Creative Thinking: Leadership and the Walnut Root

We had a small walnut tree in our back yard.  I guess the squirrels loved the nuts, because we never got very many of them.  Finally the tree just died.  My husband carefully saved all of the pieces and made beautiful handles for things—knives, axes, hammers.  They would just show up under the Christmas tree as exquisite gifts for several years.  He also made several walking sticks and finally an elegant highly polished sculpture for me this year, I guess from the trunk.  It was like “the giving tree.”  Never hugely noticeable in its life, the tree had been gracious and generous in its death.

Just when I thought all the gifts from the tree and my creative husband were finished, this week Richard dug up the root of the tree, which was rather remarkably big.  He couldn’t get it all, because a piece of it had already made its way under the fence and into the neighbor’s yard.  I wondered if they mightn’t have been willing for him to get it, but he said he had already poured concrete over it to make the foundation for the fence he is building.  So, no.

So now he has taken several pictures of that big root and he studies it on his computer to see what he might do with it.  He looks at it from different angles, perspectives; considers different opportunities for it.  What a shame we as leaders don’t get to consider our problems from so many perspectives.  He can do anything with that root.  All possibilities are open.  Base for a table.  Another sculpture.  Base for a lamp.  A bowl, a dish, a clock.  He wanders back by the computer screen and investigates it again and again, patiently, like a predator gaining on its prey.

What a blessing it would be if we had time to examine our colleagues and our clients with such consideration.  Everyone and everything is in much too much a hurry.  No time to come back and look again.  Decisions must be made.  Projects must be planned.  People must be assigned.  Budgets must be developed.

Such a hurry and rush approach does limit us, though.  It’s hard to do really creative things without giving our “right brains” time to work.  Our right brains are very efficient, but they do not operate in a linear fashion like our left brains.  We must have some time available so we can come back to something patiently, consider it over time.  Put it up on our computer screen and look at it casually as we walk by.  Like a stealthy predator:  “I don’t see you.  You’re safe over there.”  And all the time our minds are working.  All the time, we’re gaining on it.

The wonderful thing about the way the right brain works is that we do not have to be conscious of what it’s doing for it to be effective.  We can be deeply involved in other things.  We have all experienced an “aha!” while we were showering, driving the interstate, or drifting off to sleep.

Good creative leadership allows such thought processes, and is ready to take advantage of them.  We must acknowledge the efficacy of such workings of our brains and be ready to claim the harvest.  We must find ways to inspire such thinking.  Sometimes “sleeping on it” really is the best idea.

10 thoughts on “Creative Thinking: Leadership and the Walnut Root

  1. Actually I think it is easier to do than a lot of leader think. In my Servant Leadership (called Theory S by some people) approach to my leadership practices and building relationships with the people I manage and with whom I work, I an constantly evaluating their personalities, practices, behaviors and comments (feedback) to me and in group activities. It is part of the active and intense listening that I practice myself in the communication process. This provides me with valuable information about them, and initiates further dialogue in present and future exchanges.
    Thank you for providing a different way of looking at the activity.

  2. Yes, David, you are right that Servant Leadership is a very “right-brain” oriented activiey. The so-called right brain is very effective at taking complex and various inputs, and making connections and correlations with them. This is most surely what you are doing in your effective communications practice and your good relationship building. Thanks very much for point it out.

  3. How can your husband truely understand the opportunities of the root without digging into it? How many blocks of marble did Michelangelo ruin to achieve greatness because he found hidden flaws?
    I think applying either agile thinking, taken from the software development realm, or the resampling bit of Real Options, would perhaps help deal with the time pressures of the marketplace.
    Instead of locking into an approach, convince your teams that you are on a path to solution, and since you don’t know everything you’ll make the best decisions you can at this time, then redirect, or make new decisions, as you learn more. This allows you to produce results while taking advantage of the changing environment and changing knowledge.
    We know that observing an event changes it; so we should keep watching for information and then shifting our direction. This requires leaders who are willing to listen, willing to be wrong locally, and able to provide clear direction. It requires teams to learn how to succeed with failure – achieving an end result that we decide is not in our best interests is still successful completion.
    There is the risk that you’ll destroy the root, or block of marble, or value proposition, with this approach, but I believe this approach is the only way to get into the optimal solution space (applying a little Operations Research thinking here) within market timeframes.

    1. “There is the risk that you’ll destroy the root, or block of marble, or value proposition,” It amazes me that to find out whether there is water on the Moon people were prepared to bomb it? I guess everything in life is about balance.

      Five Ethical Intellligences

      1. Do No Harm, is a principle of nonintervention.

      2. Make Things Better

      3. Respect Others

      4. Be Fair

      5. Be Loving

      The story of the tree is one of developing a relationship with the material and it has all the attributes of Weinstein’s Ethics. A long slow process of making things better. The photo of the sculpture is lovely and I guess it displayed somewhere to remind everyone to slow down and approaches matters in a slow , productive and loving way. Thanks for the read, I will show this to my students.

      Weinstein, Bruce PhD (2011-08-30). Ethical Intelligence (p. 34). New World Library. Kindle Edition.

      1. Thank you, Jo, for your comments. I appreciate your notation of the five ethical intelligences. A foundation of my leadership principles has always been ethical intelligence. As a servant leader, I think we have no other choice. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Werner Erhard made the point that this is the goal of a leader: to make a difference (in a positive way, of course) to the world. That must be our true bottom line.

  4. Of course you make a very good enhancement to the lesson, Bob. As Richard dug into the root, in fact, he found a nice crevice and is making one of those water flow thingies, with a large quartz rock and some copper tubing. I think it is remarkable that a hidden flaw is sometimes the source of greatness and beauty.
    I guess any time we work on a flaw there is a risk involved. We need to make a plan to retain the beauty and integrity of the original. It’s sort of like working on ourselves, really. We need to hang onto our strengths while we patiently work at our weaknesses.
    Thanks for your note.

  5. It is amazing the beauty that we take for granted all around us, some never realizing full potential, because we are in such a hurry. Slow down to speed up resonates well with this discussion. We really need to slow down and start appreciating the relationships that we have now. You must cultivate them. It is usually true that you can find at least one positive in someone. Focus and concentrate on that one characteristic. You will be able to increase lines of communication even with those fickle individuals because you will have established a common denominator.

  6. I am enchanted by your notion that we can find at least one positive in everyone. Yes, even in the ones we don’t get along with, we can. I think if we focus on and appreciate that one characteristic, it will actually multiply and expand. I remember a song we used to sing in Girl Scouts long ago that talked about the power of operating on a principle of plenty rather than on one of scarcity:
    “Love is like a magic penny. Hold it tight and you won’t have any. Lend it, spend it and you’ll have so many they’ll roll all over the floor, ’cause love is something if you give it away you’ll end up having more.”
    Thanks for expanding on the walnut root!

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