The powerful and poignant installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by ceramic artist Paul Cummins at the Tower of London has captured the imagination and connected with the soul of this nation. Some 4m people have been drawn to it in person and millions more across the world have been touched by its haunting beauty. A tribute to the 888,264 British soldiers from across the world who gave their young lives a century ago, the experience engendered is as varied as the number who connect because, like all art, it evokes emotions and thoughts that come from a deeper part of each of us.
This deeper part of ourselves is a place we rarely have time to go and yet when we do, often through a chance event, we learn so much. We re-calibrate, we ask questions of ourselves that we cannot easily answer but the questions stay with us and an answer finds us one day. One of the reasons that I set up cool-leadership.com was to provide some easily accessible routes into self-exploration and opportunities for personal insight into how we can all become true leaders in this complex and extraordinary world we inhabit. More of that in the months to come. Right now, I’d like to return to the Tower of London.
The Tower is no stranger to bloodshed and throughout its thousand years has witnessed the impact of both leaders and traitors – just like you. It has protected some and imprisoned others – just like you. It still houses the crown jewels and is a symbol of fortitude and steadfastness – just like you. The 888,264 poppies, that gush from a wound in its side and flood the surrounding moat and banks, each represent a separate, prized and special life and, they too, are symbols in this complex yet simple metaphor that encompasses so much that is noble and foolish in leadership and followership. Pride and regret mingle like blood-brothers. There is a lot to reflect on and to learn from.
Looking at the photos – and there are many on the internet – I am struck by three things in particular. One is the presence of volunteers over the last three months, without whom this installation could not exist. Are there more people volunteering these days or am I just noticing them more? Maybe its large-scale public events, like the recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow that owed much of its success to them as did the 2012 Olympics in London, that makes their presence more obvious. How can you harness the power of volunteerism in your organisation? Or the opportunities that volunteerism offers for your organisation? More important, how can you harness that hi-octane motivation that working for a higher purpose inspires?
Second, I am reminded of the enormous creativity that people have. Those who develop it it into their professional life, like Paul Cummins, have the chance to wake up something in all of us. Film director, Danny Boyle, had the same impact with the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. We should never under-estimate the ground-breaking power of creativity and the impact of making connections between ideas – “long live the arts” say I. As a knowledge economy we need constant innovation and that requires access to creative thought.
Third, I am reminded that city office blocks dwarf the Tower. The lessons of history are side-by-side the dilemmas that face us now. In London, as in other historic cities, we sit alongside the wisdom and folly of the past. We should not let it repeat itself. We often embrace the future and dismiss the past, yet the past has lessons to pass on. Our focus should be on the future but leadership is a human activity and whilst styles of leadership change with progressive cultures, human nature remains fairly stable. Because of this, the past, however remembered, has much to tell us. Sometimes it is deliberately recorded in books, play and films and sometimes it is unconsciously recorded in the field of energy that surrounds us all – that too can be accessed for its wisdom.
We sometimes arrogantly assume that we leave the past behind us – but it is always with us. What we do with it is what really matters.
Dr Jacquie Drake is Founder of cool-leadership.com and Editor of the cool-leadership newsletter.