The Authors Blog

It has taken five years to get The Walnut Tree into your hands. What was the story behind the writing of To Plant A Walnut Tree? After the publication of The 18 Challenges Of Leadership (after the relief of getting the book in print following the exhausting journey that is called ‘writing a book’) my mind was beginning to muse on the question ‘what next?’ I have written a number of books that still haven't yet been published (A Rwandan Journey - A father & sons discovery; Every Day; Desire; A book of short stories) but in particular I was asking myself what is next after a book on leadership? As the question took root I found myself asking ‘what would a leader do now?’, and the answer I gave myself is that leaders create the future, they don’t just travel to the horizon the look beyond the horizon. For some reason I started challenging my own assumptions and settled on the question ‘what if leadership isn’t the horizon...what if there is something beyond leadership?’. To Plant A Walnut Tree was born out of this question. ‘What lies beyond leadership?’ I kept asking myself. If there is something beyond leadership then leadership has become just another glass ceiling and glass ceilings stunt peoples growth! I had seen the big mountain climb to get people out of a purely management paradigm to a leadership paradigm and I could see that leadership was now the ‘big thing’. Everyone was talking about leadership. The bookshops moved from about half a dozen titles on leadership to whole bookshelves on the subject.

Another factor was personal. A genuine dis-ease. A wanting of something more. In the book I call it a ‘bigger tree to climb’ to keep the agricultural metaphor consistent, but I love sport and so the actual words that I was using inside my own head was ‘I want to play a bigger game’., ‘there has to be more than just “this” ’. And “this” was good. Business was going really well but I was aware that I was anesthetised by the busyness of doing well.

So I pushed harder into the question - ‘what lies beyond leadership?’ Paulo Coelho uses the idea that if you desire something with your whole heart then the gods conspire to make it happen. I experienced a conspiracy. The idea of elder, an idea that I had been very familiar with and had a love-hate relationship with re-emerged into my world, I then began to meet people and hear stories that confirmed that I was on the right track. There was something that lies beyond leadership, there is a bigger game - and its called ‘eldership’.

The problem with the word eldership is on the one hand it it is known and the other hand it is not in common usage enough to sound very appealing. How could I convey this discovery that changes the way we approach our lives in a way that wasn't going to bore people or turn them off by page 1.

After a first period of research I tried to capture my thinking in an extended essay ‘what lies beyond leadership?’. It was about forty pages long. I don't think I even showed anyone what I’d written. Maybe one or two people.

And then my life took unexpected turns. I entered my own ‘dark night of the soul’ . It took over my world. It enthralled me, tortured me and liberated me, all in one. So the book totally disappeared from my mind.

I remember it clearly. A few years later, while I was having a sandwich with Nikki Barlett, (who was then working for the School of Coaching with Myles Downey where I was on the faculty). I cant remember what exactly we talked about, but I do remember we were both in earnest to know ‘what is the bigger game in life/’. I had by then been to Africa a number of times and my life could no longer be the same after all I had witnessed there. For some reason we fell in to a discussion about eldership as a key to what lies beyond leadership; eldership as a key to tackle the intractable problems that the short termism of leadership wasn't addressing. In the middle of that conversation I suddenly had an epiphany. It was like a shock. I said to Nikki ‘I’ve already done this work; I’ve written all about this!!’ How can you forget something so fundamental. But forget is exactly what had happened. In my dark night I had totally forgotten all about all of the research that I had done and in that conversation it came flooding back. I will always be grateful to Nikki for the lunch that day. I rushed home and spent ages combing through old computer files and back-ups until I eventually found it - ‘What lies beyond leadership’. I literally shouted and laughed out loud.

And so it began. I reengaged in the research with a new commitment. I talked to everyone I could, I read book and articles, I visited the elders of the Rwenzori’s in Uganda and tried to engage business leaders in Zambia. Finally I felt I had the content of the book. The book tries to capture something of the adventure of those months whilst being an inseparable blend of fact and fiction.

Why did I write it as a story? How one shapes content is a vital part of the process of writing. Would it be a text book? Who would it be aimed at? Which shelf did I see it on in the bookshops? The reason that I decided to write it as a story was this. I felt that it was such a new concept in my generation that I wanted to not only introduce ideas but to somehow model the process of learning and self discovery. I was thinking ‘if I have had to make this journey to understand what it is and the relevance of it, then others will also need help in processing. So I tried it out as a story. I had enjoyed ‘The Why Cafe’ by John Strelecky and was struck by wondering in the first few pages ‘is this true or made up?’ so I tried to see if I could create the narrative. I was happy with the first chapters but the real challenge was whether I could sustain a credible conversation for a whole book. The only way to do that is to stay as close to the truth of the spirit of the journey I made whilst keeping it as a story. So To Plant A Walnut Tree is a true (pause) story, written to share an idea and the process of embracing that idea in ones own life.

My hope for the book? I just wanted to start a conversation. I don’t pretend to be any more powerful than that. I figured that if I could just get people in all walks of life talking about eldership then, like Al Gore with An Inconvenient Truth, I may just be able to get people to rethink and then re-act how we look at our lives.

Some people ask me ‘is it a book for old and retired people?’ The answer in a definite ‘no’. It is crucial that the idea of eldership is embraced as early in adulthood as possible as it will shape a persons whole perspective on the journey of their life. So it has a definite appeal and call to all ages.

I genuinely believe that the intractable problems of our nations and our world - both at a small local level as well as a world-stage level - can only be grasped by recovering the power of elders - the independent leaders, who offer their wisdom in order to create legacies that will outlive them.

What was most remarkable is that I had finished the first draft of the book when I heard that Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel had visited Nelson Mandela to ask how do we tackle the intractable problems of our generation. The result was the formation of The Elders. I had a very mixed reaction when I heard this. On one side I honestly felt cheated. It’s not often that one thinks that they have discovered something new, had a new thought that is ahead of the game and of course The Elders was clearly going to swamp out anything I wrote. It also left me feeling that everyone would think I was jumping on their bandwagon. I knew it wasn’t even slightly true. It’s hard to shout at the Mandela’s and the Branson’s of this world ‘hey, I got there first!’. But of course I was, on the other hand, absolutely thrilled and am the greatest advocate to others of their work. Listening to Desmond Tutu speak at Oxford last year will remain a memorable life-highlight. Of course my own reactions also revealed how far my own ego had to go in being honed towards eldership.

I have dedicated all post publication profits to the amazing work of Cherish Uganda - they are writing a new story for orphaned and abandoned children with HIV/AIDS. (www.cherishuganda.org). To be an elder means to offer independent leadership. I took very seriously the quote Al Gore made that ‘it is difficult to see something when you are paid not to see it’. I am dedicating the profits to Cherish Uganda because I wanted to make sure that I could speak about To Plant A Walnut Tree with as clean hands as possible. (Though, of course, our hands are never fully clean)