Two children, aged 3 and 4, clambered over their dad in the swimming pool. It was December, in Miami, but the scene plunged me right back into my own childhood in Scotland.
I was in Florida for my annual winter escape, and I’d been invited to “hang” with their dad, for the afternoon. “Hanging” felt like the right term. “Dripping,” would also have worked, given the heat and humidity. I was envious of these little people splashing around in the cool water but that wasn’t my focus. What I noticed, and what lurched me into nostalgia, was the inventiveness of their games, which were cutely embarrassing and delightfully silly. There was a game called, Party under the Water, which involved dancing (wriggling) on the bottom of the pool. There were tussles to be the one balancing on Dad’s hand, bumpy kisses just below the surface, and a fourth game, which was a whispered secret. I think it involved peeing in the pool.
When I was their age, I would play “Hula, Hula Oot the Windae” with my dad. We made a tent with the bed covers, held up by a strip of plastic toy road. When my brother or I would say the magic words, “Hula Hula oot the windae!” the bed would shake, and we were transported to some exotic island where an adventure would ensue. We never left the security of the magic bed, nor dared to peek. My dad peeked. He would glean enough intel. to update us on some uprising, which had been instigated by our arrival. Giant turtles, hostile warriors, volcanoes, tidal waves, alien invasion and triffids were familiar elements of the story. We were nearly captured, set on fire, or eaten every time. We were only saved when one of us, unable to bear the tension any longer, shouted, “Hula Hula, back in the windae.” To our relief, we were magically and instantaneously returned to our parents’ bedroom. We would escape catastrophe each time with mere seconds to spare. (For those wondering, “windae” is how some of us say, “window” in Scotland.)
There were other games with my dad, and my brother that I can only vaguely remember, perhaps for the better, involving a suitcase, a bean bag, a tape recorder, the tent, and a wrestling octopus that I had been pitted against at Grangemouth swimming pool. Apparently, I was permitted to take a butter knife into the contest. What I know is that when two curious minded and inventive wee boys were paired with Old Sammy (my dad), a natural storyteller and comic, the possibilities were limitless. Sammy was renowned for the twisted stories he gleefully told his nieces before we were born, which, when his sons arrived, became turbo-charged and acted out.
Many families have these cute and mortifying stories of intimate collusions between parent and child: silly games, funny words, funky dances and embarrassingly acted out characters. It feels like my childhood was all about that. Perhaps it was this that seeded my interest in the inventiveness a relationship can produce. Having devoted thirty years to understanding character, shadow, personal impact, and the language of leaders, I confess it is not my first love. My actual obsession is the space between people: what a son calls up in a father and what a leader calls up in another leader. I want to know what is unique in a relationship and, more importantly, what it can produce?
I have seen great partnerships over the years. Indeed, when I think of the best leaders I have worked with, I recall them in essential relationships with two or three partners. At the heart of their success is a triangulation of talent with others: unique relational dynamics, which produce inimitable results. I have watched executive partnerships jump from organisation to organisation, reproducing magic that only their unique bond can manifest.
Relationship is more profound and reliable than individual talent. In 2023, I plan to home in on the dimensions of relationship that matter most and garner insights on the differences that makes the difference. I want to know about the trust, the spectrum of emotional expression, the range of conversations, the shadow knowledge of the other, the impact the relationship has on the team and, of course, the productivity of the partnership. What is the recipe for an enduring, contributory relationship?
Anyone who follows my library, will know that I have already begun a new coaching practice in organisations. My early-adopting clients have joined the experiment; I see their leaders in pairs. What a difference that makes. The three-way conversations improve the team dynamics instantaneously. Conflicts are exposed there and then; inter-departmental dysfunctions are immediately visible, and character differences are established up front. Generative agreements, to improve the business, occur much more rapidly and committed relationships become the expected norm rather than a surprising exception.
It is amazing what happens, when both leaders are held to account for the health of their relationship.
We need resilient leadership relationships now. The world is pulling apart and leaders must role model how to hold it together. The old excuse of competitive politics being an unavoidable by-product of our pyramidal hierarchies can no longer be tolerated. We need leaders committed to each other’s success, inventing new ways of discussing increasingly complex problems, learning how to think together.
In the last two years, I have surrendered to the reality that my own consultancy will not flourish without collaboration. I don’t have enough in me for my ambition to be realised independently, neither does my assistant and neither do any of our consultants. We need inventive dialogue, with trusted partners, to generate new solutions and original ideas.
The leaders, I coach, have bigger jobs than me and they haven’t found the answers either, because the answers are not “out there.” Solutions are invented in the crucible of disclosive conversations, contained in energetic and creative relationships. Leaders have to relinquish the tidiness of independence for the messiness of interdependence and the risks of relying on others.
Perhaps it might help to recall, with tender embarrassment, their own childhood collusions, which produced their version of flying beds and peeing in the pool. Perhaps their giant tortoises and combative cephalopods could help them remember the joy and aliveness of relational invention. What answers might come, if we learned to bring familial creativity to our most entangled issues and accessed that silly, awkward genius that resides in the middle of a real and exploratory relationship?
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