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October 2018


The Senegalese "Thinker"


What are the big take-aways?


Here is a photo of the little wooden “Thinker” carving that my husband Chris and I brought back from our trip to Senegal last month:


Why do I like it?


I was in Senegal for the second week of September to facilitate a two-day leadership training for the West Africa regional team (photo here) of Catholic Relief Services, an international humanitarian aid organization.  Before the training began, Chris and I had the opportunity to enjoy a couple of days of sight-seeing and to learn a bit about Senegalese history, culture and art.


In addition to the ubiquitous renderings of the baobab trees that serve as a national symbol of Senegal (and whose plight was just covered in this New York Times article), another common representation of the country is its unique stylization of Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture, “The Thinker.”  (The inspiration from Robin is unsurprising, as Senegal was colonized by the French from the middle of the last millennium until it gained independence in 1960.)  I was immediately drawn to the Senegalese “Thinker” carving’s elegant meditative pose, but what I like most about it is that the figure is variously described as a king engaged in an internal struggle, a grandfather ruminating upon the fate of his ancestors and their offspring in the diaspora, and as an embodiment of the West African ideal of leadership: deliberative, mindful and non-reactive.


In what situations would this be useful?


I find the “Thinker’s” calmness in the face of difficulty (s/he looks deeply torn to me) reassuring and provocative.  How refreshing it is in this grim era of hyper-partisan hysteria in the West – with no dearth of prominent leaders exemplifying the mayhem caused by greedy, reactive and self-serving rushes to judgment – to see leadership excellence construed as mindful contemplation!  How ironic and perfect, it seems to me, that I found this representation in Africa. Time means something different on that continent, where all of humanity originated millions of years ago.


I will use my “Thinker” as a continual reminder of the value of ripening to ethical leadership and decision-making.  By ripening, I mean the flow of wisdom that only emerges from the passage of time in a state of paradoxically active receptivity.  Personally, I work on developing active receptivity in my mindfulness practice.


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


It’s impossible to summarize the dazzling array of resources arising from the efflorescence of research on mindfulness and related forms of moment-to-moment awareness.  (I’ve written about some of them previously in the Leadership Library, most recently last March.) My favorite hub for information in this overall area is the Greater Good Science Center out of UC Berkeley, which focuses on the scientific exploration of well-being.  The Center has a new set of initiatives designed to support workplace leaders.  I recommend signing up for the GGSC’s weekly news magazine, which recently featured an article on “The Myths of Mindfulness.”


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