When the duck speaks

When the duck speaks

At the end of the recent Nestlé Responsible Sourcing Studio in Thailand (see People, Planet, Profit), I asked the nine Responsible Sourcing team members a simple question: “What did you learn about your duck this week?” For the uninitiated, it seems an odd question – your duck? For those nine Nestlé colleagues, it meant a great deal. It was an invitation to share something about their soul.

When the Duck speaks

On the occasion of my wedding back in 1994, a good friend gave me the most special of gifts: a copy of Michael Leunig’s “Common Prayer Collection”.

Michael had published “A Common Prayer” in 1990 and he followed up in the same year with “The Prayer Tree”. In 1993, “Common Prayer Collection”, was published as a compendium of both earlier books in a single, precious volume.

I grew up in Melbourne, Australia and all my life I’d had the pleasure of seeing Michael’s cartoons, philosophy and whimsy in the local paper. More often than not, it was the only thing I’d bother to read once my Dad had set the sports’ pages aside. I loved Michael’s work and though my young mind didn’t always understand, it spoke to me and I felt connected.

What did you learn about your duck this week?

The book is slim and beautifully presented; it’s sleeve a welcoming cream, the title in Michael’s humble handwriting. On the cover, there is a colourful drawing - a traveller, on the move, his belongings tied on a stick held with one hand over his shoulder, a lamp to light the way in the other. A small, white duck walks with him. I’d seen this duck many times in Michael’s work and though I’d not completely understood it, it reminded me of my dogs who had travelled with me through my childhood. On turning the first few pages, I found another picture: a man kneeling before the duck, praying to it.

In the text, Michael explains that the duck can be seen as a symbol of the human spirit, and in wanting connection with his spirit it is a symbolic picture of a man searching for his soul. The rest of the text is very beautiful and powerful, I explore it more deeply here (Searching for that "something else"? It starts with beauty) but key to me was this acknowledgement of the soul’s presence and the deep impact it can have in our lives. Michael describes the great struggle to get connected with the soul and he shares how the search for the soul can lead to love and a better world for the searcher and those around him or her.

In the more than twenty years since reading Michael’s words, I’ve seen time and time again how people, when they really connect with their soul, can really influence the world around them. Whenever a person connects to their fundamental beliefs, their spirit, it unleashes a great burst of determination to live according to its wisdom. “It’s not OK to kill Orangutans, that’s not who we are!” It’s not OK to be linked to human rights abuses, to deforestation, to pollution. When people connect, they act and that brings great change.

I truly believe that if we help people connect to their soul, to their duck, that we can unleash the incredible power we each have within us and that this can change our world. Goodness knows we need to.

In developing Earthworm, my colleague Julien Troussier and I have focused on this critical act of connection to the soul, yes, to the duck. So often we see people who are overwhelmed with the pressures of their daily lives. They live disconnected from who they really are. We’ve designed Earthworm to give people a chance to stop a moment and reflect, “What are my deeper values? What is it that I pray to? What’s my duck?” Our experience is that people are at ease when you speak about their duck, less so when you mention the ‘s’ word. So we speak about ducks and we ask people to hear what their duck is saying. When the duck speaks, it’s wise to listen. Most importantly, we help them find a moment to ask, “Am I aligned with this duck, with what it’s saying? Am I living truly?” Often, the answer is “no”.

Many times, people find strength in being able to name this presence inside them. That it could be called a duck seems cool, and more importantly, easy. No need to get too deep and serious!

And so when we kicked off our Earthworm Gathering with the Nestlé Responsible Sourcing team in the very early hours of Monday morning in Bangkok airport, we paused a moment and invited them to read Michael Leunig’s “Introduction to ‘A Common Prayer’” where Michael introduces the man praying to the duck and the beautiful notion of a man searching for his soul.

Introducing Michael Leunig's duck to the Nestlé Responsible Sourcing team

Introducing Michael Leunig's duck to the Nestlé Responsible Sourcing team

We came back to the duck many times through the week and by the end, it was an easy thing to ponder, to talk about, to share.

We saw the light in the team members’ eyes as they named this presence in their lives and contemplated how it might be a companion going forward.

In “When the duck speaks” I capture the team members’ responses to this simple question, “What did you learn about your duck this week?” I was deeply moved by their answers, these nine young people charged with helping the world’s largest food company to act responsibly in the world. And Julien, who shares with us some of the underlying thinking behind our Earthworm approach, was moved to write a beautiful poem.

These amazing young people and their willingness to speak about their duck inspire me. I hope it helps you to ponder your duck too. It is there, you just need to pray to it.


I hope you enjoyed “When the duck speaks”. If you’d like to learn more about Earthworm and our “duck work”, please contact me.

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If you’d like to learn more about the wonder of Michael Leunig’s beautiful work – please do - here's his website. He is an inspiration. I encourage you to read some of his writings under the “Works” tab.

And a special mention for Benjamin Ware, Nestlé's Global Head for Responsible Sourcing. Benjamin had the inspiration for the Responsible Sourcing Studio in Thailand and organised the event more or less single handedly. He opened the process to creative thinking and invited expression from his team. He is a true earthworm.

May the duck be with you.

Michael Leunig's picture of a man praying to a duck is reproduced with permission from Michael Leunig. The podcast includes sections from the songs "Springish" by Gillicuddy, "Quirk Quark" by Molloy and His Bike, and "The Meadow" by Little Glass Men, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.

Come to Cogne with Julien and I. You'd be welcome!

Come to Cogne with Julien and I. You'd be welcome!

Forests first, people second?

Forests first, people second?