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

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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’)

John

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Kindness

“He was uncommonly kind to me” Bill Clinton on Nelson Mandela

Kindness was one one of the many qualities  Nelson Mandela embodied.  Mandela’s kindness was offered freely and indiscriminately to people of great positional rank (President Clinton) and no rank. Where did this kindness come from?

In a revealing interview on BBC Newsnight last week, Clinton threw some light on this, relaying a conversation he had had with Nelson Mandela. Clinton asked: “How did you do this? You had to hate those people. Look what they did to you.” Mandela replied: “I was young and strong when I went into prison. For 11 years I lived on my hatred. Then one day I was breaking rocks and I thought of all they done to me and all they had taken from me. They had abused me physically and emotionally. They had taken away my right to see my children grow up and eventually destroyed my marriage. I realised they could take everything  except my mind and my heart. These things I decided not to give away.”

Mandela’s life attests to the truth that kindness is often cultivated in the midst of suffering as the poem Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye, reveals.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go as you know

how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sesne anymore,
and kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is you I have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Three questions to ask ourselves:

What kindness have we received from others in recent days that touched us?

What kindness might suddenly break through our barren lives if we paused and, for once, gave up on advancing our own agenda?

What simple gift of kindness might we offer today?

Hope and Hopelessness: centre your life in the practice of Active Hope

DoriMidnightSpiralFaced with strong, overwhelming feelings of hopelessness I’ve been asking myself how do we sustain ourselves in dark times?

Last week, I responded to a tender for work with a failing organisation: I felt I could offer nothing. Later that day, after a conversation with my wife, who offered a listening ear, I remembered that I should take my feelings of hopelessness seriously, but not personally.

I reflected on what I had been blind to earlier, which now seemed obvious; a narrative, set out in 300 pages in the tender documents, assumed that a clear vision, confident leadership, cascading communications and a rational blueprint plan would move this  troubled organisation in a linear fashion to the desired destination.  The failure in the tender to acknowledge the brutal facts of the current situation lay at the root of my feelings of hopelessness: we first have to acknowledge we are lost if we are to find a path out of the wasteland.

Wherever you look in the public and private sectors our organisational challenges are enormous: how do we create innovative, healthy organisations that act responsibly and sustainably with respect to their customers, employees, wider society and planet? Many of our taken-for-granted ideas about governance, organising and leading are bankrupt.

In the practicality of everyday living and with the complexity of the challenges it is tempting to collude with Business As Usual and sink into either denial – there’s little I can do, it’s not that bad, it’s all their fault – or hopelessness.  Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone in a new book, make a rallying cry for Active Hope, grounded in a deep commitment to creating the kind of world we long for; it’s a practice we continue with even when we feel hopeless.

Active Hope is distinct from everyday understandings of hope, the optimism that things will turn out well; the confident assumption that we can always be successful.  In the Nazi concentration camps, Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, noted it was the optimistic campmates, anticipating early liberation or setting their hope on a particular outcome, who died early, broken by despair and hopelessness.

In the settings we find ourselves, how do we carry on and do the work that is needed?  I’ve drawn out five cairns from Joanna Macy’s book, Active Hope and from Meg Wheatley’s new book, So Far from Home. They are primarily shifts in being – how we are –- rather than a list of doing actions:

1. Being open to outcomes not attached to them: if we rely on immediate results and affirmation from others to sustain our work we will quickly end up feeling hopeless.  If we let go of personal ambition we also liberate ourselves from its Siamese twin, fear, which when it sees no results, cripples our ability to move forward. I re-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy over the Christmas holidays; it demonstrates beautifully both the crippling paralysis of fear, and the possibility of transcending it. The films also illustrate three critical aspects of leadership:

  • The collective nature of meeting great challenges, at different times each member of the Fellowship, a somewhat unlikely, motley collection of characters, stepped forward and played their part.
  • Fallibility is an inherent part of the human condition and this weakness allows opportunities for others to contribute.
  • With complex challenges, we cannot see the solutions at the beginning nor the way ahead. We must learn to rely on hope “not as the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” (Vaclav Havel)

2. Practicing gratitude is the art of appreciation and thankfulness: it brings us into the here and now and an appreciation of what is sustaining us. It moves attention beyond self-absorption to notice what is supporting you. The practice of gratitude is related to appreciative inquiry in organisations, noticing what is already in place now and creating value. It is also related to asset-based approaches in community settings: identifying the gifts, resources and talents that are present rather than mapping, yet again, the deficiencies.

  • Review the last 24 hours: what are you thankful for? These can be small, ordinary items of your work and life.
  • Take a moment to feel your gratitude and acknowledge who or what contributed to these moments.

This isn’t a pollyannaish fluffy practice; even in, and perhaps especially, in the bleakest of situations we need to connect and ground ourselves in what sustains us.

3. Honouring the pain:  we manufacture hopelessness when a large gap opens up between what we feel and experience and what seems possible to say. We are social creatures; it requires courage and skill to interrupt the unspoken rules that set the narrow bandwidth for the content and emotion that is acceptable in a conversation. In conflicted situations we have to engage with the experience of current reality: this includes allowing feelings of anger, grief, hopelessness and blame to be heard if we want to make progress.  This also calls for the cultivation of compassion, for ourselves and others; that sense of fellow-feeling, to be ready to open to the experience of the other and walk in their shoes.  The priority is to cultivate this inner capacity and develop our skills in holding more ‘real’ conversations, where we can hear what is dysfunctional, stuck and destructive, as well as what is working, healthy and life-sustaining.

4. Seeing through new eyes:  In organisational settings, we need to be clearer about what can be planned up-front and what emerges as we start the work. The fog often lifts as we start the work; small actions have a cumulative power, new possibilities emerge as we bring the parts together, which were not present when the system was operating in isolation.  Meg Wheatley in So Far from Home, names two capacities that are necessary for us to see with new eyes: compassion and insight. Wisely, Meg says that we don’t need to insert compassion into people, “we need to create the conditions for it to arise.” Whilst we live in a story of our small selves: our job, our promotion, our group, our tribe, our country, there is little commonality with the other because fear and self-protection are to the fore.  What new possibilities emerge if we broaden our story? Our personal story of seven or eight decades is a brief burst of conscious life, which sits within a human story of 250,000 years and an earth story of 3.5 billion years. If we locate our stories within this wider, evolving story, different questions and insights arise. I am not responsible for everything, I can’t sort everything out, but what is the unique and particular contribution I can make?

 5. Going forth: are we willing to take the next step without the blueprint, fail-safe master plan? This seems the only viable option with complex challenges: we know the stakeholders disagree, sometimes violently; we know the past is no longer an adequate guide for the future; we know we have to create the path as we walk it.  And in acting, Meg Wheatley adds an additional challenge: can we act without adding to the fear and aggression in the world, both of which she predicts are likely to increase. This calls for a new higher level of self-examination and cultivation of our way of being.

Enough thinking. I have a proposal to write but first…a few moments of gratitude…

Are we up for it? Adaptive leadership in the NHS?

Jenni Russell in a recent article in the Guardian raised some critical issues about the NHS which require us to stop short and pause:

  • “The whole debate about the NHS is taking place at a level entirely detached from what people experience… the experience of the real person sitting in the clinic or hospital bed (or care home) is too often neglected. And yet that experience is at the heart of what the health service is for.
  • The problem is politician’s manic belief in the existence of perfect systems. (This lets us citizens off the hook too easily as many of us also hold a belief in the possibility of  perfectly engineered and designed systems  as if the NHS was a machine with levers and pulleys that could be designed like a Heath Robinson contraption).
  • What people want from the health service is indeed efficiency and reliability, but above all they want compassion and care… Politicians (and managers) shy away from this language because it sounds soft and is hard to measure.”

Russell’s article however creates a false dichotomy between a focus on systems or a focus on care. We need an integrated focus that looks carefully at system design and how it encourages or discourages certain behaviours.  The not uncommon incidents of discourtesy, lack of care, bureaucratic attitudes in the NHS are not just breakdowns of individual behaviour – a few bad apples – but also the impact of a culture and a certain kind of management system that has inadvertently created a climate where “an elderly patient can be told by the night staff that they were too busy to help her to the lavatory and she should just wet the bed” to give one example from Jenni Russel’s article.

Leaders at all levels in the health service need not to be afraid to talk about values and purpose. A critical aspect of leadership is to change the conversation and create with others a compelling and motivating narrative about who we are and what we are doing. Dee Hock, the founder of VISA, still one of the world’s most successful companies and at its inception one of the most innovative, said that “clear, meaningful purpose and compelling ethical principles evoked from and shared by all participants should be the essence of every institution.”

Barry Oshry asks what are we jointly committed to?  What’s the purpose that unifies the various players, institutions and tribes in the health service? Above and beyond our specialisation, competition and autonomy (all of which are helpful and necessary) what is the unifying overarching purpose that needs to be renewed? Leaders need to (re-)learn that leadership is both deeply systemic and personal.  System design matters but how we think about that process needs to shift radically.

This is the adaptive nature of the challenge – we need a retooling of how we think and act. But are we up for that level of not knowing, of holding open a space for experimentation and learning, of seeking to create new solutions with others, of sharing responsibility?

The reflex response which we may yet fall into again is to look to the Tops (Cameron, Lansley, Nicholson and the Department of Health) to sort it. That way is well tried and failed –  a few Top Leaders cannot effectively design a complex system from on high in isolation.

So the adaptive challenge is to face up to the stark fact that our thinking and core assumptions about change, leadership and organisation design need to move on.  There are pockets in the NHS who know how to do things differently – can we learn from those places of experimentation and next practice. There is much unlearning for the rest of us to do. Are we up for that? Who has the courage to name that agenda and to step into it for themselves and lead others on that journey.

Back to Visa, with a sixth of the world as its customers, Dee Hock reflected on governance that “agreement is always dynamic, imperfect and malleable. Reaching and sustaining agreement is a continual process, as alive as the people involved”. Public sector notions of governance are often too mechanistic and static, as if the system being governed was an inert object rather than a pulsating, complex web of people in multiple relationships. Hock’s conclusion is that we live in “a world of such complexity, diversity, and multiplicity of scales that there is little possibility of achieved constructive, sustained governance within existing concepts of organisation”.

Without this radical commitment to unlearning and experimentation, we can’t evolve our thinking and action into this new way of organising and leading. Without that step, we won’t be able to shift the dismally low success rate of organisational change projects. The latest book from McKinsey’s published this month, Beyond Performance, quotes a continuing failure rate of 70% of change projects.

Are we up for it? It requires all of us to enter this conversation and play our part.

 

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