Despite my antique 53-year-old frame, I like to run. To be honest, I am more lurching elephant than a lithe, elegant athlete. But when I run in the woods, I feel free, returning to the substance and connection of the natural world. It’s a bodily awakening, feeling breathing quicken, perspiration build and legs gradually (too quickly!) feeling fatigued. Sometimes I run and feel light, other times weighty and sluggish but somehow always returning with a clarity of thinking that is otherwise so elusive to find.
In the months leading up to the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme my running had felt uncharacteristically, consistently sluggish. It was as though there was a constant nagging fatigue. Being a part-time hypochondriac, I simply put it down to having only days to live at the mercy of some undiagnosed lurgy. What the programme allowed me to discover was that these were the symptoms of deep post-crisis fatigue, with us all having to ‘run on empty’ to carry our professional communities through the later stages of a pandemic. Now, with just a little breathing space, we realised that we were worn down. Not only this, but I encountered colleague and soon-to-be friend after friend in the programme who, despite arriving from radically different walks of life, was experiencing those very same symptoms; life and leadership had become unbearably weighty.
Each session in the programme, with its humanities of leadership focus, is very much like a stepping stone. I sense that we each followed our own path, but it was initially recounting our steps back to when we last really knew where we were. These last few years have been so damned disorienting that we had to go back to the basic principles of navigation and return to our last known point. From there, workshop by workshop, we could process and synthesise the many lessons and powerful learning from these recent intense years. In each phase of the pandemic, every agile manoeuvre of our organisation had something to teach but, oftentimes, it was happening so quickly that the learning passed us by. Each workshop invited us to revisit and grab onto the offer, the learning available from each of these experiences, to build our quiver of skills for tackling this uncertain future.
I must admit that I have previously described the ambiguity of leading my organisation into the future with some downcast analogies. At various times I had described fog, mud and shifting goalposts in a desperate bid to build a narrative to describe a future that I clearly felt overwhelmed by. Through this retracing of steps and rephrasing of the current global environment to being simultaneously complex and filled with opportunity, I am landing on a far more enticing story for the community of my organisation. This is because the learning, the facilitators, the people with whom you are walking the journey through the programme are all focused on adjusting the weight of leadership. We laughed, some cried and thought outrageous thoughts aloud together, all in the name of remembering our original passion for leadership. You see, it is through the idea that we might just facilitate our communities achieving a better future that the weight lightens. As we strategised through each of our most significant challenges, they became navigable. We returned to the sacred island of deep learning, which fed an imagination of what could be with this re-energised perspective.
Paradoxically, you depart the programme quite unwilling to do so, yet utterly prepared. In your tutor groups you have built friendships with others from the most extraordinary walks of life. Farewelling them after only just kindling this connection is bittersweet. Yet, much like returning from the longest of runs, you feel re-enlivened, the way ahead seems lighter. The fire within will be back and your passion for that better future reignited. I leave inspired for my next run in the woods.