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.

RSS and email sub­scrip­tion, month­ly Unfold­ing Lead­er­ship newslet­ter, search and oth­er func­tions may be found at the “Fur­ther Infor­ma­tion” tab at the bot­tom of this page.

The Arc Workshop

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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