Lifting the Right Kind of Stones

For our third online leadership forum we hosted a global conversation between leaders who wanted to explore their journeys in light of ongoing challenges emerging in 2020.

Many thanks to our participants, who were senior leaders from a range of backgrounds, including: creative consultancy, leadership development, comms, PR, wellbeing and HR. We held the discussion in one large group, from which the following four themes emerged. Each theme is illustrated by abridged, anonymised verbatim.

We continued the format first used in September, which was to begin with a thought provocation. This month, we began with the psychologist Carl Jung’s cryptic maxim, ‘You will find what you need most in the place that you least want to look.’

Being in control of what we want might prevent us from seeing what we really need

For a participant leader in marketing, Jung’s maxim reminded her of the Rolling Stones lyric, ‘You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, you might just get what you need.’

This sparked a discussion about how needs and wants might often be in opposition to each other. A leader in creative consultancy who was a recent migrant from a senior position in marketing, picked up on this notion. He wondered,

‘What we want might not be that healthy. We work in PR, advertising and marketing, and we’ve been creating demand.’

This led to some challenging thoughts about, what felt like to some, a conflict between ideals and the reality of running a business. One leader currently working in marketing thought,

‘I struggle with the ethical perspective I have dilemmas about what I’m doing, while also trying to look after my team and my family.’

Managing this inner tension gave rise to short-term thinking.

‘I bury it down. I think about short term needs of family and what I need to do that year rather than thinking about the long-term perspective.’

A leader in comms wondered if these kinds of tensions might exist more widely for leaders in marketing, PR and comms, but thought it important for leaders in those fields to focus on their capacity to influence positive behaviour change, for example, in regard to the climate crisis. With this in mind, other participants thought that the Covid pandemic was providing a wake-up call because,

‘Maybe we’re getting what we need, rather than what we want.’

We’ve lost control of what we want, but maybe that’s inevitable, even necessary

There was a consensus that, as leaders, we often drive hard to retain control of what we want, which might prevent us seeing what we need. In this sense, losing control at times was seen as potentially beneficial.

A leader in wellbeing reflected on how he’d come to understand this principle when he was the owner-CEO of a marketing group.

‘To be honest I was a control freak. My first thing was I need to let go of control. I used to think, “you’re a leader, you have to make the ultimate call. But I’ve realised “no, I don’t.” I’m still working on that.’

However, feeling that you are losing control can be frightening.

‘I’m conscious that my team is terrified by the current situation, and it’s my job to reassure them that they’re safe in our environment.’

One leader in consultancy noted that we need to understand how primitive we are as leaders, and that fear is often a core driver of our behaviour. For another participant, who recently left her role as Director of HR for a media group, loss of control in the wake of the pandemic had led to a problem of meaning.

‘We all gave meaning to things pre-Covid, and those things are not there anymore. I’m still in this place of “what’s true anymore?”’

As with control, some thought that if meaning was also up for grabs there could be a positive upside if it helps us to re-examine assumptions that have set hard. 

Leaders need to hold a difficult balance between the pressure to create profit and the need to look after the wider wellbeing of their organisation

One participant thought that, in his experience, want and need were often in conflict at every level of organisations he had led.

‘What I need and want as a leader, what the business needs and wants and what the people working for the business need and want are all different.’

While re-examining meaning and being open to seeing one’s need more clearly were seen as longer-term upsides to losing control of want, this doesn’t alleviate short-term tensions when needs and wants are in conflict. Touching on a delicate matter of internal politics, one leader found herself balancing the desire of her majority shareholder to keep on pushing up profit targets with the pastoral needs of her team.

‘It is tiring to sit in the middle of that. I have questioned the constant pursuit of growth. It’s a difficult balance.’

This led to a discussion about whether the ideal of running a business for both profit and social good was inherently conflicted. One of the facilitators pointed to the strides that Unilever had made to bring the two closer together during the period that he had worked for them as a consultant, and cited the example of the 100% vegetable-based laundry detergent that they had developed. It was widely agreed that while this was a noble aspiration, there needed to be more of this kind of leadership on brand sustainability.

Some participants thought that these tensions would gradually recede over time because younger consumers tend to demand that the two are aligned. Equally, it was thought that if organisations were viewed as communities, (a notion that had come as a revelation to one participant earlier in his career), then a diversity of needs and wants could be harnessed to great potential, rather than being seen as merely points of friction.

Being a more authentic leader can help you balance complexity

There was agreement that to manage competing forces within an organisation, leaders need to be authentic in their communication and ‘show up’ as themselves. Doing so might help them name the competing forces and work more productively with them.

This notion led one participant to return to the Jung quote, and the thought that in working on themselves, leaders might see these competing forces more clearly.

‘It feels very monastic to me. Entering into the self, and finding what you need from within.  That’s why monastics seek solitude. That’s where they do battle.’

Doing that work was seen as hard, but worthwhile, if not necessary. One participant illustrated the point.

‘Since selling my old business and starting another, my journey has been about finding an authentic self. I’ve realised that if I want a better world, I have to start with me. I do think I’m more honest with myself than I’ve ever been. But lifting those stones, my God it’s hard.’

This brought the conversation back to a theme that has run through recent forum conversations: in disrupting so much of life as we know it, is the Covid pandemic fast-tracking us toward a better world, or something darker?

One leader thought back to the optimism he had experienced at the start of the pandemic, when society appeared to be pulling together. He felt a sense of  embarrassment that his idealism hadn’t been borne out. Another leader in comms referenced Maya Angelou, and encouraged him to hold on to his vision:

‘”If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can transform a million realities.”’


Back in August, one forum participant spoke about how the fast-changing events unleashed by the Covid pandemic feel like an unfolding story that it’s not yet possible to step back from. In an operational context, where decisions are constantly required, that can feel overwhelming. Our forum discussion has a similar unfolding quality. However, by contrast, in the absence of operational pressures, it continues to feel exciting to see how the conversation will continue to unfold.

One striking thought that emerged in the October forum was how want tends to be aligned with ego goals, whereas need tends to be aligned with what the psyche needs as a whole. In our September thought piece, I talked about how those two forces are often pitted against each other in a story, and their dance forms the spine of its narrative arc. To recap for a moment, Aristotle thought that a happy ending was the product of the protagonist realising what they need in time to act on it. A tragedy, meanwhile, is where want hampers the emergence of need. When it is finally revealed, it is too late to act on it.

Why should this matter to leaders? The pandemic has forced many of us to pivot business models, re-write carefully planned operational objectives, and watch targets and goals become shredded. This is challenging territory. Having headed into a second lockdown, that challenge seems all the more weighty. One participant referenced the wonderfully evocative German compound word, Weltschmertz – literally, ‘world pain’ – to sum up her experience since our September forum.

Suffering can seem random and senseless, but it might be useful to consider what the Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing once noted. ‘It’s not the experience that matters, but what you do with it.’ My feeling is, the leaders who can work productively with the needs that emerge from shattered wants can be more agile in their thinking, and can be open to the opportunities ahead, instead of looking for successes that have vanished.

To reference the conversation above, examining your experience means being honest with yourself, and ‘lifting those stones’ is hard work. To keep on lifting, you have to trust that the work will bear fruit eventually. Sometimes it’s a question of blind faith. Personally, I find it useful to remember that while the answer might not yet be clear, the act of having my want smashed up once in a while reveals more about what I need in the long run. If I can trust in that, I know that I’m lifting the right kind of stones, no matter how challenging it might feel.

As it happens, ‘trust’ is the subject of our next forum.

Tom Cotton Founder, Mind Environment 9th November, 2020

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