How to Say Goodbye: Brexit, Life & Leadership

10 Mar 2020

I gave this keynote in October 2019 at the Worldwide Meeting on Human Values in Monterrey, Mexico at the futuristic 4000 capacity Pabellon-M auditorium. In my most personal talk to date, I explore:

  • Brexit as just one of many examples in society that show how terrible we are at goodbyes
  • why goodbyes are so important in leadership and in life – looking at evolutionary biology and symbiotic relationships
  • how to make our goodbyes better – whether it’s Brexit, leaving a job, or saying our final farewell to loved ones

Transcript

‘Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,

That I shall say good night till it be morrow.’

No, that’s not a leaked quote from the Brexit negotiations between Britain and the European Union. That is, of course, that romantic farewell from Romeo and Juliet.

Britain’s departure from the European Union is not the only grim goodbye. In our personal lives, friendships, marriages, once  characterised by mutual trust and dignity, at the point of separation they turn bitter and divisive. And so is the case in our work lives as well, and when it’s time for someone we love to pass away, our goodbyes are filled with so much sorrow and so little sweetness.

Why does how we say goodbye matter so much? Why is it so incredibly hard?  And what can we learn from Brexit and other familiar farewells about values, life and leadership?

Well values matter most when they are tested, and there is no greater test than the moment we say goodbye. 

The moment we say goodbye is the moment we establish our true legacy, and I believe it is as important as the whole time that we are together. We are here to speak about values. The moment of goodbye tells us whether those values mean anything at all. So we need to get better at saying goodbye, we need to talk about saying goodbye – before it is too late.

A mother, on her deathbed at home, held her son’s hand gently, with tears in her eyes, she says to him, ‘there are three types of people in this world: adders, subtractors and multipliers.’ The adders, when you are with them, and when they leave you, you feel added to, energised. The subtractors, when they leave,(and you know who they are) you feel depleted, it’s as though to add to their own energy, they take something from you. And then there are  multipliers, who are so full of inspiration that when they leave you they set off something exponential the multiplier effect, and life will never be the same again.’

This dying mother chose her moment of goodbye to be a multiplier: to sow a superseed of inspiration that will germinate in her son’s heart and in the hearts of all who would hear her message.

How many of us if we put our hand on our heart can say that most of our most meaningful goodbyes have been multipliers or even adders? I dare say many of them have been subtractors.

This matters because when we have a ‘bad-bye’ rather than a goodbye, from an evolutionary perspective, our very survival could be at stake

Evolution and goodbyes

We know from the 4.5 billion year story of evolution, that, while competition is the key for species to survive, it is kindness, collaboration, compassion, the formation of symbiotic relationships that is the key for species to thrive.

So when we say ‘goodbye’ which is a contraction of ‘God be with ye’, we’re wishing the other party well, to fare well, because we know that it is in our enlightened self interest to leave on good terms. 

When Juliet says to Romeo: ‘That I shall say good night till it be morrow’ she knows that she will have a future social connection with her Romeo and again it is to their mutual benefit to be on good terms. 

And so it is with Brexit – Britain and the European Union know that they will have to sit down on the morrow and negotiate a huge trade deal. 

So the quality of our goodbyes matter, because if we have a ‘bad-bye’, if we don’t fare well, then our collaborator, someone who could be our symbiotic relationship, our partner, could turn into a competitor and we get gobbled up.

Destructive goodbyes

We know from experience that destructive goodbyes can leave a trail of destruction, not just for those directly involved, but for the ecosystems that we are all attached to.

When I was seven years old; this is me wearing that charming jumper…thanks Mum, and I was here with my big sister Nathalie when she was 10. This was the tender age where our parents decided to say their goodbyes and have a divorce. And it was really tricky. Some of the language; the tone of the communication around this goodbye was difficult. It was difficult, of course for them, but it was really challenging for my sister and I. There was blame-games and finger-pointing, and certainly for me and I think my sister would agree, even 30 years later the pain from that wound of that goodbye is still felt. 

This matters on a global scale. When we think of Britain and the European Union, about the tone and language of the goodbye. It matters so much.It matters because who is affected is not just two political trading partners but their 513 million people, who are their 513 million children, who are affected by this divorce settlement. 

Trends in goodbyes

So we know that goodbyes matter because values matter most when they are tested and there is no greater test than when we say goodbye. We know they matter because our very survival could be at stake. Not just our survival but generations to come can feel the negative or positive impact of our goodbyes whether they are adders, subtractors or multipliers. But goodbyes also matter because we are saying goodbye more than ever before.

The idea of a job for life is now a thing of the past. In a recent survey, 91% of Millennials say they expect to stay in their job for less than 3 years. In their working life that could be 20 jobs. That’s 20 goodbyes from work alone.

As a species, we are on the move now more than ever before. In 2017 there were 258 million people, that’s 1 in 30, living in a country different to the one of their birth. The latest projections suggest that figure could rise to405 millionby 2050 – and with the catastrophic impacts of climate change that figure could be even higher.

So we are saying goodbye from where we live; from where we work. So we better get better at saying goodbye.

How do we do it? First we need to understand why saying goodbye is so incredibly hard.

Why is saying goodbye so hard?

There is, of course, a whole spectrum of goodbyes – there’s the casual, the temporary: ‘I’m just popping out to get some tacos, I’ll see you later’, to that emotional tug of the hug at an airport when a loved one is moving to the other side of the world.

But I believe that there are universal principles within every goodbye that, if we can understand them, if we can apply them,we can leave that legacy of love, of hope, of compassion.

Gib

When the phone rang my heart sank. It was my best friend Gib’s mother. She told me that Gib had a brain tumour. He was in a hospice and he only had a few days left to live – would I like to say goodbye?

So I got the train to the North of England and I saw him in the hospice. His wavy hair was gone, he was completely bald. . He couldn’t speak, but he didn’t need to. His eyes still had that mischievous twinkle. We sat there together in silence for some time. And after a while I walked up to him, and whispered in his ear, ‘I love you’ and I left. A few days later, I was at the pub with friends after work. We were having fun and then out of the blue,I can’t explain this but out of the blue I just burst into tears. I knew at that very moment that he was gone.

That was 13 years ago. Why is it so hard? I mean it – why? 

After all, we all say goodbye. It is not a question of ‘if’, it is a question of when, it’s a question of how. All of us will say goodbye from this event. We will say goodbye to our organisations. We will say goodbye to our partners. And yes, we will say goodbye to this life.

Veils of permanence

So why is it so difficult? Why is it so hard when our landlord phones us up out of the blue and says, ‘I’m sorry, it’s time for you to move on’? Why is it so difficult when our political partner says, ‘We’ve had a referendum. I’m sorry but our 43 year relationship has got to come to an end’? And when a loved one passes away, why are we filled with so much grief and heartache? 

I think one of the core reasons why saying goodbye is so incredibly hard, is because we fabricate veils of permanence. We sign permanent contracts at work, we sign up for 25, 30 year mortgages with a bank, and we say to our partner across the aisle, ‘till death do us part.’ 

When we start a job we don’t talk to our employers about how we would like to leave, even though the global average suggests that we will stay in that job for no longer than 4.5 years. When we are happily married, we don’t talk about how we’d like to separate or divorce, even though statistically one in two marriages will end this way. And rarely when we are healthy or well do we talk about how we would like to die, even though one wise person famously said, our own death or those of our loved ones, even though, as someone once said ‘the global mortality rate stays steady at 100%.’

So we don’t talk about it. We buy into these ideas of permanence. And that’s OK. That’s natural. Particularly for children, it’s healthy to have an idea of stability, of security, so the children don’t need to look over their shoulder, and can have a sense of continuity.But there’s a risk that as we get older, these veils of permanence become fixed in our minds. Even though we know from neuroscience that the mind doesn’t stay still, that everything within the mind, our perceptions of self, all of our sensory perceptions, wave like the ocean. We know that the universe is in constant flux. Yet we still buy into these ideas of continuity.

And what this means is that when change comes along, as it inevitably does, we resist it. It’s why when we have catastrophic climate change – we resist making the changes we know that we need to. Because the story of climate change is out of kilter with the stories that we tell ourselves, that we fabricate for ourselves, of a never-changing world; of happily ever after.

It’s why when we’re cooking dinner and our friend says to us, ‘I’m just popping out to get some tacos, I’ll see you later.’ It’s why we say, ‘but I thought that we were …that you were going to eat here tonight.’ It’s why when our political partner has a referendum we say, ‘but I thought we had a strong and stable relationship’. And it’s why when a loved one dies out of the blue, we are filled with so much grief. When we are not prepared for change we resist it.

It’s this dissonance between on one side our hope and expectations of a permanent world, with the reality of an ever changing universe that is a key cause behind why saying goodbye is so incredibly hard.

Sweet sorrow

Another reason is that when it comes to saying goodbye we pay so much attention to the sorrow and so little to the sweetness.

When confronted by death we see only death, and not as Frida Kahlo would have us, see the sweetness of living life, ‘Viva la vida’ – of celebrating life. When we lose that which is most precious and important to us we focus on our loss and turn our back on the fact that there is always hope.

When we say goodbye, it only hurts so much because we care so much. What we are experiencing when we say goodbye is our true capacity to love. 

When I whispered ‘goodbye’ into Gib’s ear at that moment I was overcome, overwhelmed by loss, yes, but also by abundance. When we say goodbye we are fully human, and within that humanity is an invitation to leadership, an invitation to live that values driven life we have always wanted.

As Khalil Gibran says: ‘Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.’

There’s a wonderful shaman called Martin Prechtel who gives a talk called ‘Grief and Praise’, which I commend to you all, and in it he says that grief is praise because it is the natural response of the heart to honour that which it misses. So what if we could look within the sorrow of our goodbye and see that sweetness? I believe the pain that we feel, the pain that I felt when I said goodbye to Gib, the pain that I feel when I wanted Britain to remain in the European Union, the pain that we all feel at that point of goodbye, is not our pain alone, it’s shared. It’s shared with our ancestors, and it’s shared with all others around the world.

We should be under no illusion, that right now there are 7.5 billion hearts stretched and strained by the existential effect and threat of climate change. A great mourning and grief for our departure from our true nature as stewards of this earth.  This macrocosmic grief feeds directly into our microcosmic goodbyes. They are not separate, there’s that symbiotic relationship again between the macrocosm and the microcosm. So we’re not just feeling our own grief at the point of goodbye, we are sharing the world’s grief.  

But so the opposite is also true, because deep within the grief, the mourning with climate change, the mourning that we are seeing around the world, is also a deep love. Behind the grief of climate change is a deep seated love of people and planet. Wouldn’t it be amazing if when we were in tears and hair dishevelled and crying and mourning at that moment of goodbye we could be like, ‘Wow, I’ve got such an amazing capacity to love.’ Aren’t we incredible as a human species that we’ve got so much love? 

What if we could look within our sorrow and see that sweetness? 

How to make goodbyes better

Well we need to lift that veil of permanence, kiss the lips of change, and only then can we begin to marry our expectations with our reality. So we need to contemplate the nature of change, integrate it, systemise it. 

Mexico is way ahead of Britain in this department – and I don’t just mean the whole Brexit omnishambles. Here we have Día de Muertos, Day of the Dead –  a ritualised, systemised annual honouring of the dead, a reflection of the nature of change

because death is change in all its manifest glory. Every single year, and in Mexico for over 3000 years there have been rituals to honour our ancestors. This is healthy, this is important, in fact I’d say it’s necessary. I wonder actually whether it’s one reason why the divorce rate in Mexico is one of the lowest in the world. Less than one divorce per 1000 people! 

But seriously if we reflect systematically on the nature of change we are much less likely to take each other and the natural world for granted. Once I can see your mortality, once I know our relationship not just might but must come to an end, our current relationships are imbued with more meaning and purpose.

How to say better goodbyes?

So how to say goodbye?  I think the first step is to actually say goodbye. It’s tempting sometimes to let meaningful relationships drift just so that we don’t have to face the music of that awkward confrontation and say goodbye. But that misses the point, it misses the gift, the opportunity of goodbye. Because if we can say goodbye, say it kindly, say it gently, and say it clearly, it’s a liberating gift It enables us to swim in different directions inunpolluted waters. 

It allows us to travel lightly, unencumbered by the baggage of the past, unencumbered by ambiguity; ‘does she still like me?’ Does he still want to work here?’ um……’do they still want to be my political partner?’ There’s clarity. A clear and kind goodbye is a liberating gift that is an essential tool in the armoury of the leader.

It’s important to make something of our goodbyes. 

When I was 24 I set up Global Tolerance, an international communications agency to spread messages of hope. We represented people like His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Gandhi….his grandson, TED and The Charter for Compassion and I loved it. I absolutely loved my job. It didn’t feel like work. It felt like an extension of my heart.  But another extension of my heart, my wife, gave birth to our first beautiful daughter Seren. And at that moment I knew that I needed to say goodbye to the company that I loved because I couldn’t give the organisation the full focus and attention that it deserved, because I wanted to give my family the full focus and attention it continues to deserve.(Applause)

You’re right they are great, thank you you may have seen them earlier.

I set up a new exit strategy, a new way to say goodbye to an organisation, and it was called an Open Leadership Exercise, or OLE for short. To celebrate the ending. Why must it be filled with doom and gloom when it can be a celebration? It was a global open search process. Anyone around the world, if they wished to, could apply to be the new owner and leader of this international communications agency with a conscience. And the process was incredible. It inspired all kinds of wonderful people to believe that they too had the capacity to lead such an organisation.

I ended up giving away the company to 2 of the competing finalists in the process. Unfortunately that partnership didn’t work out. 2 years ago the company folded. But that’s OK. It’s okay. Because all organisations must come to an end. We all need to say goodbye, it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when, it’s a question of how. And I feel so grateful because I know that the process, the OLE, was a multiplier process for so many people, and inspired scores of people to start up their journey of entrepreneurship. 

I think one of the simplest and most effective ways  to say goodbye better is to meditate, if only for a few minutes,every day. Because as I said before when we sit and reflect simply on the nature of mind, on the nature of our world we see that it is full of change. Our thoughts wave, our feelings wave, our physical sensations they wave as well. If we can systematically engage with the nature of change then guess what….when change comes along in the form of a goodbye, we are better able to adapt to it, to respond to it, rather than rage and lock horns.

And let us ritualise our goodbyes. When we leave this event let us light a fire. Not in the building…by the way, I must stress that, but let us light a fire.  When our partner leaves let’s dance and get naked. When someone leaves work let’s have a boozey going away party. Let’s turn our everyday transitions into rites of passage.  Because when we truly make something of our goodbyes we see within every goodbye a hidden hello. We see that our goodbyes are not so final after all. As Tom Stoppard said, ‘look on every exit as being an entrance into somewhere else.’ For every goodbye there is a hidden hello.

The ultimate goodbye

In truth though there is no goodbye.  Goodbye is what Einstein would have called ‘an optical delusion of consciousness’.  There is no separation. So yes, while it’s true that everything in the universe waves and changes on a continuous basis, so it is also true that every single thing in this universe is intimately connected, in ways beyond our comprehension. 

So when you leave this event, when Britain says goodbye to the European Union, and yes when our loved ones pass away, know this: whether we like it or not, we’re stuck with each other!