The minor gesture

18th September 2019

As her colleagues guarded turf in a complex discussion over resource allocation, the Chief Executive quietly left the stuffy room. Actually, ‘stuffy’ is an understatement – I was facilitating in a ‘greenhouse’ – a windowless, south-facing, glass-and-chrome building in which the air conditioning had failed on the hottest afternoon of the Summer. Patience was wearing thin and tempers were as high as the temperature. This meeting was pivotal – funding to secure the future of shared services in this region was being brokered between the CEOs of the different Public Sector agencies present. Then she returned, carrying two large pitchers of iced water that chinked and slooshed deliciously, as she walked. As the discussion continued, she went around each of her peers and refreshed their glasses with the sparkling, iced water. No words. Just a cooling refill. Small nods of gratitude and smiles were exchanged. Human connection had been restored. The atmosphere lightened, and things relaxed a little.

I had witnessed an astonishing act of leadership that changed my facilitation style in that moment. Her minor gesture was a punctuation point that I believe helped the meeting enormously. However, in the aftermath of the meeting, the narrative was about the grand gestures that she and the other Chief Executives had made. Yet I believe that, often, minor gestures such as this have the capacity to awaken new resonances, and introduce a potential for difference that can be pivotal. And they are almost imperceptible…

In business, what invariably registers as change-making are the major events leaders become famous for – the company turnaround, the corporate buy-out, the new product innovation beautifully launched, the early entry in to a lucrative emerging market… Yet if we really pay attention, we might notice the power of minor gestures. Like grace notes played on a piano, lacing through the dominant melody, they can delight, they can transform our attention, and open up new possibilities, suggest different modes of awareness, and quietly transform the field of our relating. Yet they might also pass unperceived. We have to bring a new quality of attention to notice the minor gesture and its ripple effect on our experience.

The artist and philosopher Erin Manning, in her eponymous book, states:

"The minor isn’t known in advance. It never reproduces itself in its own image. Each minor gesture is singularly connected to the event at hand… moving the welling event in new and divergent directions that alter the orientation of where the event might otherwise have settled."

In my own life, I am aware that what has registered as change-making are also ‘big impact’ moments – a devastating injury from a martial arts accident; leaving a successful company I had co-founded and helped love to life; finding and losing a life-partner… At the same time, I am astonished to note that micro-events have had equal power to change me. Just last month, I went for a walk with a dear friend I’d been out of touch with for too long. As our dogs ran ahead on the path of the nature reserve, and our conversation ranged, she kept picking up litter and stuffing it in her pocket. There was no explanation or affectation, nor did I pass comment. Yet the following week, I found myself picking up litter in the park by my home, as I walked my dog alone. A new habit has taken root.

Minor gestures seem non-volitional. They also seem to impact our identity and have the capacity to set up new contexts for action. They can also reframe our thinking. For example, the philosopher Eric Hoffer once said:

“The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.”

This seems true to my experience and it fills me with dismay. It’s a ‘truth’ I see enacted daily on the global political stage as well as in organisational life. I also cringe at the vacuous grandiosity of the soundbite culture encouraged by the media in public life. And yet… perhaps Hoffer misses the transformational power of the minor gesture?

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