Some years ago my wife and I experienced a life-altering moment. It didn’t come in the form of a dramatic event. Instead it came to us in just a few simple words that changed the way we lived our lives.
It started one hot humid August afternoon while we sat on the beach of a family lakeside cottage enjoying the warmth and thinking about our future and what possibilities lay ahead.
“Why don’t we sell our city home and travel for a while.” I said. My wife Judy looked at me as if the heat had affected my judgement. But as we talked further she also became more open to doing something extraordinary.
The following week we put our house up for sale. Four days later it was sold.
Alarmed by this sudden change in our circumstances, I looked at her and admitted, “I was only making conversation!”
But the deed was done and in the weeks that followed we began to plan for our adventure on the road. This included calling ahead to friends and colleagues we had met over the years to announce our visit and possible stay with them. But none were calling us back.
As our anxieties about this trip became more obvious to others, one colleague pulled us aside and said, “This is not holiday, it’s the beginning of a new life. But if you want to live into it fully, you’ll have to learn to follow a candle rather than the flashlight.”
We did follow the light of the candle and enjoyed many wonderful and anticipated adventures. After a time we returned home.
After I resumed my work with executives, I would share this story as a powerful metaphor both for a way of living and also as a way of making a distinction between the work of management and the work of leadership.
The ‘flashlight’ world of management lives in abstractions that keep the focus on the status quo. Measurement, efficiency, control, compliance, execution, analysis: that’s the language of management. But the risk is that by shining the flashlight on one thing, we may miss seeing everything else that is hidden around it.
Leadership, on the other hand, is guided by the opaque light of the candle. Through this, what emerges from the shadows are conversations about beauty, place, courage, destiny, culture, stories and a larger unknown.
In the leader’s candlelight world, comprehension is transformed - not through abstract debate or discussion, but from listening, dialogue and our felt experience together.
As we shift our focus from managing to leading, we discover that the counterpoint to abstraction is experience. In the world of candlelight, the role of felt experience is primary. We cannot fully comprehend what we have not first felt in some way. Too often we try to explain a world that we would do better to simply experience and wonder at.
The power of wonder is that it reminds us that when we lead by candlelight there is a part of the world that has not yet been fully accounted for. It connects us to the sense of mystery, awe, possibility and constructive perplexity. This perplexity may actually embody more insight than all the solutions we have at hand. And the learning journey is more important than the arrival as we try to comprehend a world that can never be fully understood.
In contrast, in the world of management the mark of objectivity, abstraction or detachment is to not be moved by anything. This is the goal of debate - to be a detached and immoveable object so that we may maintain our sense of bemusement. In this way we attempt to diminish and demystify in order to reduce the full presence of the other so that they may serve as an object of our influence and persuasion.
In dialogue the essence of the other is essential. It is through their full presence that our subjective experience and ability to flow and blend with the other is possible. The less they are, the less we may become. Ultimately to make meaning visible involves not dominating or yielding to, but engaging with others, so that together we may come to insights that what we cannot see on our own.
In other words truth does not reveal itself through our willful grasping for it - nor from our detachment and objectivity. Instead, it comes from waiting upon and engaging with it, so that the truth can speak to us in some way.
In the flashlight world of debate we try to bend others to our will. In the candlelight world of dialogue we blend with others in order to see a greater whole.
All life is movement, yet when we speak together we don’t think of our communications as a metaphor for movement. Our primary metaphors for movement come from the physical body, from the muscular and skeletal. We try to persuade and convince because we understand the body primarily through images of rigidity and resistance and the interaction between sinews, nerves, bones, density and structure.
But the much larger part of the body is made up of water molecules and connective tissue, this aspect of the body is cellular rather than muscular and it moves in space through a blending of fluid motion rather than through force or effort.
Understanding this aspect of body structure is helpful in thinking about the distinctions between dialogue and debate. The muscular body, which is more individually oriented and transactional, moves in space with greater force of effort than the cellular body.
So in our busy flashlight world, a world in which we have no time, dialogue awakens us to a deeper realm and brings us back to ourselves. It reconnects us to the candlelight experience of faith, revelation, beauty, mystery, harmony, stillness and the joyful experience of time out of time itself.
But most importantly, the candle re-connects us to a world we once knew and may wish to return to again, a place in time that is spacious, slow, complete and whole.