Let’s go fly a kite

28 05 2023

Some people sail into your life and lighten every day. Kimmie was such a soul and her death after a long and difficult illness was wrenching for all who knew her. I knew her and loved her for a stretch of time during the eight years we shared a flat together in Palmers Green. Those years were precious and with Kimmie I shared some of the happiest times of my life.

Her family and friends gathered this week to pay tribute to Kimmie and honour her life. Work and animal commitments meant I watched her funeral service via a live feed which was surprisingly intimate and moving, if a little strange. Kimmie would have appreciated the laughter in the chapel, the hugs, the jokes, the mobile phone that wouldn’t stop ringing, the teasing tribute from her little brother Marc who had organised such a perfectly beautiful send off for his beloved sister, it makes me well up just thinking about it.

Losing a sibling is hard. You know them so well and they are such a huge part of early life experiences few others know about. Kimmie often spoke with fondness of her brother who was still in Australia while she worked in animation studios in London. Eventually he would follow her lead and move across continents to forge his own path in animation. Listening to Marc, it was evident how much love he had for his big sister. Indeed the crematorium chapel, one of those beige places that could be anywhere, was filled with overwhelming love.

It struck me so poignantly that this is what matters in the end. Kimmie was incredibly accomplished as a talented artist and this was mentioned, but not as much as how much she made people laugh. As Maya Angelo said, people may not remember what you said; they may not remember what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel. Kimmie made us all feel blinking good. She was not keen on the limelight – finding photos of her was challenging because she was camera-shy despite her luminous beauty – and she made no attempt to put herself first. She was the best listener, warm, funny, wicked and tremendously kind. Her heart was like the sun. All who knew Kimmie, loved to bathe in it. She soothed many troubled souls, usually by taking them under her wing and off to the pub or out the back for a crafty fag.

I remember laughing with Kimmie until we were both crying, her wiping away the teary mascara from the wild eye makeup she always wore. We borrowed each other’s clothes, once memorably buying the same green jumper which we wore until they were in shreds. We shared recipes, many glasses of red wine, more cigarettes than was good for us, late night chats that felt transcendent as we navigated the joys and sorrows of love. Every conversation we had was about love on some level. Everything felt alive and vital and charged as we tried our best to stay level and grounded, keeping each other going, being there for each other no matter what.

Our friendship changed when we stopped living together, and if I had known then that I would mourn the close connection we had, I would have taken better care of honouring it. The last time we met was poignantly at a funeral for my close friend’s sister. We hugged and laughed and all the years between then and now, a span of more than 20 years, fell away. We were back in our shared front room with our wine and our fags and our tender hearts.

Kimmie has gone. She has flown elsewhere and she is more real than ever. This is the curious thing about loss. The most heartbreaking part of death is that it reminds us how connected we all are. When we lose a thread to someone we lose part of who we are. Part of me has gone with her, the young and insecure part of me that loved Kimmie like a big sister. Kimmie was the most warm-hearted person I think I ever met. The legacy she has left for me is to know that love is what matter most. Nothing you do is ever as important as how you make others feel.

After the service ended, I took a beer (non alcoholic these days) to the field with a packet of hula hoops, Kimmie’s favourite. I drank the beer and saluted her memory. She never met the horses, but always asked after them as if she knew them, which of course she did through their Facebook and blog appearances. Kimmie’s farewell song from Mary Poppins Let’s Go Fly a Kite was still playing through my mind as the celebrant said it might. I didn’t have a kite. Instead I tossed my last hula hoop in the air. That’s for you Kimmie, I said. My hound dived for it and snapped it up. My last tribute. Now Kimmie would have laughed.


Taking a stance

17 04 2023

There were talks I found compelling during a recent Global Mental Health Summit. Several times I exclaimed out loud in relief at what I was hearing. The summit speakers came from many different disciplines from psychology professors to meditation practitioners, cold water, exercise and nutrition experts. What came across loud and clear is the changing approach to viewing mental health not only as the crisis of our age, but as an opportunity to educate ourselves in how to be well.

Recovering our health is part of taking a stance which says: I may not be where I want to be in my life, and I may not like what is happening to me, but I can do this for my mental health today. I can take my rucksack to the river and for ten minutes feel the cold water rinse my mind clear of anxiety. I can eat strawberries and cream in a beautiful dish. I can switch off my phone and listen to music. I can sit in wonder.

Sometimes the next best step we can take for our mental health is to do the simplest thing. When all else fails, I open a window. It might not be the long walk I think I should be doing to get fit, but fitness is not so much what we should do but how we actually approach each moment. In becoming fit, whichever way we choose, we shape the raw material of our lives.

The raw material is sensitive to all we have lived through and no matter our view on what has been allocated to us through forces long past our influence or control, we get to have have a say on what we do next. It might not seem like much. It might seem that deliberating how to live your next moment is of little significance given all that we have to suffer and bear.

One summit talk that truly made me pay attention offered the view that leadership is the way you walk through the world. Leadership is the stance you take. Leadership has nothing to do with command or control. Children know this. Horses know this, dogs know this. And cattle, too.

After the session this week, the farmer asked if I would help with the cattle. The yearlings were arriving for the summer, to pasture where some of them were born. I was given a long hazel stick and a spot on a bridle path to block the route. We waited while the lorry unloaded. The cattle were bellowing their heads off and the cattleman confirmed ‘they are a bit lively.’ He added. ‘If they come towards you, just wave your stick and shout.’

As he began unloading, I began to lose my nerve. It already sounded like a stampede. I decided to look for an exit route. If the cattle came towards me I would be waving no stick. No shout would pass my lips. I would be in the woods saving my life.

The cattle came down the ramp, still yelling their heads off. I was still caught up in my story. So this is how my life ends. How poignant to have just spent the morning working gently with horses only to be trampled to death by a different kind of quadruped.

The cattle came for me.

I noticed how small they were. Thirteen chunky red yearlings, lively, exactly as the cattleman said. All shouting, not with intent to do harm, but with glee. Hollering they came down the track and as they turned the corner they kicked their heels like Cossack dancers.

The cows never even saw me. They ran after each other, exuberantly calling in anticipation of spring grass. My near-death story evaporated leaving a trace of ridiculousness as I watched the cattleman encourage the youngsters to follow him down the lane. He was kind to them, used no force, no stick. The yearlings could have been a herd of eight-year-old boys he was cheering to the finish line on a cross country run.

Afterwards I realised I had witnessed something lovely. A homecoming that had been pitched as being stressful yet turned into a lesson in leading, and maybe even living, well. Of course we all had to be prepared and alert had the unloading not gone to plan. When it was over, what struck me, though, was how long the stressful story hung about even when it was unnecessary, like a troll in the woods, waiting for the opportunity to spook.

The deft handling of the herd clearly demonstrated that the stance you take determines the outcome. In reality, this doesn’t mean all will go well. Sometimes a different stance might be called for – waving the stick might have been needed had one of the yearlings bolted- the ability to shift your stance in high stakes moments means not being mesmerised by your own static thinking.

It’s compelling to be in control. To think you know better. Many companies and organisations and governments are run by such leaders and bosses who use bullying and intimidation to keep people in line. Many of us have witnessed people acting without consideration or compassion. Many of us have wished to be braver. Speaking out seems impossible in some situations especially within families or communities ruled by fear. Taking a stance might feel edgy at times. It may even be condemned by those who would prefer you to tow the line. At the same time, the stance you take is simply your next move. It may even save your life.

Being Kind

25 02 2023

The artist Charlie Mackesy never expected his work to become a sensation beloved by millions. His quiet, thoughtful drawings and sparely beautiful words express feelings we instinctively understand as coming from the heart.

Driving through the Devon lanes listening to a radio interview with Charlie Mackesy, reporting the Oscar nomination of the animated film of his work, I heard the artist express his surprise and excitement at the prospect of getting on a plane for the first time in 20 years. He had not travelled because he did not want to leave his dog who suffered from separation anxiety. His simple solution was to stay home.

In that decision lies the absolute essence of kindness. To gladly choose to put another’s needs before our own without a trace of resentment is to share what is best in our humanity. To be kind can almost be seen as radical act when there are so many temptations in the opposite direction. It’s difficult to be kind when you believe you deserve more. Or when you believe your needs take priority. We all get caught up in ourselves without realising how blind we become when we shut down on others.

As Charlie Mackesy illustrates in his delicate drawings, kindness is a form of clear seeing. When we approach others with kindness, we show them what is possible. We show them there is freedom from cynicism, from suspicion and viewing others as fuel. Kindness creates a momentum all of its own.

Given enough space and air and time to breathe, kindness is all around us. It’s in a single look between strangers who have passed each other on the street for years without acknowledgement. It’s in the person who takes the time to walk over to your car with the ticket which still has hours until expiry. It’s in the person who makes sure your shopping doesn’t fall over while she packs it carefully for you. It’s in the feeling of release on a warm day on the beach watching two guide dogs freed from their harnesses to roll in the sand and chase each other through the surf. It’s in the young mother watching her daughters dance and laugh until they cry tears of joy. It’s in the slim moon on a cold night elbowed by two bright stars. It’s in the trees as they soften at dusk. It’s everywhere.

As Viktor Frankl observed during his years in Auschwitz, being kind gave life its meaning. It literally made the difference between living and dying. Being kind in captivity gave those who were incarcerated in the cruelest prison, a sense of freedom. I heard this powerful message echoed in the voice of the Ukrainian railway man who reported that the railways were taking bodies of fallen Russian soldiers to be buried in their homeland. They did this not to honour the enemy who had taken away their peace and freedom, but to honour their own decency.

Kindness teaches us about honour. Reading scientific studies of happiness, gratitude is a consistent key to opening our lives to more fulfilment. Taking time to appreciate, we create circles of reciprocity that enlarge all our lives. Remapping the world in ways that feel more human and less alienating, each act of kindness is a breath, a leap in the dark, a stance we take fully into our hearts. With kindness by our side we are strong and bold. We honour our own humanity.

The turning point

1 01 2023

Every New Year is a turning point, a chance to change and do things differently. It is impossible to know the challenges that will face us in the weeks and months to come. If crystal balls were offered on the first day of the year, how many of us would choose to gaze into the as yet pristine unknown? What lies ahead is a state of graceful unfolding to be experienced for the briefest of moments in January when we each have been given not crystal balls but the equivalent of blank slates and the permission to start creating afresh .

The Winter Solstice and months of December and January have long been a time of rest and retreat; in the darkness ideas find nourishment before they show their new faces to the light. It might seem as if nothing much is occurring under cover when we want to retreat from the rain. The relentless rain. Hanging up our dripping waterproofs, washing our hands again, putting on the kettle to make tea, preparing food. Ordinary life shaped by extraordinary weather.

When we remember to look, reminders of change are everywhere. It’s in the bud, the green spear, the sudden song. It’s in the way we greet our friends. It’s in our hearts to want to become better than we are. It’s an odd human preoccupation, to be ever so slightly dissatisfied with the way we are. The desire to change is the urge to start again. To find a way of being in the world that feels like an improvement.

How hard we will try to stay on track with our new plans and promises to ourselves, to each other, and, if we are listening properly, to the world. It can seem relentless, like the rain, this need of ours to do well. And we will fail because there will be obstacles, conditions and circumstances we hadn’t foreseen. Before long we will be yearning for another year, a different swathe of time to put this one behind us.

In spite of knowing that truly there are no good years or bad years only years to live through, we are superstitious. Will the year ahead be auspicious, we want to know? Will we ever again live through a year without loss? In the supermarket on New Year’s Eve, a couple listed their losses like items on a grim shopping list; for them it was good riddance to 2022. Too much had happened. One thing after another had spoiled their year, leaving them with little to celebrate.

If there is a time for flourishing, it is now. The New Year is a promise, as pure and perfect as a full moon. The seeds of hope that this year will be better than the last are being planted by many of us right now and we must take care of them as best we can. We cannot know what will grab our imaginations and grow or what will founder and fade.

Hope does not mean that we won’t be tested this year. It does not mean that we won’t wish with all our hearts for a different outcome to certain events and situations we thought we could control. Inevitably we will experience disappointment. We will want to be somewhere else. We will find things hard.

And yet like many across the world, we begin this year with hope. It is not a small thing. Hope is the strongest thing we have to navigate uncertainty, injustice and difficulty. Hope will help us to not only endure the year ahead, but to see those moments where we might, in spite of the real challenges we will face, root more deeply so that we may flourish.

Summer reflections

14 08 2022

Two projects are complete this summer and we will now pause for a brief break before we start courses again in the autumn.

Rarely do I take the opportunity to look back. I’m always too busy preparing for the next course, the next project, the next steps. Forward momentum has propelled our small social enterprise ever since we started with just two referred people more than six years ago.

A cool walk through the woods gave me some time to reflect backwards for a change. Walking the same woods where once I wandered and wondered whether I could create a project where people could come to connect with horses and feel their mystery and magic. A project which didn’t compromise my horses’ well-being or my own values. Walking these paths made me see how my path has brought me almost full circle.

I see how caught up I have been, too busy making things work to look up, too enmeshed in all the details and elements that go into putting something new into the world.

In the beginning, I cared for my fledgling project, fed it, looked after it, and on the walk this week I saw that I had almost forgotten I could allow myself to pause, step back a pace or two and watch it fly.

There are have been many beautiful moments of connection between the 40 or so people who have joined one of our weekly recovery retreats this summer. Each retreat has created its own unique feeling and I have learned something new from each circle.

I have learned that taking time to listen and be heard is one of the simplest, kindest and strongest acts of humanity we can offer each other. I have been moved to tears by the openness of strangers who arrive with feelings of anxiety and fear of judgement, and leave with feelings of hope and lightness.

The horses, and especially Dragonfly, who has been quietly present in every session, have revealed new subtle depths. They have helped people to feel more secure and at ease in themselves and they have enabled people to support each other.

Each time we have gathered in a compassion circle, we have drawn strength, solace and solidarity from each other. We have grown in our sincere wish to learn how to understand ourselves better.

In his wonderfully wise book The Compassionate Mind, Paul Gilbert writes that we can learn to shift our attention to things that we appreciate, that stimulate pleasure and other nice feelings in us. He says that when we do this deliberately then we are changing our brain patterns from the threat/self-protection system to a system that benefits our well-being.

This summer we have taken the time to appreciate the horses as horses. We have asked little of them. We have let them make their own choices on their own terms. They have responded by choosing to join our circle. In May, during the very first circle, Dragonfly chose to enter and to delicately fold his legs and lower himself down to the ground where he lay in peaceful rest while the group gasped in wonder.

So much truth, pain and beauty have been expressed in our bell tent and must remain private. Some words still resonate, though, and reading through the transcripts of recordings we made of people’s experiences, this one rings clear as a bell.

I’ve changed today. Like, I don’t just want to say it matters I had a really nice time and enjoyed it, but I’ve changed. Genuinely I’ve changed I said earlier, didn’t I, the light switch has been off for months – maybe like a year, probably – and yeah nothing, nothing was shifting it. I would never have left home, but for the fact that horses were here and that made me say, come on! You can do it! And, what do you know, the light switch is back on! It’s given me hope. Honestly, I know who I am again.

The gift of knowing ourselves, of finding the light switch to illuminate our true being, there is no greater gift than this. We have all found a beam of light in each other this summer and I know this will help to support and hold us when the days start to darken again in the days to come.

Staying open

12 05 2022
Moments after arrival

There will be misunderstandings, hasty judgements, inaccurate and incomplete assessments. There will be attempts to manipulate and undermine. There will be those who rage against you. Those who seem to want to bring you down onto your knees with your nose on the ground in the dust. You will be wounded. You will find it hard to breathe through the pain, the unfairness of it all. You will feel hard and closed.

Many times when the world has felt cruel and unfair, I have fought against it. Only later, sometimes years later, have I seen how I learned important lessons in growing up. Those I needed to stand up against were those who taught me who I am. They taught me what I can withstand and what I need to know.

As adults, we think we’re grown as soon as we get our driving licences. We take to the road of life, confidently. Having passed our test, we know what we are doing. Approaching our junction we repeat our mantra: mirror, signal, manoeuvre. Or, look, indicate your direction, follow through.

The big mistake is to think that just because we are playing by the rules of the road, others will too. This is one of the hardest lessons I have had to learn. Others don’t have to play fair just because you do.

When we are in dark times, naturally we have blinkered vision. We can’t see what’s ahead because we just need to keep going often through gritted teeth.

The past few weeks have been tough. At short notice, we moved our horses and all our equipment and all that is familiar to pastures new. We worked long hours to achieve this and we worked together as team. We have settled now at a beautiful farm and for the first time in a while it feels as if the darkness has lifted and there is the feeling of wonder, lightness and ease.

Watching the ponies take in their new surroundings today, I see that the lightness was there all along. It was hidden behind the clouds of uncertainty. Watching them test their new ground, and with gentle curiosity meet the goats sharing the field, I felt a surge of happiness. The ponies appeared in my dreams last night, close to the horses and this seemed like a blessing of sorts, a good omen to light the way ahead.

Whenever I doubt there is enough goodness in the world, whenever I start to manufacture stories of darkness and condemnation I forget that these stories are a way of making sense of the incomprehensible. They are a child’s drawing of the world: goodies shining on one side, baddies glowering on the other. Reality is more subtle. The horses know this because they live beyond labels, beyond reason, beyond judgement. They live in a space that is more real, fine-tuned and sensitive than we will ever know.

Watching the horses I sense there are still so many lessons to learn. I sense new horizons, new connections and possibilities. I sense there is time to go into winter slowly, to find a new way of being together in community. I sense they are leading us to work even more closely together and the dream was showing me that. Side by side, flank to flank, heart to heart.

Skylarking about

24 04 2022

You cannot easily photograph skylarks. Magicians of the air, they fly too fast and too high for my fumbling human fingers to capture. Not much to look at with their curious flat bodies when spread on the ground, Skylarks are birds of the ear. They visit the horses’ meadow every spring and this year I am noticing them more. Or maybe there are more of them because the meadow is so full of song.

The birds have always proved difficult to pin down. Wordsworth devoted two poems to the skylark and like many who wanted to understand the lark’s secrets, addresses the bird itself.

“Ethereal minstrel! Pilgrim of the sky!”

There is a hint of envy in Wordsworth’s delicate portrait of the bird who gives him the run around by being simultaneously out all the time, partying in the wild air, and snuggled close in his comfy ground nest. Only poets believe nests which are mere hollows of clay earth are enviable, but I sense a joyousness in skylarks and even a kind of mischief.

I was using less poetic language as I dived about with my camera trying to find a way to creatively frame a bird who is essentially invisible. As I was thinking of various compositions, a few paces ahead a skylark felt my approach and flew up from under me, whistling into the sky. I watched ‘him’ (always him in 18th century poetry) go. Here he is a perfect metaphor for my life. While I am planning what to do when I find him, he is already waiting. He is way ahead.

Tennyson sums it up with these sublime lines. “How far he seems, how far with the light upon his wings. Is it a bird, or star that shines and sings?

A star of the sky that sings his little heart out. He won’t let me photograph him, but he will let me into his world of exquisite sound if I can be bothered to listen. He sings as he climbs, his notes like ascending scales. His song doesn’t need to be this glorious, and yet, impossibly, and unmistakably it is.

Described by the poet James Hogg as an “emblem of happiness,” the skylark has taught me something. Hold nothing back. Sing with all your heart. Follow him and pour your heart into unpremeditated art. Shelley has the last word.

A gentle warrior

4 03 2022

Twenty years ago this remarkable horse came into my life. I was not looking for a colt of just 8 months old. I was ready to bring on a youngster and had already started with a four-year-old gelding who was destined to become my riding horse.

Life has an uncanny way of giving you what you need rather than what you want. A few months into watching Sheranni feed vigorously from his dam and canter around the parkland where he spent his first year, I was intrigued. Not yet smitten, but curious enough to drop my plans of training the lovely iron grey gelding and take this exquisite oyster pink colt under my wing.

Our first outing was memorable. A couple out walking their dog stopped to admire Sheranni whose striking turquoise blue eye drew comparisons to David Bowie, and commented on his liveliness. ‘Rather you than me,’ the woman said.

Many outings later, I would remember her words as I lay on my bed drenched in sweat, thinking: this horse is going to kill me. Not that Sheranni was dangerous – he simply went at every single task I gave him with 1,000 percent of his energy. Because he held nothing back, that meant steep learning curve lessons for me. I had to get fit, fast and firm in body, mind and spirit. I had to learn how to give more of my energy to match his.

As I began working with him on the ground, taking him for long walks with his companion Dragonfly, and then introducing him to saddle, our lessons became mutual opportunities for growth. Together we learned the language of each other. There were many mistranslations along the way, including the thrills and spills of fast riding. Once when galloping up a hill on Woodbury Common I somersaulted over Sheranni’s head after he stumbled into a rabbit hole. He deposited me perfectly intact on the ground and waited for me to get back on so we could continue our race with a huge Irish draught horse. His rider said she had never seen a horse run as fast as Sheranni. Indeed, until I took Sheranni out, I had never ridden a horse who travelled like a comet.

As well as his physical attributes of earth-spinning speed and agility, Sheranni’s personality of gentleness combined with his phenomenal intelligence and spirit are an equal part of his being. As he matured, he became not exactly slower, but more considered in his approach in both body and mind. I recognise this transformation in myself. Adventurous and spontaneous in my younger years when I travelled and worked in newsrooms as a journalist, I was always on some sort of mission. I see the Sheranni in me. Now we have ridden so many miles of experience together, I see how our lives have become profoundly intertwined.

We both work differently now. And we both draw on our life experiences. In Recovery Education sessions, Sheranni is consistently present, curious and deeply calm. He has a way of touching people in their most tender and shielded places and he invites softening. People smile and feel relief around him. They trust him. He has been there, stoic and stable, as people have unlocked grief on to his shoulder and shared secrets into his neck, stories they have carried unspoken for years. Sheranni has held them all with grace, compassion and wisdom.

He also supports people, especially women, to connect to their power, make clear requests and stand their ground. His work in this arena has supported people to find new insights. One woman spoke of a ‘huge electricity’ surging through her whole body and a newfound awareness when she connected to him. He is a teacher and friend to many. Of all the many gifts Sheranni offers, the simplest is joy. For he radiates a warm, relaxed happiness and can spare it enough so that others can feel it too. After encounters with Sheranni, people say they feel better in themselves than they have done in years. I do not know how he does it, and I never take it for granted, but I know the emotions he inspires most are love and hope.

It has been a unsettled month. I have been dismayed to watch the events unfold in the Ukraine, the conflict and devastation of a courageous nation is heart-breaking. Listening to the news and reports of people leaving their homeland, clutching wide-eyed children with only a small bag and their cats makes me wonder why the lessons of the Second World War and the obliteration of Polish cities, the very places that are now welcoming refugees, have not been learned. Still, I cling to slivers of love and hope in the stories of resistance.

Personally, things have been a bit turbulent. In February, Sheranni was booked to have two teeth removed and I had to cancel the procedure twice, the first Friday I tested positive for Covid, and the second Friday Storm Eunice visited and flattened our barn. In truth, I was grateful for those cancellations because it gave me time to mentally prepare for the extractions. If you have had a tooth pulled out, you will know it is one of the most brutal procedures you can go through. It feels frankly medieval. I must admit I blanched when the vet arrived this morning and took ten minutes to unload the kit he would need, including a rather strange looking padded lectern, which I later found out was used to prop up Sheranni’s head so that the vet could work inside his mouth.

I am not the best dental patient, and I felt every twist and wrench of this extraction. I tried not to imagine the worst – the tooth splitting or shattering before it was pulled free – and thanks to the patience and professionalism of Jamie, all went well. In truth, the hardest part was stopping Sheranni from immediately eating hay while he was still semi-sedated.

Now he is moving around the field as if nothing had occurred and I am camping out in case he needs me. Of course he doesn’t. It is, of course, me who needs him and I suspect it has always been that way. I need this horse to stay strong, spirited and well. I will this for him every day with every fibre of my being. As the muse who inspired my work at Horsemanship for Health, he gives me purpose and energy. I want no more from life than to keep learning and Sheranni helps me every day to do just that. He is the best mortal being I have ever had the privilege to know. I salute him as the gentle warrior he is.

Leading with Love

30 01 2022

So what does creative and ethical leadership truly mean to me? This challenging question preoccupied me as I prepared to give a talk to business students at Falmouth University this week.

I could have written a whole chapter on the subject, but seeing as I had under an hour, I tried to distill the essence of what I believe ethical leadership demands of not only social entrepreneurs, but anyone who starts something they believe in.

Being fair, consistent, clear and transparent in my actions is important. I learned this lesson in leadership early on from my school students who would not tolerate any hint of unethical conduct, especially being inconsistent which would be immediately met with: ‘But you said (no homework, we could have extra time, music on…..etc) Miss!’ I learned from them never to make promises I could not keep, even tiny ones.

Leading with an open mind. I learned this as I started to work as a professional writer. When I was recording interviews, I learned to keep my own views and opinions to myself. To let people shine, you need to create space for their thoughts to surface and bloom. You need to guide this delicate process and not get in the way.

Providing breathing space is not something we associate with dynamic leadership. But if I think of how refreshing it is to feel that you can take whatever time you need to explain something that matters to you, I know this is important.

To be an ethical leader, you need to let your team know that you have their best interests at heart. You are concerned for their happiness. You want them to bring their whole self to the work and put their whole heart into it because you know, having travelled this path before them, that there’s a certain feeling of vitality and energised consciousness that comes with truly rewarding work. This has nothing to do with salary, roles or status. It has everything to do with loving your work.

There must be no hidden agendas. I avoid formal staff meetings with items to be ticked off an agenda. The reason is because I cannot recall any of the content of these meetings even half an hour afterwards.

Not having meetings saves a lot of energy for creativity. In the early days of creating Horsemanship for Health, we found we came up with our best ideas when we were grooming the horses or tackling yard jobs. Often we would be racing to the shed to write these ideas down and capture the good feeling of working in the moment. Conventional meetings are airless to me. Instead I make room for creative discussions which are recorded and, most importantly, acted on.

Ethical Leadership has its challenges, though, and when you begin a new company everything is challenging. The temptation is to cut corners and this never pays off. Taking time to do things properly is the only way to sleep at night knowing you have done everything you possibly could. I learned this from 20 years of looking after horses and lying awake wishing I had taken a little longer over something I rushed because I was tired. Not sleeping soundly is a worse form of tiredness than being so tired you haven’t got the energy to worry. It has taken me years to fully understand this!

Being an ethical leader above all means being honest about your own limits and capacity. I may have energy to burn on some days, other days I need to go home and rest. Leaders who drive themselves to exhaustion, and I saw many of these guys when I worked on newspapers, including one young chap who memorably spent the night with his arms around his keyboard, are leaders in need of support.

An unsupported leader cannot take joy in their work. I know the support I have in my work is vital for me. Support comes in many forms, and is not just practical human help. It may be a feeling of goodwill from afar. An upbeat phone call, a new commission, a warm day when all feels right with the world.

It is possible to do a lot of good in the world and end up disillusioned. Ethical leaders notice when things are going well and they take time to acknowledge the myriad factors that make good work possible.

Finally, ethical leaders share their work and encourage others. They do not feel the need to hoard or protect their ideas. They know their own worth is not measured by the amount of wealth they have accumulated in the bank, but by the flow of creative ideas that leads to new opportunities and connections. An ethical leader is aware that the source of creativity is limited only by their own temporary blindness.

Clear View

20 11 2021

Every day is an opportunity to view things differently. Every day we can choose another lens through which to view the world and all that lives within. I wonder why it is that we cling so fiercely to our narrow perspectives?

My feeling is that it feels safe to travel along the same familiar route. It feels comforting to always know what you think, to have a readymade opinion on everything. How refreshing it could be to live without having to remember to have an opinion on anything at all! To simply consider every situation as it occurs with fresh, clear eyes. This is how birds live.

Yesterday I tested a robin’s nerve by placing a small cube of cheese on the wooden picnic table where the bird could see it. The robin assessed the situation for a few moments and saw that it was not without danger. There were two hungry hounds on either side of the picnic table. The robin timed his flight, swept in and carried off the cheese so swiftly and beautifully it made everyone present smile. Here was a moment of simple decision making that required little effort.

Contrast the slow and awkward way we get around to doing things. Using our opinions as crutches when we really don’t know what to do. It’s hard, though, to realise opinions do not matter when you have spent years carefully curating a point of view. Opinions feel like life and death. The most opinionated often win, not because their opinions are superior, but because the very act of holding onto an opinion takes tenacity. The opinionated are terriers with a juicy idea between their teeth. Try to take it away and they snap.

All conflict is rooted in differences of opinion, in blind stubbornness in some form. Try tackling it head on and it digs in deeper. No side can win. It means years of deadlock. I’m thinking of the situation between Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, government and business policy makers and climate change campaigners. The differences between France and the UK, all defined by opinion masquerading as truth.

In all situations of conflict there is a place where both sides recognise each other, where they see the other in themselves. The ability to pause and consider the consequences of our strong points of view is not admired as much as a powerful argument. But in pausing, in taking a moment to think of the way our words or actions might land on another, we take a radical step away from our sheltered opinions and into something much deeper and wider.

In stepping away from certainty and into the big unknown, we encounter all the limitless alternatives we need to create a world that is not defined by those who push hardest. We don’t need stronger opinions. We need a robin’s piercing clarity of vision.

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