Leadership Part 1: Where Leadership Began: The Campfire

From the Camp Fire to the Kitchen Table: a six part blog series on leadership and change practice.

Our world has reached the tipping point. Nature is breaking. The economy is breaking. Society is breaking. Politics is breaking. Old stories and myths about how society works have broken. All of the answers will not be found by looking backwards..

This six part blog series on my approach to leadership and change has been written for people who want to work together to support the change needed to restore nature and enable all people to thrive. It is for people who want to change the world around them. People who want to change it for the better, for all of us. It is derived from a Leadership and Change Practice course that I have been delivering around Australia and in New Zealand for over a decade and draws on community development theory, environmental education principles, neuroscience, sociology, biology, network science, anthropology and the wisdom and teaching of the late Francis Ryan of Vox Bandicoot - my major influence. 

The blog series tells a leadership journey in the following six parts:

Part 1 - Where Leadership Began: the Campfire

Part 2 - Tomorrow’s Leadership Skills

Part 3 - Leadership and the Self

Part 4 - Leadership and the Others

Part 5 - Leadership and Influence 

Part 6 - Leadership at the Kitchen Table

If you want to learn how to create meaningful, lasting change in the world around you, join us around the campfire …

Part 1 - Where leadership began: the Campfire

Screen Shot 2019-02-04 at 9.04.53 pm.png

Picture yourself sitting under the stars with a group of friends around a campfire. The smokey smell, the occasional crackling sounds and the red sparks that shoot up with the smoke and disappear. There’s usually a drink in hand and lots of stories, laughter, a snatch of song, group and one on one conversations, eye contact around the circle and moments of introspection where your eyes linger on a white hot part of the fire through a gap in the burning

For most of human history, our values, our beliefs and the way we lived our lives were shaped around a campfire. There is a richly human part of all of us that longs for this experience. Many people recreate the experience as teenagers and as adults in the backyard. A campfire is a place of belonging, stories, song, dance, laughter, togetherness and deep conversations about life, the universe and everything with trusted others. Shane Howard’s evocative song Tarerer describes ancient Aboriginal ritual:

Make the ashes 

Make the fire

Make it burn bright

Light up all the dancers

Light the darkness

Light up the night

And we’ll sing to the mother of creation till sunrise

Learning as we go 

From the stories of the old and the wise

~ Singer songwriter Shane Howard, Tarerer

As a white Australian, I can only imagine what it is like to experience a process of learning and growth based on 60,000 years of connection to place and culture. As indigenous leader Dr Mary Graham describes it, this participatory, arts centred process enabled clans to ensure that each child reached their fullest potential in their community. People had time to think and watch and learn and teach and grow. Individuals were taught when they were deemed ready. Relationships between clans were strengthened. Trade routes were established and maintained. Disputes were settled. Agricultural methods refined. The climate monitored. Housing practiced improved. Biodiversity protected. And a belief system maintained that had Country and community at it’s centre.  This was true leadership and change practice with a deep purpose: Individual growth and development within the context of place, belonging, community and Country. 

Screen Shot 2019-02-04 at 9.08.27 pm.png

Whilst Aboriginal Australia was perfecting this decentralised leadership practice over 60,000 years of continued settlement, Europe went the other way. Centralised towns, centralised leadership, centralised religions, centralised trade, centralised economies and centralised wealth led to what I have termed the Charlton Heston Leadership Model. This is best represented by this iconic photo of Charlton as Hollywood Moses (I have nothing against Moses. Never met him. I’m interested in what the image portrays). The mostly white, mostly old, mostly male solo hero leader standing on a hill telling everyone else what to do leadership model. This leadership model led to a lot of really interesting archeology, from war and boom and bust, oligarchies and collapsed civilisations. 

The big question is how this self promoting egotistical leadership model has lasted all the way into the 21st century when it clearly doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for the environment. It doesn’t work for women. It doesn’t work for children. It doesn’t work for people of colour. It doesn’t work for LGBTQI people. It doesn’t work for the poor. It doesn’t work for the working class. Where it does work is that is centralises wealth and political power for the few for the short term. 

And yet most leadership courses I have seen are based on this model. Their brochures claim that, “You can become known as the leader you want to be!”

The problem with most leadership courses is that they:

  • bring random groups of people together in a central place rather than having a program grounded in local communities

  • are finished before any real change can occur

  • are about transmitting information rather than creating understanding

  • focus on self promotion rather than achieving purpose

  • aim to achieve measurable short term outcomes rather focusing on the process of change

  • are focused on creating prestigious leaders rather than human scale leaders

More on these failures in future parts.

There is another way to develop leadership. It is grounded in people and place and it is much more effective and fun. It involves a deep-dive into who we really are and what makes us tick. 

Next week I will publish Part 2 of this six part blog series: Tomorrow’s Leadership Skills which features the wisdom of three year olds and some advice for those who think they need a PhD in leadership before they begin leading. See you then!