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Half a Shade Braver: The Foundations of Conversational Leadership – David Whyte

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

By Paul Collings – 10.05.16

Over the first week of May I had the pleasure of being a panelist at David Whyte’s seminars in Melbourne and Sydney. For those of you who may not know him, David’s an internationally acclaimed poet, philosopher and speaker and a global thought leader on conversational leadership. His clients include Mattel, Standard Chartered Bank, The Gap, The Boeing Company, Thames Water, Novartis, Chanel and the Royal Air Force.

The overall theme of his work on conversational leadership is that its through real conversations that things get done well and that real conversations require vulnerability and authenticity.

Here are three ideas from David’s talks that resonated strongly:

‘Without vulnerability there is no conversation’

For most of us the workplace is not a place to be vulnerable. David describes the world of work as analogous to the savannah of our evolutionary forebears, a place where our lives might not be on the line but our sense of identity, our ego, our ability to feed our families, and our futures are on the line. And yet in the face of this, leaders need to be vulnerable to enable real conversations. He recommends a shift in our relationship with vulnerability – to see vulnerability as a faculty to be developed.

‘Leaders have already lost their face’

Most leaders worry about ‘losing face’ and yet the act of leadership is an act of making oneself more and more visible so that actually people have already seen your weaknesses and your foibles and your vulnerabilities so there is no more ‘face’ to lose!

‘What is the conversation you need to have that you’re not having?’

People’s general reluctance to talk about difficult topics combined with the ever present excuse of busy-ness means that necessary conversations don’t always happen and the consequences of that can be profoundly unhelpful! Hence this challenging question to be asked often and regularly, and especially if something’s troubling you. There’s a Buddhist saying I like: ‘to catch the spark before it becomes a flame’. David’s question is a spark-catcher … ‘What is the conversation you need to have that you’re not having?’

‘Genius is both a specific gift and a possibility that has not yet occurred; it is not a fixed internal commodity to be exploited and brought to the surface but a conversation to be followed, deepened, understood and celebrated.’

– From the essay ‘Genius’ in David’s book ‘Consolations’

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