Jonathan Trott’s decision to leave the England Ashes touring party due to a stress-related illness was widely covered and with a degree of sympathy which marks a changing public awareness of the impact of mental health issues. It also suggests greater recognition that acknowledgement of vulnerability is not necessarily a sign of weakness. Indeed, to do so can be an indication of real courage and an act of considerable leadership. As one of the most thoughtful writers in the field of modern leadership, Brene Brown, has said: "Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness."
Brown’s latest book, Daring Greatly, takes as its theme a passage from President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous The Man in the Arena speech at the Sorbonne in 1910. "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; …who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
At a time when timidity and fear often get in the way of principle and integrity, when the pressures to deliver and conform are insidious and strong, it is good to be reminded that striving to do the right thing, perhaps at some cost, is still worthy. And takes courage. What about the young lawyer, endeavouring to meet expectations, who feels pressed to do something that, even at the margins, seems unethical? Or the chief executive, reliant on a stream of public sector contracts, who knows that to speak out too publicly on a matter of importance may lead to loss of work? Courage is not the same as fearlessness: the late Nelson Mandela captured it well: "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."
Who do we admire in our world who is courageous in that sense? What are the attributes that mark out such people? In a world increasingly characterised by hubris and excessive self-confidence or empty self-importance, where do we look for humility? Is it possible for the humble to be leaders? Who among us is prepared to admit to mistakes, acknowledge our imperfections, show public appreciation of the efforts of unseen others, or apologise unreservedly for that word or action which has caused hurt or disruption to others?
This is not an academic exercise. In my own work as a mediator, I know how easily I can find fault with someone else if things do not go well. "I can’t believe a mediator would say that!" said one senior solicitor recently. I could feel my hackles rise and it took me fully five minutes of dissembling before saying what needed to be said: "I am sorry, that’s not what I intended to convey."
I know that in nearly every dispute in which I am privileged to be involved as a mediator there is at least some element of personal animosity or hurt. Usually, it is among the principals, even in hard-nosed commercial dealings, but not infrequently it is between the legal advisers who, perhaps over a period of time, have developed a mutually reinforcing suspicion of each other. Every apparently unhelpful act or letter is perceived as an indication of some hostility, which serves to fortify the perception already formed. Fortunately, we now understand much of this through recent developments in neuro-science: with concepts such as attribution error, associative coherence, reactive devaluation and wilful blindness offering explanations for what occurs daily.
What is often needed is to break the cycle. That can happen when someone – client or solicitor – is humble enough and brave enough to acknowledge responsibility. One of the most telling moments in my career as a mediator occurred nearly ten years ago. A senior partner in a large law firm, whose letters to his opposite number had apparently seriously inflamed both the situation and the claimant, said to the claimant: "I am truly sorry Mrs X, that the words in my letter had this impact on you."
Of course that did not make everything right. But it was the single most important turning point in a difficult two days. It provided a platform to move from blame and focussing on the past to problem-solving for the future. It was a moment of great dignity — both for the solicitor and for Mrs X. And it was an act of true leadership, marked by courage and humility.
To be both humble and courageous, we need to step back and pause, reflect on our reactions, plan our responses, challenge our assumptions, choose our words with care, acknowledge the other story. As Ken Cloke, the outstanding contemporary author on conflict and well known to many of us from his visits in recent years to Scotland, said to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in May 2011: "There is no us and them, only us." Food for thought.