We’ve just had a wonderful conference at Ashridge. The theme was the global ethical leadership compass, which set me to musing on the adequacy of the metaphor. It occurred to me that the navigational compass is a very poor metaphor. Magnetic north is slowly drifting from Canada towards Siberia over disputed territories; it also wanders many miles a day; changes depending on where on the Earth you take the reading, and could swap with magnetic south at any time. A compass magnet is also affected by local magnetic fields and, to cap it all, because opposites attract magnetic north is actually the south pole anyway.
Then I recalled the other sort of compass, the compasses used for drawing, and the famous reference in John Donne’s poem A Valediction Forbidding Mourning (1611):
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
I then discovered that John Donne was Secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton (Baron Ellesmere and the father of the first Earl of Bridgewater) who bought Ashridge from Elizabeth I in 1604. Donne was sacked from his post for secretly marrying his boss’s niece, for whom this poem was written. The fix’d foot struck me as being a good metaphor for the role of ethics in business life.