March 2021 edition: C.S. Lewis and the Lure of the Inner Ring

C.S. Lewis and the Lure of the Inner Ring

Last December I was fortunate to attend a webinar delivered by the leadership coach, Mitzi Wyman, entitled ‘The Lure of the Inner Ring’. Her content was inspired by a similarly-titled speech by the well-known author, C.S. Lewis, for the Memorial Lecture at King’s College, University of London, in 1944. Lewis’ message is timeless, but also timely; it is strikingly pertinent to those of us currently seeking to influence the building of better education for the future.

Famous of course for his writing of fiction, such as ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, I discovered that alongside Lewis’ work as a professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, he was also a lay theologian, who had written extensively on Christian themes. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Lewis’ speech (which you can read here) has a moral tone. He is offering advice to a younger generation on how to navigate safe passage through the pursuit of a successful professional life, where one is seeking to exert influence and furtherment of one’s craft, while avoiding a dangerous temptation, which could result in moral, personal or professional ruin. Here the stark warning:

‘Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man [sic], who is not yet a very bad man, do very bad things.’

Lewis posits various examples of the ‘in-crowd/out-crowd’ concept we would all recognise from our own experience of human interaction. However this in itself is not the essential danger he identifies; instead he asserts that for all of us there exists both the dominant desire to be 'inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.' This desire can seduce even the best of us to find themselves, almost accidentally, taking leave of their integrity and becoming what he terms a ‘scoundrel’.

As we emerge from this pandemic, our sector is relying on its leaders to work effectively in concert and display overt system altruism, sharing the best ideas and drawing on complementary strengths.

Steve Taylor

This drive to be ‘in’ is not to be confused with ambition. We would all recognise the structures and accepted hierarchies of the organisations of which we have been a part, and hope that a promotion to a more senior or influential role will allow us the opportunity to strive for and achieve noble aims. In our sector, this should include the realisation of a deeper and more sustained positive impact on the education of young people, on their life chances and on the future prosperity of their communities. However noble our intent, according to Lewis we are not immune to the lure of ‘the sacred little attic or studio, the heads bent together, the fog of tobacco smoke, and the delicious knowledge that we—we four or five all huddled beside this stove—are the people who know.’

For me, this was a sobering reminder of the fragility of integrity. In 20 years in educational leadership, I have never encountered a colleague who claims to have no care for values or moral purpose. We can all appreciate the power, potential and honest intention of strong networks, where we join with like-minded thinkers, passionate to draw more value from our collaborative endeavour to make a positive difference. However, Lewis’ prophecy is that we will all at some time face the choice:

'…Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still - just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïve or a prig - the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which "we” - and at the word "we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure - something "we always do.”'

We have learned over the past year that some of the resilience shown by Trusts of schools has stemmed from the existence of domain expertise in a range of key areas, and the ability of Trust leaders to exercise humility and both draw on and cede authority to those with specialist insight. As we emerge from this pandemic, our sector is relying on its leaders to work effectively in concert and display overt system altruism, sharing the best ideas and drawing on complementary strengths. There are many conversations to be had and we can’t all simultaneously be in the room (even on Zoom!). We do need to respect the potency of smaller group discussion and convene formal and informal networks, but we also need to ensure we have left the door open and the ladder out for others to join. If you find that your pleasure in your work has also become defined by a delight in excluding others, you may have succumbed to the temptations outlined above.

According to Lewis, here is the antidote:

'If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it.'