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.

Parzival in battle

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.

Hagondes – Seneca trickster mask

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 and join the conversation –


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

Recommended reading:

Shaw, Martin (2011). A Branch from the Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wildness. White Cloud Press: Ashland, Oregon.

When we join a new organisation, or move within organisations, it is not uncommon to experience a bit of linguistic disorientation. Groups and sub-groups have often developed their own vocabulary and way of talking about things. It’s normally possible, with some targeted questions and a good memory, to work out how to understand the various acronyms and abbreviations. However, there are often nuances beyond mere naming conventions that take longer to get a feel for. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz talks about man being caught in a web of signification that he is weaving himself (Geertz, 1993). He is talking here about the distinctly human need for networked sense-making in groups. This process leads to the co-creation of interconnected ways of doing and understanding things that we sometimes call organisational cultures. When we enter new organisations and experience this linguistic disorientation, it is an indication that we are moving into a culture which will require time spent participating in and making sense of, if we are to begin to understand and co-create it.

However, it is not enough to simply learn the language and symbols of an organisational culture in order to thrive. Geertz’s choice of the metaphor of being caught in a web suggests the shadow side of cultures too. The web once woven begins to define and delineate the world, and can entrap as well as enable.

Language as constraint?

I am put in mind of a passage in the Irish writer James Joyce’s coming of age novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (first published 1917). Stephen Dedalus, in his 20s as a student in Dublin, is listening to the assertions and ramblings of his English university professor at Trinity College, and reflects to himself – “my soul frets in the shadow of his language”. In the specific context of the novel this has to do with the dominance of the English language over the native Irish language. The metaphor of “fretting” (in its sense of “following a narrow channel”) carries the idea of the potential constraint of thought through forcing its expression in particular linguistic forms. There is a political point Joyce is making here about the particular history of 20thCentury Anglo-Irish relations. However, he is also making a more philosophical point about the nature of choice-making in language as an act of narrowing or emphasis, which, if we are not aware of it, can limit.

Lakoff & Johnson in their work in this field see metaphor as “pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action”. They argue that these linguistic concepts “structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people” (Lakoff & Johnson, 2003). One example they look at is how, in the current English vernacular (and this may change over time), our metaphorical language for arguing is coloured by images of conflict. We “defend” an argument. A critical article may have a “line of attack”. In a discussion, we may “take sides”, or “occupy a position”. If metaphor is to understand one thing in terms of another, then the metaphorical connections we make in language will shape our interpretation. So in organisational life, how we talk about things will affect not only the way in which we are perceived, but will also start to shape how we think about things and act. For example, if we talk regularly about driving sales, change, or innovation, we are choosing to lay a particular emphasis which will influence the way we and others think and act in relation to this. This may or may not be helpful. However, if we are using this language unconsciously and without considering the potential limits of these metaphors, then we risk narrowing our choices of how to think and act without even realising it.

Language as enabler?

In A Portrait of the Artist, Joyce gives the phrase “my soul frets in the shadow of his language” to Stephen Dedalus. However, as the author, it is, at a “meta-level”, also an utterance from Joyce. And here I think the sense of fret as in “fretwork”, intricate ornamental design, is at play too. There is the idea here of the creative possibilities of constraint. Any writer is forced to make limiting choices about how they express thought and emotion in the vocabulary and syntax of their own (or someone else’s!) language. However, this constraint can force a charge into the choices which generates creativity. The Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig (1910 – 1996), credits the poetic spark in his language to his mother’s side of the family, Gaelic speakers from the isle of Scalpay in the Outer Hebrides. He notes how Scots Gaelic is heavily metaphorical, and often uses compound nouns (where two words are yoked together) to express ideas (MacCaig, 2010). The clarity of the two images somehow brings about something different through their being forced alongside one another; like the energy released through pushing two opposing magnetic poles together. In an organisational change context, this feels to me to be directly related to Bushe & Marshak’s work around the idea of the importance of generativity and generative images for transformation. They define generativity as –

the creation of new images, metaphors, physical representations, and so on that have two qualities: they change how people think so that new options for decisions and/or actions become available to them, and they are compelling images that people want to act on

(Bushe & Marshak, 2014)

One example of this which they give is the notion of “sustainable development”. This term may seem commonplace to us now. However, at the time it was coined (first major appearance at a UN conference in 1972), it created a generative central space where corporate and commercial viewpoints could be considered alongside questions of environmental and societal impact. All parties could identify with and were intrigued by the possibilities of the “generative image”.

And this is where metaphor and language can play a significant enabling role in organisational change.Bushe & Marshak talk about there being three types of “occurrence” which bring about organisational change-

A disruption in the social construction of organizational reality leads to a more complex re-organization

A change to one or more core narratives takes place.

A generative image is introduced or surfaces that provides new and compelling alternatives for thinking and acting.

(Bushe & Marshak, 2015)

Organisational language and metaphor are at the heart of all of these. They are a medium through which we make sense and construct organisational reality. They are a medium through which we tell each other stories and weave the webs which make up culture. And, if used consciously, they can provide a generative source of creative energy for change.

Our great poets and novelists have known this for centuries; and before them, for millennia, the storytellers of the world’s many oral traditions. In our organisational lives, too often, we have lost this connection. If you’d like to explore with us more how these ideas can help us with change and transformation, do get in touch and join the conversation –


Bushe, G.R. & Marshak, R.J. (2014). The dialogic mindset in organization development. Research in Organizational Change and Development, 22, 55‐97

Bushe, G.R & Marshak, R.J. (2015). Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change.Oakland, CA. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Geertz, C. (1993). The interpretation of cultures.London: Fontana Press

Joyce, J. (1994).  Portrait of the Artist.Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

Lakoff & Johnson (2003). Metaphors We Live By.Chicago: University of Chicago Press

MacCaig, N. (2010). The Poems of Norman MacCaig.Edinburgh: Polygon

Image – top right:“Poets’ Pub”, Alexander Moffat, 1980, Oil on canvas, National Galleries Scotland

“B.H.S.” by Sleaford Mods is a catchy track. I was getting ready for the day and found myself smiling and energized after hearing it on the radio. It helped me out of the door with a spring in my step. And then I thought more about the lyrics, particularly the refrain, and wondered about my reaction:

We’re going down like B.H.S.,

While the able-bodied vultures monitor and pick at us,

We’re going down and it’s no stress,

I lay and hope for the knuckle-dragging exodus.

There is a wicked humour here. And it is a pretty bleak narrative. In humour there is often something of the satisfaction of recognition – a punchline dropping into place; or finding ourselves again in observational comedy. Perhaps we can recognize the experience of being constantly monitored, constantly findable via smartphones, GPS, CCTV; so we can identify with the chorus? And, as a society, we’ve seen a lot of evidence of vulture-like behaviour, not least of all thinking back to the 2008 financial crisis. But what caught my attention most was the phrase “going down like B.H.S“. British Home Stores, a department store that had been on UK high streets since 1928 before going into liquidation. It was very much a feature of most towns I knew when I was growing up, and, as a brand, I remember it being pretty middle-of-the-road, familiar, suburban; certainly not the high cultural icon you might choose to associate your demise with. It is very much an anti-heroic connection that Sleaford Mods are making; and there is a bitter wit and irony here that is strangely compelling. It has something of the dark energy that fuelled the punk genre in the late 70s / early 80s. It says, we are being picked on, monitored, controlled, and we may not feel approved of, glamorous, or valued that highly, but we are going down, and going down together. There is solidarity and comfort in this narrative. We are many. And they are to blame.

Narrative and organisation

And we see this in organisational life too. If we take a view of organisations as webs woven from the ideas and conversations people have and share, then narrative is important. OD practitioner and writer Gervase Bushe talks about one of the three main prerequisites for organisational change being a “shift in the narrative”. He also talks about the power of “generative images” which can provide a positive creative attractor for organisational futures.

However, perhaps there is also value for us who would try and intervene in organisations in appreciating how revealing some of the darker narratives can be. There is something uncomfortable about what Sleaford Mods are saying. And whilst the language and metaphors are colloquial, and not the discourse of social science or corporate organisation, they manage to articulate a truth that future visions of society or organisation often leave out, and which people identify with. From the relative comfort of our OD and transformation roles, are their uncomfortable voices or truths that we are neglecting to witness? Would it sometimes benefit us to hold the dark alongside the light for a moment? If I go back to my physical reaction to listening to the song, it certainly put a spring in my step, but it was a spring more akin to a boxer’s legs braced against the canvas of the ring, rather than the gambolling of a spring lamb. The smile was more mischievous grin than Buddha-like gaze of benign peace. But there was energy there nonetheless. However convincing we think our visions for the future are, it is worth recognizing that for every hero there is an anti-heroic position, with a truth and energy that can sustain movements.

If you’d like to explore with us more how these ideas can help us with change and transformation, do get in touch and join the conversation –


Bushe, G.R & Marshak, R.J. (2015). Dialogic Organization Development: The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change. Oakland, CA. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Sleaford Mods (2017). English Tapas. “B.H.S”, Track 11, London: Rough Trade Records



Bernard Cornwell’s 1981 novel, Sharpe’s Eagle, follows the exploits of Lieutenant Richard Sharpe in a campaign on the Iberian peninsula during the Napoleonic wars. The Sharpe novels were then adapted for UK channel ITV in the early 1990s, with British actor Sean Bean taking the lead role of Richard Sharpe. He’s the one in the middle.

Why am I telling you this? Not because I want to rework old parallels between military and organisational design or leadership – I think our views of organisation have been influenced enough over the years by the over-emphasis on these metaphors.

I am telling you this, in part, because I believe that if we always look to the same sources for insights this is unlikely to be the route to anything new. And also because I think Sean Bean’s Richard Sharpe has something important to say to us about being a change agent.

In the scene I am thinking of, Sharpe’s men are about to go into battle. They have little combat experience, and the odds are against them. Sharpe paints a frank picture of the realities of the situation, then offers them a slim hope –

But if you don’t run; if you stand…and fire volley after volley, three rounds a minute, then they slow down…all you’ve got to do, is stand, and fire three rounds a minute.

Now you and I know you can fire three rounds a minute.

But can you stand?

In organisational transformation we often spend a lot of time and effort strategizing and planning. Teams of highly skilled executives display a huge amount of competence in researching options, fleshing out proposals, making recommendations. As leaders and change agents, we take change seriously, and carefully consider the implications of what we are about to undertake. This is our technical competence, our ability to fire three rounds a minute using a standard issue musket.

However, what Sharpe is saying is also required of the situation, is something different, namely the ability to “stand”. In an organisational change context, this is perhaps being able to “hold the space” when working with change and transformation; to know that there will be times of high anxiety and uncertainty, and having the self-awareness to stay in the moment. Ed Schein, in his seminal works on organisational consulting, talks about there being different modes of intervention. The “expert mode” sees consultants or leaders drawing on their own expertise, their technical competence, their musketry skill so to speak. This can be extremely helpful. However, in a situation where transformation, or change, is required, advising from the existing paradigm may not bring about the difference needed. Schein’s focus is on a mode of consulting he calls “process consultation”. The aim here is to stay in the present moment within organisational life, to observe organisational and interpersonal dynamics in teams and departments as they unfold. This includes moments of tension, anxiety, and conflict; and requires the ability to “stand”.

Taking this further, Bill Critchley talks about the role of a change agent being to “seek to raise the levels of anxiety sufficiently to disturb the equilibrium and create readiness for change” (Critchley, 2001 (italics mine)). From a complexity perspective, it is the very act of bringing in (potentially anxiety provoking) newness that may cause the disturbance which allows a new pattern of interaction to establish itself (or, a change to take place). This can feel uncomfortable, and the temptation for us as leaders can be to try and smooth any disruptions. However, if we work on our ability to “stand” through this period of temporary turbulence, and not smooth away the difference, then there is a chance something new may emerge.

And whilst we are standing, what are we standing for? Gestalt OD thinker Edwin Nevis talks about the importance of “presence” when intervening in organisations with the intent to transform. The change agent must “stand for something”. This need not be as literal as standing for a particular organisational agenda, but there must be something discernible and authentic about the person’s way of being in the organisation; there must be something different, that raises interest. Otherwise the agent or leader fades into the organisational background and cannot disturb enough to have a transforming effect.

So, it seems there is more to Lieutenant Richard Sharpe’s question than meets the eye. Our skills and competencies remain of vital importance to our work. However, if we don’t also acknowledge what it means to experience anxiety and uncertainty in organisations, and catch ourselves in our habitual attempts to smooth disturbance in order to escape from it, then we may remain stuck in the paradigms we are trying to change. Beyond skilled technical expertise there is work to be done, as change agents, on our self-awareness and on what we stand for; so that, when the question is asked of us, we can remain standing.

If you’d like to explore with us how these ideas can help with change and transformation, do get in touch and join the conversation –


Cornwell, B. (1981). Sharpe’s Eagle. London: Collins

Critchley, B. (2001). The role of the management consultant in the change management process. In P. Sadler (Ed.), Management consultancy: A handbook for best practice (pp. 274-290). London: Kogan Page.

Nevis, E. C. (1987). Organizational consulting: A Gestalt approach. Cambridge, MA: Gestalt Press

Schein E.H. (1988) Process consultation vol. 1: Its role in organisational development. Reading, MA: Wesley


 In a non-linear world, there is no relation between the strength of the cause and the consequence of the new effect.
Wheatley, M.J. (2006, p. 121)

July 1977 was a hot month in New York City. The temperatures had been in the 80s for weeks. The stench of rotting garbage hung in the air. The sun bounced off the asphalt, as aircon units sputtered and whirred in the windows of apartment blocks.

On Wednesday the 13th the humidity was building all day. At 20:37 lightning hit 2 extra high voltage lines in Westchester County, upstate New York, taking them out, and causing increased load to build in the rest of the system. At 20:56 lightning struck again, taking out two more lines. By 21:36 there was a blackout across the whole of the five boroughs of New York City, in some areas for up to 25 hours.

The power supply in this area was, and still is, run by the electricity company Con Edison. Their 1978 report into the failure and delayed recovery of supply pointed to a number of potential factors, including –

– An operator not showing for work

– Another operator delayed on a phone call while the system overloaded

– Increased aircon usage in the city due to the prolonged hot weather

– “The loss of additional transmission circuits resulting from a loose lock nut on a control of a circuit breaker”

The result was widespread rioting across New York City, in what some papers described as “a night of terror”.

Change always involves a dark night where everything falls apart. Yet if this period of dissolution is used to create new meaning, then chaos ends and new order emerges.
Wheatley, M.J. (2006, p. 170)

In the early 70s in the Bronx and Harlem, a new musical form was beginning to take shape. It was a reaction to the slick style of Disco. One of the pioneers, Grandmaster Flash, was leading the way with his technique of using a wax crayon to mark the hooks from Disco hits, allowing him to sample and mix records at speed. Flash and his crew, The Furious Five, were the talk of the boroughs, and a generation was looking to emulate them. However, running a crew was expensive, as you needed mics, turntables and mixers; and this was beyond the reach of most people.

Grandmaster Flash

Then came the blackout. There was looting, and a disproportionate number of electronics shops were targeted. Bronx MC Grandmaster Caz remembers a group pulling down the gates on the South Bronx store front, The Sound Room, and kids making off with armfuls of Clubman 2 mixers. By the time the power came back up there was a wealth of musical equipment available, and, in Caz’s words, “everyone was an MC now”. This was the point that hip hop started to make the leap from the underground.

Self-balancing (negative) feedback loops maintain the system in a stable but continually fluctuating state, whereas self-amplifying (positive) feedback loops may lead to new emergent structures
Capra, F. (2014, p. 159)

The increased availability of equipment lead to the formation of lots of different crews. Rap battles were held regularly where audiences voted for the winning crew through the volume of their applause. Hip hop was the talk of the street. Bootleg tapes were made of these battles and circulated. These were copied and shared and reputations were made and ruined. One such epic rap battle was between Grand Wizard Theodore and the Fantastic Five, and the Cold Crush Brothers. On audience volume the Fantastic Five were declared the winners. But as the bootleg tapes were circulated, the tide of opinion changed – the view being that the Fantastic Five had loaded the audience with supporters, and Cold Crush had the better texts. The rhymes of the Cold Crush Brothers passed from hand to hand and voice to voice, and their reputation spread across the city.

By 1979 the hip hop underground had drawn enough attention for downtown record labels to want to get in on the act. “Rapper’s Delight”, by the Sugar Hill Gang, was the first commercially cut hip hoptrack and took the nation’s airwaves by storm that summer. With record label backing, and coinciding with the growth of affordable international air travel, the Sugar Hill Gang also took to the air, and popular music culture was changed forever.

Rapper’s Delight 1979

It may seem an unusual example, but sometimes it’s nice to have an alternative to the butterfly flapping its wings. For those of us working in organisations perhaps it is a reminder that for all our strategizing and planning, organisations are also bundles of complex intentions and interactions. At any time, news of difference may arrive, and the rules of the game may change.

If you’d like to explore with us how these ideas can help with change, transformation, and Organisation Development do get in touch and join the conversation –


Capra, F. (2014). The systems view of life: A unifying vison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Kabanjoo, S., Walker, D., McFadsen, S., Dunn, J. (2016). Hip Hop Evolution. A Netflix Production

U.S. Department of Energy Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Report (1978): The Con Edison Power Failure of July 13 and 14, 1977

Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler