Chris Thomson

Maybe you’ve heard this story about motivation: the visitor to a cathedral building-site who interviews three bricklayers. “Laying bricks,” says the first; “Putting this wall up,” says the second; “Building a cathedral,” says the last. The assumption was that all three were doing the same job but it turns out they’re not.

The story of course is made up, but here’s another combining cathedrals and leadership and it’s true. It starts in Paris in about 1137 CE. Abbot Suger wants his church, Saint-Denis, rebuilt in the new Gothic style. That means it has to be high and long oak beams are needed for the scaffolding. Really long.

‘Nah, can’t be done, mate. Nearest you’d find them is Auxerre.’

That’s in Burgundy, for Heaven’s sake!


“On a certain night, when I had returned from celebrating Mass, I began to think in bed that I myself should go through all the forests in these parts… Quickly disposing of other duties and hurrying up in the early morning, we hastened with our carpenters, and with the measurements of the beams, to the forest called Iveline. When we traversed our possession in the Valley of Chevreuse we summoned through our servants the keepers of our own forests as well as those who knew about the other woods, and questioned them under oath whether we could find there, no matter with how much trouble, any timbers of that measure. At this they smiled, or rather would have laughed at us if they dared; they wondered whether we were quite ignorant of the fact that nothing of the kind could be found in the entire region… We, however – scorning whatever they might say – began, with the courage of our faith as it were, to search through the woods; and toward the first hour, we had found one timber adequate to the measure. Why say more? By the ninth hour or sooner we had, through the thickets, the depths of the forests and the dense, thorny tangles, marked down twelve timbers (for so many were necessary) to the astonishment of all.”

So what’s this got to say about leadership? Well, this much for starters:

Leaders take responsibility: Not partial responsibility; total. This Mass takes place in the small hours but when Suger goes to bed he’s still thinking. He doesn’t sleep until he finds the solution.

Leaders prioritise: Suger reorganises his diary. Once he knows what needs to be done he lets nothing else get in his way. He doesn’t look back, doesn’t dither, doesn’t let anyone else’s get in the way of his own priorities.

Leaders lead: How did the carpenters feel about the early start and the haste? Not best pleased probably. And Suger’s decision to take them along is high-risk. If the nearest suitable trees really are in Auxerre he will fail publicly. But he knows that problem-solving and strategy-setting is only half the work. Leaders lead people, not ideas, so quite literally that’s what he does.

Leaders are humble but insightful: When he arrives at the forest the first thing Suger does is get help. He knows two things come together in great outcomes: sound strategy and sound know-how. He has the humility to recognise what he doesn’t know so he asks questions and he listens to the answers. He listens so carefully that he hears what’s not said, too: in this case a degree of ridicule and contempt which would lead the woodsmen to laugh in his face if they dared. Suger can see it but he’s not riled by it. He responds judiciously not emotionally. These guys know the forest much better than he does. On the other hand, how likely is it they’ve ever really looked for the kind of trees he’s after? And also, if they say yes they know what follows: a lot of hard work. So how far can he trust what he’s hearing?

Leaders are tenacious: This is some management-away-day, some team-building exercise. Not just the tangles and thickets but the wild boar and wolves Suger doesn’t mention. After an hour of this they have found one tree, just one. So what do they do? They give it – doubtless with a lot of encouragement and cajoling from Suger himself – another eight hours’ worth.

Leaders turn vision into reality: What is now proved was once only imagined, wrote William Blake. Suger’s bet pays off – to the astonishment of all. Cue celebration of the heroic leader? Not in someone of Suger’s ability. His 21st century equivalent would praise a great team effort. Suger – a twelfth-century abbot – far more likely included himself among the astonished and gave thanks to God for his bounty in providing tall oaks. And sparing them all the expense and discomfort of a tedious journey in search of something that was well within reach all along.

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal


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