Fortnight – Day7: Curiosity
On this the seventh day of the fortnight prior to the 2020 presidential election in the United States, I recall the story Bob Greenleaf* enjoyed telling. The first time I heard it we were sitting on his sun porch at a retirement community in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. It was the mid-1980s. I have discovered he shared this anecdote in several places.
“There was an elderly couple who seldom ventured from their isolated home. Although comfortable in their reclusive world, one day the man took a day trip into the city. He returned carrying an old and battered cello with but one string. The bow had only a few hairs. That evening the fellow seated himself in a corner and began to saw away on the single open string. He played only one note and that rather badly. This went on day after day until one day his wife could stand it no longer and set out for the city to learn more about this object that had captivated her husband.
That evening, upon return, she confronted him. ‘See here, I have gone to the city and found other people playing instruments like yours. It is called a cello. Cellos are meant to have four strings and a bow with many strands. What’s more, cello players move their fingers around playing many notes on each string. And further, cellos often are played with other instruments, sometimes in small ensembles and sometimes in large orchestras. Why do you sit here day after day playing that one raspy note?’
He gave his wife a cold look and replied, ‘I would expect that of you, a woman. Those people you saw are still trying to find the right note, I have found it!'”
Note the importance of curiosity and imagination; even more, there is the value of “seeing things whole” or “holistically.” There is benefit in other perspectives. One can have more insight if listening to persons who have heard more notes played; they might have even heard a string quartet or an entire orchestra. In selecting the one to sit in the White House during the next administration, will the American people select someone who can listen to and learn from others?
Curiosity in leadership will also lead to a valuing of paradox. Paradox is the rather astonishing and beneficial awareness that in life and in institutions, two things, that appear to be opposites, can both be true at the same time. There can be sunshine and rain together — and often this leads to a rainbow.
I still see Bob’s smile as he spoke of the mistake of institutions caught up in one narrow perspective or focus. Whether a corporation, church, or charity, the need for curiosity and seeing things in a wide frame was needed.
In politics, he spoke of the mistake of Prohibition in the 1920s and 30s. Temperance was collapsed into abstinence. A broader conversation was needed about the cultural and economic realities that existed among impoverished folks during Prohibition. More awareness of the medical realities surrounding addiction was needed. The irony, of course, is that many leaders then in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) understood this wider vision. As part of their piety, they held progressive (even radical) views on economics, war, education and gender equality. Today, these pious women would be dismissed as Socialists. Their larger set of concerns were lost then, in an effort to do the impossible — legislate against the consumption of alcohol.
Greenleaf suggested that one day, perhaps in the distant future, the mistake of using single issue, pressure politics to prohibit abortion would become evident. (That day has not yet arrived.)
It was two decades later, Benedictine sister Joan Chittister observed, “I do not believe that just because you are opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, a child educated, a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.” (Interview with Bill Moyers, 2004)
I will have a
coming to see
trying to make
— Mari Evans
*Bob is known as the founder of the Servant Leadership movement. For decades was an executive with American Telephone and Telegraph, involved in leadership development and research. It was in his later years that he wrote on servant leadership and worked as a consultant with the Ford Foundation and the Lilly Endowment.