Some years ago I was asked to interview someone who had lived large in the public arena with a specific public persona to accompany their role. It was towards the end of their career and they have since died. But something they said remains with me still.
I asked this person from where they had found the stamina to do their work? To which they replied, ‘I am held and sustained by the web of relationships to which I belong, and in which I am sustained.’
I think about this description of being held, visibly and invisibly, most days. I am reminded of it when I meet – in passing or through something more permanent – someone who sustains me because I am held in their web. And they in mine.
As the poet John Donne said, ‘no man is an island’. And Aristotle, ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. So, together we are greater than the sum of our individual parts. Teamwork could be described thus.
We are communal beings – whether we happen to be extroverts or introverts we make sense of the world in relationship to others and in relationship to the environment in which we live. Yesterday I took a walk around a lake with two clients, the warm spring sun upon our backs. Sheep were stamping their hooves in the field, geese honked noisily on the water below, the earth was coming to life beneath our feet as we walked and talked.
At each point around the lake we stopped to take in the spectacle of spring. It was a different vista each time. Which reminded us in our conversation about the changes that lay ahead for them over the coming months, that each member of their team held a distinct outlook, depending upon from which position they observed the view.
As we stood still together, I was most struck by a comment from one of the clients who described themselves an as introvert, who said how they had learned that their own view was no longer enough. They needed the views of others nowadays to make sense of what they were seeing.
In all our conversations, in the friends we chose and the labour that shapes, changes and defines us, alongside our colleagues in the places to which we have been drawn to work – the echoes of so many other conversations reverberate.
We are the sum of all our previous relationships – those that have nurtured us as well as those that have abandoned, damaged or broken us. Or those relationships, we have, in turn, either impaired or cherished. Wherein lays our humanity. And this is where who we are as people, and as leaders, and with whom we relate, takes us.
And then? And then if we listen closely, alert to the soft murmur of a whisper, the echo from an earlier conversation can give way to the shape of something new.
And now? And now I am reminded of a favourite line from Ken Gergeni, which says: ‘In the end, all that is meaningful grows from relationships, and it is within this vortex that the future will be forged.’
i Kenneth Gergen (1994), Realities and Relationships.