Grail Castle and heal the generational wounds of the Fisher King, the wounds at the heart of his society.
Are we paying too much attention to the voices at the centre of the court when what we need to hear might come from the edge?
2. Naivety gets punished
In an old tale from the Seneca people, The Listener, an unruly adolescent is sent to the edge of the village to a mystical uncle for initiation. For four years his task is to sit at the foot of a mighty tree in the forest, listening to and connecting with the rhythms of the world around him. For four years “nothing happens”, until one day he encounters a princess from the Far West in a magical floating canoe. At the back of the canoe is her mother, a terrifying tusked figure.
Throughout The Listener’s attempts to pursue her daughter, the mother seems set on thwarting him. She enchants and tries to freeze him and his men to death. She sends siren-like calls out to them so they lose their footing on sheer mountainsides.
However, she is not pure evil set to destroy all; her role is simply to punish naivety, ‘unripe leadership’. From his years in the forest he is grounded enough to outwit his adversary at each critical moment and gradually gains her respect. He does not save himself and his men through technical competence, but rather through wit and savvy.
What naiveties might we be guilty of in our leading? Do we sometimes mistake a plan for reality, a strategic model or framework for truth rather than metaphor?
3. Wisdom comes through seeing with different eyes
And later in the tale, whilst exploring in a dark forest, The Listener’s eyes are taken and stitched to the cloak of an evil sorcerer. He stumbles blindly for years before he reaches the edge where the forest meets the village, and his fingers finally brush ears of corn. A period follows where he is reintegrated into society and meets his eventual wife. To help him see his way on this journey he borrows the eyes of various animals. First, he takes the eyes of a hawk and sees as a hawk sees – the aerial view, the big perspectives – but after a number of weeks they stop working. He then takes the eyes of a deer and sees as a deer sees – the unexpected view through thickets and dappled glades. And so on.
It is this appreciation of the many perspectives of the eco-system that develop in him the wisdom he needs to be able to settle down fruitfully at the heart of his community again.
Through how many pairs of eyes do we allow ourselves to view the complex leadership situations we face?
These are just a few references from a few cultural traditions: the Welsh/Germanic Arthurian tradition, a North American Seneca tale, and the world of Ancient Greek myth. However, even this non-representative sample suggests that there are important questions that we are missing in the way we develop the leaders and leading that we need at the heart of our cultures. It is grounded wisdom that has always gotten us through the most deeply dangerous, complex and tricky times and we may need more of it now.
If you’d like to explore these ideas more, do get in touch
Anonymous/ Senecan oral tradition.The Listener – as told by Martin Shaw
Various and von Eschenbach, Wolfram (circa 1220). Parzival
Shakespeare, William (1993). King Lear. Title quote, “Ripeness is all” – Act V Scene II, line 11, p. 186. Routledge: London
Shaw, Martin (2011). A Branch from the Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wildness. White Cloud Press: Ashland, Oregon.