During a sudden downpour in 2012, Paul Cummins sought refuge in a public library. He explored the archives and came across wills written by soldiers fighting in the first world war. One written phonetically, captivated him.
Paul is dyslexic and the phonetics made it easier for him to read. He realized that it was the will and last testament of a woman who had disguised herself and gone off to fight and make the ultimate sacrifice in the trenches. A phrase: “Blood swept lands and seas of red where angels fear to tread” shot out. Paul was overwhelmed and it made him think about the war’s massive death toll. There were 888,246 British and Commonwealth fatalities during World War One.
Fueled with a crazy idea, Paul embarked on an audacious quest to create nearly a million handmade ceramic poppies – a lone ceramics guy who became a real leader with a vision that inspired thousands of volunteers to help make an impossible vision possible.
Quests Are Part of Every Culture’s Folklore
Since the dawn of civilization, quests have been a driving force behind humankind’s’ progress. Take JFK’s moonshooting quest; or Nelson Mandela’s and Martin Luther King’s noble quests for all persons to be free regardless of color or creed. But consider too the Polynesian islander in a dug-out canoe who one-day said: “Let’s go that way!” No one had ever been that way before. No one even knew what existed that way. Quests are amazing, they overcome the impossible, are open to anyone and they change the world.
Why Are Quests Important in 2019?
We are living through revolutionary times. Every 150-200 years forces of progress collide. You can see these disruptive periods in history: The Age of Enlightenment, The Renaissance, The Age of Discovery and The Industrial Revolution; when everything changes. The same is happening now.
At Davos, the World Economic Forum called our current age: The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Not to knock them, but they could have been more creative – we are living in the Age of Quests. Never before have so many doors of progress opened up in the fields of science, health, engineering, education, entertainment and space travel. Perhaps the defining quest of our age will be a human colony on Mars. But you do not need to travel to the red planet for your own quest. Explore any of the 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and you will discover a multitude of questing opportunities awaiting real leaders. When leaders get these four qualities right, amazing results happen, as Paul’s quest demonstrates:
Is There a Better Way?
Paul Cummins left the library asking: Is there a better way? – To commemorate a century since the start of WW1. He devised an inspired solution: A ‘sea of red’ ceramic poppies, filling the moat around the Tower of London. “Ceramics are transient and fragile, like we are” says Paul in an interview with the Guardian. “They feel part of our very humanity. Societies have always been carbon-dated by their ceramics and pottery. I settled on poppies because of their color and links to war remembrance.”
An Inspiring Destination
The goal: 888,246 ceramic poppies created and planted before 11 November 2014. There was no ambiguity and his quest was crystal clear.
Challenging The Impossible
Making nearly one million ceramic poppies is an immense undertaking. Paul wanted the poppies to be individual, like every soldier. So, the ceramic flowers were lovingly handcrafted. But Paul operates alone out of a small studio. He needed an army of supporters to craft the 3,500 daily poppies required to meet his quest’s target and deadline. Plus, his quest required a poppy planting odyssey. It was calculated that one person working on their own would take three and a half years to plant all the poppies. In the end, 300 artists worked day and night for a year crafting the poppies; and, over 27,000 people volunteered their time planting, and ultimately removing, the scarlet sea of remembrance.
Delivering Meaningful Benefits
Quests require innovations. Paul devised a revolutionary way to fund his quest and the sale of poppies raised over £10m for charities. Perhaps the greatest achievement though was the estimated five million people who came in person to pay homage, and for a time, the installation was the most viewed photograph on Google.
So, what can you take with you as you look towards 2019? Today because of breakthrough technologies, anyone anywhere, with a radical idea, leveraging the power of social can embark on a meaningful quest. It’s never been easier to make a real difference in the world. Few leaders think in terms of their business and quests. The great ones like Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Paul Cummins do it intuitively and they achieve remarkable results.