Metaphorical enquiry

Find beauty, try to understand, survive.
— James Sallis, To a Russian Friend

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.
— Bob Marley & The Wailers, Redemption Song

We think of metaphors as the result of creativity … But metaphors can be the engine of creativity, too.
— Eric Jaffe, The Remarkable Power of Visual Metaphors to Make Us More Creative

While in Flanders earlier this week, I took some time to visit Ghent Cathedral and view the celebrated altarpiece. Known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, this is attributed to the van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan. Consisting of twelve panels when fully opened, this enormous work of art had been nudging itself into my consciousness lately. First, when I read about it in Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s fascinating study, Art as Therapy. Then, only days later, in one of those serendipitous moments, during an online conversation with Anne Marie McEwan, who identified it as her favourite painting.

Contemplating the many panels, my eyes were constantly drawn to the middle third of the central panel. From top to bottom, there are three key images. The dove of the Holy Spirit hovers in the sky, surrounded by sun-like rays of light. The Lamb of God stands atop an altar, blood flowing from a wound on its breast into a golden chalice. The fountain of life is placed in the foreground at the bottom of the panel. What was fascinating for me was how much information, how much of the Christian narrative and its iconography, were compressed into these visual metaphors. You do not have to be a believer (indeed, I am not) to appreciate the power of the metaphor and the artistry that went into its creation.

[Photo credit: Church of Our Lady, Brugge, taken by Richard Martin (17/04/14)]

The experience made me reflect on how important such metaphors, either in visual form or painted with words, are to me in my work; how I think about and formulate ideas, and how I communicate them to other people.

One of the metaphors I have referenced before on this blog, and frequently return to when thinking about learning and the sharing of knowledge, is that of the candle. I find compelling the idea of people lighting their candles from the wick of another, increasing the light in the room, and demonstrating the strength of shared rather than hoarded knowledge. I think the image of the lighthouse, which fellow change agent Harold Jarche has recently adopted on his revamped website, is an equally attractive image. It is suggestive of one who lights the way, guides others, leads, and assists both navigation and communication. In other words, everything I find positive in the interaction I enjoy with Harold.

In my own writing, I have been trying to develop two metaphors that encapsulate my thinking about transformational leadership and the future of work:

Building cathedrals is a long-term endeavour. It is about looking to the future and creating the conditions in which others might flourish. It’s about tackling and overcoming adversity. It’s about recognising that while you may never see the stated vision realised in your own lifetime, this should not diminish your purpose or personal drive.

Peloton formations, on the other hand, is all about the fluidity and agility not only of modern organisational structures but of the roles and responsibilities of those who work within them. It recognises the need for people who are able to lead, follow, guide, advise, specialise or generalise, adapting to changes in context and circumstances. People who work in small units in synchronicity with and service of a larger whole. People willing to experiment, learn and act on new knowledge.

These are ideas I want to develop further – not just in writing but through my actions as a change practitioner. They are metaphors I am still in the process of painting.

The problem is that we forget what is obvious. These are ideas that call for daily renewal in our inner lives; we must always return to them. By enfolding them in memorable images, they live more intently in our minds; they spring forward into consciousness more readily; they are always to hand.
— Alain de Botton & John Armstrong, Art as Therapy

Perception modifies reality.
— Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22

All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.
— Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

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