I’ve just returned from a week in Russia, visiting Moscow and St Petersburg 26 years after my first visit in 1990. At that time I was on a tour organised by Auberon Waugh’s Literary Review, to visit the Russian authors’ houses and discuss Russian literature, which I had loved since I was a teenager. I was travelling alone, part of a group of some 20 people all with an interest in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Turgenev and Chekhov, among other authors who could not then be mentioned. We met for the first time at Moscow Airport and were greeted by a country at the very depths of economic austerity. There were no lemons or oranges in Leningrad (as it was then) or Moscow and there were lines of drab-looking people outside the food stores, queuing to find a chicken, loaf of bread or a half-dozen eggs for their family.
The food we ate on that tour was disgusting – weak chicken stock with a few pieces of pasta or an egg, indeterminate meat or fish. So our group spent the next ten days supplementing our diet with black market caviar and vodka. These were sold on the street by young boys or by hotel waiters, who charged us $5 for any purchase, although at that time it was illegal for them to possess American dollars. So we had to wrap our dollars in napkins or newspapers. One day the caviar was brought to us in a teapot, another time I bought a bottle of champagne from the attendant in the ladies loo and wrapped the $5 in a paper towel.
During the day we stimulated our minds with Russian literature and at night we drank vodka into the early hours of the morning, opening tins of caviar with nail scissors and talking about life. We were like a bunch of teenagers let out of school, albeit we happened all to be over 40! Being in Russia was a heady experience.
But for the population of Russia at that time Gorbachev’s era was a difficult one and he was an unpopular leader due to the food shortages. Perspectives of leadership are always interesting: whilst the West saw him as a good influence and key to ending the Cold War, the Russian people were, quite literally, starving. They were also conceptually unable to understand that they could, in a capitalist world, get loans and start their own businesses to work their way out of poverty. Years of rule under Tsars and Communists had taken away their ability to perceive creative options. The Cold War had ended, the Berlin Wall had come down the year before in 1989 but the average resident of Moscow found it difficult to see beyond survival.
And what a difference 26 years makes! Our visit this time started in Moscow where we oldies were very competently chaperoned by the 21 year old daughter of our friend. She was on secondment to Moscow University, studying Russian. She was impressively fluent and also able to gain the respect of waiters and to ensure that even the most scary-looking taxi drivers did her bidding. The latter would drive at 100 kpm along multi-laned city streets – like Lewis Hamilton on a suicide mission. I just shut my eyes and sighed with relief whenever we got caught in the huge traffic jams we encountered both in Moscow and St Petersburg. Although the drivers still constantly switched lanes at least we weren’t going quite so fast.
Today’s Russia is flourishing in comparison to 1990. Trams and buses go on time and the high-speed train from Moscow to St Petersburg travels at 220kpm and feels as smooth as silk in comparison to the trundling and juddering of the overnight train we took 26 years ago. There has been investment on infrastructure, the hotels and restaurants are buzzing, young and old are well dressed and there are French and Italian designer boutiques in the GUM department store and elsewhere. With organic and health food cafés on almost every corner one could easily be in L.A. The museums, chapels and the Hermitage have been restored and there is a sense that the Russians are way better off than they were before.
And so it is easier to understand, from actually visiting the country, how Russians perceive President Putin to be a good thing. Contrary to 1990 where the West saw Gorbachev as an ally but the Russian people disliked him; today the Russian people seem (from our short glimpse) to be happy with what he has done for their country on the inside but the West views Putin with trepidation.
With May 9th coming up we witnessed the build-up of troops and tanks in preparation for what they coyly called the “theatrical celebrations” of the end of World War II. Red Square was transformed with banners of hammer and sickle; the square outside the Hermitage filled with thousands of marching soldiers and the narrow road outside our hotel became blocked with tanks, missiles and warheads. When I sent photos of these scenes to others and mentioned my concern, one response was “OH come on! What’s menacing about a few nuclear missiles and nerve gas weapons in the hands of a psychotic? Don’t be pathetic…!” and another : “show me a stable democracy that still feels they have to parade military equipment to the rest of the world”. Further East, of course, Kim Jong Un is also rattling his sabre and blasting his nukes to deepen our disquiet.
But I got the feeling that there is still some fear beneath the surface. When discussing press freedom with our guide he looked, for the first time, uncomfortable and told us of how his mother, raised in the Stalin era of “fear-in-the-blood” berated him for talking too much. “Be careful” she would tell him. And yet, he said, the young can’t really imagine what life was like in previous eras and history is buried, along with the records of Chernobyl.
When we chatted to some young girls wanting to practice their English they were aware that it is illegal for them to download English movies and therefore have to log in with an IP address registered in the Netherlands. “Perhaps one day the authorities will find us” they said, giggling nervously. And security is everywhere – in the detail required for a Russian visitor’s visa, which includes secondary schools and the birth place and date of ex-spouses even if long-divorced; the x-ray machines as you exit airports, enter railway stations, museums and shopping malls. This made me think that we may not be protecting our own department stores and galleries adequately from IS terrorism. Yet we saw no sign of multi-culturalism: no blacks, Asians, hijabs or saris; just one-colour cities of white Russians and tourists.
The streets were clean and there are now no boys selling caviar, vodka or fur hats on the corners for dollars. There is over-employment, which results in no litter and good service. However, the cottages we saw in the countryside were tumble-down and I saw not a single animal – no cows, sheep, horses. Not even a chicken in the back garden, which seemed strange.
I hear that Putin has been reading Stalin’s records and documents and, in idle moments, I wondered whether he had also been reading Machiavelli’s Prince – the effective ruler needing to be “a fox to discern snares, and a lion to drive off wolves.” Machiavelli’s rule that when seizing a principality or state “the usurper should be quick to inflict what injuries he must, at a stroke” triggers images of Crimea. Putin is strategic in seeking the approval of his populous, it not being wise for a leader to become hated for fear of premature death or rebellion.
The oligarchs and new leaders of businesses in Russia also seem to have taken a leaf out of Machiavelli’s book in discovering how to play the dance of power between ruler, powerful elites and the general population. Leadership is a balance between strategy and action for the benefit of a business or country but can require tough decisions I came away with the distinct sense that Putin does not shy from such toughness.
When I left St Petersburg in 1990 I left with the impression of leaving an inefficient country. Banks ran out of money; Post Offices had no stamps; restaurants had no food, wine or vodka; our coach driver lost his way between Tula and Orel because he had no map. On our last day, as we sat on the runway waiting to take off, the BA pilot explained that we had been delayed because the Russian Air Traffic controller had removed his earphones and was looking the other way. The pilot had tried waving to get clearance. Eventually someone else in the tower saw him wave and alerted the controller, who allowed us to take off. I remember thinking it a fitting farewell to a disorganised region.
The same is not true today. We took off on the dot and there were plenty of lemons in St Petersburg. But, with Putin in the Kremlin, I am not sure that makes me sleep any better at night!
“Do you think I should learn to play golf?” a friend of mine asked me last week. Her husband, recently retired, has taken up golf and is spending many hours a week on the golf course having lessons and socialising with other golfers. She isn’t sure whether he wants her to join him or whether he enjoys the time alone. They haven’t properly discussed it and when they do endeavour to do so they walk on eggshells, being so polite to one another that my friend doesn’t really believe her husband is being honest about what he would prefer.
Her comment reminded me of when my mother confessed that she and my father had occasionally gone on a holiday that neither of them truly wanted to go on. They just didn’t want to offend the other by rejecting a suggestion – which made me think how important honesty can be in a relationship!
“Do you want to play golf?” I asked my friend. “No, not really,” she replied.
And such are the dilemmas of retirement. How much to do together and how much apart. Each of you may have hobbies that you have pursued over many years and it can be a time to combine these with exploring new activities. People frequently tell me that they are busier in retirement, than they were when they were working.
For me I question how much busyness I want in my life in the future. I feel I have spent the last forty years chasing around either after children or for clients and I long for spaces in the diary. So when I open my Outlook calendar and see weeks ahead full of cluttered commitments my heart sinks! I hadn’t realized how large families become as one’s children, nieces and nephews get married and have families. It is a joy and at the same time can be tiring if too much comes along at once. But it is about balance because if there was nothing in the diary I would, no doubt, feel isolated and bored.
And so it is finding the compromise between together time and individual time that my friend is struggling with. And she gets an emotional pull that somehow she ‘should’ be spending time with her husband even though golf doesn’t appeal to her – and quite possibly her husband is enjoying time on the course on his own. Who’s to know, when being honest about such things can seem like a minefield and one doesn’t want to upset one’s partner, nor he you.
Our sense of self and life changes in this stage of life, I find. One isn’t sure whether one’s health will hold up but one realizes that it’s sensible to travel hopefully and make plans as if all will be well. One isn’t sure how one will manage the bills and leisure pursuits when the monthly salary cheque is no longer coming in and the bank account dips. One wonders whether the plans one is making will be as enjoyable and fulfilling as one hopes. One wonders where we will find that sense of ‘belonging’ that one has experienced in the workplace. Will we miss the work that has been the pattern of our life up to this time?
The reality is that we don’t know what the future holds and whilst this has been the case since the day we were born, it can become a little more anxious-making as one gets older and one’s body shows the odd sign of fatigue. There is an excellent book I read some time ago called Transitions by William Bridges which suggests that in any transitory stage of life (leaving home, getting married, having a baby, changing jobs) one takes time to stop and reflect on which activities and behaviours one might like to let go of and which one would like to develop or take forward into the future.
My friend has decided that she will not take up golf. It isn’t for her. But she is happy that her husband is enjoying life. She has her own interests and they have agreed to put time in the diary for those events they enjoy together. And sometimes this will work and sometimes it won’t – we are, after all, human and fallible, even when we have a few grey hairs on our heads.
How have we ended up with Donald Trump? What have we, the US, the world done to deserve him? It started off as a joke. It’s no joke now. It’s deadly serious.
Of all the brilliant, talented, creative, and wise people in America how has he climbed to the top of the pile? Latest figures show that the population of America is approximately 326, 492, 060 now. It’s hard to believe that from this huge number the people of America have ended up with the lousy choice they now have.
What kind of role model is this man for the children of the world? This presidential election and the level of the personal backbiting the candidates have applied debases the concept of intelligent political debate. Surely the status of this powerful country will be lowered while the rest of the world looks on in amazement? With Trump on one side of the world and Kim Jong-un at the other with Putin in the middle, the world seems a genuinely scary place.
Of course only the wealthy, or those who can attract wealth, can rise to the top in the US. The exposure to press criticism may well also have a bearing. A leader has to be courageous to put their opinions on the line in this era of political correctness – and terrorism. There are few previous leaders of any nation whose private life would have stood up to the sort of scrutiny that today’s leaders face.
And now there is fierce back-biting in the UK Government, the focus of which seems to offer little to the stability of this country. And again, there is knee-jerk response rather than intelligent discussion of the issues.
So I woke this morning reflecting on two moments in my life where I experienced leadership. The first was when I observed a leader who was able to guide a group across rapids and waterfalls in Mexico. He was a Shaman, Mario, showing us the Mayan tombs and surrounding areas. A youngish man (to me!), probably in his forties, with a quiet presence. Indeed, the only Shaman I met on the trip for whom I gained respect. He was a slight man with a pony tail. And all he said to us, quietly, was to follow his footsteps as precisely as we could and to help one another. Just these two things, said with enough conviction that each one of us heard him.
We were a motley crew. Most of us well over forty years old, some with cardiac problems and bypasses, others who had recently had hip replacements, and more. But we took care of one another on the journey across the mountain pools, helped the weaker ones to climb up the rocks to the next pool or held their hand to ensure they didn’t slip on the edge of the waterfall. Mario said nothing more to us and gently balanced his way along the precarious stones and through the waters. There was no shouting, no motivational speech. He simply generated in us a sense of trust that he knew where he was going and he knew how to take us there. It was impressive.
The second time was when I participated in a horse-whispering leadership day. I have ridden all my life but this was something different. I was shown into a large indoor ring and a black pony was released into the ring with me. My instruction was to encourage the horse to follow me. And I felt lost – why should he? I had no halter, no sugar lump and no means of reaching this result in a way that I would previously have adopted. I wasn’t allowed to touch him other than to stroke him and talk with him.
The first thing he did was trot to the corner of the ring where there was an open stable door. He stood and looked outside to the field beyond. I felt a complete idiot: how was I supposed to tempt him back, I wondered?
So I went to him and, as the actions of the horse were reputedly a mirror metaphor of my own experience, I could see exactly why he had gone there. Both he and I would rather have been outside, free, and in that field!
So now what? I fiddled around with him, walking hesitantly in one direction or another. He looked totally disinterested and stayed exactly where he was.
“Do you know where you want him to go?” the leadership facilitator asked me. Aha! Now there was a clue. I hadn’t thought about where I might take him. “If you don’t know where you’re going then why should he follow you?”
Suddenly I got it. The concept of the inner energy that Mario had in taking us across the waterfalls. The inner certainty of where I wanted this horse to go in the ring. I could feel my body language changing as that sense of direction came into my mind, emotion and physiology. I stood taller, opened my shoulders, changed my breathing away from doubt and took a determined step forward. He followed! Wow, was that exciting! And then he followed me around the ring, in figures of eight, on to trot and reverse. Why should he have done? I wasn’t rewarding him with titbits of a bonus but nonetheless the bond we created worked.
In both these moments there was much that was non-verbal. When I had doubt or fear or was unclear about where I was going the horse did not follow me. He didn’t trust me, and with good reason. When I was clear and confident, he did. Mario knew this and he kept us safe that day with his inner energy.
We are all leaders in our own way – in our own lives, in our families, at work. So, as I go forward into retirement, I shall need to remind myself of this clarity, confidence and sense of direction. In the meantime, I shall hope that Americans do not follow the angry energy of Mr Donald Trump.
I write this in the midst of a transition point in my life. I have just passed on my business Positiveworks (www.positiveworks.com) to Sixth Sense Consulting (www.sixthsenseconsulting.co.uk) with a view to retiring from coaching. I am thinking I shall enjoy more time to write (see www.babyboomerpoetry.com ), play, be with my grandchildren, walk in the park and smell the daisies. And yet there is a question lurking that unnerves me. Is this what I shall, indeed, enjoy? Shall I miss the work focus? At the moment I am looking forward to it and delighted that Chris Welford and Jackie Sykes of Sixth Sense are taking my business forward: a real legacy. In a year’s time, though, might I be looking for something else to fill my time, I wonder? Perhaps I have to admit that this is somewhat of an identity crisis!
What shall I respond to that query “and what do you do?” Who am I now? I have worked with this question for many years with coaching clients at transition points in life and career. It is my turn.
I have done transformation before. My friends comment on my ability to recreate myself in many new guises and yet moving into the later stage of life is a poignant moment. More things behind than in front. Fears about health, wealth. Not wanting to outstay one’s welcome and usefulness. Hoping that one’s partner will accept the foibles of older age. Hoping that there will still be many things ahead that will create that sense of wonder in the natural world, things to be curious about, to laugh about.
Life has transformed since my childhood in the 1950s. Those days seem now such an age of innocence and naivety. There is so much to be grateful for today in the developments of health, technology, ability to travel the world, resources available for those who are disabled, equal opportunity. As a woman I can see that there is nothing theoretically stopping a girl today achieving whatever she wants – other than her own self-doubt and the subliminal messages that girls still get about their abilities. I heard Dame Carol Black, former President of the Royal College of Physicians, on Desert Island Discs recently. She said that her key message to girls is “go for it”. I would echo that. There have been so many times when I have felt nervous but have been nudged by someone to try something I didn’t feel confident to achieve.
I would also echo strongly Dame Carol Black’s comment that women do not have to lead in the same way as men. One of the things that still saddens me is how many of my female clients in business feel themselves to be somehow ‘wrong’ in their approach because they can’t (and why should they?) carry out their role in the same way that their male bosses and colleagues do. I hope that they and my granddaughters can grow to be confident that their way is just fine and that it is this precise difference that is their strength. The world needs balancing, the yin and the yang, so that women’s voices and perspectives have equal parity with those of men in families, business and government.
I therefore leave the world of work a changed person to the timid girl I was when I started as a secretary in publishing. I feel happy that I carved out my career and have helped others to do the same. And now I have to carve out my retirement and be willing to leave the reins in younger hands than mine. To those who have more energy.
One thing I have learnt from my clients and friends who are and have been retiring is that it is important to leave a space for the transformation. Not to rush into some activity just because there is a space but to allow a period of rest and spaciousness, the creative gap into which something might (or might not!) flow. I feel a sense of anticipation that, just as other periods of my life have surprised me, there will be something that pops in now that will again both surprise and delight. I am looking forward to discovering other aspects of myself that have been dormant or have not yet surfaced. I know, as one of that big group of ‘Baby Boomers’ born after World War 2, that many of you will be going through similar experiences alongside me. Perhaps we can journey together.