A Complete Roundtable

Michael Metzger

“Come in. I’ve been expecting you.”

Merlin’s first meeting with young Arthur explains why he would one day be indispensable to King Arthur’s Roundtable. I wrote last week how businesses benefit from having a complete roundtable. Every organization does. Here’s why.

In the Arthurian legend, young Arthur is lost in a deep, dark forest. He comes upon a warmly lit cottage. Just as Arthur lifts his hand to knock on the door, Merlin opens it. “Come in. I’ve been expecting you.” The table is set in anticipation of Arthur’s arrival. Knowing history, Merlin knew this day would come.

Merlin was a wise sage. His gift was in being able to look forward into the future by looking back. Merlin was always looking over his shoulder to the past. In looking back, he looked forward. It’s how he knew young Arthur would one day come knocking. Sages think like Churchill. “The further backward you look, the further forward you can see.”

As young Arthur matured, Merlin became his mentor. The wise sage “taught the future king about war, empathy, adaptation, and fairness.”1 He did it by magically transforming Arthur into a variety of creatures. Arthur experienced life through others’ eyes.

When Arthur inherited the kingdom it was steeped in brutality and rife with infighting among the nobles. The new king formulated a plan, blessed by Merlin, to stamp out the iniquities imposed on the population. He formed the Knights of the Round Table to help change the culture of England. Arthur saw Merlin as indispensable.

He also saw court jesters this way. Dagonet’s gift was similar to Merlin’s, except that he understood the present, not the future, by looking back. Court jesters served as gatekeepers. Standing at the doorway, they saw two worlds simultaneously – past and present. Merlin saw past and future. A complete roundtable required a sage and jester.

Recent findings from neuroscience support this. Neuroimaging indicates the brain’s right hemisphere looks back to look at the present or future (what sage and jester do). The left on the other hand looks to the future to look at the present. That’s what CEOs (kings) and C-level leaders (knights) do. CEOs look into the future by looking at the present. C-level leaders focus more on the present while looking at the future.

This explains why Arthur connected so well with Merlin, while knights tend to resonate with court jesters. Arthur thought future-present. Merlin thought future-past. The noble knights thought future-present. Court jesters thought past-present.

This is not a brain game. Complete roundtables are essential for sustained innovation. The human brain’s two hemispheres are designed to work in a collaborative fashion, like a roundtable. The right thinks purpose and problems. It draws on the past to make sense of the present and future. The left thinks products and processes to make predictions. It draws on the present to forecast the future. Effective roundtables consider past, present, and future – but this only happens when the right hemisphere leads the way.2

Most companies lead with the left hemisphere, with CEOs casting vision and so on. However, leading with the left creates a culture that is unduly confident that it can do fine without the right side of the table. The left hemisphere “may unreasonably, even stubbornly, be convinced of its own reason,” writes McGilchrist. “Without batting an eye, the left hemisphere draws mistaken conclusions from the information available to it.” If someone notes a problem, the left “makes up something plausible.” This is why the left is “ever optimistic, but unrealistic about its shortcomings.” Only the right hemisphere looks for discrepancies and invites disruption. With half a roundtable, most companies resist continual disruption, a non-negotiable for continual innovation.

It’s worth noting how King Arthur’s 6th century Roundtable was a half-table by the Middle Ages. One thousand years after Arthur, sages were being ignored while court jesters were considered flaky. “The knights of the Middle Ages were anything but gallant,” writes David Graeber, “often bastard sons of minor nobility… and joined to roving bands of thugs.”3 That’s similar to how many describe today’s business leaders. If history is a tutor, the lesson is how half a roundtable diminishes our long-term prospects for innovation. The solution is complete the roundtable.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 Paul Oestreicher, Camelot, Inc., Leadership and Management Insights from King Arthur and the Round Table (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011)
2 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
3 David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House, 2011).

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12 thoughts on “A Complete Roundtable”

  1. Thanks Mike. Would you suggest each individual also developed a ’roundtable’ mindset that celebrates humour, wisdom, kingship and knighthood, as part of their own story ? Is there an intrinsic inbalance, if whole brain thinking is surrendered to demarcated individuals ? Simply, would Merlin and Arthur use the other sides of their brains ?

  2. Mike Metzger

    Barnabas:

    Not sure what you mean by a “roundtable mindset.” If you mean an individual functioning as their own roundtable – cannot happen. A complete roundtable requires what Daniel Kahneman calls the “outside view.” I don’t know of an individual (self included) who can sustain an outside view of themselves (Jeremiah 17:8-9). Same applies to organizations. Within six months of being hired (full-time), you are become habituated and now an insider, no matter what you may think of yourself. Wise organizations hire outsiders (Merlin and court jester) to complete the roundtable.

    Second question: adding or subtracting changes the dynamic of anything. Probably best to take it case by case.

  3. Thanks for prompt response Mike.
    Sorry for creating misunderstanding. Yes, as a personal roundtable of self-control. A measure of balanced thinking using both sides of brain.
    Much as we can be individual temples within a temple. You appear to assert that self-management is not possible.

  4. Mike Metzger

    Possible, but for Christians, self-mastery is a virtue acquired via spiritual disciplines, the mysterious work of the Spirit, more than nominal involvement in a local faith community, and the wisdom of many counselors, including those acting as Merlin and court jesters.

  5. Mike,
    Thanks for working so persistently on this. I really appreciate it. Since your last visit to Milwaukee, I’ve been working on a lot of this with my circles of influence, but most importantly me. Its a very powerful approach. Your statement “most companies resist continual disruption, a non-negotiable for continual innovation” resonates with me. I’m feeling pretty blessed to have met you in my early 40’s.

  6. Is it possible for a relationship to contain combinations of roles as in transactional analysis ? Does the church itself and a business environment place a difference emphasis on the roundtable make-up ? Is it significant that there are more knights than any other role ?

  7. Mike Metzger

    Barnabas:

    Good questions. If I understand them, a roundtable is not transactional. It is collaborative for the sake of (as King Arthur’s Round Table stated) the “common good.” Second, I like to say I work in the human nature business and human nature is human nature. Roundtables work the same way in the church as they do in any business environment. Finally, you prevent jester and sage from exerting undue influence the same way you do king and knights. Trust. Being secure. Humility. Self-awareness.

  8. Thanks for the clarity Mike. I recognise your nuance of transactional, but my intention was to investigate whether it is possible for a knight or King to also demonstrate jester/sage qualities and vice versa.i.e role switching context specific. I feel uncomfortable with fixed hemisphere role specification.

  9. Mike Metzger

    I share your discomfort. The roles are not entirely fixed, as I note in my column. There’s some fluidity and overlap. Iain McGilchrist’s caution is how left hemisphere thinkers think they can do it all (i.e., perform all the left and well as right hemisphere functions). King Arthur’s Round Table didn’t work that way. Some of the outlooks overlapped, as I write in the column. Arthur connected with Merlin, while knights tend to resonate with court jesters. Arthur thought future-present. Merlin thought future-past. The noble knights thought future-present. Court jesters thought past-present.

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