About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

17 September 2010

For Beowulf, Nothing Failed Like Success

In my freshman year of college, I enrolled in English Literature 101. On the first day of class, the teacher stood behind the podium and began reading the epic tale of Beowulf. I listened, but in vain; I couldn't grasp a thing she was saying. And, as soon as the two hours of that initial class period had passed, I headed to the office and dropped the class. I tried not to even think of Beowulf after that.

That all changed on a sunny St. Patrick's Day a few years ago when real-life wizard Brian Bates appeared at The Masters Forum, and told the story of Beowulf in words that even I could understand.

A little about Brian. He teaches psychology at the University of Brighton, directs the Shaman Research Program at the University of Sussex, and is an adviser to the Ford Foundation's project on worldwide indigenous wisdom. He is the author of several books including: The Way of Wyrd and The Real Middle Earth.

Back to Beowulf. Here's the story as I now understand it:
A monster named Grendel was attacking the castle of King Hrothgar of Denmark each night, killing and devouring his soldiers and guests. No one could stop him.

A great warrior from afar, Beowulf, hears of the king's plight and comes to the rescue. He succeeds in slaying the monster.

It turns out, though, that the monster has a nasty ol' mother who rears up out of her swamp and takes over where Grendel left off. Beowulf takes out the mother as well. Hrothgar is forever grateful.

Beowulf returns to his own people, the Geats. He serves them well; becomes their king.

Fifty winters pass. Beowulf has grown old.

One day, an evil dragon shows up and begins to beat on the Geats. Beowulf decides that he - and he alone - will slay the dragon.

Beowulf preps for battle. As he heads out to meet the dragon, he asks 12 of his warriors to join him. He gives them a direct order to stay out of the battle.

The battle rages. Beowulf is getting his ass handed to him. His warriors can see he needs help, but they have no idea what to do; besides they are scared witless. They head for the hills. Well, at least 11 of them do. The 12th, Wiglaf, decides to help the old man out. He does it by rushing in and distracting the dragon just long enough for Beowulf to strike a killing blow. The dragon goes down for the count. Minutes later, it's lights out for Beowulf as well.
There are several lessons to be learned here for accomplished leaders and high achievers of all stripes.

  • Why do you think Beowulf decided to face the dragon by himself? Have you ever done the same in some instance in your work or life? Is it typical of you?
  • Do you think he considered the possibility he would die? Why or why not? Do you consider the possibility of failing when you decide to go it alone?
  • The story says Beowulf invited a few of his warriors to come along for the ride, but only to observe. Why? Have you ever done the same?
  • The warriors didn't rush to rescue Beowulf when he got into trouble. In fact, 11 of 12 turned tail and ran. The story says they fled because they didn't know what to do to help. This suggests that Beowulf had not mentally or physically prepared his warriors to fight such a battle. Why do you suppose he failed to do so? How about you? Are you truly developing your subordinates, or merely entertaining them with your brilliance? Explain.
  • Nothing fails like success is an old saying. How do you interpret it in light of this story? How do you interpret it in terms of your own life and work?
"Often when one man follows his own will many are hurt." - Wiglaf
"The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings." - Okakura Kakuzo, author
"It seldom happens that a man changes his life through his habitual reasoning. No matter how fully he may sense the new plans and aims revealed to him by reason, he continues to plod along in old paths until his life becomes frustrating and unbearable. He finally makes the change only when his usual life can no longer be tolerated." - Leo Tolstoy
"People hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest." - Simon & Garfunkel, The Boxer
"Firefighters are most likely to get killed or injured in their 10th year on the job, when they think they've seen pretty much everything there is to see on the fires. They become less open to new information that would allow them to update their models." - Karl Weick, Wired, April, 2004

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