Senior leaders risk becoming stuck in an echo chamber, not leaving their comfort zone while dealing with the unspoken stress and self-doubt that comes with the job. And that’s before a crisis the size of the Covd-19 pandemic hits.
While books, podcasts and videos on the subject of leadership abound, what they don’t provide is the opportunity to test and challenge yourself in conversation with peers. Being able to openly share perspectives on, insights into and doubts about your leadership practice expands and deepens your understanding of the stakeholders, systems and communities within which you operate. For leaders to whom ethical considerations and principles are important, these kinds of conversations are particularly valuable.
As Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg says “The reality is that, for many leaders, there is no true straight-and-narrow path to follow. You beat the path as you go. Therefore, ethical leadership relies a lot on your personal judgment. Because of this, the moral or ethical dilemmas you experience may feel solitary or taboo — struggles you don’t want to let your peers know about. It can sometimes feel shameful to admit that you feel torn or unsure about how to proceed.”
Recognising this need for deeper conversation John Armstrong, global philosopher-in-chief of The School of Life, sees a role in the contemporary world for salons in the tradition of the European literary and philosophical movements of the 17th and 18th centuries.
“We don’t know nearly enough about the reality of other people’s experiences. We know some of the outside picture: we’ve a vague notion of what it’s like to be a real estate agent or a ministerial advisor or a writer or the manager of a medium-sized business; but the inner story of what is truly involved and what it’s actually like mostly passes us by. We need to hear the honest confessions, the backroom stories, the trials and the hopes of people who are not quite the same as us.”
“The lovely idea of the salon is that conversation shouldn’t be left to chance. We should, in advance, hit upon a common theme … It might be fairly personal – what I’ve found most difficult in my career – or more overtly public: is democracy broken? We could tackle a huge philosophical question – is beauty purely subjective? – or a secret detail of existence: how often do you think you are an idiot? The questions aren’t ultimately to be resolved in a few hours of discussion.”
“The point, rather, is to identify a catalyst for the deeper explorations of one another’s experiences, attitudes, ideas, doubts, ambitions, worries, changes of outlook, styles of thinking and moments of revelation: that is, from the vast richness and complexity of accumulated inner life that we all carry with us, but rarely share in detail.”
The ideals of the salon as described by Armstrong are similar to the essence of the conversations that are at the heart of Cranlana Centre for Ethical Leadership’s programs and alumni events, and which are a key part of what makes them unique. Held under the Chatham House Rule to encourage free and open exchanges, we draw on more than two millennia of philosophical thinking to foster in-depth, practical discussions that sharpen critical reasoning, strengthen moral courage and deep dive into the practice of ethical leadership.
Cranlana’s immersive conversations bring small groups of high-level leaders together for revelatory and challenging discussions that are wide-ranging and expertly guided. There will be diverging views around the table, but it is in exploring these respectfully that leaders can ask what Armstrong calls “The deepest question we can ask others – but rarely do – … what does this idea mean to you?”
So that when a crisis hits, or self doubt sets in, you’ve already had the conversations, explored the ideas and, importantly, found a network of like-minded leaders to lean on when you need to.
What Salons Can Teach Us About Conversation, John Armstrong, 28 July, ArtsHub. Read the full article here.