A Speculum of Fire

In a fast paced world, it’s easy to forget that developing your leadership is a long-term journey, not a short-term project. Organizations still do want to put people through programs that demonstrate immediate, measurable, most often short-term results. But the inner story of a person’s growth is not a one-pager, or even a short-story, it’s a novel that runs the full course of a person’s life. It is closely linked to the person’s destiny and being able, as Carl Jung said, to affirm that personal destiny. That isn’t a light undertaking.

The search for what’s new, what’s novel, and what represents strategic leverage in the development of people is understandable. But it has serious limits. It can also doom us to superficial thinking, to focusing solely on techniques to manipulate. It can push people into boxes and categories rather than teaching how to reach the deeper tissues of self-awareness through strong self-inquiry. It can focus more on a cluster of surface dimensions, such as “managing change,” “understanding thinking styles” and “coaching” than really comprehending what those dimensions add up to for the leader’s journey. Mike Myatt points to this phenomenon in part in his recent Forbes article, “The Most Common Leadership Model — And Why It’s Broken.” He addresses the very common temptation to turn leadership into a set of competencies, defined technically, rather than focusing on the “whole package” of the person and that person’s impact. As a consequence, we get people measured to be competent in their roles but inadequate as leaders.


It seems to me the challenge is in helping ourselves articulate our paths of growth from a long-term, open-ended perspective; and sometimes even more basically, perhaps, seeing the importance of this work. It’s often a very intuitive process, augmented by what happens to us, by feedback, by owning our failures and successes. It means seeing the larger patterns in our lives and the threads that run among them, and then weaving these threads into a path we walk in the present. It’s work that most often depends on a supportive community of people who also want to learn at more profound, holistic levels.

A client, a senior executive, discovers, for example, that he is trying to get from his boss, the CEO, something he could never get from his own father — approval. An incident, a minor comment, has set off the bells and jambed the gears. A twenty-year relationship with his boss has been suddenly undermined, and he finds himself feeling betrayed and more or less ready to quit. We can either treat this event as a one-off “conflict” with his boss or we can regard it as part of his long-term learning path, a marker of something that has been going on a long time. You can see that at one level, from a short-term organizational standpoint, all that might be cared about is getting communications back on track between the executive and his boss. But in so doing, if that’s all that matters, true authenticity — and an important opportunity — are lost. And is it just a matter of realizing — “Oh, I’m doing that, I’m projecting,” and then dropping the matter, maybe through some sense of acceptance that “No, I just won’t get from him what I needed from my dad”? Or is it more a matter of the larger journey itself, a moment on that journey that reveals the whole complex of things that lack of approval has meant for him, how from the beginning it’s altered his life?

For example, it turns out the executive loves his role as a mentor for others; loves to help them learn and achieve, grow into new opportunities. He is generous. This is related to the approval issue. But when will he get the same treatment from his boss in return? The hurt isn’t just the hurt. It’s a signal of work farther down in him, work that will begin to define a path that he must learn to trust on his own. A path that doesn’t depend on the hope of a boss’ someday reassurance, on anyone’s reassurance or praise for that matter. It becomes instead a path of faith in himself, and it is likely that the comment, the incident that triggered the painful moments of self-doubt that have kept him awake for many nights is only one flag in a row of flags leading into his future.

My work is this work — of helping people see that row of flags, often self-defined, without category, a “process” that holds the understanding we are not done, we are not yet complete, and there is nothing that’s going to be complete but we can still move forward in the journey. As Wallace Stevens wrote in his magnificent poem, “Prologues to What is Possible,”

He belonged to the far-foreign departure of his vessel and was part of it,
Part of the speculum of fire on its prow, its symbol, whatever it was

My work is always somehow related to that “speculum of fire,” that mirror, that opening. We are all “lured on by a syllable” —

A syllable of which he felt, with an appointed sureness,
That it contained the meaning into which he wanted to enter,
A meaning which, as he entered it, would shatter the boat and leave the oarsmen quiet
As at a point of central arrival….

That meaning.

No matter what the theme is in the moment, what incident has triggered us to the core, the syllable stands — and it calls us — in a never-ending way as leaders, as people, to become ourselves and to be whole.

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On May 14-15, I will be facilitating The Arc workshop in Seattle — an example of long-term leadership self-discovery. The cost for this small group workshop is $500. For more information please download the full brochure by clicking the image below. If you are interested or would just like to talk about the workshop, please get in touch!


  • The speculum of fire < stunning words.

    I truly love your last paragraph and it sums up what you want to say in a beautiful but profound way…

    "No matter what the theme is in the moment, what incident has triggered us to the core, the syllable stands — and it calls us — in a never-ending way as leaders, as people, to become ourselves and to be whole."

    All I can say is AMEN!

    Thanks for this meaningful and profound post.

    You are the fire within.

  • Thank you, Lolly. You have a fabulous way of affirming! I am grateful we share in the work and are part of the same profound community.

  • Hi Dan,
    I felt incredible freedom as I read this post for when we are willing to see the whole (not just the painful pieces) we are lifted to the freedom of a new day.

    My favorite part in your post:
    ” It means seeing the larger patterns in our lives and the threads that run among them, and then weaving these threads into a path we walk in the present. ”

    Many thanks. Great post!

  • Peg Gillard wrote:

    This was just the “Spring Tonic” I needed to reset my compass and wipe the wintery debris left on my window to the “speculum of fire.” I will return to this post several times this weekend to find each tidbit that it offers to take a step off the current path and walk among the trees to create a different path, perhaps one less traveled by me and/or others. The imagery that your words have created is humbling.


  • @Kate I love the line you picked out (and corrected the typo in it), for it references the vulnerable work we do within ourselves to find out who and what we are and will become. Much appreciation, Kate!

    @Peg So nice to see you here, Peg, and I’m glad I was able to “set the table” with words and images that connected for you. What a pleasure to see the notice that you’d dropped by!

  • Dan,
    Thank you for a beautifully written description of the journey of leadership. My favorite is “He belonged to the far-foreign departure of his vessel and was part of it…” It is easy and sometimes desirable to think of the journey to the next town, but the trip is much longer than that. Where we are now is not where we must remain if success, relationship and wholeness are the chosen path.

  • “Where we are now is not where we must remain…” Perfectly said, Lyn. The call is there, waiting for us. Thank you for taking a moment to write. It’s always a blessing to find you have stopped by!

  • Thank you. The blessing is always mine.

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