“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.
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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).