Exploring path 4: Qualities
Our fourth path is the embodying of certain qualities that permit exploration.
Sir Ernest Shackleton, one of the key figures of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration believed that an explorer should possess four qualities: optimism, persistence / patience, idealism, and courage. From my work with innovators and change leaders I would add: curiosity and grace to this mix. This is by no means a restricted list. You may add your own.
Optimism speaks to hope and self-belief and creates neural pathways of ingenuity. Like the three letters that make up the word yet, when faced with an impasse, optimism is a quality that will create space for moving past the barrier, finding a new way forward.
Optimists tend to view hardships as learning experiences or temporary setbacks.
Optimism is also closely tied to another quality of the explorer, persistence and patience. When optimistic it is easier to have patience and persist in the face of disruptive and often unwelcome change.
Patience is also an important risk mitigation. When you get impatient you take short cuts and shortcuts when heading into unprecedented terrain can cause you damage, to fall into the metaphorical chasm. A lack of patience results in the kind of mistakes where the only learning is taking your time next time!
Idealism is a funny quality – in the context of exploration, it sets the benchmark of what’s next. Its like a twin sister to optimism – in an ideal world, you will be innovating on a regular basis to stay ahead of the competitors. And it is optimism that feeds your belief that is possible.
Often, we value pragmatism over idealism. We deride those who are idealistic, Pollyanna thinkers. Think about how many times in a job interview you have made the statement “I’m very pragmatic!” – imagine if you said “I’m very idealistic.” But we need our idealists – their time has come.
In 20202 many people became familiar with what is known as the the Stockdale Paradox. This came from the lessons of Vice Admiral James Stockdale, a long-term prisoner of war. The paradox was that in order to survive you need to hold faith, and a sense of purpose AND be be able to accept your circumstances without despair. The optimists and idealists didn’t make it out of captivity.
And this was really sound advice. However, what we need now is much more than a survival mindset, we need an explorer mindset and that does include optimism and idealism.
The fourth quality that Shackleton spoke of was courage.
I think this is one of the most important qualities of exploring new frontiers.
Often when we think about bravery and courage we think about big acts of courage. Leaving the abusive partner, running into a house burning down to save a child. Leaving a well-paying job of 20 years to do something new. It requires extraordinary energy. And people marvel – Oh you were brave.
But what I am talking about here is micro moments of courage. Small acts of courage.
The courage to be decisive knowing that some people you respect will not be happy with you – as it means for a period of time they will be in a position of loss.
The courage to let others around you step up and do the things that you would normally do. A redistribution of power and control. If you are used to controlling everything, then empowering others is quite courageous.
The courage to reprioritize and put some of the things your organization does on hold. To let go of previous agendas and focus on what needs to be done. This can be considered an act of great courage.
It reminds me of the metaphor of the burning platform shared by Daryl Conner in his book the Speed of Change. Many people have interpreted is as you need to create a fire under the feet of your people to get them to change. It turns out that’s not what the metaphor is about – it’s about courage and commitment.
In 1988 Conner was watching a news story of the Alpha Piper oil rig disaster in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland. 166 crew members and 2 rescuers lost their lives. It was a horrific story. One of the surviving crew members was Andy Mochan, a superintendent on the rig. On the new show he described the courage and commitment it required to jump off the platform which would mean facing probable death. The freezing water was littered with burning oil and steel shards. At that temperature he had only 20 minutes in the water to stay alive. Staying on the platform meant certain death. And in that moment, watching the show Conner recognized that mindset and behaviour as what he was seeing in business leaders who were being successful in change.
The value in this story for explorers is to practice small acts of courage. This prevents it getting to a point where you are faced with a decision between certain death and probably death.
I said I would add curiosity and grace.
Curiosity is the great enabler of change, transformation and exploration. Curiosity is what fuels wants based exploration.
It offers us tools to find better ways, quicker paths, easier efforts
What change is needed
What is the vision for the future
What should not be altered
What behaviours need to be changed? Modified? Kept the same?
What performance indicators will show success?
By deploying a curious mindset to what you have on your plate, you move into exploration of how to do things better and easier. The curious mind seeks out new platforms, new skills sets, new opportunities. It acts as a circuit breaker to premature judgment.
If we foster curiosity we enable a shift in view, one that can be more empathetic to those we engage with.
As Walt Disney said — We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing things because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
The final quality I think is important to cultivate if we really want to explore new frontiers is grace.
And with this quality I am talking about embodying the characteristics of courteous goodwill, not just to others but to yourself.
Exploring can feel clunky and uncomfortable. You’re doing things, saying things, considering things for the very first time and it doesn’t always feel so smooth.
Offering others grace in the exploring of new frontiers is a kindness that creates a lot of social capital.
Offering yourself grace in exploring new frontiers creates energy and permission to try again.
Next week, the final post in this series where we look at the Action Path of Exploring!
Previous posts in this series:
And in a lovely moment of serendipity if you are curious to find out about Ernest Shackleton, the ABC Conversations podcast had this terrific interview with explorer Tim Jarvis on Shackleton’s explorations. When I said at the beginning of this series, you needed a want and a need to explore, this interview really underscores that! It can be a grueling path!