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’)



Being Human on a Full-Time Basis: Death

Britian Thatcher

Death isn’t often included as a topic on leadership development programmes. Perhaps it should be.

Yesterday’s short address by the Bishop of London at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral raised a number of important questions for us all. I have included some of his address in quotations.

Who are you? What is the continuity that is you, not just your roles or positions, but the story that is playing out through your life? What are the unique gifts that you bring to those you love, those you work with, and the community in which you live? “The atoms that make up our bodies are changing all the time, through wear and tear, eating and drinking. We are atomically distinct from when we were young. What unites Margaret Roberts of Grantham with Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven?”

“After the storm and the stress have passed and there is a great calm” what in the end will make your life seem valuable? The questions that will be important when we look back concern us all now. “How loving have I been? How faithful in personal relationships? Have I discovered joy in myself, or am I still looking for it in externals outside myself?”

Are you living your life on purpose? If one definition of power is the ability to achieve purpose, then Margaret Thatcher was a powerful person. We can debate her politics but she was committed to achieving “what she believed to be right for the common good”. What purpose are you committed to in how you live your life? If we looked at the pattern of your life, how you spend your time and money, what purpose does it embody?

Are you willing to live your life with knowledge of your death in front of you? “Lying here, she is one of us, subject to the common destiny of all human beings.” As Ernest Becker pointed out in his classic book, Denial of Death, we spend much of our life attempting to deny the oncoming reality of death, pushing our fears deep into the unconscious. I notice in my consulting work how we often treat organisations as mirages of certainty and permanence, in the face of the transitoriness of life. In many ways this suppressed fear of death is a flight from life. How about embracing our impermanence, celebrating our brief sojourn on this fragile planet and waking up to the possibility that our life represents?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? asks the poet, Mary Oliver.

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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