This is an experiment inspired by my conversation with Pam Fox Rollin in episode #22, exploring the adaptation of “The Timeless Way of Building” to personal and creative leadership.
“The Timeless Way” is a classic book about the design of buildings and towns, which, to quote Pam, “asserts that places where you feel yourself come alive come about through a process in which the building or town grows organically out of the inner nature of the people in it… It’s a process which allows the life inside a person to flourish openly in freedom.”
I think that is such a beautiful idea. That inspires me to wonder, what if that was the impact on people that our teams, our companies, and our leaders had?
When Pam and I talked, she suggested this idea that I wanted to explore ever since, which is what brings us here today. She said it might be really interesting to swap out the word “building” for “leaders” or “teams,” that it could reveal something very interesting. I started with that, and then made other small substitutions and modifications to make the end result flow better. In this episode, I’ll share the first thing that came out of it.
This episode is 100% an experiment with a new format, where rather than an interview, I bring you a condensed idea. Let’s give it a try and see what we think. Let me know what you think on Twitter @askotzko or via email — what you like, what you don’t, etc. If we both enjoy it, I’ll play with more things in this direction.
This is obviously a derivative work, so credit for all original material goes to Christopher Alexander who wrote “The Timeless Way,” and a thank you to the writers collective Cincibility, which previously shared just the italicized parts of the book and saved me a bunch of typing.
SCROLL BELOW FOR LINKS AND SHOW NOTES
- Original book: The Timeless Way of Building
- Click here to get PDF of the full “Timeless Way of Leading” adaptation
- Related episode: #22 Pam Fox Rollin: Be a decisive leader who helps people come alive
Transcripts may contain some typos. With some episodes lasting ~2 hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
It is a process which brings order out of nothing but ourselves; it cannot be attained, but it will happen of its own accord, if we will only let it.
There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a person, a team, a leader, or a company. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named.
The search which we make for this quality, in our own lives, is the central search of any person, and the crux of any individual person’s story. It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive.
In order to define this quality in leaders and in teams, we must begin by understanding that every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep on happening there.
These patterns of events are always interlocked with certain geometric patterns in the space. Indeed, as we shall see, each leader and each team is ultimately made out of these patterns in the space, and out of nothing else: they are the atoms and the molecules from which a leader or a team is made.
The specific patterns out of which a leader or a team is made may be alive or dead. To the extent they are alive, they let our inner forces loose, and set us free; but when they are dead, they keep us locked in inner conflict.
The more living patterns there are in a place — a company, a leader, or a team — the more it comes to life as an entirety, the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining fire which is the quality without a name.
And when a group has this fire, then it becomes a part of nature, like ocean waves, or blades of grass, its parts are governed by the endless play of repetition and variety, created in the presence of the fact that all things pass. This is the quality itself.
This quality in leadership and in teams cannot be made, but only generated, indirectly, by the ordinary actions of the people, just as a flower cannot be made, but only generated from the seed.
The people can shape leadership for themselves, and have done it for centuries, by using languages which I call pattern languages. A pattern language gives each person who uses it the power to create an infinite variety of new and unique leadership, just as his ordinary language gives him the power to create an infinite variety of sentences.
These pattern languages are not confined to offices and workplace culture. All acts of a team are governed by a pattern language of some sort, and the patterns in the world are there, entirely because they are created by the pattern languages which people use.
And, beyond that, it is not just the shape of teams and leaders which comes from pattern languages — it is their quality as well. Even the life and beauty of the most awe-inspiring great religious movements came from the languages their leaders used.
But in our time the languages have broken down. Since they are no longer shared, the processes which keep them deep have broken down; and it is therefore virtually impossible for anybody, in our time, to make a space come alive.
To work our way towards a shared and living language once again, we must first learn how to discover patterns which are deep, and capable of generating life.
We may then gradually improve these patterns which we share, by testing them against experience: we can determine, very simply, whether these patterns make our surroundings alive, or not, by recognizing how they make us feel.
Once we have understood how to discover individual patterns which are alive, we may then make a language for ourselves for any leadership task we face. The structure of the language is created by the network of connections among individual patterns: and the language lives, or not, as a totality, to the degree these patterns form a whole.
Then finally, from separate languages for different leadership tasks, we can create a larger structure still, a structure of structures, evolving constantly, which is the common language for a team. This is the gate.
Now we shall begin to see in detail how the rich and complex order of a team can grow from thousands of creative acts. For once we have a common pattern language in our team, we shall all have the power to make our teams and leaders live, through our most ordinary acts. The language, like a seed, is the genetic system which gives our millions of small acts the power to form a whole.
Within this process, every individual act with a team is a process in which space gets differentiated. It is not a process of addition, in which preformed parts are combined to create a whole, but a process of unfolding, like the evolution of an embryo, in which the whole precedes the parts, and actually gives birth to them, by splitting.
The process of unfolding goes step by step, one pattern at a time. Each step brings just one pattern to life; and the intensity of the result defends on the intensity of each one of these individual steps.
From a sequence of these individual patterns, whole teams with the character of nature will form themselves within your thoughts, as easily as sentences.
In the same way, groups of people can conceive their larger public leadership, on the ground, by following a common pattern language, almost as if they had a single mind.
Once the teams are conceived like this, they can be built, directly, from a few simple marks made in the ground — again within a common language, but directly, and without the use of drawings.
Next, several acts of leadership, each one done to repair and magnify the product of the previous acts, will slowly generate a larger and more complex whole than any single act can generate.
Finally, within the framework of a common language, millions of individual acts of leadership will together generate a team which is alive, and whole, and unpredictable, without control.
This is the slow emergence of the quality without a name, as if from nothing.
And as the whole emerges, we shall see it take that ageless character which gives the timeless way its name. This character is a specific, morphological character, sharp and precise, which must come into being any time a leader or a team becomes alive: it is the physical embodiment, in the leadership of connected and empowered individuals, of the quality without a name.
Indeed this ageless character has nothing, in the end, to do with languages. The language, and the processes which stem from it, merely release the fundamental order which is native to us. They do not teach us, they only remind us of what we know already, and of what we shall discover time and time again, when we give up our ideas and opinions, and do exactly what emerges from ourselves.