Every year the members of CEO Roundtable have a Retreat where we focus on something from the Arts and Humanities, not business. This allows us to seek the deep lessons that can help improve our lives and companies. After every Retreat we leave with a simple phrase or thought that provides us with a shorthand way to communicate with each other about some larger idea or truth.
David Whyte, an internationally acclaimed poet, led one of our first retreats. We were seeking a new language that was more appropriate to our current age, so we turned to the poet. David chose to start with the language of Beowulf, the oldest literature of the Western world, and we delved into the main story line of this ancient myth.
In old Scandinavia a kingdom was being attacked by a monster and the King was desperate to have the monster, Grendel, killed to save his people. He issued a call for help from his neighbors, and that call was answered by Beowulf, a famous warrior, who came to slay the monster. But Grendel was not easy to defeat. After repeated efforts, Beowulf tricked Grendel into a position that allowed him to slam the castle gate on the monster’s arm, which Beowulf proceeded to tear off. Grendel retreated to his home in the swamp to die.
The King honored Beowulf before he left to return home. Then the King and his grateful people celebrated in the castle, drinking very heavily, and falling into a deep sleep. But Grendel’s mother found him in the swamp and was overcome with grief and rage. She entered the castle and slaughtered most of the people. The King was overcome with grief and called for Beowulf to return and slay Grendel’s mother.
Beowulf returned immediately but soon discovered he would have to fight the mother in her element, under the water in the swamp. This unexpected change troubled Beowulf. He had the weapons and skill to fight the mother on land and was confident of victory – but how could he fight her under water with no weapons? Beowulf did not turn from the challenge; rather, he entered the swamp where he stayed under water for three days. Fashioning new plans and new weapons, he eventually defeated Grendel’s mother.
The lesson we walked away with was, “Always know where Grendel’s mother is” when making plans.
A common short hand we use in our discussions of business issues is, “Do you know where Grendel’s mother is?”