Episode 147 – The Children’s Fire with Mac Macartney

Mac MacartneyIn a world facing unprecedented social and ecological challenges, Mac Macartney has a challenge for businesses:

‘There is no organisation in this world better designed, resourced or equipped to create change in the world than businesses. They’re designed to make stuff happen… We talk a lot about innovation and creativity. Could we really envisage something startling that would… lead us into a truly exciting and vibrant and flourishing future?’

There is no organisation in this world better designed, resourced or equipped to create change in the world than businesses. They're designed to make stuff happen. Share on X

This is the central theme behind The Children’s Fire, in which Mac’s account of his own extraordinary journey through the heartland of Britain, wild camping without a tent in one of the harshest winters of modern times, is woven into his reflections on leadership, sustainability, and spiritual, social and ecological change. 

In this wide-ranging discussion we talk about all these issues, but also more tactical points for business book writers: how to run an extraordinary book launch tour, the secrets of effective public speaking, and how to mine your database to promote your book. 

Practical and inspiring, just the way you like it. 


Mac’s site: https://macmacartney.com/

Embercombe: https://embercombe.org/

Mac on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MacartneyMac

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

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Alison Jones:                        Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. And I’m so delighted to be here today with Mac Macartney who is a Practical Inspirational author, and has a foot in several worlds. He’s the founder of the inspirational social enterprise Embercombe. He’s an international speaker, writer, and a leadership consultant.

                                                      He was mentored by a group of Native American teachers over a period of about 20 years and made a pledge to do all he could to rekindle an ancient indigenous teaching and spirituality wherever he found, or he could create, the opportunity to exert his influence. He’s the author of several books, most recently and with me, The Children’s Fire. So welcome to the show, Mac.

Mac Macartney:                Thank you. Thank you very much.

Alison Jones:                        It’s really good to have you here and let’s just start… It’s quite an intriguing introduction isn’t it? But it is an intriguing book. So tell us about the Children’s Fire. What is it about and what was it that inspired you to write it?

Mac Macartney:                Well, let’s start with that bit first, I think. I, in the course of those many years that I had been mentored by this group of Native Americans, they introduced me to this small fragment of teaching from their tradition called the Children’s Fire. This little fire was a fire that burned in the centre of the council of chiefs to remind the chiefs of their responsibilities towards the children of the tribe, if you like.

                                                      It demanded that every decision, everything that that group of leaders pondered on and then made decisions on served the needs and the best interests of the children, of the people. So they asked me if I would take this story out into the world and in particular into the business world, which I’ve done ever since, really since I’m not quite sure, let me think now, roundabout in 1995.

                                                      That’s what, as it were, the book is a vehicle for. It’s a vehicle for carrying this story of the Children’s Fire and the invitation to people all around the world, people in business, all people who hold some measure of influence to consider responsibilities, they have that go beyond the growth and profit of the business, the shareholder interests, and all these things towards the notion that we all have a responsibility now perhaps more than ever to a wider society.

                                                      And within the book as well, the spine of the book follows the story of a journey that I undertook walking from where I was born in Malvern, in Worcestershire to the Isle of Anglesey and a journey researching and feeling into the ancient indigenous past of Britain because we too have a tribal indigenous story that not many of us are very familiar with. We too like many of the indigenous cultures around the world suffered at the hands of an invader, round the Roman occupation.

                                                      Many of the things which we considered to be precious and sacred at that time were lost and broken. One could argue as several historians do that that period of history we began to see the world in a very different place, a place where we set off to exploit resources and maximise returns. Not that there’s anything wrong with maximising returns, but not no matter what the cost, I suppose…

Alison Jones:                        Yes. I have to say, it just feels like an incredibly timely book. We’re recording this in November 2018 when there’s all sorts of political decisions, there’s all sorts of business scandals and so on. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence of people taking that view of how are we handing this world on and yes, making the decisions in that sense.

                                                      Yes. And of course one of the things I loved about your own journey of course is you mix in those brilliantly, I mean very funny in some places, funny stories of what it is like to almost turn your back on the 21st century and live in that primitive way, in that primitive landscape – over winter for goodness sake when you could have done it in the spring. Just reducing yourself to that essence of what it is to be human in the land, which I found really compelling.

Mac Macartney:                Yes. Well, it was very exciting. It was the winter of 2009 in mid-Wales. It went down to -15 degrees and I didn’t have a tent and no stove. I was navigating without a map or compass using the stars.

Alison Jones:                        It’s a wonderful story to tell now, but I imagine at the time you were thinking, this is a really poor idea.

Mac Macartney:                There were moments, definitely were moments. There are moments when I was thinking, “Oh my God, maybe this is going to be the last thing I ever do.” As you say it was an extraordinary way of coming into a real visceral relationship with both our country, our land, which we so often we might see it when we take the dog for a walk and of course when, you know, we go for walks occasionally, but mostly we see it through the windows of a car or a train or something.

                                                      To get that close in detail in it for such a prolonged period of time, nearly three and a half weeks, was really, really amazing. And the other thing which just completely shocked me really, although I don’t see really why it should, but was the incredible generosity, hospitality that I met along the way from the people that I encountered, which was, yes, very special.

Alison Jones:                        And that’s very heartening, isn’t it?

Mac Macartney:                Yes.

Alison Jones:                        Because it’s so easy to think we’re all going to hell in a hand basket, but here there’s individual stories of human warmth and people going out of their way really to check that you’re okay, to feed you. Just… it does give you hope.

Mac Macartney:                It does, and they really did. They went out of their way and people from all different kinds, people with whom I would say I had nothing in common, possibly people with whom I might sit on opposite sides of, all different kinds of spectrums, of thought and thinking in politics and whatever it might be. One thing that they shared almost all of them was this willingness to help and interest and curiosity and generosity. It was amazing like that.

Alison Jones:                        I think there’s probably a different conversation we could have there around vulnerability and as leaders putting ourselves into a state of becoming vulnerable and the response that that awakens in people. But I want to ask you about this space that you’re in because it is fascinating. You and I and then the marketing people, we’ve talked a lot about, “Well, hey. Where does it sit? What shelf does it go on?”

Mac Macartney:                Yes.

Alison Jones:                        It’s a really difficult one to define, which is wonderful in lots of ways, but really tricky when you’re trying to put a book industry classification code on it. So you’re embracing spirituality and sustainability and ecology and leadership and you do it very consciously. How do you see that thinking, that space developing it and why do you think it matters that way of approaching it?

Mac Macartney:                Well, Alison, I just truly hope that it does develop. It feels to me that we have for our own convenience and because it makes very good sense in many ways, we have separated and divided and categorised everything into different compartments. It does make things more easy to manage. It allows us to leverage them in proper ways and all the rest of it. But in doing so, we have lost, I think the integrated sense in which our life actually happens.

                                                      Many of us are, we have our careers, our businesses, but we’re also parents. In that way we are involved in the parenting, but that means we’re also involved in education and have some influence. We might not always think enough, but some influence around how education goes. We also go on holiday and we have influence and we’re joined in…. in other words, hundreds of different spheres of activity where we cross boundaries, and if there was ever a time in our history of our species, I think when we need to think more holistically and more in terms of not simply to the bottom line of whatever it is that we’re hunting or chasing in our businesses, but in terms of the kind of society we’re creating, then this is the time.

                                                      And I mean, even within the NGO world, it shocked me when I discovered that our human rights people are totally interested in human rights and have no interest in the environment. Environmentalist completely interested in environment and have no interest in social justice. On and on it goes.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. It’s become more complex. We’ve become more and more specialised and lost those connections.

Mac Macartney:                Yes. And then if you consider, which is my view, I think that there is no organisation in this world, better designed, resourced or equipped to create change in the world than businesses. They’re designed to make stuff happen. That’s why I would say it’s absolutely crucial that we begin to consider business and the impacts of our business, the responsibilities that our businesses have in a more holistic way, in a way that actually sees them as engines of a transformative change for the good. Indeed, I’d probably say that if we don’t, then that that may be a significant factor in not giving us the future that we’d actually desire.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. And I think that’s a really fantastic challenge to leaders as well. And it’s quite a rousing challenge, isn’t it? It’s actually: look up, because as you say, nobody’s going to change this world for us. We can see that in governments and so it’s not going to happen from there. So, come on, let’s do it. Yes, let’s do it.

                                                      Now, last week it was, in fact, I was at one of your book talk evenings, which was amazing. The hairs on the back of my neck are going up, thinking about it now, the flautist who was working with you and the talk. It was absolutely brilliant. It was at Hawkwood College in Stroud, which is itself an amazing place. But your book tour, it’s epic, isn’t it? You’re taking in, I don’t know. How many venues? How many countries? Just tell us about the book tour, why you did it, how it’s going.

Mac Macartney:                I suppose I’m about half way through it. At the moment I’m doing about 15 talks here in the UK, two in Ireland, some more hopefully to be scheduled in Wales. It’s going really well. It really is going well. I’m having such a good time. I’m accompanied by a poet and a flautist. I’m mining really my network of contacts in Facebook, LinkedIn, and every other place, all the people that have been to the social enterprise that I started in 1999, and also people connected in my current and past business work.

Alison Jones:                        We should just say actually when you say flautist, people are probably thinking classical flute.

Mac Macartney:                Oh, yes.

Alison Jones:                        We’re not talking about that. Tell us a little bit about that.

Mac Macartney:                Well, so Nigel Shaw lives on Dartmoor, in middle of Dartmoor really. He makes these extraordinary beautiful wooden flutes out of the, I think the 13 indigenous trees from these islands. His music is haunting, soulful, has an ancient quality to it. Above and beyond all of this he’s just an extremely lovely person. Nigel has just given me, it’s actually days, I was going to say hours, but days of his time for free. So has Tommy Crawford, the poet who’s accompanied me on most of them to support creating an atmosphere within which the text of The Children’s Fire can really land. We’re like a little travelling performance troupe. We’re having just a splendid time

Alison Jones:                        That’s what really struck me because you don’t often see that in a book launch. I have seen music used in a book launch, but not to such terrific effect. As you say it creates a whole atmosphere and an evocation around the evening. It was really powerful.

Mac Macartney:                Yes. I think you saw it, didn’t you, Alison? It does impact people quite a lot. It’s quite emotionally…

Alison Jones:                        Absolutely, yes. It makes a real emotional connection. I think that there is that thing that music gets your brain from a different place. If somebody stands and talks to you, you switch on your rational brain.

Mac Macartney:                That’s right.

Alison Jones:                        But because we’ve been listening to this haunting music and it’s set the scene, I think we’re more receptive.

Mac Macartney:                That’s right.

Alison Jones:                        It’s really clever.

Mac Macartney:                Yes. Well, yes, it felt really good. I’ve now had invitations from South Africa, from the USA, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, different places. I’m just doing everything I can to follow them up and use them as ways of trying to launch this book. I suppose one reason why I’m doing it, speaking is at the core of my work anyway. I suppose when you’re trying to get a book out there in the world, you use everything that you’ve got at your disposal. In my case, this is it.

Alison Jones:                        Yes, you’re right. It’s a virtuous circle, isn’t it?

Mac Macartney:                Yes

Alison Jones:                        So the book, the launch of the book gives you the opportunity to speak. Speaking promotes the book, but actually what it’s all about is getting that message out there.

Mac Macartney:                It is, it is. Yes, exactly.

Alison Jones:                        It must be exhausting. How do you sustain yourself through that many gigs and that much travel?

Mac Macartney:                Yes. Well the thing is it used to be exhausting, but it isn’t now really. I feel very relaxed as I do it. It’s the heart of everything that I’m doing. It’s quite a graceful, relaxed place from which I’m able to bring myself, and you know quite often at the end of those evenings, as in the one at Hawkwood, then I have a three-hour drive afterwards to get home and then I’m up early the following morning because of my family and things happening there, and so I mean I think it’s-

Alison Jones:                        You have a young baby, don’t you?

Mac Macartney:                A very young baby, yes.

Alison Jones:                        No excuses here, people.

Mac Macartney:                In fact two months. Rather late in my life, but anyway. Yes. This week coming, I think I’ll be travelling to a hotel. I’ll be then working with one of our major banks, bringing the same message and then that same evening I finished them at 5:00, I drive across and then ready do another one of these book launch events, stay the night in the hotel, fly to Colorado and join Danone in the States on their advisory board.

                                                      So it is intense, but somehow I seem to have found the knack of, I was going to say not taking it all too seriously. I do take … You know what I mean. I do take it seriously, but I try to bring everything I can without thinking of it as an effort.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. I think that really comes across actually. As you say you looked very relaxed. You looked as though it was energising rather than exhausting.

Mac Macartney:                Yes, that’s-

Alison Jones:                        If you can find that trick, that’s the way to do it.

Mac Macartney:                Yes. It hasn’t always been so, but it seems to be now. Yes.

Alison Jones:                        And also I love what you said about mining your database, mining your contacts, calling in favours because actually I think we know, I don’t know about you, but most people listening to this are probably terribly British. We don’t like to do that. We don’t ask people, but actually the people that you’ve reached out to, what you’re doing is certainly at Hawkwood, it’s giving an incredible evening’s… I was going to say entertainment, that’s not quite the right word, but you know what I mean there.

Mac Macartney:                Yes.

Alison Jones:                        An amazing experience with people there. So it’s a quid pro quo, isn’t it? You’re reaching out to people and you might think, “Oh, I’m asking them to do me a favour.” But if you have a book, if you’ve got an interesting message to say, then actually why not reach out, use every outlet you can and see who’s interested in supporting you with that.

Mac Macartney:                Absolutely, Alison. I think in the end Hawkwood felt really good because they packed out that room.

Alison Jones:                        It was mobbed, yes.

Mac Macartney:                Yes, they got their brochures to loads of people with all their programmes and courses and I think they ended up feeling very good about it. Similarly, the initial event which was held at the Great Hall in Dartington, at the Dartington Estate, all of us, certainly me included, we were wondering, “Well, I hope somebody comes.”

Alison Jones:                        “This could be awkward…”

Mac Macartney:                But again, we could have sold half the number of places again. It’s a very good feeling because the venues get what they need and feel good about it. I sell books and meet lots of lovely people and the whole thing, yes it is a virtuous circle, works.

Alison Jones:                        We tend to think about content marketing for ourselves. You tend to think about what content you can put out in the world. But of course every organisation and particularly venues are desperate for good content. So as the author of a book, it’s worth seeing yourself in that light and pitching yourself in that light too.

Mac Macartney:                Yes. There’s a little thing, that particularly applies to speaking. Many people would think, I can’t speak, for instance, I’m too self-conscious. It was a realisation in my early speaking career when I thought, “That’s the whole problem.” I’m far too concerned about me and being conscious of me, whereas my attention should be out there to the people. Do you know what I mean? It was like I was in the way of myself.

Alison Jones:                        I know exactly what you mean. You’ve just got to get over yourself really.

Mac Macartney:                Yes, put it aside and thinking, well yes not everybody will like it. It doesn’t matter what I… but many, many will and I just have to just offer it and that’s it.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. I think that’s very… I mean you say it’s very simple to say this, but it’s incredibly profound because I think you’re right. The speakers who are focused on their audience and engage with their message, the sensation of listening to somebody like that is incredibly different from listening to somebody who is terrified about the impression that they’re making. The energy is completely different and it’s very hard to show somebody how to make that shift, but once you’ve done it yourself, you feel it physically in yourself, don’t you.

Mac Macartney:                Yes, you do. You’re always going to feel this of course, yes.

Alison Jones:                        Absolutely, yes. And obviously speaking is very much your superpower, but you’re not a bad writer either. I can say this with some authority. So tell me about your writing, Mac. Where does writing fit into life for you? How does it serve you, both personally and professionally?

Mac Macartney:                Yes. I really love writing but I suppose like all these things in the first place I found it rather terrifying because I was assailed with self-doubt about it and whether I could and also writing a paragraph is one thing and then writing an article is something else and writing a book, something beyond that.

Alison Jones:                        It’s a whole new ball game.

Mac Macartney:                Yes. The first time, my first book I found it so challenging. I couldn’t possibly have written it in my office. I couldn’t have written at home. So I took myself off to her little Scottish island off the west coast and I shut myself into a tiny cottage there by the sea for one winter to write it. But the lovely thing is then for this second book, it was far easier and I didn’t need to do that.

                                                      I think the thing is, I love it. I’m already beginning to think about, although I haven’t arrived anywhere, but about the third book and it’s a joy. It’s an absolute joy. It’s a way of really putting down with some depth, the things that really speak to me and that I feel, I suppose on some level that I want to share, that I want to give out to the world. So personally, yes, that’s what it is. I say a joy, it’s also torture.

                                                      I mean many, many, many times when I’m just in grief and go through all kinds of challenging and difficult moments. But that’s living really, isn’t it? I’d rather go through all that and know that I’m alive and living in some kind of medium band where everything’s fine, neither too fine, nor too bad doesn’t attract me at all.

Alison Jones:                        I love that. So if you’re flailing around and feeling miserable about writing your book, it’s God’s way of telling you “You’re alive,” people.

Mac Macartney:                Yes, yes.

Alison Jones:                        I love that. You said the second book was easier.

Mac Macartney:                Much easier.

Alison Jones:                        Tell me a little bit more about that. Was it the type of book it was? Was it just that you knew what you were doing or you knew you’d done it before, so, how hard could it be? What changed?

Mac Macartney:                Well, I think it is the difference between having walked a similar path before like the writing of that first book proved to me that I could do it. Though of course if I had the chance, I might rewrite some of that first book and redo it, essentially I can open it and I don’t feel embarrassed and I can read the passages and think, “Yes, yes, I’m okay with this.”

                                                      So the second time I sat down, instead of sitting down without anything behind me. I sat down with another book behind me and my confidence … also something very important. When I wrote this second book, the Children’s Fire, I knew that I was just simply going to write the book that I wanted to write without ever pondering too hard, whether anybody else would like it. And I don’t say that that’s always the case because there are times when you’re writing a book and you will be marketing it with a particular purpose that is more important, if you like, than simply getting it down on paper.

                                                      But in my particular case, it was truly liberating not to worry too much about how it would land, how it would sell or anything else, but to give myself the satisfaction of knowing that it was as true as I could make it to what I wanted to give.

Alison Jones:                        Brilliant. And that’s probably a stage of life thing and the purpose of the book as well, isn’t it?

Mac Macartney:                Yes.

Alison Jones:                        You had such a strong mission and your values behind this book were so strong that as you say it’s a slightly different type of book that many people will be writing.

Mac Macartney:                Yes.

Alison Jones:                        That’s wonderful. Thank you. I always ask guests as well to recommend a book. So typically I’d say, what business book would you recommend that everyone listening should read? Are you happy in that space given how complicated we’ve just made it clear that your…

Mac Macartney:                Well, obviously I was thinking about this before we had this conversation, Alison. I was looking at my section of business books and I was thinking to myself, I can’t name any of these. Where I’ve landed is, I suppose it isn’t a business book, but I strongly feel that it’s a book that it’d be really great if many business people read and it’s very well known book now. It’s Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens.

Alison Jones:                        Do you know, this-

Mac Macartney:                Go on.

Alison Jones:                        I’m laughing because this is on my guilt pile. I’ve had it sitting on my shelf for I don’t know how long exactly.

Mac Macartney:                Really? Okay, yes. It’s subtitled, A Brief History of Humankind.

Alison Jones:                        It’s not that brief, is it?

Mac Macartney:                No, no, it isn’t. All I can say is he’s extremely entertaining writer, very engaging, complex ideas expressed and articulated in ways that somebody like me could understand them. He may set a very strong argument really for demonstrating the current trajectory, if you like, of our society and the questions and the choices that that is bringing up. And in the context of the IPCC report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that gives basically 12 years before unmanageable alteration to our climate, which is predicted to create massive disturbance, I feel.

                                                      What Sapiens raises is very big issues and the understanding really that the future is not as it were foretold. The future is written with every choice and decision that we make in our management teams, boards, all around, in whatever context we live and work and indeed in the tiny actions of consumers in choosing the kind of whatever products that they buy or use. That I feel is really, really important for business people to understand is that we can if we want to, shove our hands in the sand and just say, “Well, I don’t have time for all that. I’ve just got a business to run.”

                                                      But that in itself is a choice and will have impact. And so it just raises the question really of: could we imagine business leaders who are as engaged as active citizens describing the world our children will inhabit? Could we manage that step? Are we courageous enough, brave enough? We talk a lot about innovation and creativity. Could we really envisage something startling that would turn the trajectory of our current trajectory into something that would really lead us into a truly exciting and vibrant and flourishing future? I think Sapiens raises many of those questions even if it doesn’t answer them.

Alison Jones:                        Brilliant. It’s a great recommendation and challenging set of questions on which to finish. So thank you. Now, Mac, if people want to find out more about you or about the children’s farm or about Embercombe, where should they go?

Mac Macartney:                So, two websites; one is macmacartney.com and that’s got a lot of my articles also my two books and engagement as a speaker and various things like that and then embercombe.org. Embercombe being E-M-B-E-R-C-O-M-B-E, embercombe.org. This is the social enterprise that I founded in Devon on the edge of Dartmoor, which incidentally, the money for this gift was given to me by a client of mine who did very well and sold his company to Warren Buffet and then said he wanted to thank me and did I have a dream. I talked about this social enterprise and he just pulled out his chequebook, so… I don’t own it any more…

Alison Jones:                        Wow.

Mac Macartney:                Yes. Yes, bought 50 acres of Devon. It was pretty amazing.

Alison Jones:                        It’s quite a nice thank you.

Mac Macartney:                Wasn’t it just. So we put it into trust, but this place is all about engaging with people and organisations and groups on how we revitalise this world around stories that will bring us towards a more peaceful just and sustainable future.

Alison Jones:                        Fantastic. And I’ll put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com iff you are driving for example, and didn’t manage to get that down. Mac, just thank you so much for your time today. It’s been an inspiring and I think mind-expanding conversation. Thank you.

Mac Macartney:                Thank you, Alison. I really appreciate it.


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