Taking time for contemplation

Sep 26


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Helen Whitten

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Taking time for contemplation

Revisiting the philosophers of Renaissance Italy, I am struck by the fact that wealthy, influential and powerful men such as Cosimo de Medici sat around with others to discuss the nature of love, or the nature of virtue.  How often do you think our own wealthy influentials have or take the time to consider these elevated but crucial concepts of life?  I suspect not often, and yet both love and virtue are essential ingredients of life and of leadership, whether you are leading a country, an organisation or a family.

It has made me aware of how transactional life has become – you do this, I get that, and this serves a purpose. Yet sometimes we need to take time out from that activity and consider the higher aspects of life, as otherwise we don’t necessarily have the compass with which to steer our decisions.

Did it all begin with the moment when Personnel became Human Resources and people became like widgets to be used, sometimes abused, and seen for their practical contribution? There is a lot of talk of creativity but often only in the context of what that can do for the business or organisation. There are wellbeing and mindfulness classes which are excellent interventions to help people stay balanced and yet I would argue that we also need to encourage and give senior staff, in particular, the time to go beyond focusing simply on the present and stretch them to think about the nature of love, the nature of truth, justice, wisdom or virtue. And I mean not solely in the focused context of their business, whatever that may be, but in general contemplation, for the good of their soul, if you like, because nurturing such qualities will have an inevitable impact on those around them and therefore ultimately on their organisation.

When I worked as a researcher on Alistair Horne’s biography of Harold Macmillan, I remember a comment of HM’s grandson saying he would like to be Prime Minister one day because that meant that he would be able to sit under a tree and read a book.  Do you wonder if any of our global leaders get time to read a book these days, with the inevitable cascade of emails and documents they have to go through? Or go to the theatre, a ballet, read a novel? Yet all these activities take people out of the day to day, into different situations, different characters, different cultures and perspectives and so broaden our thinking and understanding of life and the human condition.

I think we can see the lack of this type of activity in the way politicians leap to follow one policy one week only to flip to another the week after. It’s as if they don’t have that inner compass of values or allow themselves to express their own sense of what is right or wrong but instead follow the idiosyncrasies of social media or newspaper commentary.  They jump on some bandwagon rather than stop and consider what is wise action. It’s hardly surprising that society is rather lost on what standards people might aspire to when leaders sycophantically faun to celebrities like Russell Brand, or dance to misogynistic rap lyrics at Glastonbury, or are unable to articulate what a woman is.  Like a parent, a leader needs to be willing to be unpopular in order to stand for what they consider to be right – but our leaders today seem to have forgotten this.  Yet the wider population aren’t necessarily fooled by those who sway in the wind. Many know a centred and thoughtful person when they see one, I think, and aren’t impressed by lies, shiftiness, or arrogance.  We can be reminded of our higher selves, of the dignity of humankind and yes, the dignity of work. We have the ability to rise up rather than sink down but may need some space and encouragement to do so.

It is so easy to while away the hours on screen instead of sitting quietly doing nothing, or reading a book, or just enjoying some beautiful uplifting music. I know this well myself, so maybe on the strategy days that organisations or political parties take, they could allocate more time to doing nothing, to walking silently in nature, and then to sitting around discussing the higher aspects of being a human being – asking what life is all about, how we can make meaning out of work, how we can make the most of the time here on earth and leave a legacy that we can be proud of. In this fast-paced life, could we encourage our leaders to use their downtime to get off the screen, get out of their everyday practicalities of life, and rise above the baying crowd to reflect on these values and concepts?  After all, we desperately need to motivate people to apply their skills for the good of all but they will not do so if they feel they are following straw men or women.

If the influencers of Renaissance Italy could take time to think, could we not benefit from ensuring our leaders do the same and encourage them in this pursuit? And then follow their example and do it for ourselves? I believe that after a quiet moment of contemplation away from screens and noise, people might return to work and life refreshed and energised, with a greater sense of purpose and direction. Even a short time makes a difference.


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