Leadership and the art of minimum force

Apr 21 2016 by Michael Jones Print This Article

Our world is a dynamic and complex living system filled with potential which seeks to evolve and grow through us. Seeing our work as a craft teaches us about leadership and how to tap into this pool of hidden potential and make it visible.

What matters most in craft is the thing we cannot explain. Yet it is the result of ‘that which we cannot explain’ that makes the difference in creating - even exceeding - the results - we seek.

Mahatma Ghandi offered some insight into this dynamic of craftwork when he said that “working with the hands is the apprenticeship of honesty”. The hands don’t lie. We may rationalize how and what we think, but not what we touch and feel.

Working and creating with our hands offers a kind of rhythm with life. Craft reminds us that to unlock this hidden potential involves the art of minimum force. By listening, touching, sensing, releasing and letting go, we become more and more attuned to the emergence of new possibilities through the intimate exchange between our heart, our minds and our hands. As the French painter, Georges Braque, put it, “art happens”.

But with our busy lives, we often forget this mystery. We get caught up in an over-worked and over-processed world where what feeds us does not fill us. We hunger for what is real and authentic - words, ideas, connections and possibilities.

Pianist and composer Frederic Chopin’s motto was “souplesse avant tout!” (suppleness before everything). This sensitivity to touch was to be found in the wrist action that gave the hands the flexibility to shape and bend the notes rather than to strike, force or, in Chopin’s language, bash them. To Chopin, forcing the notes was the worst of all musical offences.

This shift in orientation from playing from the wrists to playing from the whole body was not just a piano technique but a way of living. Chopin wanted each finger to find its distinctive character so that the player could expand the full range of their palette. This could not be accomplished if the player yielded to the equalization of the fingers - a common technique at the time. For Chopin, the richness was found in the diversity of the finger weight, rhythm and tone.

Cultivating these differences through the movement of weight could not be achieved without ease. With ease, a pianist could convey the impression of playing with four hands, not just two. The music could unfold freshly and naturally each time. The piano could speak through the player, just as the player spoke through the piano.

To acknowledge this reciprocity in how art happens, leaders often need to pilot, not from out front, but from behind. They do not have all the answers and certainties only blind them to hidden opportunities. Leading from out front is like using a laser in a darkened room - most of the room is still dark. But with the opaque illumination of candlelight, the corners come into view.

So the question is, how do we keep this candle flame alive? What is already present that we are not seeing? What wants to happen here if we step out of the way? And what does it mean to create safe places where we can build trust and goodwill to influence outcomes we cannot directly control?

When we work in this way, the work itself holds an inner design that carries the seed of its own unfolding. In other words in craft there is an organic process continuously unfolding that gives way to new forms and ideas. So to access the work of craft, we need to enter into the flow of life itself, to add something to the legacy of what has gone before. This means choosing work that stands for something, that endures and may outlive the craftsperson themselves.

American Poet William Stafford believed that to be connected to the work that lasts, we need to stay in alignment with the natural order of things and to distinguish between what is occurring naturally and what we believe ought to be happening. When Stafford did this - asking what these fragments of thoughts, patterns and images were trying to say - poems and ideas came to him freely and abundantly. He described this as a guiding thread: as long as we hold onto it, we cannot get lost.

This image of the thread is a reminder that life knows what it is doing. As long as we hold onto it, a way will open before us. But too often, in our impatience, we pull too hard on the thread and break this connection. As Stafford once said, “it is difficult for impatient people to write poems!”

For leaders, this means that instead of trying to impose their will based on what they believe ought to happen, they should maintain instead a heightened state of attention for what is already vital and alive in the situation, what is happening naturally. Even when the future cannot be predicted, the deeper purposes of things may be imagined and felt. So rather than try to avoid surprise, leaders can see their work as a form of craft that invites surprise, embraces uncertainty and instructs us in how to be open to and learn from the unexpected.

In this sense, the craftsperson is always the apprentice. The material at hand - be it clay, canvas, a blank page or a strategic plan - awakens a sense of humility as we realize it may take ages to perfect or realize an end product. But the craftsperson knows that other forces are also at play. We are participants in a living dynamic world where all of life seeks to realize its unfolding potential through us.

Mozart once said, “when I am at ease and in good surroundings, the ideas come to me like torrents… where they come from and how they come, I do not know.” And this is the paradox. Sometimes by forcing less, we accomplish more. It is when we are at ease and in good cheer that life rushes in.

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About The Author

Michael Jones
Michael Jones

Michael Jones is a leadership educator, author and Juno-nominated pianist/composer. His most recent book, The Soul of Place: Re-imagining Leadership Through Nature, Art and Community, is the third in a series asking how leaders can re- imagine places as living systems inspired by nature, art, community and our deepening humanity.