Leading with Symbols: Thomas Heatherwick’s Olympic Cauldron

Olympic couldron

This extraordinary cauldron was made from small torches, one from each nation competing. Wow!

Last night, the world was treated to an extraordinary, playful, and sometimes self-indulgent pageant of human history. It was all about the people — people dancing, people forging iron or herding sheep, people jumping on beds, people singing, people parading for their countries. It honored such great leaders as Winston Churchill, James Bond, Tim Berners-Lee, Paul McCartney, The Queen — well, the list goes on and on, with entertainers honored as much as the athletes and statesfolk.

Apart from the Evil Voldemort vs. Millions of Practically-Perfect-in-Every-Way Mary Poppinses moment, my favorite symbol was the lighting of the great torch, 204 petals catching fire and then rising together to make a giant singular flame, a cauldron of power, where the many became the one. The gesture of fire was the perfect summation of the Olympic spirit. After the games, each nation will bring their specific (labeled) petal home, separating the torch, yet symbolically bringing the flame back to honor the Olympic collaboration and competition. (See The Guardian’s article for more about the cauldron and petals).

The Guardian reported:

Thomas Heatherwick, the cauldron’s designer, said he had not wanted to try to make it bigger or taller than those at previous Games, and had focused instead on the symbolic meaning. “We were aware cauldrons had been getting bigger, higher, fatter as each Olympics happened and we felt we shouldn’t try to be even bigger than the last ones,” he said. “This incredible event has 204 nations coming together, so we had a child from each country bringing these copper polished objects in. At the end of the Games this cauldron will dismantle itself and radiate back down to the ground and each of those copper pieces will be taken away by each nation.”

What a wonderful model for the heart of hope, for the leadership of the many at the Olympic Games. Each athlete brings his or her best, and each country hopes to achieve greatness, but all come together with an ideal of peaceful competition to demonstrate humanity’s physical strength and discipline as only sports can do.

I think this cauldron is also a symbol of great leadership. One flame (one leader) may seem to burn more brightly than any other — but like the Olympic cauldron, a leader shines because of all the collaborations, co-leadership, guiding mentors and followers who make his or her brilliance shine the brighter.

If our great leaders, whose achievements and vision lead us on, could have the humility to acknowledge the interconnectedness that this cauldron represents, the world would be a better place. Each small spark is necessary for the greater flame to light the darkness. Great leaders cherish and praise these sparks of inspiration and support that make the cauldron of excellence possible.

And when the collaborative task is complete, great leaders make sure that everyone carries a confident spark back home to remember their role. That way, the spark of leadership spreads and grows, gathering new collaborations, new possibilities, creating new cauldrons of light to make the world a better place.

One comment

  1. […] as they hold the phrases their abusers used to silence and shame them. This is the power of leadership through art, empowerment through quiet and authentic […]


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