In 2011, the local authority I worked for at the time was undergoing some of the deepest budgetary cuts in it’s 300 year history. We were all feeling the strain of what seemed like endless change as services were slashed and reshaped. The management team I led needed to reconnect with each other, the people we served, and our mission. We committed as a team to get off-site for a day and have the developmental conversations that were becoming urgent. We had a range of political, financial, and organisational challenges that felt insurmountable. People were beginning to burn out. The problem was there was no budget for a venue or facilitation, and the prospect of spending the day in a municipal office building, valiantly supported by a HR Business Partner from the same stuck system, didn’t feel attractive.
Two years previously our chief executive had the foresight to equip leaders with the skills needed to have difficult conversations. The financial crash in 2008 and the government austerity programme that followed saw a prolonged period of uncertainty that tested public sector leadership to breaking point. This foresight meant myself and my colleagues were all trained coaches and when the idea to walk and talk emerged from one of our team, we jumped at it. We pulled an agenda together made up of our most pressing challenges and agreed to take it in turns to play the part of coach. A route was planned, a start time set, and a country pub selected for the days end.
When we decided to go on our walk it felt like a nice activity to do as a team and a creative way of having a coaching conversation. We didn’t stop and reflect on the phenomenally powerful forces that were working to accelerate and amplify the benefits of our learning experience, namely walking and nature.
Being in nature is good for us, or at least that’s what the science says. The National Geographic article ‘Call to the Wild: This Is Your Brain on Nature’ sets out the case for the physical, psychological, and neurological benefits of nature. The article cites research from the University of Exeter Medical School, where the mental health of 10,000 city dwellers, who had lived in the same location for over 18 years, was tracked using high-resolution mapping tools. The study found that people living near green space reported less mental distress, even after adjusting for income, education and employment (all of which can affect health). Further studies by a team of Dutch researchers in 2009 found those who lived around half a mile from green spaces had fewer health complaints, including depression, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines.
21st century conditions are “slowly ruining our lives”
Nature writer Professor David Gessner asserts that he had instinctively known what the science is now telling us to be true. He points to the research that indicates technology and 21st century conditions are “slowly ruining our lives.” Gessner argues that we are all so distracted that we are becoming “fast twitch” mammals, increasingly unable to relax and reaching for our phones as a reflex action. Technology is sapping our ability to concentrate and appreciate the natural world and our attention is being eroded. He points out that we spent millions of years in nature and now some part of us, a wild part of us, misses this ancestral home. Gessner believes that being in nature provides physical, mental, and cognitive benefits and, he dared to say, spiritual benefits too.
Perhaps not surprisingly, our modern scientists aren’t the first to have observed this. In 1798, sitting on the banks of the River Wye, William Wordsworth marvelled at how “an eye made quiet by the power of harmony…” offered relief from “…the fever of the world.” John Muir the American environmental pioneer inherited this perspective when he said: “In every walk with nature one receives far more than they seek.” Alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson and Fredrick Law Olmsted, Muir built the case for creating the world’s first national parks through claiming that nature had healing powers.
The benefits of this power are amplified when combined with the dynamic movement of walking. According to research from Stanford University, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (2013), walking increased creativity for 81% of participants who were asked to undertake the Guildford Alternative Uses Test (which asks you to think of as many uses as possible for a simple object, like a a shoe or a paperclip). Participants in the test increased their creative output on average by 60%. Walking to cultivate creative thinking is now well established among top business leaders like Square’s Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and was acknowledged by Apple’s Steve Jobs. In Silicon Valley, walk and talk has become the go to ‘technology’ for connecting with others.
“It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth”.
The quote is probably not intended to be taken entirely literally, but the physical activity of walking was central to Nietzsche’s creative process nonetheless. Much of Charles Darwin’s creative thinking was also done on foot. He famously built a circular path in the grounds of his Kent home soon after he moved there in 1842. It became known as the ‘Sandwalk’, a gravel-lined oval path around the trees and bushes he had planted. He called this his ‘thinking path’ and walked it morning and afternoon, while mulling over some of his most difficult problems. Others, including Aristotle, taught while walking. Martin Luther King would take hour long walks each day to commune with nature whilst at seminary school. The American journalist and prominent social activist Dorothy Day was also a lifelong walker.
Walking in nature can become an allegory for life’s journey
The list could go on, but the testimonies of historic figures and business leaders are not the best evidence for the power of walking, and neither is the science. Your own experience will be the best evidence you can find. We can all feel that something is going on when we are walking in a natural environment. Something we only notice when we stop to look inside of us and all around. Feeling the ground under foot connects us to the earth, as long as we are minded to notice that connection. Walking in nature can become an allegory for life’s journey, with twists and turns, choices to make about direction, with varying pace, terrain and resting places. The power of nature and walking work together to nurture our wellbeing and help us to think clearly. It allows us to arrive at a new view point, see where we’ve been and navigate onto the right path.
Our walk as a team resulted in some pretty amazing innovation, we were always impressed at how seemingly unsolvable problems could be reframed. In fact, we found that our problems provided a new opportunity that made us thankful for having them in the first place. A habit of walking and talking was formed over about six years. We continued to organise country walks and also took advantage of the green spaces all around. On occasion we would walk a meeting in the park next to the office or do one lap of the building just to clear our heads. During this time my colleagues led a groundbreaking transformation programme that saw no cuts to vital public services despite a 25% reduction in funding. Even more impressively, our work delivered life changing outcomes for customers and performance unmatched in the UK. We found that this practice of walking allowed us to connect with each other unencumbered by the politics of the institution we worked in, and allowed us to be free to think, be, and do differently.
Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has created conditions even more challenging than the 2008 financial crash. It has changed how we view nature as it seemed, for a brief moment, the machines were turned off. As working from home has become the default, the need to bring teams together is perhaps greater than ever. We may have to stay at least a metre apart from each other as we walk, but the opportunity to reconnect with our passion, people, and purpose is only a step away.