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Leadership and the Inner Work of Art

"As a man is So he Sees. As the Eye is formed such are its Powers."

William Blake, English poet and painter (1757–1827)

In her Fall 2012 Leader to Leader article “Cultivating Wisdom,” Jennifer Garvey Berger wrote with insight of the leader’s quest for wisdom, self-knowledge, and the path to self-authorship. My hope is to intersect with her wisdom via a journey with you through some adjacent disciplines, including aesthetics, neuroscience, and creativity. Let’s begin with a story about our distant ancestors, their cave paintings, and a certain whiskered poet of the open road.

“I am Large. I Contain Multitudes.”

Not very long ago, I was invited to a high school in a remote region of New York’s Adirondacks. The setting was breathtaking in its natural beauty, but the community was in decline, losing population and, therefore, tax dollars in support of its schools. I was there to talk with some of the graduating seniors about leadership. I began, simply, “It’s about leading our own lives.” It’s about forgiving ourselves for past blunders, taking a good look at our attitudes, values, and skills, and what we might like to change, then opening ourselves to new experiences, new people, and new ways of thinking and engaging with the world—and then I flicked off the lights.

In the stillness of the semi-dark, I turned on a projector and we looked at an image of one of the Lascaux Cave drawings from 17,300 years ago. I asked them to tell me what they saw, and then how and why these pictures might have come to be in such a deep, dark place within the earth. They began to speculate. They said that the pictures are probably “life lessons about how to survive,” perhaps a way of paying homage to the animals their lives depended on. Then I asked them to imagine a place deep inside themselves where they keep their own cave drawings, their own life lessons and precious images. We talked about what they chose to let into that place, and how, over a lifetime, that space might enlarge to contain a vast collection of amazing things.

Enter Walt Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” We laugh at the boldness of this statement, then tack back to our discussion of the cave drawings and our own interior Lascaux(s). Everyone makes the connection immediately. We talk about Whitman’s life as a poet, his famous whiskers and love of the open road and how “to be Walt Whitman” was to be a listener, was to let people in so he could feel their joys and sorrows and find a place for them within his personal Lascaux. Slowly, we begin to realize that each of us, in our listening and letting one another in, was growing a little larger too in that space of quiet darkness and inner light.


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