The Alchemy Of Leadership

Alchemy is the art of transforming leaden thinking into the gold of wisdom. The alchemy of  leadership has to do with mining the gold of wisdom in groups and individuals, capturing creative brilliance, and producing extraordinary results.

Robert Altman,in his Oscar acceptance speech, observed, “The role of the Director is to create a space where the actors and actresses can become more than they’ve ever been before, more than they’ve dreamed of being.” This is key to transformational leadership.

How Do You Create The Conditions For Transformation?

Transformation requires both inner work and outer work. You cannot transform others, without first transforming yourself. Inner work has to do with transforming leaden thinking into the gold of wisdom; knowing who you are and what you stand for, and striving towards excellence based on your talents and potential. It also requires humility, deep listening, creative expression, the willingness to step into the unknown and risk failure.

A transformational leader creates the conditions for achieving great work by cultivating a vision that connects people to something bigger than themselves, generating energy and excitement; giving people a voice to express their ideas and opinions and valuing the contributions of everyone in the group.

Create a Crucible for Creativity and New Discoveries

One of the biggest barriers to moving forward is the fear of failure. If leaders don’t make it safe to fail, employees will never take risks. The alchemists used the crucible to contain experiments and hold the heat of fire. They accepted failure as part of the process of discovery.

We need crucibles in groups to contain the heat of discussion, experimentation, and failure, to make it safe for people to explore, experiment, delve into conversations that matter, so we can create the conditions for brilliance to emerge. You can create crucibles for transformation through storytelling, to build rapport, create a shared experience, and spark new insights. Storytelling is an effective team-building agent because it gives people the opportunity to be seen, heard and understood.

Conversations as Catalysts for Transformation

Atul Gawande in his book “Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance” writes about the skills of a group of surgeons in Nanded, India who are among the most proficient and innovative surgeons in the world, despite the difficult conditions in which they work.

“…They understood themselves to be a part of a larger world of medical knowledge and accomplishment. Moreover, they believed they could measure up to it. This was partly, I think, a function of the Nanded surgeons’ camaraderie as a group. Each day I was there, the surgeons found time between cases to take a late-afternoon break at a café across from the hospital. They swapped stories about their cases of the day – what they had done and how. Just this interaction seemed to prod them to aim higher that merely getting through the day. They came to feel they could do anything they set their minds to. Indeed, they believed not only that they were part of a larger world but also that they could contribute to it.”

Using the Arts as an Instrument of Transformation

Art is inherently alchemical, involving the transformation of the ordinary (paints, oil, water, words, actions) into the extraordinary. As I wrote in Orchestrating Collaboration at Work: “Art-making has an alchemical effect on the imagination. Art takes people out of the realm of analytical thinking and into the realm of silence, reverie, and heightened awareness.” Art at its most powerful is numinous, luminous, and soul-nourishing.

When I work with organizations, I often use imagery and storytelling as catalysts for conversations that draw out the inherent genius of a group. I encourage people to listen for the brilliance in others and build on each others’ ideas.

As we engage in conversation and share information, patterns coalesce revealing knowledge and wisdom that were previously hidden. It is as if every participant has a piece to the puzzle, providing a clue or insight that takes us to our next level of awareness. I call this process mining group gold. It requires deep listening and the willingness to collaborate.

Ask yourself and your group to think of a time when you experienced a transformation or transformational leadership in your workplace. Who were the key players and what were the key elements? Who did you become as a result?

Share your stories, to tap into your collective wisdom. What made the experience powerful? What were some of the conditions or qualities of experience the stories had in common? How can you bring these qualities into your workplace now?

People trust and respect leaders who show their humanity and I believe when we are in touch with our humanity, we envision better futures and make wiser decisions.

The Leadership Quest

While Alchemy manuals describe the “Philosopher’s Stone” as an Elixir through which impure metals can be transmuted into gold, it was also believed it could immediately perfect any substance or situation. When applied to the human body, the Elixir could cure diseases and restore youth.

The quest for the “Philosopher’s Stone” is referred to as the Great Work or Magnum Opus. A Magnum Opus also refers to a great work of literature, music, or art, etc., especially the finest work of an individual.

Eudaemonia: Finding Your Golden Self

We are alchemists when we transform into our golden selves.  Aristotle said the noblest goal in life is eudaemonia: Striving toward excellence based on one’s unique talents and potential, and experiencing wellbeing. For many, this means finding your calling, reinventing your career and making the shift from success to significance.

My interest in alchemy is the ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary through consulting, training and coaching — to ask, as Matthew Fox did in The Reinvention of Work, “What is the Great Work of our time?” If you could sculpt your career, design your future and compose your life, what would your Magnum Opus be?

You are an alchemist; make gold of that.
—William Shakespeare, from The Life of Timon of Athens

Learn more: The Alchemy of Leadership: Transforming leaden thinking into gold

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