Anzac Day

A fellow member of the Australian Facilitator’s Network [AFN] posed some challenging questions online recently,  about the preparations for the 100-year anniversary of the Gallipoli landing in 2015, and I felt compelled to respond.

He referred to the impending celebrations, citing comments already surfacing, that are critical of the nature of the events, the cost, the focus on heroism and the Australian ‘legend’ and the undue focus on one distant event that could detract from the work and sacrifices of current soldiers, and he sought reflections from others. He raised questions in me that I didn’t know existed and as Anzac Day is upon us, I thought I would post my response here as well.

I’ve been to Gallipoli, twice: the first time in 1980 when, as one of only four Aussi’s on one of those ubiquitous overland treks, I agreed to assume the role of tour leader and persuade the other 24 international ‘kids’ to travel out of their way to visit Anzac Cove. It was quite undeveloped at the time and we climbed straight up from the beach, scrambling over  the detritus of that war, falling into gorse bushes, confronting the gun emplacements; and we came across a tiny graveyard of Australian Diggers, all incredibly young, far from the Lone Pine official cemetery. It was very moving, despite my reservations about war and heroism and military stupidity even then.

We went back there last New Year’s Eve and I must admit I expected crass commercialism. There wasn’t: tours are organised by Crowded House in the village of Eceabat some distance from Anzac Cove and the guide facilitated one of the most balanced and sensitive presentations I’ve ever experienced;  there are a few places for people to gather, but in limited numbers;  narrow roads carry buses past remains of trenches, the occasional memorial and tiny graveyards. The essential stark remoteness of the place remains, allowing you to feel the pointlessness of the exercise, despair at the unnecessary sacrifice of such young people and wonder at the courage it must have taken to face the daily onslaught so far from home. So many were from little country towns, probably just excited by the prospect of travel; so many young women left without partners for the rest of their lives.

I think the occasion can and should be remembered, without celebrating heroism, but with respect for what they sacrificed in all good faith and ignorance. Whether the tradition, the legend, is founded on myth or not, I don’t think it matters. There are plenty of legends that probably wouldn’t stand scrutiny. I can’t see that honouring this occasion, these soldiers, diminishes in any way the sacrifices of current day soldiers. And my attitude to war has not changed.  If we let this occasion pass, leaving it to individual quiet contemplation, I wonder how many of us, in the busyness of life, would overlook or just forget  the anniversary.

We have grown up with this legend and, rightly or wrongly, and I suspect this belief  about what it means to be Australian is already a part of our psyche; perhaps the evidence for that lies in the increasing numbers who turn up for the Dawn Service. I’m sure most of us don’t quite measure up to the image in our minds; well, I don’t, but nor do I want the image shattered at this time either.

There were so many questions raised for me: what does it mean to be Australian?  Does remembering this event mean that deep down I applaud war? How will I respond when people talk at social events near to the day? I’m clearer about it now: I don’t want anyone going off to war; especially I don’t want them dying in far away places, in battles that have little or nothing to do with them.  In any case they deserve respect for what they sacrificed.

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More on Mindfulness

I’m only slowly learning about mindfulness. My path is littered with abandoned efforts to meditate – sitting rigid, desperately willing myself to forget the ideas swirling in my head, legs twitching.

I must confess I put mindfulness in the same basket as meditation. Perhaps it is in some ways; but mindfulness makes sense, for me anyway – and for many others too it seems.

Meditation has its devotees and evidence of success. Perhaps I’m too undisciplined or action-focused. So what’s the difference?

I like this explanation by Ellen Langer, of the Langer Mindfulness Institute and long committed to its power:

Mindfulness is the process of actively noticing new things. When you do that it puts you in the present. It makes you more sensitive to context and perspective. It’s the essence of engagement.”

A couple of years back, when I was complaining of all the burdens I was shouldering at the time, all the stress I was under, my cousin who runs a healing practice, patiently suggested a little technique that I now understand was a mindful activity.

‘When you go for a walk, look around you at the trees, and then focus on the spaces between the leaves on those trees, on the play of light amongst them.”

I trusted her and tried. Instead of walking fast, resenting the waste of precious time involved in getting fit, I actually forgot the tasks I had to finish, the phone calls to make, the decisions to be made. For a short while I switched off the brain and simply enjoyed the experience.

In a way it was another task, but one I allowed myself to indulge in. I gave myself permission to be quite present and stress melted away. I found a different purpose in what I was doing, focused on this new activity, and came back relaxed.

How else can you practice mindfulness? My aim is to give leader-coaches in workplaces some strategies for helping themselves and their staff. And I do understand you are stressed.

Here are some self-reflection questions – a mindful activity, drawn from Ellen Langer’s advice. It will still demand self-discipline, but when you are feeling stressed, stop and ask yourself:
* Is this problem really a tragedy or is it simply an inconvenience?
* Am I really responsible for this problem? Could someone else address all of it, or even part of it?
* What else should I really be doing?

Now do what you absolutely must, with purpose and focus – and then go out for a walk!

Watch the interview with Ellen Langer: Enliven your work with Mindfulness

Read this article for some activities that could surely be classed as mindful: 10 simple things you can do today that will make you happier, backed by science.

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An unexpected, mindful respite

This morning I discovered two of our doves building a nest in the camellia tree right in front of my office window. I’ve never before watched birds building a nest and I’m so impressed – by their determination and intelligence.

They’ve already nested once this season, right outside the stained glass window in the living room. The mother laid two eggs and we waited with excitement for them to hatch, introducing ‘our family’ to anyone who came to visit. But suddenly the nest with its two eggs was abandoned. The only obvious explanation seemed to be that the tree was too insubstantial to support mother bird’s weight, as we could see her sitting just above those eggs, watching for hours. Mourning her babies.

These doves adopted us sometime last year. They built a nest high in another tree and hatched two babies that time. The babies stayed too, encouraged no doubt by the wild bird seed and a water bath. What else would a self-respecting bird do? So now we have four doves in what may be a rapidly expanding family, all checked into our Bed & Breakfast establishment. They’ve even discovered the source of the food:  we watched one up on the veranda pecking at the container, at afternoon tea time. I told you they are intelligent. And cheeky!

From my observations now, I know nest building is an art and very demanding on the father’s foraging and path-negotiation skills. He started about three hours ago, flying in small twigs to mother bird who was perched, this time, in a sturdy cluster of small branches. They’ve learned from that last experience. But this position was difficult for a fly-in, front-on approach, especially with a twig far wider than his body. There were several collisions with camellia tree branches and leaves and many twigs plummeted to the ground. I was sorely tempted to go and help but wisdom prevailed.

Indeed father bird did solve the problem. They’ve been on this planet longer than we have so I should have realized he would. He first lined up his approach by sitting on the tank and assessing the flight angle required. It took two flight-steps and a few stumbles and rough landings onto mother bird, before he could thrust the twig into her beak. Then he mastered his approach: still taking off from the tank, he learned to swoop around behind the tree and come in for a gentle landing on a close-by branch. No more frantic balancing acts before the second flight-step, no more damaged feathers from running into branches; and no loss of building materials. Very clever!

Now what is the point of this story? Is there a coaching perspective?

I work with leaders at various levels and I’m sure there’s a message about determination and self-improvement and solving your own problems once you discover what your motivation is.

More seriously though, the process of observing those little creatures, focusing on what they did and how they went about it, lifted me above mundane office and planning jobs; giving me a completely different perspective. This is mindfulness: taking time to stop and reflect. It’s a practice I always encourage other people to do and it’s nice to find an example to give you.

Let me end on a note of caution. If you too fancy a family of doves, remember that encouraging them sends a message to other birds as well and you will surely find yourself feeding a flock of varied breeds.  Very nice, if you can afford to keep the larder full.


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Discovering leadership potential

Have you heard the term ‘emergent leadership’? I came came across a newspaper article  this week, Thomas Friedman reporting an interview with Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google, who described the qualities Google looks for in new recruits. High on the list are two related qualities that interested me  – ‘emergent leadership’ and ‘humility’.

I work with people in leadership positions as well as with management students and talk around leadership qualities usually comes up. What does Google mean? What exactly are they looking for?

“What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.”

And humility? “It’s feeling the sense of responsibility, the sense of ownership, to step in” …to try to solve any problem — and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others.

If you’re already in a leadership position, you probably recognize those skills in others; I wonder if you thought about them as valueable leadership skills. In future coaching conversations I’d like to explore when leaders relinquish power and do they have the humility to learn from others.

Mindful of these questions, I was standing at a supermarket checkout counter, finding myself an integral part of a training program for a new cashier. It was latish and someone had to do it, so I relaxed into the role. The experience was informative as it allowed me time to observe the young trainer. She was definitely an emergent leader – patient, supportive and encouraging of the new recruit. ‘She’s doing really well.” she commented to me, without any affectation. “She won’t need me at all very soon”.

My transaction was also a bit complicated as I wanted to use a Wishcard to pay and the training session took on a new dimension. The confidence of the trainer grew as she carefully explained the process, stepping back to let the recruit try, monitoring her patiently. I could not make the Wishcard scan, nothing new about that, and the trainer stepped forward: “Don’t worry, I’ll do that for you! I’ve got the magic touch.’ Which she certainly did. Gratefully I thanked her, muttering something about the technology to excuse my fumbles, and she just replied cheerfully: ‘That’s OK, I’m very good at my job!”

Now how could I respond to that? Under the circumstances any comment at all would have sounded patronising; besides she was already focused on another task. Humility? Her response made me chuckle inwardly but there wasn’t a hint of arrogance about her.

I left the store wondering what or who had given her such confidence. She will be an excellent leader; she’s more than half-way there now. What I must do is give some feedback to the Centre Management.


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