Tag Archive for: leadership

Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders

Simple Habits for Complex Times – Powerful Practices for Leaders (2015), by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston. Stanford Business Books: Stanford, CA.

“Damn!” is the first word in Simple Habits for Complex Times. And with this, we are ushered into the world of Yolanda, the CEO of a child welfare agency, and her team of dedicated and passionate social care staff, as they face yet another tragic outcome for a child in their care.

Yolanda’s journey towards ‘thinking anew’ is a narrative through which the authors describe and help us understand the VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) and how to navigate it in these uncharted waters. One of the first concepts they tackle is the human need/drive for predictability, structure, patterns and safety:

Our minds love categorizing and learning from the past in order to keep us safe into the future. And that has been great for us. Without this capacity to predict and determine risks, we’d just be a stunted branch on the evolutionary tree. We carry with us a kind of bell curve of possibilities, and depending on our background and knowledge…we are constantly making decisions about risk and reward. That internal judging system has done pretty well to protect and keep us for tens of thousands of years, but it is beginning to short out now. And one of the key ways our system misfires is as it considers the difference between the probable and the possible.” (p. 10)

If we look to the past to predict and order the future (probabilities), we constrain the array of options available to us (possibilities). This is great if we are facing a knowable future as we can be efficient with our decision-making time and resources. However, as we are in an increasingly VUCA world, the past can’t always help us predict the future—it is simply unknowable. Complexity then is about wrapping our mind around what is possible, rather than what is probable (based on past experience). 

This is easier said than done. Brain and behavioral research suggests our “general pattern is to prune and simplify” (p. 12). In the social care field, that translates into looking at what we know from prior experience, what the risks are, what outcomes we want, what directions we have received (from legislation to policies) and weighing it all to formulate a plan that will result in a specific outcome. 

However, there are so many variables that we can’t possibly know anything for sure. When faced with complexity, we have to intentionally nurture new ways of thinking and acting that stretch us into the realm of more possibilities… and this can be uncomfortable. Further, there is a dissonance between what we are often expected to do as leaders (predict, plan, direct, be in control) and the reality of the VUCA world. The authors suggest three ‘deceptively simple’ habits that can help grow more complexity of mind:

  1. Ask different questions
  2. Take multiple perspectives
  3. See systems

I am going to focus on asking different questions. This is a place that we can start working right now and it relates to my previous post on fixed and growth mindsets. Think of this as yoga for the mind. The first thing to be aware of is that not all questions are equal. We already know that it is helpful to be curious and ask questions. However, our sneaky brains want to generate questions that will lead us towards more familiar destinations and confirm our hypotheses so as to reduce discomfort and perceived risk. 

Because most leaders get stuck when they’re dealing with intractable problems, or with problems so murky that every answer leads both somewhere and also nowhere, they tend to find themselves…asking simple questions about solutions and next steps.” (p. 16)

We need to ask new and different questions that we don’t know the answers to. These are ‘mindset-shifting’ questions. Consider what mindset you are bringing into a particular situation: a mindset of scarcity or abundance, of threat or opportunity, of curiosity and openness or focus and action? It is not that these mindsets aren’t helpful, but that we benefit from stretching out into new mindset territories when dealing with complex situations.

For example, if you notice that your mindset and questions are focussed on threats and the need to make a quick decision and act, you may want to open up to explore different ways to understand and act in the face of the threat. Instead of “What needs to be fixed?” or “Who is at fault?” consider “What else could go wrong?” or “What would happen if I acted/didn’t act in this way?” Or you could ask questions about the opportunities we have in the face of the threat: “What is the very best move to make here?” or “If I had one bet, where would I place it?” To really stretch, you might shift from the narrow focus on the threat to a wider exploration of possibilities: “How could we take this tragedy and create a better future?” or “What are other ways of looking at this?” (see p. 17)

Sometimes (well, often) we have mindsets about the people that we are working with and for (e.g. he is disruptive, she is too challenging, they are unfocused, she is hard-working, he is creative, they are calm under pressure, etc). The authors suggest that we benefit from noticing these mindsets and then shifting them to consider: “What if this person wasn’t a problem for me to solve, but a key knowledge holder for me to understand?” and “What is it that this person knows about the situation that could shift or change my mind and how might I find this out?” (p. 65). In making this shift, we begin to think of new and different questions that help us connect with new knowledge, understanding and possibilities, and build relationships. “It’s not enough for everyone to hang out by their own particular truth pools: we need the largest shared pool possible. If you want to learn and you want the other person to learn, you can have a different kind of conversation, the kind in which you are each asking different questions” (p. 71) that gather data, feelings/reactions and impact.

In making this shift, we begin to think of new and different questions that help us connect with new knowledge, understanding and possibilities, and build relationships. “It’s not enough for everyone to hang out by their own particular truth pools: we need the largest shared pool possible. If you want to learn and you want the other person to learn, you can have a different kind of conversation, the kind in which you are each asking different questions” (p. 71) that gather data, feelings, reactions, and impact.

Asking new and different questions can also help us when we are evaluating the different possibilities for action. In the VUCA world, we need to get better at innovating. With that comes the likelihood of missteps, failure, and learning. In a predictable world, we would ask questions such as, “Did this work before?” But in the VUCA world, we need to create a safe-to-fail space so we ask questions that help us understand the risks and rewards (as we don’t want to be reckless), such as, “How might this fail and how bad would it be?” and “What could we learn from this whether successful or not?” (p. 154) and “What processes can we put in place to listen well to what is going on?” (p. 170).

Being open to failure and learning takes us to another set of new and different questions about ourselves, which relates to Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets that I spoke about in an earlier post. People with a growth mindset are more orientated to their own growth (and the growth of others) and are much better at learning and recovering from failure than people with a more fixed mindset. As such, they do better in the VUCA world. Like most leaders, they will ask themselves, “Who am I and what am I good at?” but they will go beyond this and ask, “Who have I been and who is the leader I want to be next?” (p. 177). 

These questions fuel a growth mindset that helps leaders become self-transforming “who handle complexity with the most grace because their openness to learning and to questioning their most fundamental assumptions gives them the largest set of possibilities… seeing new options where others are hopeless, finding areas of commonality where others see only opposition” (p. 182). Research also suggests that these are the people who can effectively lead organizational change. 

The good news is that by asking new and different questions we can nurture our own growth mindset and development, while also becoming more skillful leaders now and supporting the growth and development of the people that we work with. Given that we are in a VUCA world, that seems like a pretty good combination.

You may also want to check out…

The authors’ consulting website which includes a number of articles and blog posts that tested out the ideas in this book, as well as their research, podcasts and videos.

The article, Why Leaders Who Listen Achieve Breakthroughs by Elizabeth Doty. When we ask new and different questions, we have to be prepared to listen to whatever arises.

Leadership Spotlight: Deb Knopp and organizational wellness

Deb Knopp is the HR Coordinator for Pacific Community Resources Society (PCRS). She is one of the many Leadership 2020 participants that have applied the program’s teachings to the day-to-day work at their organization.

One of the key values shared by everyone at PCRS is wellbeing. All staff members are encouraged to support the health, growth, and wellness of the people they serve, each other, and their families. It should be no surprise that an organization whose mission is to inspire healthy and inclusive communities through leadership and collaboration would put such a focus on wellbeing. Healthy, happy organizations require healthy, happy employees. So as soon as Deb finished her Leadership 2020 program, she helped establish a PCRS Wellness Committee.

“Collaborative, compassionate leadership and the need to support each other in our growth through mentorship and coaching— that was the biggest takeaway for me,” Deb explains. “Empowering individuals to take ‘leadership’ for their personal health and wellness, I believe, is the foundation to enjoying our work and our lives.”

Thanks in part to Leadership 2020, Deb knew that such a program would not function without the shared input from others. As such, the PCRS Wellness Committee includes leaders from all levels of the organization as well as external stakeholders that share the group’s values. This wasn’t easy. The agency has multiple locations spread throughout the lower mainland. Connecting, resourcing, and supporting each other was a challenge.

How did they do it? Deb and her team established Wellness ‘Champions’ from each PCRS program and in each location. These Champions promote PCRS wellness initiatives and connect regularly to develop ideas that support their health and wellness goals. In addition, other employees are offered leadership opportunities and encouraged to ‘champion’ their own wellbeing ideas. This model not only informs but also engages those that would have otherwise been less interested in personal wellness. 

For now, the Wellness Committee is focusing on things like physical fitness, mental health, engagement, and job satisfaction. Ultimately, their goal is to inspire staff to discover and become their best self—both at work and in their personal lives. From an organizational perspective, the hope is that this will help to reduce absenteeism, decrease employee turnover, and increase employee job satisfaction.

“We hope to keep capturing creative initiatives that speak to what ‘wellness’ means to each and every staff member,” says Deb. “We want this to be an agency where staff are happy and productive and take personal responsibility for their health and wellness. I think this is going to be a key factor in attracting and retaining great people.” 

2020 Resources – Reflections on mindfulness

I went on my first 10-day silent meditation retreat 34 years ago. Back then, I didn’t dare tell anyone at work that I was meditating. Even telling friends and family was a challenge. They wondered out loud if I was going to shave my hair and head to India, or renounce my worldly possessions, or whether I could levitate (yes really).

I too was under some major misunderstandings back then. I thought that I could achieve a higher consciousness (if not enlightenment ) after those 10 days and that I would be impervious to the stressors in my child welfare job as a result. However, after the first 10-day retreat, I came back to Earth and learned that my mind was incessantly narrating my life and focusing on stupid things. I was a lot more judgmental about others than I had known or was comfortable with. And although meditating all day was painful, I became present and more fully alive through the experience.

It did not make me impervious to life’s challenges, I was just in my life in a more mindful way. I loved it and I sustained a daily practice of sitting meditations and annual retreats for many years. But then work got really demanding, children arrived, divorce happened, and there no longer seemed to be a way for me to get back to my daily practice of meditation.

Fast forward many years. I began to notice that meditation and mindfulness practices were becoming more mainstream in the Western world. Jon Kabat-Zinn brought Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) into the realm of health care and demonstrated that participants suffering from a wide array of chronic and serious medical conditions and stress-related illnesses experienced significant improvements in health and wellbeing through simple mindfulness practices over an 8-week program. Brain Imaging has enabled researchers to see the ways in which the brain works both when highly stressed and when practicing mindfulness. This has demonstrated that the parts of the brain responsible for ‘higher order thinking’ (aka executive functioning) are more active when people engage in mindfulness and meditative practices. Long-term mindfulness practice has been shown to thicken the cortical regions related to attention and sensory processing, and may offset thinning of those areas that typically comes with aging.

We are continually learning about the science of mindfulness. For example, mindfulness enhances the neural circuitry and neural integration leading to more balanced self-regulation and flexibility. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel (whom many of you will know from his work on the “developing mind” in children and youth) states that: “being mindfully aware, attending to the richness of our here and now experiences, creates scientifically recognized enhancements in our physiology, our mental functions, and our interpersonal relationships. Being fully present in our awareness opens our lives to new possibilities of well-being” (2007, p. xiii).

Research suggests that mindful leaders are able to see things more clearly, cope more effectively with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), “disentangle itself from premature conclusions” and routinized behaviours, generate creative ways to solve messy problems, make better decisions, and be more effective in their relationships at work (and elsewhere). Increasingly, we see health care providers, corporations, academic institutions, governments and schools embracing mindfulness practices to enhance wellbeing, reduce health care costs, and improve performance. Meditation and mindfulness are now mainstream in the Western context.

Although I still don’t get to the cushion and meditate for an hour a day as I used to, I have found that I can still weave mindfulness practice into my everyday life in a helpful way. In the hopes that you might be willing to explore mindfulness further—to enhance well-being, nurture relationships, develop your leadership, address stress or simply to practice the pause—I offer a few Q’s and A’s and some recommended resources below.

Q. What is the distinction between meditation and mindfulness?

A. Contemplative meditation traditions and practices have existed in all faiths and in diverse contexts and countries for thousands of years, and I can’t possibly represent all forms and intentions of meditation here. However, the tradition of insight or Vipassana meditation that I am most familiar with is the practice of training our attention to see things as they really are; to enhance awareness of both internal and external here-and-now experiences. It requires that we focus on a single object (often the breath to start), and as distractions arise we aim to let them go and re-focus on the object. This gives us a ‘centre’ to come back to when things get hairy in our minds. Meditation requires that we be still – or at least very intentional in our movements as in the case of a walking meditation – in order to bring a high quality of attention to our practice. This is where ‘time on the meditation cushion’ matters, as by being still we become aware of the incessant chattering, distractions and interpretations that our minds fix on, and gives us an opportunity to see them for what they are and let them go.

Meditation cultivates concentration, mindfulness and compassion. As Sharon Salzberg states, “Concentration steadies and focuses our attention so that we can let go of distractions. Distractions waste our energy; concentration restores it to us…Mindfulness refines our attention…” (2011, p. 11-12).  As we enhance our capacity for mindfulness through some kind of meditative practice, we can then take it into every aspect of our daily lives. It enables us to become more aware of sensations, thoughts, feelings, reactions, and create a space for the “nonjudgmental acknowledgement” of experience. This gives us a bit more space to shift from habitual reactions to seeing different options.

For example, if you are having difficulty with a colleague and are dreading the meeting you are about to go into, mindful awareness might allow you to see the habitual patterns that the 2 of you are locked into, or the way in which your mind creates a whole storyline of how awful your colleague will be and why you have every right to be disappointed and frustrated – before you even get into the meeting!  Mindfulness helps us catch ourselves in the spiral and disentangle ourselves from the judgments and stories so that we can try something different. As Salzberg suggests, “mindfulness helps us get better at seeing the difference between what’s happening and the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening” (p. 13).  I love the story she shares about a student who, after a particularly stressful day, was in the gym locker room and tore a hole in her pantyhose. She said to a stranger, ‘see, I need a new life’, to which the stranger responded, ‘no, you need a new pair of pantyhose’. 

Q.  How can I bring more mindfulness into my days?

A.   As noted above, our capacity for mindfulness is enhanced if we do some meditative practice – even 15 minutes a day can be very beneficial. However, can also practice ‘mindful moments’ in which you are stably present and attentive to one thing for a minute or more, including:

  • Sensations – such as the smell of your toothpaste or morning coffee, the sound of the rustle of leaves in the wind or a child’s giggle, the different tastes in your meal, the sensation of your back against the chair or the way in which you are holding your jaw.
  • Thoughts –noticing what thoughts are arising, how they evolve in your mind and how your body responds to the thoughts.
  • Feelings – noticing what different emotions (from pleasant to unpleasant) arise in particular situations, and how your thoughts and body are affected.

You may find it difficult to be aware and focused for even a minute, in which case, just notice that and be aware of the way you are distracted. It helps to bring curiosity, openness and a sense of humour into these mindful moments.

Q. How can mindfulness support my leadership?

A. Research suggests that mindfulness enables us to detach from habitual judgments and responses and see things as they are. Instead of mindless inattention to the small things that can become big things if ignored, we are more alert to early warning signs and can take appropriate action. As our capacity for concentration and awareness grows we can become more flexible, innovative, productive, and make better decisions. Further, mindfulness enhances our capacity for compassion and empathy, which helps us as leaders (see Langer, 2014). 

Michael Carroll, in his book, The Mindful Leader, suggests that the primary act of mindful leadership is “to open – to fully appreciate our circumstances before we seek to influence or act upon them. When we are willing to open to our world before we act, we not only learn what we need to know, but equally important, we express a vital, innate intelligence that is sharp, flexible and unassuming…We grasp directly the full measure of our present circumstances, recognizing opportunities, appreciating other’s views, [and] acknowledging difficulties” (2007, pp. 23-24).

Recommended references:

Carroll, Michael (2007). The Mindful Leader.

Focuses on ten key principles of mindfulness and how they apply to leading groups and organizations.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon (2012). Mindfulness for Beginners.

Kabat-Zinn brought mindfulness into Western medicine and remains one of the best teachers of mindfulness practices. This book is a series of short reflections and stories that can be used to stimulate practice. A CD of guided meditations is included.

Langer, Ellen (1989/2014). Mindfulness.

This classic written by a Harvard psychologist in 1989, concluded that ‘pervasive mindlessness’ was costing us dearly (limiting mindsets, unhealthy aging, loss of control and self-regulation, burnout, etc.) and proposed a way out through mindfulness.  It is still a great read.

Salzberg, Sharon (2011). Real Happiness – The Power of Meditation.

Offers a thoughtful, balanced 28-day program that introduces the basics as well as different forms of meditation (e.g., walking, eating, hearing) and simple mindfulness practices; includes a CD with guided meditations. 

Siegel, Daniel (2007). The Mindful Brain.

For those interested in the research pertaining to mindfulness and neurobiology and how they interact.

Stahl, Bob & Goldstein, Elisha (2010). A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook.

If you are interested in developing mindfulness practices to relieve stress, anxiety and health concerns, this workbook does a great job of presenting MBSR techniques and practices.    

Online resources:

Palouse Mindfulness, MBSR Program

Dave Potter is a certified MBSR facilitator and psychotherapist and has created a free 8-week MBSR program, modelled after the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s program (which was founded by Jon Kabatt-Zinn). A number of 2020 participants have gone through this program and found it very helpful.

Dr. Tara Brach is an author and meditation teacher (her books True Refuge and Self-Acceptance Acceptance are powerful) and she shares many guided meditations, as well as how to meditate articles on her website

2020 Resources – TED talks on the benefits of sleep

Every time I read an article on the importance of sleep and the negative cumulative impact of insufficient sleep, I cringe. For decades, I was one of those people that confidently stated, “I only need 5 hours of sleep a night.” Now I am confident that I simply can’t bring my best to the world if I keep starving myself of sleep. The research on the importance of quality sleep is compelling and these two TED talks offer some compelling insights. 

Jeff Iliff – One More reason To Get a Good Night’s Sleep 

Jeff Iliff is a neuroscientist and he and his research team have learned that, during sleep, our brains are literally ‘cleansed’ of the waste and toxins that build up when we work the brain. This helps our brain stay healthy. Conversely, poor sleep quality and duration results in a build up of wastes – the same type of wastes that are in high concentrations in the brains of people suffering from Alzheimer’s. They don’t know if there is a causal relationship but it is an interesting correlation! 

Russell Foster – Why Do We Sleep?

This is another interesting TED talk on sleep if you are keen to learn more. Russell Foster is a circadian neuroscientist, which means he is an expert on the body’s sleep cycles. In this talk, Foster slays (with humour) several common sleep myths and challenges dominant attitudes about sleep being a ‘waste of time’. He says it’s high time we take sleep seriously as a society. “This isn’t some sort of crystal-waving nonsense,” he says. “This is a pragmatic response to good health. If you have good sleep, it increases your concentration, attention, decision-making, creativity, social skills, health.”

2020 Resources – Thinking about wellness

In Leadership 2020, we offer a simple framework for assessing our wellness practices, adapted from the First Nation’s Healthy Authority’s perspective on wellness and wholism. A visual of this is offered below.


You can use whatever labels make sense to you but the key point is to attend to the different dimensions of wellness. Each of us might have different wellness practices within the dimensions, and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach nor is there a definitive ‘how to manual’ for wellness practice (despite what the self-help gurus might claim), but it is helpful to build awareness about what we have going on – or not – in each dimension. Where am I lean? What have I got in place that is working for me? What have I not been paying attention to? What do I want to introduce or re-introduce back into my life?

As we are in the generative Spring season – a time of new beginnings – it may be time to consider the questions above for yourself and then make some commitments – what will you keep doing, start doing and stop doing in order to enhance your wellness and well being over the next 6 months? 

These don’t need to be big and bold – sometimes it is the small stuff that can make a big difference, e.g. drink more water, stretch for 3 minutes every hour (set your phone to remind you to get up, stretch and get a glass of water), write a gratitude or ‘what went right’ statement at the end of each work day as your last act before you head home, listen to a talking book on something inspirational on your commute rather than listening to the news. 

One of the things to be aware of is that our brains have a harder time allowing us to stop doing something than to start doing something. Old habits die hard because the neural pathways associated with behaviours become deeply rooted. To introduce new wellness practices may be a better place to start – the novelty captures us and over time we can establish new neural pathways that may challenge the old patterns and pathways.

Nine self-care reminders for the over-committed activist

In her article, Nine self-care reminders for the over-committed activist, Vancouver-based Christine Boyle writes that: “the idea of self-care bubbles up every now and then in community and activist circles. It’s not an easy topic; often associated with self-indulgence, it can be seen as a luxury that can wait until after the next crisis. And yet, it continues to arise. Why?”

We include this article in our 2020 materials as we believe in the message: to focus on self-care is not a selfish practice to get to when all other important work is done; it is a leader’s discipline. In fact, it is a generative act. Sure it provides personal benefits, but it also has ripple effects on others including our families, clients, and colleagues. We are more able to serve as leaders when our head is clear, when our bodies are hydrated and nourished, when we feel connected and engaged, and when we are mindful and present. 

If you are interested in diving deeper into the topic of self compassion, two researchers/authors that are doing great work are Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. Kristin has a wonderful website complete with a self-assessment tool, her TEDx talk and other videos, guided mindfulness practices and resources. Christopher’s website is also very helpful with access to articles, excerpts from his books, guided meditations, and handouts from the Mindful Self Compassion training program. 

Both have also written very accessible and thoughtful books:

Kristin Neff (2011). Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.
Kristin Neff (2013). Self Compassion Step-by-Step: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (CD).
Christopher Germer (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself From Destructive Thoughts and Emotions.

2020 Resources – What Makes a Good Life?

Recommended TED talk: Lessons from the Longest Study on Human Happiness by Robert Waldinger

Robert Waldinger, a professor at Harvard Medical School is the Director of a study that has been tracking two groups of men (and now their partners and children) for 75 years. One group is comprised of Harvard graduates and the other from the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods and families of Boston at the time the study began. Throughout this period of time, researchers have interviewed the participants every one or 2 years, collected medical records, undertaken brain scans and tracked their life journey and stories.

This study has informed our understanding of what makes people happy and healthy through their lives. In this easy-to-listen-to 12-minute TED talk, Waldinger shares three factors that make a difference – all connected to a sense of belonging and having meaningful relationships. “The people who fared the best had leaned into relationships with family, friends, community” even when messy and complicated.

While this talk is not about leadership per se, it is still relevant to our work in a number of ways. Our personal well-being influences how we show up as leaders, so how are we tending to the relationships we have with family, friends, and community? How might we foster positive relationships in our teams and organizations to create a sense of belonging and connection amongst the people we work with? Given the vital importance of strong attachments and relationships to long-term physical, mental and emotional health, in what ways do we design, deliver and lead services to foster healthy connections for children, youth, and families?

We know this stuff, but a little reminder doesn’t hurt!

Positive Teams are More Productive

Positive Teams are More Productive, by Emma Seppala
(Harvard Business Review, March 2015)

One of the first things to note about this very short article is that is written by the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Think about the fact that an institution like Stanford values compassion and altruism such that it has established a center dedicated to researching the phenomenon. I don’t think this would have happened a decade ago. I think that it reflects a growing body of research evidence and understanding that attending to the well-being of ourselves and others – in our families, friend groups, organizations and communities – is not just nice to do if we can find the time, but essential to support thriving families, workplaces and communities.

The author draws on research from a number of different sources and suggests that the traditional approaches to increasing productivity – setting plans and goals, streamlining procedures, setting targets, measuring performance or offering incentives and perks – might have their place. However, so does paying attention to the context and culture for the team’s work and how this contributes or detracts from well-being. Citing a study from University of Michigan, she notes that workplaces “characterized by positive and virtuous practices excel in a number of domains.” They increase positive emotions (which helps to build resilience and amplify creativity to solve difficult issues), buffer against negative events and enhance personal and collective resilience, and they attract and bolster employees, including enhancing loyalty and staff commitment to offer their best.

These positive and virtuous practices include:

  • Caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues.
  • Providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling.
  • Avoiding blame and forgive mistakes.
  • Inspiring one another at work.
  • Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work.
  • Treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust & integrity.”

So what creates a climate or culture that is virtuous? The author suggests that leadership is critical. In particular, modelling caring and supportive behaviour in an authentic way. Small steps also make a difference – there doesn’t need to be a grand strategic plan and dedicated resources to encourage a more positive workplace.

Another article that offers some insights here is by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, in which they distil their research into the relationship between authenticity and effective leadership. They found six principles or virtues at work in dream workplaces, in which people are happy and engaged:

  • Individual differences are nurtured
  • Information is not suppressed or spun
  • The organization adds value to staff (through support, supervision, learning and growth opportunities, training, mentorship, etc.)
  • The organization stands for something meaningful
  • The work is intrinsically rewarding
  • There are no stupid rules

The authors note that: “several of the attributes run counter to traditional practices and ingrained habits. Others are, frankly, complicated and can be costly to implement. Some conflict with one another. Almost all require leaders to carefully balance competing interests and to rethink how they allocate their time and attention.” Nonetheless, they issue an invitation to leaders to consider how they might enact some of these virtues in their spheres of influence.

How might your team context and culture stack up against the principles noted above? What small steps might you take as a leader (either by position or influence) to contribute to a greater sense of well-being (and thus productivity, effectiveness, and creativity) in your team?

Resources on Theory U

In the Leadership 2020 final residencies we work extensively with Theory U as both a framework for the final week’s design and as a method for change leadership. Our design and hosting team loves working with Theory U as participants both ‘see themselves’ within the model/method and discover a language and process that informs their work in the world. However, learning about and working with Theory U doesn’t need to wait until a formal residency.  It is learnable through self-study and practice, and applicable to the complex situations we frequently find ourselves in.

First some background: The ‘U Procedure’ or ‘U Process’ was first developed in the Netherlands in the late 60’s as a change management approach to address conflict and shift unproductive organizational behaviour. Otto Scharmer and his colleagues at MIT, The Society for Organizational Learning, and the Presencing Institute have been further developing the concepts as ‘Theory U’, for application in organizational, community and systemic contexts. They note that the deeper social, economic, ecological and spiritual challenges of our times cannot be addressed by either looking to the past for direction or by looking for simple solutions. Instead, this complexity work calls for “a new consciousness and a new collective leadership capacity to meet challenges in a more conscious, intentional, and strategic way.”

Theory U evolved after a deep and extensive inquiry into what effective leaders do when they successfully address complex challenges. Scharmer and his colleagues  discovered that “successful leadership depends on the quality of attention and intention that the leader brings to any situation. Two leaders in the same circumstances doing the same thing can bring about completely different outcomes, depending on the inner place from which each operates.” Theory U thus informs a way of being as well as offering a framework and method for change.

Central to this way of being is:

  • Shifting from reaction to inquiry and from acting alone to engaging with others
  • Cultivating the qualities of attention, observation, presence and deeper listening
  • Uncovering the voices of judgment, cynicism and fear that hold us back
  • Challenging these voices by cultivating an open mind, open heart and open will
  • Illuminating the blindspots that keep us stuck in old patterns (letting go)
  • Being willing to act in small ways to probe and test out ideas – and yes fail – in order to learn and evolve new solutions to complex issues.

A scenario might help to illuminate how Theory U can be applied. Let’s say that you and your colleagues are noticing that a growing number of youth in your community are engaging in high-risk behaviours and the community is becoming alarmed. Your agency is getting pressured to respond in some way – and quickly! Now what? When we are faced with such pressure, our response is often to act from what we currently know and do, for example, look to an existing program to address the concern, or seek funds to implement a known crisis intervention. While there might be value in these responses, Theory U encourages a deeper level of inquiry and understanding.

The first ‘movement in Theory U calls for ‘co-initiating’ – inviting and engaging with others who share similar concerns and interests in order to develop a shared purpose or intention, such as better supporting youth in the community, or stemming the high risk behaviours. At this point in the process, the voice of judgment often arises, in which we explicitly or implicitly look for and judge the circumstances or people that we believe might be causing or contributing to the problem. This sounds like, “Government cut our program and this is why there is a crisis” of “If the (agency, school, parents, etc.) paid attention, it wouldn’t have come to this”. The voice of judgment clouds our capacity to see what is going on beyond the obvious and narrows our views of what is possible – not a great way to begin approaching a complex situation. The antidote to the voice of judgment is an open mind as curiosity and judgment cannot co-exist. The open mind allows us to ask, with others, “What is going on here?” and “What do we need to learn in order to make sense of the situation?”

An open mind prepares us to engage in the second movement in Theory U – ‘co-sensing’ – in which those involved inquire and learn, to discover new information about the phenomenon, from multiple perspectives. The Presencing Institute website noted below offers an array of tools and practices that support this. I have assisted a wide array of organizations to engage in co-sensing processes – from small non-profits, to BC Women’s Hospital – and the results have always been illuminating and inspiring for the participants and frequently shift the course of action taken. 

As we go deeper into the ‘U’, we come up against another insidious voice – the voice of cynicism. This sounds like, “We tried this before and it won’t work” and “No one will support us, they won’t get it”. The antidote to the voice of cynicism is an open heart. This enables us to be available to the learning journey and discoveries, and to receive the gifts of diverse perspectives and offerings. From this openness we will receive insights or offers that we might have never conceived of, as we widen the circle of inquiry and engagement. At this point in the U process you may also hear the ‘realist argument’, which sounds like, “I am not being a cynic, I am just a realist – we haven’t got support before so we won’t get support now” or “How is it going to help us to talk to all these people? They don’t really know what is going on and we have to act now!” However, by cultivating an open mind and heart we can suspend judgment and cynicism and ask, “Is this true?” and “What can I understand about what holds people back?” and “What/who else is out there?” and “Who can help here?” Returning to our scenario, you might learn from all sorts of people that have not traditionally been involved in youth work, but who nonetheless have something to offer such as a unique perspective, assistance, support, critique, etc.

At the bottom of the U is the third movement – presencing. At this point, stillness is required. Rather than rushing straight from information to action, there is value in tapping into ‘the pause’ that we often talk about in 2020, so that our minds can be present with and available to what has been discovered. We can sift and sort, find patterns, discover dissonance and perhaps gain a more nuanced or broader understanding of what is going on. Sometimes in our field, even with the most complex and urgent issues, there is great value in “slowing down in order to go fast”. 

Another voice that often emerges as we approach this deeper level of understanding of the need to act is the voice of fear. This sounds like, “I/we don’t know how to do this and I/we might fail” and “If we fail, we will look foolish/incompetent/cause harm/waste resources” and “I/we will lose” and “Something terrible will happen here.” As you can no doubt appreciate from your own experience, fear is very incapacitating.  This is because our ‘survival brain’ is activated and the executive functions associated with our neo-cortex (our thinking brain) are hijacked. Instead of being able to see an array of possibilities for response, our repertoire is limited to fight, flight, freeze, or appease. The antidote to fear is easier said than done – open will. There is a quality of self compassion and empathy for self and others associated with an open will and it can sound like, “I/we might fail, but I am not a failure and I will figure it out” and “This is really important work and it matters to me/us so it is worth it to try”. In this way, we let go of our judgment, cynicism and fear and become more open to possibilities  

At this point of the U process we are ready to act – and act with intensity. This is a time for co-creating probes and protoyping – for trying out a number of ideas to see what difference can be made and what else can be learned. There will still be judgment, cynicism and fear lurking about, but the qualities of openness that have been cultivated and the joy of enacting things that have been co-informed and co-created can help to keep the voices at bay.  I will share more about probes and prototyping in a future communiqué but know that if we are going to address complex issues we will not ‘get it right’ the first time – or the second, third of fourth!  However, as we try, and fail, and discover, in small and low risk/low resource ways, we can learn and develop the ideas until such time as we are ready for the final movement of co-evolving. This is when we enact the new, well-informed and tested response to the complex concerns we identified at the beginning of the process.

Here is a visual that shows the five movements, three voices and three ‘antidotes’ to the voices:


For further reading:

Presencing Institute: Otto Scharmer and colleagues host a wonderful array of resources on their Presencing Institute website. Here is an overview of Theory U, and here are some tools for practice (especially in the co-sensing movement).

Margaret Wheatley: Turning to One Another

From Margaret Wheatley, Turning to One Another, 2009

In working with many people in very different cultures, I’ve learned to define leadership differently than most. A leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation. It might be a parent who intervenes in her child’s school; or a rural village that works to get clean water; or a worker who refuses to allow mistreatment of others in his workplace; or a citizen who rallies her neighbours to stop local polluters. Everywhere in the world, no matter the economic or social circumstances, people step forward to try and make a small difference.

Because a leader is anyone willing to help, we can celebrate the fact that the world is abundantly rich in leaders. Some people ask, “Where have all the leaders gone?” But if we worry that there’s a shortage of leaders, we’re just looking in the wrong place, usually at the top of some hierarchy. Instead, we need to look around us, to look locally. And we need to look at ourselves. When have we moved into action for an issue or concern that we cared about? When have we stepped forward to help and thereby become a leader?

The process that creates change in the world is quite straightforward. We notice something that needs to be changed. We keep noticing it. The problem keeps getting our attention, even though most people don’t notice that there’s even a problem. We start to act, we try something. If that doesn’t work, we try a different approach. We learn as we go…