Abbess Matilda has high expectations for the nuns in her convent. In this story we see three activities, one if which is working superbly well but the others are not – for different reasons. Matilda and Father Sam explore what is wrong, and what to do about it.
“Come and have a look at this.” Abbess Matilda said to Father Sam on one of his visits. He followed her around the cloister into a room where 10 nuns were sitting at tables, all at work. They barely glanced up when the two came in, so intent where they on what they were doing. Some were embroidering, others were painting illuminated manuscripts, all with an intensity and focus that was absolute. There was an older sister walking around, looking at each piece of work and having a short discussion with the artist.
Father Sam wandered around the room. He watched one sister paint little animals around the letters of a manuscript with a detail and beauty that he had never seen before. He examined embroidered flowers that looked like they could have been picked from the cloth. He was astounded; the work was not only of the highest quality but innovative, pushing the boundaries of art.
The bell rang for lunch. Reluctantly the nuns laid down their needles and brushes and filed out towards refectory. Sam and Matilda followed.
“It is beautiful.” said the abbess. “When they are in that room there is nothing else in the world but what they are working on, and the results are amazing. I just wish I could say the same other parts of the convent.”
In the garden
After lunch the two of them went into the convent’s small fruit and herb garden. They sat on the bench. Sam could not fail to notice that, in places, the weeds were taking over and the fruit trees looked in a sorry state.
After a while three sisters came out, one carrying a bag of tools. Pointing at a row of espaliered apple trees, she gave her two companions a pair of secateurs each and instructed them, “Prune these trees, cut to the second outward facing bud. I will be back in an hour.”
Sam and Matilda sat back in their bench so as not to be noticed and watched as the two sisters looked at the trees in a nonplussed manner. They chopped the branches in a desultory manner and then stood around chatting with each other.
In due course the nun in charge returned and saw the trees had been hacked about in an ineffectual way. She shook her head, made a caustic comment and told the sisters to pick up the debris and return to the shed.
Matilda was shocked, “What a fool I am. They have no idea what they are doing or how to do it! No wonder they are lazy, and the gardens are such a mess.”
“So, what are you going to do?” asked Sam
Abbess Matilda thought in silence for a few minutes and then suddenly said, “I need to do two things. Sister Ruth knows what she’s doing, but needs help running that team. I will talk with her. Then I need to make sure that the other sisters are trained so they have the skills they need. I may ask King Philip if I can send them to the palace gardens for a few days to learn from his gardeners.”
They got up and started to walk to the church for afternoon prayers. “You said there were other areas that were troubling you?” said Sam.
A musical interlude
“Yes, and you are about to hear one of them. It is the choir. A totally different problem; they are technically good, but right now they just seem to be going through the motions. The music is just dull.”
As Sam stood in the church and listened, he understood what Matilda was saying. The music was good, but mechanical. There is no inspiration about it, no joy in the singing.
The abbess walked the friar back to the convent gatehouse. “What do you think that the choir feels about their music?” asked Sam.
“They are bored!” she exclaimed, “They are just singing the same things, day in and day out. There is no musical challenge in that!”
“So, what are you going to do about this?”
“Oh there is so much. We could have a music festival, we could commission some new music, we could give some of them a break from the choir and bring new members in, we could…”
“What are you going to do?” interrupted Sam gently.
She paused. “You are right. What I’m going to do is to give the choir mistress some feedback. I never do that, and I probably should after every service. Then I could ask her whether she thinks that there is an issue, and what she wants to do about it.”
They said their farewells at the gate and, as he walked through it, Sam turned and smiled as he saw the abbess stride purposefully in the direction of the choir room.
Flow (also called optimal experience) is a state when individuals are totally absorbed in an activity. It is often experienced by artists and others involved in creative processes. Individuals in a state of flow will be very concentrated on the present, they have a strong sense of control over the activity, their sense of time can be altered and their experience of the activity that they are working on is intrinsically rewarding. In the workplace this will lead to high performance. There are several ways to increase the opportunities for workers to achieve the flow state; they need clear goals that are challenging and attainable, there must be immediate feedback on the activity and the individual must find the task sufficiently challenging but also have the necessary skills to undertake it. Leaders can seek to encourage teams and individuals to be creative, can ensure that the goals are clear and to ensure that there is a good balance of skills and challenge.
In this story we see the nuns at work in three settings. In the first they are clearly in the flow state; absorbed, productive and creative. In the garden the nuns do not know what they are doing, their skills are not up to the level of challenge. In the choir they have the skills, but there is insufficient challenge. What is the role of the 'middle managers' in these settings, the people that Matilda has to work through?
The Lonely King
Other posts in the Lonely King series available here
An executive coach and consultant. Andrew has been held senior roles in universities. His interests include medical research and innovation, education, leadership and research ethics.
Web page: ajtg.co.uk
Blog page: andrewgeorgeblog.com
© 2019, Andrew George, all rights reserved
Published, 9 September 2019