A different model to consider...

a photo of sync member sally clay

Sometimes I come across a piece of thinking, or an approach, or a model, and something just clicks. I understand it, and I understand myself and my actions, much better because of it. It all just makes sense! Now for me, in my leadership development journey with Sync, that has happened a few times with things like Johari’s window or the nine-box model.

This time I’d like to explore another one that works for me. The idea is linked to how individual people operate in systems and structures, especially those systems that don’t quite fit with the way some people operate.

At its heart, its about the different reactions people have to difficult situations.

The plains and the caves

picture of an african landscape with plains, trees and mountains

Mark Wright, our leadership advisor, created a way of explaining the concept based on plains and caves – so get visualizing!.

Imagine a terrain - wind swept and bleak.

There are the plains – open and exposed to the weather; populated by wild animals and, occasionally, by other people.

There are also pockets of shelter - dips in the ground or scrub to act as cover.

There are also caves – deep in the ground, offering escape from the harsh weather; where other people seeking safety can be found.

On the plains

a photo of african plains

As a leader, being on the plains is about being exposed to all the elements - and a few hungry lions!

The benefits are great - you can see what’s coming. It may be uncomfortable some of the time, but you have a clear view of everything around you and are able to plan and respond to changes in circumstances quickly.

It’s hard work on the plains. If you don’t quite fit into the ‘system’ around you it can be unpleasant, but by staying on the plains you are facing that challenge head on, engaging with everything around you.

Taking shelter

a photograph of a break of rock and trees within a plain, providing shelter

Being on the plains can be exhausting, and at times we need to take shelter to rethink, regroup and revive ourselves.

Dipping down out of the firing line is necessary and understandable, but also comes at a cost. If we take shelter in a dip or behind a clump of trees our view can be obscured. Things can creep up on us and take us by surprise.

As a leader, we can become out of touch if we take shelter for too long, and we can miss seeing the bigger picture.

In the caves

a photo of inside some caves looking up at the sky

Sometimes we can find ourselves in the caves. The caves are safe – no driving wind, blazing sun or pouring rain, it’s all very protected. Animals can’t touch us; we can relax. The problem is we can’t see anything either – we lose touch with what’s going on outside and become absorbed only by what’s immediately around us.

Often we can find other people in the caves. The danger here is that they usually think the same as us, so we can all have a good moan about how awful it is up there, and how there is little or nothing we can do to change it. Having others around us who think the same can make it really comfortable – but stop us from moving forward.

As leaders, it’s quite dangerous down in the caves but we might not see the danger as it feels so safe - we are cocooned away from the real world and surrounded by a narrow perspective. If we work in an environment that seems hostile to us, we can retreat into a smaller world and lose sense of the true system in which we are based.

Where are you?

a cave drawing of a ladder

When I first heard about the plains and the caves it immediately made sense to me. I can spot my times on the plains – feeling the fear and also the excitement of being out in the elements, of being open and aware to what is going on around me, genuinely leading from the front.

I can also think of when I have been ‘down in the caves’ – when I found myself surrounded by people who moan the same moans as me, or the times I’ve become so absorbed with the minute detail or a project I have stopped thinking about the wider world. Even when running an organisation I can remember when the way we worked became more important that the job we were there to do.

So how do we get out of the caves?

Its hard work – the others in the cave are often very good at convincing us its a good place to be. Equally, we can’t just jump straight out onto the plains - its just too much; the sun is too bright for one thing! Movement comes through developmental steps - ramps or ladders that encourage us to move on up. We can fashion these ourselves, and also work with others to help create our escape.

I think most of us wander between all three areas, depending on the work we are engaged in, our level of commitment and drive and the amount of self awareness we have. For me, being a leader means working out what parts of the plains I can master. I can’t be great at it all – fighting lions, coping with extreme weather, traversing difficult terrain – but I can work out what I am good at and specialise in that. Over time I can learn other skills too – building my own shelter that gives me a good view out, maybe, or navigating unfamiliar areas. I can also work to build a diverse network (in both my thoughts and actions) that will be my tribe. As a group we can have complimentary skills and will be more likely to withstand the difficulties of life on the plain!

Where do you think you are – or where do you recognise that you have been? There are certainly ways to lead, whatever terrain you are working in!

Jo Verrent

Sync Project Manager