Twelve Days of Christmas

Twelve Days of Christmas

The knocker rattles on the door, the dog barks and I lose all track of the point I am making on my zoom call. ‘Hang own a minute, just need to answer the door and I leave my client looking at a messy office as ran into the hall, grabbing the dog by the collar to stop him running off. Any chances, any door open and he is off visiting next door’s chickens.

‘Morning parcel for you. Registered but don’t worry I’ll sign for you, covid times and all that. There you go, enjoy, have good day. If I don’t see you again have a good Christmas’. And with a hand in the air, George our postman is away, jogging up the lane, whistling to himself. As usual he’s wearing his bright red post office sweat top and has on his shorts and boots. He always has shorts on, no matter what the weather, rain, sun, gales, snow. And he’s already round the corner and out of sights calling out a hello to walkers passing by.

I don’t look at the parcel, just notice it’s small, not much bigger than my hand. I put it up on top of the bureau away from Buddy the dog who’s very interested and sniffing madly. He normally collects the post from the mat and brings it to me in the office. We sometimes lose a few though, as tearing some to pieces is good sport when he’s bored.

At lunchtime I remember the box and open it up as I eat my sandwich. The dog sits beside me, head to one side, inquisitive. Although maybe he’s more interested in the crisps on my plate than the parcel. I absently drop one, which he neatly catches in his mouth, still watching me as I unwrap first the brown paper and then release a beautiful red bow wrapped around a small, elegant box. The lid comes off with a satisfying hiss and a pop. I slide my fingers through the tissue paper inside, expecting a present of some kind, but all I come out with is very high quality piece of paper, folding with neat crease down the centre.

I open the beautiful cream heavy duty paper and there are only seven words, in wonderful calligraphy …..’Believe and trust in yourself. You are very capable. Believe in the best in others too’. I turn the paper over, nothing else. I empty the box, lifting the tissue paper out carefully, so as not to tear it. There is no address, no other note, just those words. I look at the dog, he looks back, tips his head one way then the other seeming to say ‘don’t ask me I’ve no idea’. I discover though, that if I bend the paper backwards it will sit neatly in the box upright so I can see the words like a tittle mini display. Although I am confused, I decide I like the phrase and every time I see them through the rest of the day they seem to just lift me a little somehow.

The next morning, I have to get my accounts organised before the year end so I’m up early and deep into receipts, invoices, expense sheets when the door bangs again. I don’t answer because if I lose my thread now I’m stuffed, an hour’s worth of adding up and organising will disappear. I ignore the knocking, which persists. Irritated I stalk to the door, throw it open and there’s George, dressed in his usual kit even though its freezing cold. Except this time, he has a Santa hat on, with a bell which tinkles every time he moves his head.

‘Parcel for you’. And instead of leaving it on the wall he puts it into my hand. ‘Looks like the same as yesterday, perhaps it’s a duplicate, did you accidentally order two? It is the same, he’s right. I turn the package over. Everything is the same, exactly the same. I thank him close the door and although I’m mildly intrigued, my paper work calls. So it’s lunch time again when I open the box. I’m feeling smug because all my books are ready for the accountant and I’m only three weeks late, which is a step up from last year. The box opens with that same satisfying hiss and pop again. There’s the same single page and this time it reads ‘Do it now, get it done. You know you’ll feel better afterwards’. I read it again and chuckle. Spot on, I do feel better and as I refold the paper and set it upright in the box I’m busy thinking about the treat I might allow myself this afternoon.

On the third day I’m ready, no zoom calls booked, no admin to do, but George doesn’t come. In fact no one up the lane has seen him all day. I feel bit disappointed but hey ho maybe that was that anyway. I’m checking my emails to see if anyone is owning up to sending them, but no word yet. Then at eight in the evening the knocker does go. There is George standing under the outdoor Christmas lights, as bright as ever, smiling as though it’s mid morning.

‘Sorry I’m late, a computer glitch messed the rounds up and we had to sort by hand, didn’t get going till the afternoon, but here’s your post’. And there nestled in amongst the cards is another box. Just seeing it warms me, which is strange as I think I should be concerned. Just who is sending these parcels? ‘Looks like you’ve got a fan somewhere’ George remarks before disappearing into the night, just the tinkle of his bell telling me he is next door delivering more post.

I know what I doing now and I soon have the next message propped up in its box. ‘Find your talent, develop it and use it to help others’. Support others to find their talent too’.
I like this one, it seems to speak to me. I believe in talent, that everyone has something they are excellent at. And everyone’s talent is different. The comment stays with all evening and that night I sleep like a log which is very unusual.

Over the next few days we get into a routine. Buddy lies on the front door mat, looking up occasionally at the letter box and then barks crazily when the knock comes. George smiles as he hands another identical parcel over. I’m spreading the notes out in a semi circle on

the kitchen table. Added to the first three I now have ‘Go out and meet interesting and diverse people. You’ll learn a lot and you’ll enjoy it. Search out any prejudice you may have’. ‘Create a secure base for yourself, an anchor which builds confidence for you personally and for others around you’. ‘Hold serious issues lightly if you can. If possible, smile and relax as you work through the big questions’.

The coffee machine gurgles and spits. I making two cups, imagining George would like a warm drink. I can hear him chatting to someone, he’ll be here in a moment and I know he will knock, the parcels keep coming. I think his talent is to make others feel happy and he certainly is secure. At least in the job he’s doing. I’m guessing he’ll take milk and I know he likes chocolate, so out come the biscuits.

‘Lovely coffee Mr G, thank you’ and I watch him dunk his second biscuit. He’s sat on the wall scratching the dog behind the ear. Buddy does his perfect dog pose and of course is rewarded with a tiny piece. ‘I’ve cracked it I think, these parcels you’re getting’. I look at him, suddenly wondering if he’s behind the whole parcel thing, but I know he isn’t. ‘So, you’ve had six parcels and now we’re at nineteenth of December. I reckon someone’s doing the twelve days of Christmas with a twist. If that’s true you’ve got six more coming, including that one there. George is just sitting on the cold bricks relaxed as can be, legs bare, chatting as though its a summers day, while I’m busy wrapping my coat around me to stay warm. The box sits tantalising between us, waiting to be opened.

I can’t stop myself and tell him about the six sheets of paper and as his eyes move to the box beside his coffee, I can tell he’s dying for me to open this one. My fingers are cold and won’t move easily, so he unwraps it and then hands me the box. This one says ‘Think big. Have a vision for the future and understand your current reality. Manage the broad strategy and the details to make this happen’.

‘This is just like chinese proverbs, handy hints for the busy, stressed person. I like it’. He smiles broadly. Then realises what he’s said. ‘Oh sorry, not that I think that’s you by the way, I meant it more as general comment. You know us’ and he waves his hands in the air. “I like that one about talent and the one you’ve just got about having a vision but dealing with the details too. Actually I like them all. Do you mind if I write them down’? He pulls out a small battered notebook from his pocket, dropping rubber bands on the floor around him. Takes a stubby pencil and begins to write. “Stuff like this is really helpful you know, maybe I could weave it into some poetry’. I nod and smile. I know he dropped out of university with some sort of breakdown, just before his final exams. I’ve heard the neighbours chatting.

The next five days are fun. We open the parcels together and interpret the messages over coffee, with ever increasing treats – croissants, doughnuts, cream cakes. The cold air seems to make us hungry, The neighbours are talking about us. One pokes her head over the fence and tries to join in, until Buddy does one of his running jumps and bangs against the panel. She goes away muttering. On Christmas eve I organise lunch. Somehow it feels right to have a meal together. It turns out to be more like dinner, as its late afternoon before George jogs down the lane, the last parcel and box of chocolates in hand. We sit out at the garden table. It’s cold and the temperature is dropping but we’re being Covid safe. Even George has an extra layer on top, but nothing will convince him to put trousers on. The dog is in heaven, as he gets regular treats of proper dog biscuits from George’s pocket as we eat.

“So, what have we got, let’s arrange them together’. George is excited, has his notebook out ready to take more notes. ‘Okay’ I reply positioning all twelve like a fleet of boats about to set sail. They read:-

1. Believe and trust in yourself. You are very capable. Believe in the best in others too.

2. Do it now, get it done. You know you’ll feel better afterwards.

3. Find your talent, develop it and use it to help others. Support others to find their talent too.

4. Thing big. Have a vision for the future and understand your current reality. Manage the broad strategy and the details to make this happen.

5. Go out and meet interesting and diverse people. You’ll learn a lot and you’ll enjoy it. Search out any prejudice you may have.

6. Create a secure base for yourself, an anchor which builds confidence for you personally and for others around you.

7. Hold serious issues lightly if you can. If possible, smile and relax as you work through the big questions.

8. Expect conflict if you are doing something new or different. Most people won’t understand what you are trying to do at the beginning.

9 . Enjoy nature, spend some time each day outside. Stand in the sun and reenergise. Walk when you can, particularly if you need to clear your head.

10. Develop yourself, you will have an interesting journey. Give and receive feedback, this will help you change.

11. Stand up for what you believe in, share your ideas. You can make a difference.

12. Enjoy special moments, share them with others. Celebrate. Affirm and thank others.

‘These are just in date order, but I reckon they all have equal ranking really’ I say. George nods, scribbling thoughts as we speak. Sometimes he goes silent and seems to float away. He’s shared some lines of his poetry, which I feel very privileged about and now I sense him shaping words in his head as we sit in contented silence.

We move our paper boats with beautiful words around, making connections. Trying different combinations. ’I like enjoying nature’ says George. ‘I like meet interesting and diverse people’ I respond. We bounce ideas around as the snow begins to fall gently down on us. The dog gets more biscuits as we chat, the temperature on the outside thermometer drops but we don’t notice.

We never found out who sent the boxes, but what great Christmas presents we both received that year.

Grahame Pitts December 2021

Stimulus and Response – The Love Affair

‘I love you, I really do’. He slides up beside her, his hands reaching out to take her face gently into the palm of his hands. His lips touch lightly onto hers and his eyes twinkle in delight.

‘I can’t live without you Stim, I really can’t’ His hands slide to the back of her head and gently move through the glossy blonde hair. Then strangely, he feels her hand on his chest as she gently pushes him away, before running her fingers through her hair to organise herself. She looks at him, her eyebrows dipping slightly.

‘You know I love you Res I really do, but I need to be honest with you…..’ He senses the rebuff and moves slightly away from her, but still holds her hand so she cannot move too far away. They are getting ready for a party, all old friends coming  together. It is a regular, relaxed, fun time with people they’ve known for years. She had been standing at the mirror, choosing ear rings when he came up and kissed her, his aftershave mixing with her perfume as they came close.

His face crumbles at her words. She has been a little bit off over the last few days, certainly not her usual loving, close, caring self. He tries to listen, but his heart rate has risen and he senses the  blood surging through his veins. Their love was beautiful, everyone said so – a whirlwind romance, wonderful to watch, a classic love at first sight, a match made in heaven. And now, living together after all these years, it had seemed perfect to him. Yet here in the bedroom, he feels a sense of fear and concern. He doesn’t want to say anything, doesn’t want to speak, but he has to.

‘What’s the matter Stim’? The words come out slowly, quietly, tentatively. It seems wrong to even ask.

‘Look Res’ her voice is confident, sure, straight. She takes him over to the bed and pulls him down to sit on the edge, their legs touching. ‘I love you, just as I did when we first met. You are very special, we’re meant to be together for ever and ever I’m sure. I don’t want to be without you,  I really don’t, but …….’. The air seems to shift between them. Stim sighs deeply and squeezes Res’s hand. They’re both silent.

‘I just need a bit more space that’s all. Just a bit, not too much just a bit. I need to be my own person. I think you need to be too’. She can see he is trying to hear, but he seems close to tears as he looks at her.

‘I just want to do what is right for you, give you what you need, be there for you. I love you Stim I really do’. His voice is quiet, hesitant. He squeezes up tight to her, only to find her moving away again slightly, creating more space again between them. It feels wrong.  All of it is wrong and he wants to move to her. Yet no matter how he hates it, he stays where he is, because that’s what she wants, but he feels very uncomfortable.

‘Look’ Stim tries again. ‘We can continue on how how we are, but it will be the same and then, more of the same’. Res looks confused. ‘You know…. I do something, you respond in the way you always do. We know the routine and everyone around us does too. It feels like the same old, same old’.

‘But isn’t that good, you know predicable, comfortable….’? Res looks at her, his voice rising slightly as he replies. There is a fine line of sweat across his top lip and red patches are beginning to appear on his neck above his shirt collar. ‘Isn’t that how couples work, you know like in tandem’? He senses her irritation and stops, watching as she pushes herself up off the bed and moves away.

‘Okay, okay, what do you want’? He drops his head into his hands, so the words are muffled and indistinct. Inside he’s expecting disaster –  a break up, news of another man, divorce looming.

‘Just to try some things differently. So, there is space for something else to happen, rather than just the usual, what we always do. Something different’ Stim responds. Then she smiles. ’How about we practice tonight? You know, I do something and you respond differently, check yourself before doing what you might always do’. She winks at him, which is most disconcerting, because she has never in all their time together winked at him. It is  such a simple thing and he wants to react straightaway, or to say something to tell her that it’s just plain weird. He can’t stop the automatic reaction, his eyelid beginning to twitch. Instead though, he takes a deep breath and counts to ten. Which seems to take an age, but during that time he thinks. There is just the tick of the bedside clock filling the silence. He really wants to wink back, get them both in sync again, but he doesn’t. Instead, as ten clicks through his head, he pushes out his tongue and rolls his eyes. She bursts into laughter.

‘Okay let’s do this Ms Stimulus. Let’s go courting again, do some things differently at the party. See what happens to us and maybe to others tonight too’. He slips on his jacket and takes her respectfully by the hand. She is smiling now.

‘Thank you Mr Response, that would be lovely, very lovely. And we can count in the gap together. Ready to give it another go’? Her eyes sparkle at him. They both hold their breath, heads rocking to and fro as they go through the count. Then before Stimulus can stop him, Response is heading out of the door, taking the stairs two at a time, whooping and cheering.

Grahame Pitts – December 2020


This story comes out of a number of leadership conversations about habitual reactions. Sometimes simple everyday situations, sometimes tougher emotional loaded moments. Unless we check ourselves we can often respond in a certain way and in a way which we know is pretty predictable. This can be beneficial, we all know what to expect  from each other, but this habit can also limit us. So, a particular stimulus – perhaps a situation, a person, an emotion – can immediately invoke a particular response. Stimulus and response are powerful and almost symbiotically linked. Yet in all this, we may be missing larger, more interesting, opportunities.

How do we change our responses? By being aware of what is going on right in the moment. Then by creating a gap between the stimulus and the response. Actively working at stopping a habitual response – watching out for instance for those ‘yes buts’, ‘no that won’t work’ type of comments – by creating more space before responding. Perhaps, as in the story, using a count of  ten, taking a long deep breath. Maybe, just checking in with your heart and mind or sensing the reaction occurring in your body. Most importantly, doing something which stops you immediately reacting.

Enjoy pausing!

Some possible reflection questions:

  1. Where do you get into unhelpful stimulus response situations? At home, at work? Do you know what triggers them? Are these specific situations, or is there a reoccurring theme?
  2. Sometimes, can you give yourself a gap before responding? What method would work for you, giving you more time to respond with a different choice?
  3. Where can you experiment right now? What one place can you try this out in the next few days?
  4. And turning the model on its head – what new stimulus do you need in the coming months to create opportunities for new and different reactions?

Paths, Patterns & Choices

There is just enough space on the bench for one more. Well almost enough if they all shuffle along a little. Christine hauls her rucksack off, feeling lighter already as she dumps her bag on the floor. She stretches, her back cracks with relief as she rolls her shoulders, life coming back into the muscles.

‘Hi, mind if I take a seat’. Three faces look up at her, a mixture of welcome, curiosity and one with what seems like down right hostility. ‘I won’t stay long but could you shove up a bit, I think the seat is meant to take four’. Bottoms shuffle on the wooden bench and she squeezes in at the end. 

‘Phew I needed this’ and as the others settle and readjust, she pulls out her water bottle and takes a deep slurp before looking around. It’s been a long walk to this point, interesting though, lots to see, a real adventure and her fitness levels have improved over time. 

‘Well this seems a good spot to put this seat’ she says quietly looking around. The four of them are sat on a junction, a multi junction. The path she came up, the one they all came up she assumes is almost behind the bench, you can just see it out of the corner of your eye. Ahead the track splits and there are a number of choices. Immediately, directly ahead, is a wide reassuring asphalt path which arcs straight and disappears into the distance. To their right and left are a number of paths which split away in different directions. Some have clearly been walked by others, some are barely noticeable, maybe a single set of steps have gone that way.

‘Any idea which way to go from here?’ she asks enthusiastically looking around, her eyes sweeping over her three new companions. Right next to her is a man alternating between opening and shutting a book and lifting a pair of large black binoculars to his face. He takes one more sweep of the vista ahead, his head swivelling through one hundred and eighty degrees.

‘What would you do?’ he says turning towards her. ‘Oh sorry forgot my manners, I’m Bill’. He shuffles book and binoculars around so he can shake her hand. ‘It’s just that it’s says here ‘Look for the long term, build for future success, not just the immediate’. He seems to be reading from a particular page. ‘Here, take a look’. He passes her the glasses which she has to adjust to get into focus, then everything springs up large and bright in front of her. ‘Can you see all the good things just down the main path there and some more just a bit further on, then beyond that it all begins to peter out’? Christine is not sure what she is looking at, maybe they are trees, she’s not sure. The closest seem to have a lot of fruit on if that’s what they are. Further on they have less fruit and in the mid distance the trees look bent, broken and the soil underneath arid. 

‘Now look a bit to your left’ and he guides her hand, nudging the glasses across. For a short while it is all distorted then coming into focus is a very large patch of land with saplings growing, spreading right and left across the span of her vision. The soil looks fertile ‘The problem is I can’t see a path to get there, possibly a sheep or cattle track, but not much more’. He’s right, the tarmac path clearly  leads straight through the closest trees and on until it disappears into the arid landscape she first looked at. That route is clear. Swinging the binoculars back, he’s right, no path seems to go to where the rich soil seems to glow red in the distance.

“I think I have a decision to make, go for the short term, straight in front of me, or look for a way to a better long term future’. He pulls out a pristine white handkerchief from his pocket and polishes the lenses, flicks through the book one last time, then snaps it shut. With a purposeful nod to them all he starts off down the tarmac road, stepping  out in a regular stride. Then after a hundred metres and with a wave back at Christine, he plunges off the path heading towards the fertile field.

‘Good  for him, I admire that determination’. A woman pushes herself along the bench filling the space left by Bill. ‘I hate decisions though don’t you. She looks directly at Christine unafraid of eye contact. ‘It means having to make a choice, it’s so hard isn’t it’? She’s waving a piece of paper in front of her. ‘A friend sent me this poem, said it might help me’. Her face crinkles. ‘Help me! Well it did get me started I suppose, it made me move, but now I’m in a right muddle. It says here’ she pauses to find the right sentence ‘Choose the most interesting path, the least travelled path. Which one though I say to myself, Jane which one, they didn’t say there would be loads of choices’. She sighs deeply. In frustration, she screws the sheet into a ball crushing her hands together, then quickly unwraps the crinkled sheet to study the words once again.

‘I love this poem, I love all this inspirational type stuff’. Her face opens up and she beams at Christine. ‘Here you keep this love’ and the worn creased paper changes hands between them and Jane stands up. She ponders all the paths arrayed out in front of her, looking around, seeming to do some sort of metal equation. Then she starts off down a well marked grass path before coming back, pointing at another, shrugging her shoulders and setting off down a less well marked but interesting track which bends  away through the fields and towards the woods ahead.  Occasionally she stops, looks back, stares at the other paths leading in other directions and then moves on until she disappears from view.

The last person on the bench ignores Christine completely. He’s crunched up in a dark raincoat, even though the day is quite warm, he’s staring at his shoes which are highly polished.  Christine considers moving along the bench but senses he needs space. 

‘Nice day hey’. Christine leans back looking at the wide spread of countryside ahead of them. Bill, a tiny spec in the distance, seems to be walking back and forth through the saplings. Occasionally the glass in his binoculars flashes in the sunlight. Jane has disappeared into the trees. High in the blue sky above, a Red Kite circles seeking a thermal in the warm air. 

‘Choices, choices, there is no choice whatsoever, they’re both talking nonsense’ the voice mumbles out of the folds of the coat. ‘Idiots the pair of them, believing you can take a different path’. He turns and glares at her, his eyes are red rimmed with dark shadows below. ‘See that’. A slender hand is pulled out of a pocket and points at the path behind and one in front of where he is sitting. It seems to run directly under the bench. ‘You’ve got your life patterns, you can move a bit but mostly you go along your tram lines following the stuff your parents or grandparents gave you. I know I’ve trained in this stuff. That woman should have tried a different poem, something more realistic, maybe that one by Philip Larkin ‘They fuc……’. He is cut short as Christine interrupts him.

‘Yes, I know that poem, a bit depressing actually, I prefer optimism and hope myself’. He looks at her, ponders on the comment, before a broad smile breaks out across his tired face. 

‘Maybe you’re right’. He takes a moment to reflect. ‘Perhaps a bit of both ideas makes more sense. So, accepting there are patterns, but choice and experience makes a difference. Our patterns are just patterns wherever they come from. Some are good, some are bad, but they help us manage our complex lives. We need them. I was just thinking about my old dad, he had good intentions I think. He worked hard, was never at home, that was probably a family pattern, but he made some good choices too.  I think I’m a bit better, I work hard too, but still probably too much, if my marriage is anything to go by’.

He pauses and looks up at the Red Kite, which is hovering closer, focused on something below ignoring them completely.  ‘And we’re adults aren’t we, we have to make choices and remake them regularly, that’s how our patterns shift in the long term. I have to choose the next step, the next path to go down’. He takes a deep breath. ‘I’m being a a bit stupid really, I know this stuff, I’ve been through it a few times. Maybe I’m just a bit tired right now and can’t see anything clearly. So, you go right ahead and make your choice, I think I’ll just sit here a while and enjoy the sunshine’.

Christine leans back on the bench and watches the bird swoop down, flash across the ground, then up and away. 

’You know I might sit here a while too if that’s okay? I can see two or three options ahead but I’m not sure yet. Would you like some lunch’? She unbuckles the top of her rucksack and begins searching inside. ‘Would you be willing to share some of your choices, the paths you’ve taken while you’ve been working hard’? She knows he will because he’s tapping the end of his nose as he thinks, a smile appearing on his face.

Grahame Pitts

December 2019

Postscript – One book, Two Poems 

The ideas in the first part of the story comes from a book I have just read (thanks Bryan for the recommendation) – The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek ( He talks about the need for organisations to move from our current model of short term results, to a broader longer term perspective, where we create sustainability for future  generations, rather than just our own. Although the book applies this to business it has the same resonance at a personal level.

The second part of the story pulls on the themes from two well known poems by:

Robert Frost – The Road Not Taken – (

Peter Larkin – This Be The Verse – (

Both poems are often quoted in personal and leadership development workshops and are used to stimulate, challenge and inspire.

Some possible reflection questions:

  1. Are you making good choices? How much are you driven by your patterns? Which of these patterns support you, which ones are potentially sabotaging you?
  2. Do you need to sit a while as you consider your next choice? Who would you like to chat to about your next step (someone with a different perspective, or at least different patterns). Or do you simply need your own quiet reflection time?
  3. Are you able to consider both your immediate short term choice and how this fits into the much longer term perspective? If you are in an organisation, are you able to see the long term picture (probably beyond your time there) and therefore what foundations you need to put in place now? 

Ghost Busters

The persistent chiming of the doorbell was driving Brian mad. The first day of his Christmas break and it was only eight thirty in the morning. He pulled the duvet up over his head and tried to ignore the Ghostbusters theme tune reverberating through the house.

‘Stupid, stupid choice’ he muttered to himself as the bell rattled out the tune yet again, filling the quiet rooms of the house. He didn’t remember ordering a package, though he couldn’t be sure. He sighed, slid out of bed slipped his Superman slippers on and yawning headed downstairs. The cat yowled at him on the stairs, expecting breakfast and rubbed against his legs almost causing Brian to trip over the last step. He picked up the big tom and rubbed his face in the cat fur, hearing the contented purring and feeling the warmth of his body. 

The front door stuck refusing to open. He’d fix it one day, next summer, when the weather was better, although he’d been saying that for years now. Yanking at the handle, the door creaked and complained, finally swinging open. The cat squealed, scrabbling and complaining as Brian backed up into the hall. 

‘Good morning, Mr Peters I believe. Brian Peters is that you?’. The person standing on the doorstep was dressed in a smart blue suit and carried an official looking clip board. ‘Seasons greetings to you sir. Could you spare me five minutes just to answer…. you know …. a few questions’? Brian tried to close the door, but wasn’t quick enough and with one bound the man was in the hall next to him.

‘Jolly chilly out there, snow coming I wouldn’t be surprised. Edward’s my name but do call me Ted. Right shall we make a start? Great slippers by the way’ and he winked at Brian. 

‘Now Mr Peters you might be expecting a short survey, you know the sort that won’t take a minute. Well that’s what they say on the phone hey’. He winked again. Brian groaned, muttered something about tea and headed towards the kitchen. ‘No siree not our company, let’s cut straight to chase here’. He produced a business card from his top pocket.

‘Talent Spotters Inc that’s us, no talent too small. If you’ve got some, we’ll find it. Yes, we’re your people for talent’. He placed the card theatrically on the kitchen table next to teapot and peeling open his suit jacket, produced from his inside pocket a flash light. ‘Right let’s take a look shall we?’ and before Brian could stop him, or the cat had a chance to complain about the lack of breakfast, he was off –  opening and shutting cupboards, looking under the sideboard coming out covered in cobwebs. He set about each room, diligently searching, then making notes on a sheet of paper.  

‘Morning Mr Peters, apologies for coming right in, but the front door was ajar, looks like it sticks a bit, I couldn’t help noticing’. The new visitor placed her business card on the table too and stood back smiling. Brian, in an effort to stay calm, poured hot water onto the tea bags in the pot and took an extra cup from the shelf. Then he casually read the raised gold embossed writing ….  ‘Awareness and New Perspectives Ltd’.

‘Yes we bring light into your home. Light to places you never thought you had. Raise your awareness to a whole new level. Mind if I make a start Brian?’ And without pausing, she opened her leather bag pulled out an extending tape and began checking the measurements of the kitchen. Then using a smart 2B pencil, drew a scale diagram on her note pad. 

‘A new french window here would be just perfect, bring plenty of light in and west facing too. Imagine what you’ll see as you eat your cornflakes every day. A great source of insight I’d say’. She beamed at the cat, accepted the cup Brian passed over, drinking quickly. Not at all concerned that is was fresh from the pot and steaming hot.

‘Morning, I shut the door, had to give it a hard shove, but its closed now. You need to get that fixed. It’s not doing the joints or the frame any good. Best set a date to get that organised I recommend’. The new arrival, a smartly dressed man, walked confidently in and sat down. Brian knew the routine, put out his hand and took the business card.

‘Geoff is my name and I think I just saw Sandra heading into the living room there’. There was a pause as he took a breath. ‘ Discipline and Structure LLP. Yes, Brian you need us’. He lent forward, speaking quietly. The cat eyed him curiously, as he cleaned his paws carefully. I see my two friends have got here before me, which is fine. They’re early starters after all and often ahead of me with customers. Quite right too, but without D&S you’re sunk, yes sunk without trace’. He smiled benignly, before slipping on an apron and tying it behind his back. ‘Mind if I make few adjustments sir?’ He stood up and moved around the room, lining up pots, boxes, emptying one cupboard completely and reassembling the contents logically by sell by date. He occasionally rubbed his hands together, nodding to himself as he went about his business. Under the sink he found a cleaning spray and hummed to himself as he polished the kitchen window.  

Later Brian wouldn’t remember why he provided breakfast for them all. Maybe he thought he was in a dream and would wake up soon, maybe he was just friendly and liked company. Anyway, they all enjoyed the scrambled eggs with salmon (it was Christmas after all), and munched through a whole loaf of wholemeal toast together. He waited for them to speak, lining up the salt and pepper pot and getting a warm smile from D&S Ltd in return. 

‘Right if I might summarise Peter: plenty of talent, mostly hidden and not fully utilised. Some awareness, bags of opportunity for more. But to be blunt, poor self discipline and structure. Oh yes and by the way, those Superman slippers do you no favours either’. Geoff slid over a summary report, containing all the different perspectives. Then the three of them, sitting opposite him across the table, chipped in with additional examples and suggestions of changes he might make. 

‘And the price for all this work?’ Brian looked at them, across the neatly stacked plates waiting to go in the dishwasher. ‘A lot I suspect and you can deliver it all, the combined companies of Talent, Awareness and Discipline’? A hint of sarcasm filled the words.

‘Actually no, at Christmas we offer this service free’ Sandra replied. ‘You know we like to help the community a little, do our bit. It’s a time of reflection and contemplation, looking back on the year, looking ahead a little? A time for a personal mini audit perhaps’? Brian nodded, taken aback by the seriousness of the comment. 

‘But there is a price actually’ Ted’s voice seemed to float over across the kitchen. ‘Rather its more of a commitment’. The sun at that moment shone in through the window bringing a sharpness and clarity. The cat watched a piece of fluff float up into the air. ‘A commitment to use this information wisely and well, not waste your opportunities. Will you do that Brian?’ 

And with that, the three stood up left the room and the front door opened easily and neatly clicked shut. As it always would in the future.

Grahame Pitts – December 2018

Perhaps take a moment or two for reflection……. 
1. What are my talents? Am I using them well for myself and for helping others? Are there any talents hidden in cupboards, waiting to be used more?
2. What do I know about myself, my strengths, my weaknesses? How open am I to new information, feedback, new experiences? Do I encourage others to understand themselves more and find ways to learn and grow?
3. What level of self discipline and structure do i have? Does this need to change in any way – perhaps bringing more in, or perhaps having less control sometimes?

James Goes Running

James pulled out the dusty mud crusted trainers from the bag he’d thrown them in all that time ago. Down here in the cellar all was quiet, just the occasionally hiss of the boiler as it began heating the house for the day ahead. He sat on the steps and pulled each one on, tightening the laces to just the right tension ready for the road ahead. With a deep breath and pulling back his shoulders, he took the steps two at time, the running shoes creaking and leaving dried earth behind on the steps. Out of the house he walked to the gate, turned into the road and set off at a gentle pace, shaking the sleepiness from his joints and muscles. He remembered what a great time of day it was before everyone woke up, the calmness and tranquility, no noise yet from the houses as he padded gently past. Before long James was in a rhythm, his body remembering and adjusting to the style and pace he ran at. His breathing regulated and steadied. Now his mind dropped into neutral and he noticed the world around him, yet he had as much attention inwards mulling and considering the day ahead and beyond that his future. The birds chattered, another runner passed with cheery hello and smart BMW roared by as the ‘bright young thing’, as they called him, from next door, shot past on his way to catch the 6.30 commuter train to London. He ran on taking the slight hill ahead with ease and confidence, letting his legs stretch out and enjoy themselves.

“Morning James, good to be out and about hey. Lovely time of day for a jog I say” and James looking to his left found himself running next to a rather rotund man, with billowing shorts to his knees, bright yellow trainers and a blue basketball hat crammed down over a bush of bright ginger curly hair.  He ran with an unerring confidence  and strength considering his size and shape. He thrust out his hand.

“CC’s my name, Captain Confidence actually but most people abbreviate it. We all need to believe in ourselves hey James and I’m your man to help there”. He nudged James in the ribs, his elbow seeming to send shock waves into his chest and directly up to his brain, where a fizz and a pop suddenly made the world a bit brighter and sharper, the birds now chirruping loudly in his ears. CC settled into a steady rhythm next to him and whistled as they turned left together into the park and set off round the perimeter track.

“Morning CC, morning James, good to see you both”. James startled, moved his eyes away from CC to his left and saw a tall gangly runner next to him wearing a trilby hat and a long overcoat, neither of which impeded his movement. His height meant he seemed to walk rather than run and he strode along next to them.

“Reggie Resources here, good to make your acquaintance, now what do you need?” and he pulled open his coat to reveal pockets stuffed with everything you could imagine.

“Maybe a map, or a compass, perhaps some Kendal Mint Cake, or better still, a brand new pair of running shoes” and with a broad flourish dived into a pocket and revealed the latest Nike trainers.

“Later, later old chap” retorted CC. “Plenty of time for all that, let’s just get into a good steady rhythm first”. And the three of them set off along the path together.

“You’ll definitely need contacts, I have a whole book full here” whispered Reggie to James, showing him surreptitiously a small leather bound notepad, before sliding it back into his pocket. James smiled. He thought his first run would be hard but it wasn’t, not physically, not mentally and actually, running between these two he felt carried along and somehow supported by them both. They swept round the bottom corner of the park and headed toward the bandstand where to everyones surprise,  the local town band sat tuning up, just as though it was a summer Sunday afternoon. The bandmaster seeing them, lifted his baton and the music flowed towards them, almost lifting them off their feet with its depth and resonance. The notes fell and rose with their running and the instruments shared in their journey, from the big base drum with its steady regular deep beat, to the tiny piccolo picking out softer detail. James’s heart lifted and a broad smile came to his face and he felt his toes lift his feet and his stride grow, until he was almost off the floor and flying. CC, Reggie and James glided on past the town band and floated on and around the side of the park.

With a miss timed e flat on the tuba and a clash of the cymbals, the music came to a sudden halt as the band master leapt from the stand and rushed after the three runners, waving his baton madly.
“Wait, wait….. wait for us” and he beckoned behind for the band to follow him “Don’t you want inspiring music to help you along?”

“Sounds great to me” said Reggie ever resourceful and thinking of other places this band might come in useful. CC didn’t reply, he was still bobbing about and singing to the last tune, skipping lightly over the grass, jumping up on the park benches, floating, then landing perfectly back on the ground. James liked the band, the sound inspired him with his running and without a thought of the consequences, invited the band to come on the adventure with them. So off they went, James, Reggie and CC taking longer and longer steps and finding, with the music playing, they could hurdle the park benches easily. The band, not quite as fit or able tried to keep up, found they lacked the puff to run and play at the same time, starting being crafty and as the three went round the perimeter of the park, they cut across the grass saving time and energy and allowing the trumpet players to have a quick smoke occasionally too, while they waited for the three runners to arrive.

James came back to the park gate after several circuits and turned out into the street, the music faded and looking back he saw the band waving him off. There leaning against the metal railings, stood CC and Reggie.

“We’re around any time, for sure when you are running, but other times too. Just let us know and we’ll get out trainers on ready” and both gently saluted him as he sped away down the street.

At his house, James stopped and did some gentle stretches to finish his run. He felt calm and relaxed and ready to face the day. Not bad for a first time out in ages he thought and clicking through his mind were all sorts of ideas for developing his career. He marched up the garden path, humming a catchy tune he’d heard earlier and headed in for a shower …. work called.

Grahame Pitts

December 2016


Post Script
So, imagine you are  needing to shift something in your business, or yes, you are lookng to make a career move. A couple of questions:-

– Do you know the resources you have available that are within you? Or, are they other external resources you sense you need? Are there other people who you need to make contact with and ask for their help and guidance?

– How confident are you, what gives you more confidence? Is your confidence grounded in reality, will others see how practical, experienced and capable you are? Can you describe your skills and talents well?

– Are you fit enough for the journey ahead, physically, mentally, emotionally? How do you maintain high performance, to move ahead daily to achieve your plans?

– What inspires you, keep you going when work may be tough? Listening to music, looking at wonderful art, being outdoors, reading great books?  Where do you go, what do you need  to lift you and give you creative direction?

PS James got the job he wanted, he persevered and got there!

The Naked CEO

The alarm shrilled and shook on the bedside cabinet announcing six thirty to John, who groaned and bringing his hand out from under the warm duvet, shut off the noise. He rolled forward to semi upright and yawned, pushing his hands through his hair. His mind gradually stuttered into life, there was something about today, what was it, he couldn’t quite remember. The cat jumped onto his lap and rubbed herself against the bristle of his weekend beard  and then looked at him expectantly. He stretched, put the thoughts to one side and within thirty minutes was showered, dressed, had his sandwiches made and was out of the door and into his car.

“Hi Sandra”, he pushed open the passenger door and she slid in, her perfume wafting across to him. She pushed her bag onto the floor, fastened the seat belt and turned towards him smiling. They had a sort of thing going, a friendly occasional kiss type of relationship. It never seemed to progress but it didn’t stop either and he liked sharing the journey into work and back. Sandra was easy going, relaxed and fun to be around.

“So here it is, today’s the day, bet your looking forward to it” she said, twisting in her seat to get a good look at him. “And you’ve made a special effort, look at you all shaved, smart tie and is that a new suit?” She picked a piece of fluff off his sleeve and then pinched his cheek gently. “You’ll be great, just you see”. John had the strangest feeling of being examined in minute detail, his collar suddenly felt tight and his earlobes started to tingle, which was very disconcerting. He calmed himself down, checked this speed, he could do without another speeding ticket and  drew attention away from himself by joking about the bright blue tights Sandra was wearing. They had a way of being rude to each other while exchanging compliments and Sandra looked great today, well she did every day and her legs especially.
“Morning John, have yourself a good day won’t you” said the overnight security man in reception. Now he was giving him strange looks too, a confident smile but with a lot of respect. Strange, strange and that same feeling of being examined, checked. No matter, he had a lot to do today, a key account to visit and hopefully move the big sale for the quarter one step further on. He bounded the stairs, got to his desk and began checking his emails.

“Hold on there boy, you’re in the wrong place”. His boss was leaning over him, a big grin on his face and now swiftly, was taking over his mouse and closing down his computer. Then he spun him around in his chair and pointed it down the length of the open plan office towards the executive suite.

Now John remembered and he felt slightly sick. It had meant to be a joke, his email chain of witty comments on how easy it must be to be the CEO, anyone could do that job, what does she do all day, etc, etc. He had sent it just to his level, his mates really, but as usual it had been passed on and guess what, the executive team thought it was great idea and perhaps yes actually, someone should have the experience of being the CEO for just one day. So, all their names had gone into the hat and by some quirk his had been drawn out. How could that happen with over a thousand staff he wondered, but it did. He remembered Sandra laughing hysterically on the way home and pretending to be him as the MD handling a meeting. Then his own boss the next day, saying he couldn’t wait to report to him. Two weeks ago it seemed funny, now on a Monday at 8.30 it didn’t.

He walked down the length of the office, everyone looked at him, some made comments, most just stared. Now he felt not just examined but somehow stripped bare, everyone had their eyes on him. And it was as though he could hear they thoughts too, some were reasonable and some just plain rude. Already he could feel the weight of expectations on his shoulders and he didn’t much like it.   Arriving at Rachel’s office he knocked and waited. She was a busy MD, action was her motto, yet she always had time for everyone, although expected good time keeping and good manners. Late, that wouldn’t go down well he thought to himself. He coughed and pushed open the door and stepped into the large room. The clear glass desk framed by the huge circular port hole window looking out onto the busy street was empty, the leather chair still pushed in tight against it.

“Hi John, coffee?”. Rachel was sat on the sofa with the papers spread around her. She looked so relaxed. Normally on a Monday morning she was calling for last weeks sales, comparing against budget, against last year and likely to be just a bit antsy but in good way. She was dressed in jeans too, which was even more strange in contrast to John’s sharp suit.

“Okay the office is yours, I’ll be right here but I’m letting you lead, first meeting at 9.00. Just ask me anything, pull me in at any time, but I’ll try to butt out…. well except with customers of course. Diary’s on the desk. Enjoy ”.

By ten o’clock he was exhausted and to be truthful he couldn’t do much, he kept asking Rachel questions and she stepped in gently leading where necessary. In just that one hour he had growing admiration for her, for the executive team, for their skills, their knowledge, the ability to juggle endless demands, changing priorities. He realised what a tough job being the CEO was. Perhaps he wouldn’t be such a smart arse again.

Over their second coffee, they did a mini review and laughed about what was happening. Rachel seemed to be enjoying the day and for all her bark (and at times he’d been on the receiving end of that) she treated John with care and compassion.

“Okay, ready for the staff briefing” she asked. John looked at her, surely he wasn’t meant to run that. The Monday ‘heads up’ to everyone was a quick fifteen minutes in the atrium behind reception. Three power point slides, maybe a short film clip, sometimes just Q & A. Rachel made it look easy every week, relaxed, calm, very direct and motivating, even if the sales were slipping. He took her hand written briefing notes and noticed his hand shock a little. She just smiled and sipped her coffee.
The noise in the atrium was deafening, not from everyone talking, actually a few whispered to each other, but mostly they just stared. It was the the bombarding thoughts John was picking up. Each person he looks at shoots a different set of thoughts towards him. He feels like he is being blasted by both an extreme heat wave and a gale force wind simultaneously. It almost knocks him backwards and he has to lock his knees to stand upright. He feels his suit being ripped from his body, then his shirt and suddenly he is naked. He hands move involuntarily to his crotch and he tries to cover himself. But the comments keep coming, scorching his skin or making painful pinging nips on the flesh. Some stick too and weigh him down, stopping him speaking and some comments feel as though they have got into his body and are killing it slowly.

“John, John, it’s okay” he can hear a dim voice in the distance, just beyond the roaring, crashing words. “I’m right here” and he turns to see Rachel smiling at him. “Its normal, don’t let it get to you, breathe. Everyone is constantly looking at you as the boss, making judgements, projecting fears and worries on to you, it is normal. Relax, we’ll do this together”.  And they do. Rachel starts and John watches as the thoughts, questions, hopes and doubts of people buzz and fizz around her and which she occasionally swats away. He leads on the sales results and key customer contact this week and the questions flying around almost bury him, although only one or two are asked directly, externally, into the room.

Sandra drives on the way home, he’s exhausted, part elated ‘he’s done it’ and still over whelmed by the sheer voracity of the demands and expectations. Sandra is chatting about cooking him dinner and occasionally touching his hand. He looks at his wrist, sees his shirt and suit still there and realises just what has been happening. Words and thoughts, particularly those unexpressed, can have a powerful impact. After eating he’ll write Rachel a thank you note and try to describe his experience and his admiration for the job she does and all executives do.

Grahame Pitts – March 2016

This story comes from a conversation with David about ‘always being watched, always on display’’ as a CEO and guidance from his own boss, around this in his first MD role. We all project onto others our concerns, hopes, thoughts; even more so to those we perceive as above us, our leaders. Perhaps we are reminded of our parents, or our family background in some way.

We all need to be aware of these unsaid, and sometimes unknown dynamics and all work to address them, regardless of where they are in the organisation and the hierarchy. Then our energy can be fully focused on the opportunities and the issues the business is facing today.

A Recipe and some Magic at Christmas

The oven thermostat clicked and registered two hundred degrees centigrade, the heat warmed John’s bottom as he rested his elbows on the work counter and studied the recipe. Flour, sugar, butter, teaspoon of vanilla essence, a touch of milk. Everything seemed to make sense, even to someone who’d never made a cake before. John adjusted his apron, a rather snazzy blue polka dot with a red trim and tightened the knot.

“Right let’s go” he mused to himself.  “Heat the butter mix in the rest, don’t forget the egg. Yes, this is ‘a piece of cake’. Oh, so that’s where that phrase comes from”. His mind buzzed happily along.
“How are you doing honey” called Mary from the living room, where she was writing Christmas cards. She smiled to herself, what was going on, John had never baked a cake before and it was for the family party coming up too. Redundancy had seemed like a disaster at the time, but now she was really enjoying having him around. The same person who she’d married, the man who smiled, laughed, whistled as he put the dustbins out and jived around the lounge with her to their favourite songs.
“Great, great, but there’s something here I don’t understand. Can you come and help me”. John peered at the recipe, looked back to mixing bowl, then back to the book. His forehead furrowed, he squinted, he scratched his head and sucking a deep breath in, exhaled loudly.
“What, really, no, no way” John muttered to himself. He turned the page and studied the next recipe. Just the same. “What the heck, why, how, who”. He flicked quickly through the hundreds of recipes, there it was on every page.
“What does it mean Mary ‘add a bit of magic and mystery’, where in the cupboard is magic? According to this I need 20 millilitres of it for my cake”. Mary came through to the kitchen smiling to herself, she pulled open the cupboards, she searched through the drawers, picking up and putting down packets and bottles.
 “Nothing here honey, maybe we’d better go to the store and buy some more, or maybe we can get some online”. She looked at him, her head to one side, her eyes sparkling. John gazed back.
“Is it like a liquid then, do you get it in a bottle?”
“Almost honey, it’s a thing my grandmother used a lot, it kinda gets passed down the family line I think. Maybe it’s a female thing but I don’t think so, not if you’re reading it in the recipe there”’. She smiled and looked at him with love, compassion and care. “Any good recipe always has some secret ingredients, something that makes it unique, the touch of the person who is making the cake, perhaps a little more of one thing than another, maybe an extra egg, the oven one degree hotter. Cooking has science, you can follow the instructions, but then something else happens, the mysterious piece. Sometimes a cake rises, or tastes great, other times it doesn’t and mostly we don’t know why. So what’s your magic?”   
“What my magic, my own magic” John looked confused and concerned. “I’ve never even baked a cake before, can’t I just follow the instructions, won’t that work?”
“Yes sure, but as my grandmother said, just add a bit of yourself in some way. Maybe in how you stir the mix, fold in the flour, sprinkling some granulated sugar on top. Or, just do the whole thing with a good spirit and thinking of those who’ll be eating it later – our kids, your mum – and wishing them well as you cook”.
“Right got it, okay let’s see”. He rubbed his hands together and taking the wooden spoon, tapped the side of the bowl three times and sang his favourite Elvis Presley song (using the spoon as a microphone) as he poured the mix into the tin. He slid the cake into the oven, licked the spoon clean, threw it in the sink, pulled Mary to him and danced her round the kitchen to a fine rendition of Love me Tender.
The family party was a great success, that first cake a great hit with everyone. John wanted to bake more afterwards and did. He followed recipes, but always remembered the mysterious bit, the magic. Didn’t assume it would just happen, wasn’t sure what particular thing made the difference, but always respected, included, and welcomed mystery into his cooking and into his life.
Two weeks later, after a very interesting interview which John had prepared well for and then following his intuition, had a good free flowing discussion in the meeting –  he was offered a great job and just a fifteen minute commute from home. Mary and John jived that evening to every Elvis hit they knew.
Grahame Pitts
December 2015
Thank you Michael for this great analogy of cake making in relation to getting a job. In the recruitment process hard work, clarity of thought, good presentation, etc are all vital. Then sometimes, something else happens – a relationship clicks, your experience fits exactly the job requirement, your suggestions spark a new thought for the recruiters. Or even, their business has a change of direction just the next day and calls you up later with an offer (this one happened to me).  
And of course a recipe and mystery applies elsewhere too. A well, thought through plan being delivered in the detail, suddenly accelerates when an opportunity comes along which seems unconnected but complements and delivers the strategy perfectly. 

So, be professional, disciplined and organised and then maybe, welcome mystery and magic and let both work for you. These partners want to share the action and after all it is Christmas, so why not!

Groundless Ground

The snow settled on the peak of his all purpose balaclava, as Jack studied his compass in the last light of the day. The worst of the storm was over but he knew more was coming, the air too quiet and too heavy. He shivered and felt his bones and muscles move and complain. The needle wavered, refused to settle. Jack snapped the case shut and admitted to himself the reality – he’d told his team the direction was clear, the compass sure. This was good leadership rhetoric, but he suspected it would hold no more credence, now the food was running low and winter settling in.They’d left with so much hope and expectation. A great adventure had been planned, seeking gold and riches to be found beyond the hills, in a land of plenty, with green fields and bountiful crops. Oh, the talk in the houses and pubs, the hope and desire to find something that didn’t have. Their own lands were barren, the water fetid, dug from wells where the water table was wasting away. So the king had supported Jack taking the very best the kingdom could provide, the elite of all the men and women. Not just the physical best, the brightest brains, the most creative and some of the strangest. People laughed about the strangest and it took all Jack’s communication skills to convince the kings advisors to take those three with him. One, ‘Isof the Demolition’ had just been released from jail for creating a magnificent mega firework, the best ever to explode over the city, which sadly had landed on the chancellor’s roof, burning a large hole in his smartly combed thatched roof.

Those skills though had been very handy when a marauding hill tribe rode into camp one night, screaming, swords waving, slashing tents. By the time Jack had grabbed his gun, pulled back the tent flap, the screams had turned to whimpers as a huge burst of light, sparks, smoke and noise erupted from the camp fire. Isof, sharp, smart, undisciplined, always late for daily inspections but ready with unusual solutions anytime, had thrown a ‘number 4 star burst’ firework (home created, in his girlfriend’s garden shed) onto the smoldering embers. The resulting explosion, removed the helmet of the leading attacker, singed his eyebrows and sent him and his horse hurtling into the darkness. Dust flew around the remaining riders, causing  a sooty smog where no one was sure who was who. One of Jack’s soldiers, making the most of this, jabbed his sword into his best mate who’d just that evening taken a weeks wages off him in a dice game. The next morning they would discover a metre deep hole where the fire had been, which intrigued Isof and scared witless the rest of the troop, who from that point on refused to march next to him, let alone shoulder the sacks he carried.

One attack, one enormous explosion seemed to be enough and no other attackers chanced their luck. Now Jack, wished for a bit of that type of distraction, anything to take his mind off what lay ahead. A good fight, rather than this endless trudging. He looked ahead through the light and steadily falling snow. The track ahead seemed to disappear, which wasn’t surprising really as the edge of the map had also disappeared two days ago. Jasmine his second in command turned the map over at that point and began drawing a new map on the other side, amongst the notes, lists and mullings Jack had been recording over their time on the road. They now had virtually a new map for the cartographers to work with when they got back, including a set of hills named ‘foodllleat’ after a mouth watering list Jack made one evening as he pondered a warm bath, a meal and a good nights sleep when he got back home.

Right now, he could hear the team trudging up the mountain behind him, their voices coming ahead and echoing slightly in the gorge they were climbing through. He could hear Jasmine his number 2, setting time a with an old army marching song. Most joined in, but in between the beats he could hear grumbling and cursing. All Jack’s training told him they needed to stop, turn back, get home before the worst of the winter set in. He knew he was responsible for his men and women, they couldn’t take much more. Yes, they’d been lucky, several cases of foot rot, one flesh wound to a buttock (!) and one burst appendix. One of the creative’s had skills in surgery – Jack couldn’t look –  but Jasmine said it was a miracle and he should be proud of his creative’s as well as his elite soldiers and his strange ones. He was of course but didn’t tell anyone, he didn’t want to appear soft. Now supplies were low, morale was low, but his instinct said they were close, but he knew from reading the history of the kingdom, many had trod similar paths and failed, losing everything.

He stamped his feet, bringing life back to his frozen toes and stepped forward. His right foot found solid ground, his left swinging through found nothing and he tumbled head over heals downwards into a deep snow drift. Snow went into his mouth, up under his jacket, up his trousers legs. His balaclava jammed down over his head, so when he stood up, he staggered around like a madman thinking he had been blinded before realising the problem and wrenching the hat upwards. Up above him, the troop arrived, the singing faltered to stop and he could see them looking left and right for him in the early evening gloom.

‘Down here you numbskulls’ he yelled, just before he slipped again, forcing him to grab frantically at a spindly rowan tree with his right hand, as a slab of ice moved under his feet. He turned and watched the snow slip away down the mountain slope, before dropping away into a blur of nothingness.

‘Stay there boss’ yelled one the team and hauling out a rope, quickly he made an anchor. Within minutes Jack was back on the track. Except now they had a problem, Jack hadn’t slipped off the side of the track. Without realising it, he’d walked off the end. There was no more track, it had simply ended, disappeared, except for a very convenient ledge, one last stop before the slide, drop and likely avalange down into the valley somewhere below them in the snow and mist. There was no way forward, all the team could see ahead were snowflakes and air. Jack tried to hold onto his disappointment, not express his crushing feeling of defeat. All around were cliffs, outcrops, rocky snowy, with no way through not even a sheep track. The gorge had taken them high and direct and now there was only one way to go and that was back.

Jack felt the eyes of everyone on him, looking, seeking his leadership reassurance. He went down on his haunches, a signal for them all to huddle up for a briefing, except this time there would be no brief, he had nothing to say. The team threw off their packs and either crouched down or made seats out of their kit, wanting a rest and a smoke.  They knew the routine from their time together over the months on the road. Everyday always a team talk, a straight honest conversation, where plans made or changed and then on they would go. Jack took a deep breath, this was the worst moment of his career, a moment he thought he would never have to face. His team stared at him, trusting him, waiting for his words of calm which had seen them through so often.

‘Sorry everyone’ he said so quietly, that they had to lean forward to hear him, his words coming out slowly, coated in the cold mist. ‘I think we have lost this one, it is all over, time for the long walk home’. He tried to keep his face calm and relaxed, but everyone saw the tear escape from his eye & roll down his cheek.

The team looked at each other, dragged on cigarettes, pulled scarves tighter and gloves higher, anything other than look at Jack. That is except Isof who was whispering madly to the other two ‘strangests’. The troop were used to this, it was normal and they were strange after all.

‘Cuse me Gov, sorry but you have got to be joking. This has to be the moment you’ve have gone on and on about. All that useless training, stupid scenario planning, budgeting, rationing, yakkty yakkty yak. This is it!’. He would have said more, but his head had now disappeared inside his sack, which made everyone nervous and move away from him. He popped out with a ‘star burst 14’ in his hands.

“You’ll be needing this, only way to see it’ he said winking at the other two strangests, who nodded their heads in agreement.

Jasmine who had been slumped forward feeling exhausted, shot upwards off of her pack. ‘Wait he’s right, this is it, this is it…. groundless ground ….. this is the moment, we’ve found it’ and with that, she did a little hop and clicked her heals together.

‘Groundless ground, groundless ground’ the team mantra began swelling up and around the team. They’d practiced it, talked about, imagined it, listened to the King rant on about it as they left. Never really believing this moment would arrive. As they sang, stamping the rhythm on the icy ground within their boots, they watched Jack’s head come up and a broad smile appear on his face.

The creatives were chattering madly, gesturing, pointing out into the mist. The soldiers looked confused, just Isof took action. He light a star burst and hurled it out into the valley. It spiraled away from them, the touch paper fizzing and turning in the semi darkness. Then it exploded, creating a broad arc of bright white light out in front of them. They all saw it, a barely defined path through thin air, almost just two lines leading away from them. The firework dropped away, the mist and dark closed in again  but everyone was left with the picture inside their minds and across their eyeballs.

‘Okay’ shouted Jack, all the exhaustion gone, ‘Lets go’. He went to the end of the physical path and looked ahead. He could see it he really could. He turned to Jasmine, she could see it too. Groundless ground, that mythical state before something new appears. He’d grown up hearing these stories, hoping it was real, knowing you had to go over this to get to the future. He’d half believed it but here it was. He took a deep breath, went inside to calm himself and rehearsed all the plans for this point – the attitude, the mind set and the strength required. He also listened, as his ancestors whispered good wishes into his ears.

‘Ready’ he cried, ‘Ready’ the return cry came, bouncing back from the echoing mountain and from his own team. ‘Another ‘star burst’ please Isof’. The firework flew upwards, outwards and exploded, Jack stepped forward. The air held him, he seemed to walk on a solid nothingness but as the others came behind the shape of the path appeared under their feet. Then  looking back further, a completely solid path was behind them which Isof, always last, was  stamping on with his feet.

Jack knew what to do, look ahead, be confident, hold the future in his head and he did. Jasmine did too, he could sense her next to him focusing and knowing how to walk on groundless ground. Their team marched powerfully forward in harmony too. He looked ahead, he could just make out something in the distance, some colour, greens, yellows and some distant music coming to his ears. Treasure awaited.

Grahame Pitts. December 2013

I would like to thank David (and further back in our history, Mikki) for the essence of this fable. Groundless ground is a key moment in organisation change and indeed in personal change. There is a reality, a moment or time, when you know you have to move forward, follow and trust the plan and yet there is a real sense of nothing solid to stand on, no tangible results yet. It is literally a stepping into the unknown. Worse still, the sceptics have been waiting for this moment and they start to shout –  to complain about misuse of resources, poor management, impact on morale, the need to pull back, stay in known markets, stick with known products, etc. 

This is a moment of leadership – the ability to not just stand on groundless ground but to walk forward, taking others with you, knowing the ground will form and become solid as you move ahead. You will have seen this in your own experience – as the results firm up, the path ahead becomes clearer. And as those results come then guess what, most of the sceptics will then follow, once the tarmac is laid on the path and the lamp-posts light the way!

The Crucible

John adjusted his heat reflective goggles, pulled on his steel capped boots and slipped on his worn blackened asbestos gloves. He smiled to himself as he walked into the workshop, past the racks of new raw material, the cooling stand, on past the roaring gas fire reaching up over six feet vertically. The noise boomed around the room. Above the flame and just touching it, sat a huge metal dish. John was reminded of his chemistry lessons at school, with the bunsen burner and the small evaporating bowl that often stood above it. The same principle here he thought, just a much bigger version. He glanced upwards to see the curving slope moving up and away from him, with the safety bar around the outer edge, just in view high up above. Arriving at the steps, he looked over to the doorway. Coming reluctantly into the room were three people, walking awkwardly in their own heat suits. They too began ascending their own set of stairs.John took each step with energy and arrived under a metal shelf supporting the safety bar. Putting one hand out, almost at a full arms length, he curled his fingers around the edge. Remembering all his old  rock climbing skills, with confident ease he swung his leg upwards in a wide arc and his foot hooked over the safety bar. By a graceful pull with his other hand, he flipped himself up and over and found himself in a  wide circular dipping dish, almost the width of a tennis court. At the centre he could see the heat of the fire, fueled by the huge burner underneath, already turning the metal a blue black colour as the crucible heated. Standing near the edge his feet felt warm and cozy, although later he knew they would be almost unbearably hot.Across the dish, he saw the three visitors struggle over the edge themselves. They managed this by pushing, pulling and doing their very best to help each other. One dropped a glove and watched it slide down the curve of the crucible and arriving at the centre, shrivel and burn in the intense heat located there. Trying not to look shocked, he pulled his face into a stoic, confident stare across to John, who in return waved a hand in a warm response. “Hi there, welcome to the crucible, first time hey?” he called across the space. Three heads nodded back, all with a similar smile, unsure, yet confident and determined.

“Take care, stay near the outer edge until you are can gauge the heat. As you can see the centre is very hot. Best avoided, but we may end up there let’s see”. The one handed glove man took a step backwards and went to grip the edge of the crucible. He touched the metal with his bare hand, felt the heat and quickly pulled it away again. “As I said, take care, this is a strange place for new comers, but settle in, get a sense of how everything works and you’ll be fine”.

With that John sat down, using the lip of the dish as a handy seat and pulled his gloves further up his arms. He watched the three of them, slowly orientate themselves. Just standing was difficult, not the heat at this stage, more the angle, dipping both into the centre and off round the curve of the outside edge. This  meant you had to bend one leg to remain upright. He watched as they practiced the gangling walk. It reminded John again of his climbing trips, where the sheep neatly traversed the steep mountain slopes nimble and sure, although four legs seem much easier than two.

“Okay ready for a conversation” called John as he paced confidently down toward the centre, where the red metal was steadily glowing against the remaining black surface. “I’m John, you?.

“I’m Karl” said the one glove man, turning slightly  “and this is Paul and Judy who work for me”.  John raised his hand in welcome to them and pointed at his goggles. “Don’t take them off unless you have too, the heat dries your eyes out real fast and does terrible things to your eye lashes. Seen some people lose the lot and even their eyebrows here!” Paul, looking decidedly alarmed, nodded rapidly, his head bouncing up and down, which made the heat at the  centre of the crucible reflect in his glasses, creating an interesting flashing rainbow effect. Judy just smiled and looked comfortable. She’s been in a crucible or two before thought John, she’ll handle this well.

“So we’re here to talk about change in your unit, your department.  It’s been slow, or non existent and that is why we’ve ended up here. So, time for a different conversation”.

“It’s been fine as far as I’m concerned” retorted Karl. “Good enough, or as good as the rest across the company. We’re all just off budget, have been for 18 months now. If only the guys at head office would get their act together we might get somewhere”.  His face shaped itself into a smug ‘I’ve been here before’ look.  Paul opened his mouth to add something, took a glare and a nudge in the ribs from Karl and bit his lip instead. Judy moved a yard to one side, as she watched John reach into his tunic pocket. In the flash of an eye, the hammer in his hand struck the crucible, sending a ripple of vibration through the whole metal dish. Karl & Paul bouncing forward and slid a metre in towards the centre, Judy who intuitively was ready, stayed braced in the same position.

John  swung the hammer again ready to strike again. “Whooh man, whooh” called Karl now looking distinctly worried, his right boot now just touching the outer ring of the red circle of heat. The sweat dripping from his forehead and nose, landing with a hiss on the metal plate.

There were no more smiles from John, he had a determined look and they all watched as he spoke into a small radio clipped to his lapel. They noticed the roar as the heater beneath their feet rose to another level and they watched the metal in front of them as it went from red to white. John crossed his arms and looked at Karl, who was already back peddling up the slope.

“Sorry Karl, but we need some change, fast change and as team leader it needs to come from you, not Paul or Judy, they follow your example as you know”. Karl looked at his boots gently smoking, the end of one lace already black and grizzled where it had made contact with the metal. Judy reached over to Paul and gently pulled him away up the slope, leaving John & Karl eyeing each other across the swirling heat.

“Okay ready” said John softly and leaning across the white heat pulled Karl towards him. They meet in the centre of the crucible, noses almost touching, an intense conversation taking place as the steam and smoke arose around them, billowing and quickly enveloping them almost completely.

Judy & Paul now back at the lip of the dish, looked down and just  saw the two heads close together, neither now had their goggles on, both only intent on the words being spoken, both ignoring the flames licking around them. Paul now shaking and perspiring gripped Judy’s hand, which she thought very strange, even peculiar, because mostly at work he either ignored her or made irritating stupid or sarcastic comments. Judy took his hand off hers, rather like removing an unwelcome insect and placed it on the crucible lip. He fastened one then two hands tightly on to it and then slid down in an ungainly heap, putting his face on top of his leather gloves. His body heaved and shook and he seemed to diminish in front of her. Judy realized just how pitiful he really seemed, with his smart suits, slick words, strutting style now gone. A part of him had been left in the crucible too.

She patted him on the head “Okay Paul, let’s get down those stairs and get out of these stupid suits. I think Karl may need a stiff drink when he gets out of here. Or maybe, a very long cool glass of water when he we see him next, assuming he does come back of course.”. She smiled at this and without looking back, hopped over the crucible edge and disappeared down the stairs. She’d got things to get done back at the office and customers to call. And change, yes there would be change.

Grahame Pitts – December 2012

This story, or fable, comes out of conversations with leaders in many different organisations. We have often talked together and prepared for a different type of discussion, where a significant shift is required, when the current dialogue is not working. Being willing to be in a crucible seems to be at the centre of this. A place of intense heat where things melt and reform, often emerging differently. In a leadership sense, this may be a change, a movement when things perhaps didn’t seem possible before. The crucible though is not always an easy place to be, as it often gets hot there, particularly in the face of the other person’s strong emotion or indeed our own emotion. We need solid personal & leadership anchor points within us if we are to take ourselves and others into this heat.

The old maxim of ‘change the business one conversation at a time’….. perhaps ought to be “change the business one crucible conversation at a time”!