Looking between the leaves
Growing up in Johannesburg, the largest human made forest in the world, I was surrounded by nature. Extending beyond our bird and flower-filled garden were the ‘koppies’ and mountains, rivers and big sky. Nature was the backdrop to our lives. It didn’t feel particularly remarkable at the time as there was a never a sense that it was going anywhere. Nature in South Africa comes with a tiny frisson of fear so my childhood memories are more often than not punctuated by experiences of danger: the time I nearly stepped on a small nest of puffadders while walking on the dunes in the Eastern Cape, the rabid dog a group of friends and I ran into while holidaying in the Drakensberg mountains, the leopard lounging from a low hanging branch as we drove through the Kruger National Park with our window open, the baboons who barred our path when we were hiking in the Magaliesberg.
The English Countryside When I moved to England I felt underwhelmed by the nature around me. The sharp edges, the grandeur, the unexpected elements of nature in Africa were replaced by benign and placid encounters. English nature seemed endlessly the same. Green – tick. Pretty – definitely. Pleasing – sure. But I experienced no real awe, no real delight in what surrounded me. I felt instead a strange and unsettling sense of loss, a yearning for nature to pull at me and fill me with the love for the “beauteous forms” of the natural world that Wordsworth writes about. I had felt a similar sense of consternation when living in Taipei. Taipei in the 1990s had a dystopian air – all talk was of acid rain and air pollution. The high speed rail was in the process of being built - dust and fine grit lined your mouth and nostrils. Greenery was not what it seemed either – Astroturf was everywhere, misleading the nature-starved eye into thinking that there was nature in the city somewhere. The only place to go to touch a living, thriving green leaf was in the mountains above Taipei or to the coast. And all 2 million Taipei residents had the same urgent craving for greenery and clean air. Among the clutter of joyous memories of my time in Taipei is a memory of the despair and alienation of living on a construction site. I felt this acutely. I certainly didn’t understand at the time that what I was missing was nature and specifically the nature from home and this was translating into anxiety and low mood. This need for nature is built deep into our humanity and feels ever more urgent given collapsing biodiversity and our natural ecosystems but this is not a blog about how we need to step up and sort out our planetary chaos (that is a blog but not this one). This is a story about how happiness can emerge when expectations and reality are matched, and where a small shift can bring about a great change in perspective. A new perspective My business partner is a naturalist. Having grown up on a farm in the New Forest in England surrounded by nature, she has spent much of her life exploring her surrounds and the patterns and systems within them. She knows the names of every plant she encounters. She knows every bird she sees, she can describe the markings on their shells, the way they construct their nests, why they are loners, why they move in a flock. She understands the shift of nature, where to look and when. When we go on a walk together, I am looking upwards to the sky (the yearning for the endless African sky lives in me) and I all I see is the blue and the clouds. Whatever surrounds me I disregard and ignore – after all I am unlikely to spot anything of interest (no leopards to be found in Norfolk) but Tracey is looking towards the ground and in the trees and she is focusing in, she is observing close up. For some years I found Tracey’s interest in the small, plain creatures of England charming and endearing. I engaged in a gentle mocking, reminding her that I came from a place where the anteater, the rhino, the hippo were commonplace. Nothing nature in England could throw at me could compare: hence my disinterest. The Shift But then of course an extended lockdown happened. And as I write this we are in a second lockdown. And something rather interesting has happened in between. It started with a large book on “Birds of the UK” gifted to me by Tracey. And while it is possible (I say rather boastfully) to see more kinds of birds in one Joburg garden than across the whole of the UK, the book I have been given is a hefty book and I have learnt much. It has become a favourite exploratory read. I have become more adept at identifying birds and their birdsong. I have found myself not only looking up but looking down and across too. I have become consumed with needing to understand the plants in my surroundings and I have downloaded an app called ‘Seek’ that is a constant and knowledgeable walking companion. I have watched the squirrels, rabbits, birds and occasional fox in my garden while imaging their inner lives. My daughter and I have even saved a small, hungry, neglected hoglet (a teenage hedgehog to you and me) found wandering across our lawn. It has all been rather marvellous. The leadership lesson · This shift to being open and curious to what is there (as opposed to what is not there) has taken a long time, after all I have lived here for nearly 8 years. But once I started being open to another form of nature, I have been unable to tear my eyes away. In your leadership practice what could you be paying more attention to? What interests and inspires a team member that you think ‘that could be interesting to learn more about?’ · Being an apprentice. As an adult we hardly ever get the opportunity to be an apprentice. How might it feel to be an apprentice to someone else’s expertise? What joy might be accomplished in relinquishing the need for knowing and giving yourself the gift of discovery through someone’s else eyes? · Narrowing your focus. Familiarity is both a gift and a curse. It is easy to overlook the joys to be found in one’s own immediate environment. During the lockdowns our focus narrowed to one’s own home and very little beyond. This narrowing down, this microscopic focus can reveal new gifts that have been hidden. What parts of your current environment do you need to explore anew? Are there old books that, reread, might give a different kind of joy? A rediscovery of things that may have been put aside? The same goes for leadership practice. I have so many times worked with leaders who are brilliant at a practice but disregard its importance because it is not new or recently learnt. Sometimes honing in on old skills and practices is better than learning something fresh. Leadership in practice: At Thompson Harrison we are working with many leaders who are doing some form of the above as a way of extending their leadership practice and building their ‘complexity muscle’. Examples include a CEO committed to a new practice of yoga with his family. A senior leader reigniting their love of literature and developing new insights for their diversity work by only reading women novelists. A senior leadership team doing the ancient practice of origami together. Leadership has never been more stressful and all-consuming but as I have discovered, there is a joy in nature and in all creatures big AND small, just one step outside. Sam Rockey