Mushrooms, by Sylvia Plath, is my poem of the month. Do you want to know what it’s about? One person says it’s about mushrooms. The beauty of poetry is its surplus of meaning. Poems mean a lot – a lot more than the sum of their words and usually a lot more than the poet intends.

Context matters. Friend Helen Scarisbrick, who always wants to explore chaos and complexity, introduced this poem as part of opening worship for a leadership day in the Diocese of Chester alongside the parable of the mustard seed.

Jesus said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we sue to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.

Instantly the poem becomes much more than about mushrooms. It was then a poem about everything that ever lives – for me, anyway, who carries at the back of my mind these words from Dee Hock, (founder of Visa), railing against failed command and control methods and thinking his way to a better understanding of life from the earth beneath his feet. In Birth of the Chaordic Age he wrote the words which forever challenge my understanding of organisation and leadership:

Soil is building as thousands of gophers, mice and moles work assiduously carrying grass underground and dirt to the surface. Beneath us, billions of worms, ants, beetles and other creatures till the soil around the clock. Trillions of microscopic creatures live, excrete, die beneath my feet, fulfilling their destiny and mine as well, just as surely as fulfil theirs.

In that context it becomes a poem about the power of perseverance, the power in weakness, the place of the seed. It becomes a reminder of the organisms that are part of our organisation which we ignore or oversimplify to our peril, and a reminder that there is “room” in “mushroom” to think again about life, organisation and leadership. It becomes a reminder of what and who we don’t notice, a voice for the voiceless. That makes it my Poem of the Month.


Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

PS. Mushrooms is from Sylvia Plath’s first collection of poems, The Colossus and Other Poems (1960).

Loving weaknesses

ImageOne of the principle insights of Belbin’s theory of team roles is that all of us have preferences for particular roles within a team. Belbin lists nine of these roles emphasising that all of these roles need to be filled if there is to be a fully functioning team. Our role preferences are governed by our strengths. For example, somebody has to check the bright ideas that come from the team members. That person, is, according to Belbin’s description, a “monitor evaluator”. This will be a preferred role for someone who is “sober, strategic and discerning” and “who sees all options”. But there is a downside to these “strengths”, and for the “monitor evaluator” there are “allowable weaknesses” of lacking drive and being unable to inspire others.

Our default position about weaknesses is complaint and annoyance. The consequence of this is that it is more usual not to publicly acknowledge individual weakness, and internalise the complaint and annoyance. That can’t be good for teamwork! Weaknesses are only usually judged negatively, but some weaknesses are allowable and could be viewed constructively.

Why do we not celebrate our weakness? It seems to me that Belbin gives us permission for that, because there is always a flipside to weaknesses. Instead of complaining about X’s lack of drive, we can recognise that X can play a vital part in our enterprise.

For my part (my preferred role is “plant”), I know that some may find my inability to “communicate effectively” (because I get “too preoccupied”) and my “ignoring of incidentals” frustrating and annoying. But that’s what you get in exchange for someone who can be “creative, imaginative, unorthodox”. Personally I am grateful for those who have seen the potential that I have through those weaknesses.

So, why don’t we talk more openly, and more positively, about weaknesses?