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The Mountain of My Fear

Toubkal: ridge

The desk in today’s office has a commanding view of Toubkal, the 4,167m meter peak in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains. Not that I’m going to be doing much climbing/trekking, being on a strict regimine of early morning strolls in the surrounding foothills and working through chapters in the new book in the afternoons: after a year of intermittant typity-typing the final manuscript is due this week, and this is one deadline that is not shifting. I’ll share more about the book in a month or so – when the publishing schedule becomes clearer, along with some of the back and fore-story.

One of the challenges of working for a consultancy is in finding the right (or any) work-life balance, with distortions being amplified by having a global role. Projects can and do pop-up everywhere – the US, Ethiopia, Egypt, Rwanda, India, China, Japan which usually means ramping up teams in far-flung locales (and all the telco timezone bingo that entails), and figuring out how to adapt known processes to unknown situations. I’m grateful for talented colleagues who throw themselves into the spirit of things, that push themselves and ultimately the project along. It can be challenging enough to work on these projects when they are on your doorstep, even more so when you’re 5,000 miles from home in a culture very different from your own. In order to keep things slightly more in check, I’ve been travelling these past two weeks with family. Normally this just doesn’t work out, but on this occasion has been made possible by a cluster of four judging/talks/events in London, a visit to our stellar Milan studio, and a couple of days off thanks to schizophrenic US holidays that are superficially about being thankful for what you have, but seem more geared to encouraging people to go out and buy more of what they don’t need. I’m not sure how much of this trip my two year old will remember, but frankly its been so positive that I’ll be happy if she’ll absorb anything. (I’m typing this in the Kasbah du Toubkal library, warming my toes on the fireplace as the little one is fixated at the moon rising over the snow-peaked mountain range. Apparently wild Gruffulo roam these mountains, she wants to invite them in).

Toubkal: Kasbah

This year I’ve been exploring book design, publishing, and trying to figure out what it takes to evolve as a writer – spurred at one end a spectrum by signing a book deal with Harper Business (and the aforementioned manuscript), at the other end being inspired by Craig Mod’s own self-publishing experience for Art Space Tokyo, and in-between having worked with Tom Manning, Panthea Lee and Sam Martin on this small, but well-formed pamphlet – the hard-copy designed by Tom is a restrained delight.

Been thinking a lot about organisational versus personal risk this week, with an upcoming personal research trip to Afghanistan, the results of which will loop around into a number of work activities. What level of risk is acceptable for an organisation/corporation to expect of its employees, and vice versa? And how does an organisation cope with employees whose desire to work in countries that have a higher risk profile than they are willing to bear? Companies and individuals in the innovation space often talk of being fearless of pushing the boundaries, but what does that mean if you’re a creative, an accountant, legal council, human resources, or strategist? For me, it is the difficult challenges in places like Afghanistan that push an understanding of research methods, the boundaries of my professional domain, and ultimately our own abilities and limitations. I’m looking forward on this trip to being joined by a couple of colleagues (also acting in a personal capacity) and its been interesting to see capable minds stretched in new directions.

I don’t equate of a trip to a country like Afghanistan (which offers up a pretty diverse set of experiences depending on where you go) with being fearless in the sense of travelling somewhere that induces fear. To be sure as a country at war it does serve up different types of emotions, including various types of fear sometimes in trivially unexpected ways (and as a comparison the US is also a country at war, I’d argue that living in fear, in an environment that escalates fear is a far more insidious not least because of the lack of awareness of the alternative). For me the fear, or fearlessness it induces is more about standing behind an idea that I believe in (in this instance research that I think will have a positive social impact); stretches oneself, one’s team members and one’s domain; and ultimately delivers for the organisation in terms of boundaries pushed, things learned, stories that can told (and meaningful things that can be delivered from those stories), attitude and intent.

Which kinda brings me to a beautifully bound hardcover book that landed on my desk just before leaving for this trip: UNBOSS, by Lars Kolind, Jacob Bøtter and numerous others. It’s well worth a read not least for a Northern European/Danish perspective on leadership without leadership (if only they could scratch the word revolution). I’m not convinced I deserve a gratis copy, but am thankful that I did, with a minor contribution in the form of the following quote: “When the right choice becomes the safe choice it is time to leave”. Always relevant as an anchor to one’s belief’s especially in a fast-paced corporate environment, but seems particularly timely in light of the choices in the week ahead.

What did you stand for?

What do you stand for?

What will you stand for?

Toubkal: pom

And what of the week ahead? It starts today in a remote mountain kasbah in Morocco, and will end in Kabul, with working days in London, San Francisco and Dubai in-between. I’m not sure you ever get used to this pace, but somehow, today, watching my daughter looking up at the moon makes its that much more manageable.

See you on the other side.

With apologies to David Roberts for the stolen title.