What really, really, really matters? Final day



Here’s my final reflection from my retreat in Hawaii. In writing these reflections I’m not wanting to suggest I have the answers. I think of these insights more as questions to ask myself daily. As someone who has lived a lot of my time in my head I’m reminded of the helpful advice from Richard Rohr of the dangers of writing too much, hence my pausing on further blogs for the moment:

We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” Richard Rohr

That said, here’s a few final reflections!

Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, be curious about them but don’t get hooked by them. One of my favourite practices introduced by Joel & Michelle Levey is one where you consider in turn the different dimensions of your experience, with an attitude of compassionate awareness. You start with the realm of the five senses, then vibrations and pulsations in the body, including the movement of the breath, then the dimension of thoughts and feelings, and finally resting in the field of pure awareness out of which the experience of our senses, bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings arise.  In this practice, we fully acknowledge the thoughts and feelings that arise, noticing them and what I find helpful, naming them. For a few seconds I give the thought or feeling my full compassionate attention, welcoming it as a visitor to my Guest House, as Rumi said in his well-known poem. This is different from going into a story about the thought or feeling, or feeding it or giving it a bed in your Guest House. I am neither judging the feeling bad or good, just being present with its arising and passing. If you know the poem, you will remember Rumi invites us to welcome and entertain ALL the visitors to our Guest House. What I found illuminating on the retreat is seeing which visitors I want to ignore (irascibility) , usher through quickly (sadness), or feel awkward around and want them to move them along quickly (joy & bliss).  Acknowledging the presence of all the visitors allows us, over time, to embrace the whole of our human experience.

Why go on an extended retreat? My reason – to wake up to the fullness of my life, at a key transition point, turning 50. As a young man in my mid-twenties I remember reading Walden by Henri David Thoreau who went to live alone in the woods in Concord for two years. Thoreau’s words then (1854) speak to my own motivation now: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” As a student of the human condition all my life, and as someone who earns my living by helping leaders creating the conditions to release human potential, it made sense to me to take this deep dive through an extended retreat.

The importance of wise guides: some people are fussy eaters. I’ve always been fussy about finding good teachers and wise guides. I’ve been blessed to have found many good teachers and mentors over the years. On the long flight back from Hawaii, I had a long layover at Los Angeles airport. I met a young man from the U.S., who was just returning from a year in Asia, whilst he had had an interesting year he had also been chastened by joining workshops and living in communities which were dominated by groupthink, manipulation and egotistical people.

Creating the conditions for exploring the territory of the soul. People argue about what is at the core of our humanity and many books have been written naming, and arguing about what this core essence is, and how we name this territory. I like the word soul but as I noted in an earlier blog this mysterious territory is known by many names: integrity, inner light, true self, pure awareness, divine spark. There needs to be safe and healthy spaces for us to explore this core of our being, however we might name it. Safe spaces that invite the soul to show up are rare in our current world. Parker Palmer is the person who has written most cogently and wisely about the conditions needed for the soul to show up in his book A Hidden Wholeness, The Journey Toward An Undivided Life. I was blessed in Hawaii to find two wise guides in the persons of Joel and Michelle Levey and the fellow retreatants who showed up from across the world and were prepared and able to create those conditions.

Where does spirituality meet leadership? There’s a crisis in modern organisations:  Who are they serving? What is their essence? How should they operate? Just look at the chapter headings from some bestselling business texts, for example Gary Hamel’s What Matters Now includes the chapter heading: Values Matter Now – Reclaiming the Noble. Spirituality is ultimately the search for meaning and purpose and leadership is the practical exercise of the fruits of that search and inquiry. Let me finish with a quote from Parker Palmer as a final lesson learnt and one which describes my journey over these three weeks on retreat and my return to family, work and community in the UK:

Spirituality, like leadership, is a hard thing to define. But Annie Dillard has given us a vivid image of what authentic spirituality is about: “In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned.”

Here Dillard names two crucial features of any spiritual journey. One that will take us inward and downward, towards the hardest realities of our lives, rather than outward and upward toward abstraction, idealisation and exhortation. The spiritual journey runs counter to the power of positive thinking.

Why must we go down? Because as we do, we will meet the darkness that we carry within ourselves – the ultimate source of the shadows that we project onto other people. If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone “out there” into the enemy, becoming leaders who oppress rather than liberate others.

But says Annie Dillard, if we ride those monsters all the way down, we break through to something precious – to “the unified field, our complex and inexplicable caring for each other”, to the community we share beneath the broken surface of our lives. Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us to a place of “hidden wholeness” because they have been there and know the way.”


I’ll be incorporating these lessons into my next public workshop on 19 May in London which will also introduce people to Barry Oshry’s systems leadership work. Please feel free to highlight the May workshop to colleagues and friends. And of course join me if you haven’t experienced this workshop already.


What really, really, really matters? Day Three

P1040212Consciousness – being aware that you are aware – is an amazing phenomena. Ponder for a moment the fact that atoms and molecules have coalesced in such a form that enables you to be conscious:  to think, feel and act for a few brief decades. As Bill Bryson tells us in his Short History of Everything, it’s an extraordinary thing that the universe is so fine-tuned for us to exist in the first place: “if the universe had formed just a tiny bit differently, if gravity were fractionally stronger or weaker, if the expansion (of the universe) had proceeded just a little more slowly or swiftly – then there might never have been stable elements to make you and me and the ground we stand on.”  One of the gifts of my 3 week retreat in Hawaii was to reconnect with the everyday wonder and miracle we call life. This doesn’t mean we shut ourselves off from the suffering and pain in the world; rather we open our heart, mind and spirit to the full catastrophe of living, as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it: the joy and pain, the challenge and the triumph.

Speaking of Jon Kabat-Zinn, some of you may have done an eight week Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Course; many people are finding this course is an accessible introduction to mindfulness.  If you’ve done the course you will be familiar with the body scan meditation. On my Hawaiian retreat, Joel Levey led a body scan meditation with a difference. I found the meditation evoked feelings of deep appreciation for each part of the body and how it gratuitously makes its amazing contribution to our existence. I noticed how ordinarily I take for granted the complex and wonderful work each organ silently does on my behalf; how each organ harmoniously works and syncs with the others; and how consciousness emerges, like a miracle, as a phenomenon at the level of our whole system. Adopting a regular practice of gratitude (in your first waking moments of the day, at mealtimes, at the close of the day) is a great way to acknowledge the gift of life itself, ith its innumerable blessings, and the contributions that others make to our life and work. 

Re-reading this point, I wonder if some of you may consider this woo-woo, too pollyannaish? Ponder this, most of us have very well-established BMW practices: Blaming, Moaning, Whining practices which we do individually in our heads, and as collective rituals. People regularly tell me that between 25-50% of available time and energy in their organisations gets caught up in BMW behaviour or what Barry Oshry calls the ‘Side-Show’.  How about starting an intentional gratitude practice as a healthy counter-balance? Joanna Macy, in her book, Active Hope, reminds us that recognising the gifts in our life is profoundly strengthening and “by savouring these gifts, you add to your psychological buoyancy, which helps you maintain your balance and poise when you enter rougher waters.” A moment of gratitude strengthens our ability to look at and respond to, rather than turn away, from the pain and suffering in the world.

Practice – start a gratitude practice. In the evening, just before you go to sleep review your day and identify things that have happened during the day that you’re pleased about or thankful for? It doesn’t have to be major things. Close your eyes, reconnect that with that experience and recognise why you are thankful: bring the experience vividly to mind, engage your senses (sights, sounds, smells, touch, taste) and recall how you felt. Who or what contributed to that experience? Send a wave of blessing and appreciation to anyone involved who made it happen. Move on to another moment in the day that you valued and repeat the process…

I’ll be incorporating these lessons into my next public workshop on 19 May in London which will also introduce people to Barry Oshry’s systems leadership work. Please feel free to highlight the May workshop to colleagues and friends. And of course join me if you haven’t experienced this workshop already.

Further reflections from my Hawaii retreat tomorrow. Please feel free to share any reactions or observations using the comments function below…



What really, really, really matters? Day Two


Have you seen the postcard that says:Having a great time. Wish I were here.”

I found that early on in my retreat in Hawaii I had the strange feeling, like the writer of the postcard, that I was looking in on my experience and yet not really present. It was almost like looking through a glass window onto the world, somehow separated from it, out of contact, not connected with my senses, the people or the place. Do you ever have that experience? Noticing our absence at the time is progress of a kind; we more often notice our absence when the moment has passed. The quote below from Nadine Satir, 85 years old, of Louisville, Kentucky, captures the yearning I have to be present in my life.

“Oh, I’ve had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I’d have more of them. In fact, I’d try to have nothing else. Just moments, one after the other, instead of living so many years ahead of each day.” 

So what’s my coaching to myself and you?

Slow down and connect to your centre. P1040144The Quakers talk about ‘the violence of haste’, a phrase I find powerfully descriptive of our world and much of my life.  I’ve walked labyrinths as a meditative practice for the past 25 years. A labyrinth is a single, spiralling path which takes you to a central area and back out again to the beginning on the same path. The path sometimes draws you close to the centre and at other times sweeps you away from it, sometimes there are long, open stretches of path, at other times the path doubles back on itself in an about-turn. In this way the labyrinth provides a mirror for life’s experience. I walked three different labyrinths on my retreat in Hawaii. Recently, I’ve come to think of my life as like walking a labyrinth. Rather than rushing on in haste to my destination, some place in the future, and trying to control my life and then becoming frustrated when it’s not the straight path from A to B that I want, I’m now more curious of how I can accept and embrace life’s circuitous, spiralling nature. Also, I ask myself, how can I maintain a connection to my centre as I circle through the days, weeks, months, seasons and years of my life’s path? To me the centre means that deepest part of ourselves which goes by many names: in secular language we might name it purpose, essence, integrity, Big Self; in spiritual language we might name the centre as our inner light, Spirit, God, in Hawaii they call the centre the Great Mystery (Keakua).

P1040225Take in more of the world around you – start an embodied practice. I’ve been a heady person for most of my life; my intellect and curiosity have been a great gift (at least to me!). But in recent years, and on this retreat, it’s been the embodied practices that have brought the greatest insights. One of the practices we did on the Hawaiian retreat was a walking meditation: you take a short stretch of ground and that becomes your ‘walking alley’.  As I walked up and back this 20m stretch for 45 minutes, whole universes of depth and subtlety emerged that were invisible to me at first glance. Notice how often in our over-quick naming or labelling we miss so much of the world. That’s a bush, this is a flower. On closer investigation the bush is much more diverse and interesting than its’ homogenous-sounding label: bush. The bush is in fact in various stages of opening: some branches are in bud, some are bearing fruit and others flowers. Each flower has different hues of purple (see the header photo for one of the flowers in my ‘walking alley’ in Hawaii). I am reminded of the quote by Alice Walker:  “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” None of this beauty and complexity was evident to me initially when I was preoccupied with thinking: my preoccupations are usually future-oriented (planning, rehearsing, imagining, fretting); for you it may be a preoccupation with the past. Either way this kind of distracted, mindless thinking takes us away from our senses and the present moment, the only moment that is presenting itself to us now.

Practice: Joel & Michelle Levey, the retreat leaders, have an interesting awareness practice. Try it now!  Raise your left hand palms up, let your left hand represent all those moments in your life when you have been fully present and connected with yourself and others. Sense and feel that experience of being fully present. Now raise your right hand palms up, let your right hand represent all those moments when you have been absent or mindless, when you’ve been fantasising about the future or caught up in memories of the past, not here in the present moment. Now let your hands move up and down to show the relative proportion of how you have lived your life to date: what proportion of the moments in your life have you been present for (left hand) and what proportion have you been absent or mindless (right hand)? Take that it in. What feelings and thoughts arise? Now let the position of your hands adjust to how you want to be in your life going forward. How much of your life do you want to be fully present for (left hand) and how much you will be absent for (right hand)?  Notice the position of your hands. Fully sense that possibility.

I’ll be incorporating these lessons into my next public workshop on 19 May in London which will also introduce people to Barry Oshry’s systems leadership work. Please feel free to highlight the May workshop to colleagues and friends. And of course join me if you haven’t experienced this workshop already.

Further reflections from my Hawaii retreat tomorrow. Please feel free to share any reactions or observations using the comments function below…

Aloha (meaning ‘In the presence of the breath’)


What’s the most important question in life and work? What really, really, really matters?


I’ve recently returned from a three week meditation retreat in Hawaii, the last ten days of which were in silence. This was a time to be quiet, take stock (I turned 50 during the retreat) and see what remained, that was essential, when the muddy, turbulent waters of my mind settled. And the most important question in life?

Do you want to wake up? Do you really want to wake up? Do you really, really, really want to wake up?

This sounds like a stupid question, of course we do, we say to ourselves. The challenging news is that in fact we are asleep most of the time and don’t realise it. The Matrix trilogy of films are true: at least in the sense that we don’t see reality as it is and most of us don’t know that we are asleep. Leave aside the conspiracy elements of the Matrix films (i.e. that an elite is running the programme which is your mind), this may be true, but that’s another article. What I want to focus on and what’s most brilliant is the central message of the films: that we are asleep, that it is possible to wake up, that this route takes enormous courage, will, discipline and wise guides.

Each day over the coming week I’ll share a lesson or an insight that I’m left with as I return to everyday life plus a practice that you can try. I find writing is a way of clarifying insights as well as rooting the insights more deeplyI trust the observations and lessons will ring true for you and act as a useful bell of awareness.

  • Meditate regularly – experience how your mind works. My in-depth exploration of meditation dates back to 2002 in Halifax, Novia Scotia, Canada. I was participating in a global week-long gathering of 300 people interested in Authentic Leadership. Each morning and evening, as we began and ended the day we meditated as a large group for 45 minutes. What I discovered to my surprise, horror and only sometime later, amusement, was that what I took for my active, creative mind was in fact a series of repeating thoughts dressed up as new thinking. My mind, like most other people’s in its ill-disciplined habitual state, operates like an old fashioned film on a repeating reel, with the same few thoughts repeating themselves. What is shocking to realise is that of the 60K-90K thoughts a day you have, probably 90-99% are repetitive. Most of us are ignorant of this. In some ways we might ask ourselves, are we truly alive when so much of our feeling, thinking and action is on automatic?
  • Adopt an attitude of curious and compassionate awareness. Through my work with Dr Joel and Michelle Levey, who led the Hawaiian retreat and with whom I’ve worked in recent years, I’ve come to fully appreciate just how crucial our attitude is: attitude is the lens through which we see and filter the world. We awaken slowly; for most of my life I have looked out at the world and looked in on myself with a harsh, critical, judging eye. This uncomfortably came to my notice (again) in the 10 day silent part of the retreat in Hawaii. I found myself becoming very critical, in my head, of a fellow retreatant. I noticed I was triggered by her actions: not following the house ‘rules’ of the place where we were staying. When I reflected on her minor transgressions, I recognised the lens: my judgemental rather than my curious and compassionate eye.

Practice: Here’s a thought/heart experiment you can do. Notice any results as you go through your day. Firstly, remember that the ‘stuff’ of others behaviour is the tip of the iceberg, we often have little or no idea what lies beneath, the context or needs from which their actions arise. Secondly, assume the ‘stuff’ of others’ behaviour is the best they can do at this moment with what they have got. Adopting these two assumptions releases compassion and understanding. It doesn’t mean that you approve or condone of any or all behaviour, but you may find adopting these two assumptions greatly reduces your reactivity and increases your compassion, curiosity and insight.

I’ll be incorporating these lessons into my next public workshop on 19 May in London which will also introduce people to Barry Oshry’s systems leadership work. Please feel free to highlight the May workshop to colleagues and friends. And of course join me if you haven’t experienced this workshop already.

Further reflections from my Hawaii retreat tomorrow. Please feel free to share any reactions or observations using the comments function below…

Aloha (meaning ‘In the presence of the breath’)


Madness and Magical Thinking – Everyday Life in Organisations

8850-munch-the-scream-e1336013995741I’ve given myself 90 minutes to write something worth saying. Why so little time? I’m caught up in the doing of organisational life… and life generally. I feel the pressure to keep moving, no time to pause. I have to get an enormous amount of stuff DONE… and yet also feel compelled to speak up and name some of what I am experiencing, even though this will be incomplete.

I am re-experiencing something that I felt strongly 15 years ago when working with one of the world’s largest consultancies: the dominant way of talking about and making sense of what is going on in organisations is woefully inadequate.

I feel caught by the same dilemma that I see my clients experience. How do you talk about the complexity, contradiction, doubts and dreams, hopes and hopelessness we privately experience when the public conversation in organisations seems so restricted? The bandwidth of our public conversations, what gets talked about on conference calls, in town hall meetings, in teams and formal meetings,  leaves out whole realms of experience. The public conversations seem magical – in the sense of magical as unreal – as we conveniently but disastrously leave out the untidy, difficult aspects of what is going on; the bits we have no idea how to influence or control. This is where madness creeps in, as a gap opens up between what we experience and know (cognitively, emotionally, intuitively, somatically) and what feels possible to say. We can feel like we are mad in the sense of something is wrong with us; we are left privately with the messy reality whilst publicly it all seems so straightforward.

As individuals we spend lots of mental and emotional energy making sense of, worrying about, or pretending this gap doesn’t exist. This is mostly a private activity, late night/early morning reflections or in our dreams, or over a drink with a friend/close colleague. The trouble is that whilst it remains in the informal, private space the magical, unreal conversations carry on in organisations.  And nothing changes. This path of collective ‘madness’ and magical thinking has unintended, unnecessary costs: to the individuals in terms of their well-being and motivation; to organisations as valuable data, about where they are and where they could be, is lost to the system.

So where do we start in breaking through the madness to sanity, and from magical thinking to a more grounded experience of reality? Here’s a list of some things I’m doing.  A starter to which I hope you will add:

  • Practise mindfulness – our capacity to pay attention in the present moment without judgement. I have an individual daily practice of ten minutes of pausing, breathing and becoming more present. This is supported by two longer practice sessions of an hour each week where I join a group of people in Brighton who practice mindfulness together and periodic longer retreats. I’m curious about how we create shared or collective mindfulness in organisations. There is an opportunity on 5 & 12 June in London to explore this further with three master teachers in this emerging field of collective mindfulness.
  • Take our freedom seriously. I have the possibility of being an Independent Middle. I am using ‘Middle’ in the way Barry Oshry describes the relational space where we are caught between the pulls of different realities, people and groups, each with their own needs, perspectives and priorities.  How do I retain my independence of thought, judgement and action in service of the larger whole?  We don’t just have to react and be subject to the pulls and tearing around us. I have a choice in how I respond. I have to recognise that the feelings of powerlessness, confusion and aloneness are mainly systemic and come from my disconnection from others and my own experience: the gap I spoke about earlier.  When I integrate with others, whilst honouring the difference between us, then both my feelings and my sense of power transform and grow. The feeling of madness dissipates as I realise that others have been suffering the same private dissonance. 
  • Speak up – how do I get a sense of what is needed and connect with others to explore concerns, dilemmas and possibilities? How do I find my voice and skilfully speak up about what matters? The skillful part is important; my favourite leadership book by Ron Heifetz is subtitled, Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. I also need to remember that powerful speaking up (advocacy) is always connected and grounded in deep listening to myself and others (inquiry).

In making this shift of awareness and action Pablo Neruda, the poet, invites us to start with a moment of quiet.

“Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.”


See More – Adopt the Beginner’s Mind

zen of seeing

Thinking creates the world. I discovered more than a decade ago that my thinking, and I would argue many people’s, stays within a very limited set of tracks. This was quite a shock at the time;  I believed I was a creative thinker and doer.

“We do a lot of looking… Our looking is perfected every day, but we see less and less.” Frederick Franck, The Zen of Seeing

If we want to be a positive force for change and evolution in our organisations, communities and wider world then we have to start with awareness. We need to see more and see deeper, not just the symptoms but the structure that drives our own & other’s behaviour and the behaviour of larger social systems.

Cultivating the quality of attentiveness is key:

  • How can you cultivate a little more attentiveness this coming week?
  • How can you adopt a ‘beginner’s mind’ a little more of the time?

Oftentimes, our knowledge, theories, frameworks lead us to seeing less, the effect of confirmation bias, seeing what we expect to see, and therefore seeing nothing new. Beginner’s mind is not ignorance, it’s the humility to acknowledge that there is much we don’t know about organising, human systems and leading. We have lots of data and knowledge but do we have sufficient insight and wisdom?

A short story may illustrate the issues. Yesterday, I was on a sight-seeing bus in Kuala Lumpur. I’m working here in the early part of next week. Rather than hear the tourist guide commentary I was ‘treated’ to an American business woman sitting next to me on her mobile  planning a meeting with her colleague . It was quite surreal.  I wondered, listening in, if I was part of The Truman Show or a new episode of The Office. Within 5 minutes she had been through every over-used word in the organisational lexicon: key performance indicators, gap analysis,  aligning values, driving behaviour, better links between the culture team and the talent assessment team…

What caught my attention was a realisation that there’s a way we can use these terms to create an abstracted, ordered reality which we then think is real. There’s a way our language and our thinking goes down the same old tracks and we get the same old results. Many of us enter this trance-like way of speaking (and living?) which is why programmes like the Office and the Truman Show are so popular: we see an aspect of ourselves reflected back. This isn’t the whole story or at least the end of the story. There are other possibilities…

How do we wake-up and see something new? say something new? experience something new this week?

How do we adopt a beginner’s mind?

Coming Out: Am I a Snake-Oil Seller? Are You?

I’ve wanted to come out for a long time. My silence has often seemed collusive.

The notion of snake-oil seller comes to mind – saying one thing and knowing another is true.

I’m speaking of everyday collusions rather than grand duplicities: the half-truths that I find myself and others peddling or accepting in the fields of leadership, change and organisational development.

So here are five ‘truths’ that inform my thinking, and at best, guide my action:

1. ‘The world is perfect. It’s a mess. It has always been a mess…Our job is to straighten out our lives.’ I first read this 20 years ago and railed against it. Our job, I thought, was to change the world out there and this quote from Joseph Campbell seemed too selfish. Now, two decades later I see the insight which I missed then: sorting yourself out is systemic and transformational as we’re all connected. The quote is not a recipe for isolationism or narcissism. Rather it recognises that the choices we make and the life we live inevitably ripple outwards. As chaos theory evidences, the flap of the butterfly’s wings, whilst seeming inconsequential, leads to a hurricane on the other side of the world.

2. Take a cosmic view of yourself and us as human beings. We talk about taking a helicopter view but in general our stories and perspectives are too small. It is a miracle that conscious life exists at all in the universe. A physicist commented to me recently that it is awe-inspiring that matter (trillions of atoms) should coalesce for a few brief decades in the form of a person. At this most fundamental level we all have a common heritage, as children of the universe. This remembering is not just whimsical or philosophical, it has practical ramifications. Re-imagining our story, and our place in it, is vital to rediscovering our purpose. For the most part our frameworks and map of organisations are too limited and anthropocentric.

3. Transformation doesn’t happen in a training room in a single day. Formation and trans-formation are ongoing processes of change. This is where it’s so tempting to collude with the rhetoric of instant enlightenment. Of course there are moments of insight, even epiphanies, but the transformation into a shift in habits of behaviour requires discipline and time.

4. The interplay of power and love are the essential forces at the core of human systems. There is much confusion about these forces. We need to cultivate a richer understanding of the dynamics of power and love within ourselves and within the human systems in which we live and work. Martin Luther King summarised the challenged well in one his last speeches:

“Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites – polar opposites – so that love is identified with a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love. We’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realisation that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic… It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.”

Power and love are polarities in creative tension: ‘power is the drive of all living beings to realise themselves intensively and extensively’ and ‘love is the drive to unify that which is separated’ (definitions from philosopher Paul Tillich). Lest you think this is too abstract reflect on your past few days and examine how these fundamental forces play out in your family, in the groups you are part of, societally and globally?

Here’s my experience. This past week I’ve been in China to run an Organisation Workshop for a global firm on behalf of Barry Oshry of Power+Systems. In the workshop, middle managers got to see more clearly the dominant drive of self-realisation (power) at play (in themselves, their team, their projects) and the new possibility of wider partnership (in the connection across the silos and collaboration with their peers – the systemic manifestation of love).

Around the workshop and following a chance encounter I ended up joining some young Chinese people in their twenties for a traditional tea-tasting in Shanghai. I could see ‘real-time’ the dance within myself of the pull to decline the invitation/withdraw (separateness) or to join them (connection and potential common ground).

These forces of love and power are not just analytical categories. They are forces we actively choose and create and through which we all shape the world in which we live. In the geo-political sphere this week, China and Japan significantly escalated the level of direct confrontation over the disputed Diaoyu Islands. This is reactivating old fault-lines and wounds from the 2nd World War and you can see on the street and in the news the raw and dangerous emotional dynamics of Us/Them with its rapid objectification of the Other. Interestingly, what seems to be moderating this polarising and conflict is the recognition the two countries depend on each other economically: there may be more than one way to recognise our interdependence.

5. Stuff happens! The observations I made all seem too neat and tidy as if knowing things, often in hindsight, is the transformation. Most of us react habitually and automatically to the everyday stuff that hits us. Our reactions are predictable and often diminish partnership with others. ‘I don’t do what I want to do and I often do what I hate’ as one ancient philosopher put it. This is a fundamental truth at the heart of the human condition.

This is why compassion (love) and will (power) are such vital ingredients in our human journey and in our work. Compassion to accept our own and others’ contradictions and shortcomings; will to choose the life we want to create.

So we come full circle: the world is a mess. It’s perfect. Our job is to straighten out our own lives.

Got to go – a row has to be sorted out with my eldest son.

Making Sense of Complexity: the Personal and the Systemic



I couldn’t give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity,

but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity

Oliver Wendell Holmes





Many of us yearn for simple principles to guide our work and life in a complex world. At the heart of this conundrum is an understanding of the relationship between the personal and the systemic. If some of us have an intuitive feel for the relationship between the two, we often find it hard to explain it to others. The urgency of our organisational, societal and planetary challenges requires us to bridge this divide. Either lens on its own is inadequate. I’ve been party to conversations which seem to presuppose that the locus of transformation is individual leaders, as if they exist in isolation, outside of any wider context. Similarly, the systemic approach can often be impoverished by an inadequate understanding of adult development and leave gaps in how we translate systemic insights into shifts in individual and collective behaviour.    

All metaphors are incomplete but the metaphor of organistions as living systems, developed by Meg Wheatley and Fritjov Capra, illuminates different ways of thinking and acting. By contrast, when you look closely at organisational thinking much of it is still located in ‘the world and organisation as machine’ metaphor. I’ve just responded to a tender for organisational development work where the working assumption seems to be that each leader is a separate unit, capable of redesign and complete transformation, largely independent of the wider culture of the organisation.  Much leadership development is still premised on questionable ‘machine-metaphor’ assumptions:

  • Breaking the system into its component parts (individuals and teams).
  • Studying each part in isolation.
  • Assembling an understanding of the whole as if the collective level is simply an aggregate of the parts that interact weakly and in a linear manner.

For example, you can’t adequately think of shifting the behaviour of the Middle part of an organisational system without understanding the Middle group’s relations with each other, with Tops, with Bottoms and with Customers. This wider constellation of relationships should be the locus of any action inquiry seeking to evolve the system. Focusing on the personal development of individual Middles and expecting a shift in the collective behaviour of Middles is a common but often fruitless endeavour, if you want to evolve whole systems, as Barry Oshry has pointed out.

The self (the personal/individual) and the wider systems of which we are members are not separate. As human beings we are constituted of the same elements that make up the universe.

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
Carl Sagan, Cosmos

The world of quantum physics reveals that the most basic elements of what constitutes us as human beings are not the solid building blocks of atoms, but pure energy, patterns of probability, waves and particles. At the collective level (which includes organisations) my view is that there is no fixed, pre-existing social reality that exists outside of our personal and collective participation in it. This is paradoxical because certain levels of reality appear solid: our bodies seem solid enough and yet we are in constant cycles of dying and renewal, a complex set of processes in motion. Similarly, organisational culture has tangible manifestations: values statements, organisation design charts, procedures and policies. Organisational culture also has a much subtler, less tangible but no less powerful energy field: the emotional history of the organisation carried in story, ritual and myth; the signals and gestures, mostly out of conscious awareness, that encourage and constrain individual behaviour; the vitality (or otherwise) that brings collective purpose to life.  

So what?

Update your maps.  Many maps in use in organisations around individual and collective change are woefully inaccurate. The wider field of leadership and organisational development (OD) has much unlearning and letting go to do. I’m in the process of simplifying my work which is both painful and liberating. If you read Marvin Weisbord’s latest book, Productive Workplaces Revisited: Dignity, Meaning and Community in the 21st Century, reflections on 50 years as a leader in the OD field, he set out ten myths of organisational change which he no longer believes. These myths (changes are sustainable, diagnosis solves the problem, training will fix it…) are unfortunately the common fare of many proposals from business schools and consultancies.

Embrace paradox and uncertainty and remember the map is not the territory. Maps are helpful in pointing to the territory, just as a menu points to the food, but as Gregory Bateson pointed out it’s a mistake to eat the menu. In the same way our plans and maps are useful but provisional. By all means take maps and make good plans, but pay attention to the territory which is in front of you. Solutions to complex challenges emerge over time through the rich interaction between different parts of the system. We have to be willing to embrace the unknown and this includes ambiguity, vulnerability and uncertainty. As the Islamic poet Rumi said: “As you start on the Way, the Way appears”

Find a community of practice and deepen your understanding of the interplay between the personal and systemic. In a previous blog posting on Barry Oshry’s website I gave ten pointers (or cairns) to which we should pay attention. Revisit them. Try them out and see if they make a difference. Reflect on and learn from your experiments! In previous times we perhaps had a better sense of the time needed to become a master craftsperson (or master practitioner) but our desire now is often for fast tracks and shortcuts. Drive thru competence which we pick up on a one day workshop is an illusion – the workshop is a first step but the journey requires time, application and learning.

Happy travels!

If you would like to develop your ability to coach for change more effectively at the individual, team and wider system level then join me, Professor Peter Hawkins and faculty from AoEC for the Team Coaching for Systemic Change programme in London on 26/27 June, 2012

Make Bradford British – fragmentation, fear and the hope of transformation

Channel 4 tonight shows the second part of a documentary on a social experiment in Bradford, one of the more highly segregated cities in the UK, bringing 8 very different local residents together in a shared house to ask what being British means.The first programme, still available on 4oD, made for uncomfortable viewing as prejudices, stereotypes and issues of privilege played out and the various housemates are confronted either with their own unconscious racism and stereotyping or the impact of being treated as the ‘Other’: “the Paki”, “the Black-bastard”, “the terrorist”.

Leaving aside criticisms of the quasi-reality TV format, the programme raises thought-provoking questions.

The programme highlights the contemporary state of our fragmentation. Barry Oshry has called this Connection Commonality Deficit (CCD), a social disease, characterised by over-individuation emphasising our separateness and independence, and over-differentiation where our difference predominates to the neglect of our commonality and connectedness.

The programme is an experiment in creating more integration. Whilst it was small scale and time-limited, the programme highlights a number of issues which are relevant to organisations as well as communities.

The Dominant group are blind to their own culture. The Dominants are those who have more privilege and who are members of a group that has easier access to the valued resources of the system. Their culture – their ways of seeing the world, their values, their norms – are invisible to them. It’s just the way things are and should be. Diversity usually refers to the difference, usually seen as the odd, often inferior or wrong values and behaviour of the ‘Others’. 

Privilege is like a drug. The more you have of it the less aware you are of how it affects others negatively. Privilege is in itself is not necessarily a problem but the lack of awareness of your privileged position and the impact it has on others causes much conflict. A male, white, middle class, retired detective recalled a time when he joked with a fellow detective whether to go “Paki-bashing”. He was oblivious to the anger this would trigger in the Asian housemates, not just their personal experience, but unconsciously how it triggers the collective inter-generational history of oppression.

Those in the Dominant and Other Group are both vulnerable. The Dominants are socially powerful but they are also psychologically vulnerable; they are frequently blind to their privilege and unable to understand others or see the cause of the anger or the conflict that they have generated.  The Dominants often lack insight into the nature of the conflict. The oppression of the Others is sometimes self-evident. In the programme tonight a young Muslim woman, who ventures to work in a pub in the spirit of integration, encounters harsh stereotypes and racial abuse. Often, the marginalisation of the Others is more subtle and seemingly rational, based on the ‘unacceptable’ behaviour of the Others. This may be no less invidious.  

Group identities – ‘Us and Them’ dynamics – form very quickly. Social psychology research indicates how in-group and out-groups form very rapidly and often out of very scant material. Research indicates we then tend to treat the in-group in more favourable ways: feelings of trust towards members of in-groups and distrust of those in the out-group, seeing members of the in-group as individuals and those in the out-group as homogenous. Tonight, a white working class man visits the mosque for the first time and says honestly to the Muslims he talks to: “I thought you were all terrorists.”  It is easy to condemn him as ignorant and the exception, but many of us also treat those in ‘out-groups’ as a homogenous whole.

So where’s the hope and the possibility of transformation?

Constructive confrontation of stereotypes and discriminatory behaviour can reduce prejudice. There was evidence that challenging the behaviour of the white detective by his housemates led to some examination of his own attitudes and behaviours. More generally, research indicates that creating a climate where we can challenge stereotypes reduces prejudice.

Empathy – stepping into the shoes of the other is possible.  Empathy isn’t a quality we either have or don’t have; it’s a practice we can cultivate. The programme points to the minimum conditions needed to generate more respectful relationships including:

  • Common goals or a shared purpose (in this case creating more integration in Bradford).
  • Conditions which foster a quality of personal contact and relationship. The process of honest conversations, where others are able to listen without feeling annihilated, can dissolve fears, stereotypes and projections.
  • Willingness to cooperate and compromise.
  • Support of institutions and authority (given the controversy raised by the programme it is unclear whether Channel 4 had mobilised community and institutional support for the idea).

Everyone has unconscious biases and stereotypes but we don’t have to keep them or act on them. As human beings we are quick to categorise others and make inferences based on whatever data is available. But our stories about the Others are often inaccurate. The programme provided first-hand, positive experiences of the Others; experience which contradicted popular stereotypes. Participants edged towards, as the days unfolded and conflicts were worked through, a commonality of human experience, needs and aspirations that provided some common ground.

The programme demonstrated in embryonic form some of the key capacities that sustain an abundant and integrated community:  sharing food, offering and giving hospitality, compassion and challenge, generosity, cooperation, human fallibility and forgiveness.

Peter Block, in an interview  I conducted with him last year, said our central challenge is to transform the isolation and self-interest within our communities into connectedness and caring for the whole – creating an experience of belonging. This is the challenge everywhere, not just Bradford.

Remembering the basics – leading skilfully in a confusing world












In recent weeks I’ve been reminded of the complexity, contradiction and paradox at the heart of organisational life. I’ve also noticed my fear and ambivalence of engaging with what seems like a mess and my impulse to withdraw (leave them to it), blame (another good defence mechanism) or criticise (myself and/or them). Barry Oshry says the first law of organisational life is Stuff Happens. It’s how we engage with Stuff, our own and others, that makes the difference.

I’m working with a global firm at the moment that has ‘leading self, leading teams and lead organisations’ in a series of expanding circles as their leadership framework. Nothing particularly unusual in that combination. I notice it’s easy to be inured to what this signifies; the cynical part of me says yet more words on a power point slide – blah, blah, blah… The corporate wheel turns yet again and I’m part of the whole ritual. I’m sure this cynicism is mirrored within the organisation, as in many other organisations whether private, public or not for profit. It’s important to notice the cynicism, both our inner voice and when it’s voiced by others, most often in the informal space of organisations. This cynicism is triggered and reinforced by public narratives about change and leadership that are often incomplete and one-sided, and at some basic level don’t describe the lived reality of the organisation, its history or its possibilities.

As human beings we are paradoxical and contradictory; organisations too are a mixture of light and shadow. As leaders and facilitators of change we need to acknowledge our capacity for light and dark; that way we are less likely to project it unawarely onto others.

So back to the leadership framework: ‘leading self’ is the starting place for being or doing anything useful.

Dee Hock, the founder of VISA said: “the first and paramount responsibility of anyone who purports to manage is to manage self – one’s own integrity, character, ethics, knowledge, wisdom, temperament, words, and acts. It is a never-ending, difficult, oft-shunned task…It is ignored precisely because it is incredibly more difficult than prescribing and controlling the behaviour of others”.

This is true in all settings: if you want to have a vibrant, healthy family life; or if you want to create a productive, innovative, high performing organisation. As human beings we are permeable boundaries – continually impacting others and being effected by others and the wider world – and leading self is the basic leadership practice from which all others flow. 

I recommend a simple, mindfulness breathing practice as a way to strengthen awareness: our capacity to see ourselves, others and the wider system more clearly. My own practice is intermittent but I know the simple act of taking some quiet time each day, breathing consciously and stilling the mind with its repetitive, chattering stories creates the space for new possibilities. If we want to be effective leaders and facilitators an awareness practice is basic and foundational.


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