Now that we all are plunged into levels of uncertainty that seem unprecedented, the bedrock assumptions of western culture and leadership are being challenged. I want to share some reflections on visionary leadership through a personal lens.

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I am old enough to remember the cold war and hiding under a desk in case of a nuclear war (does this make any sense?) The fear in my generation was real, and our disillusionment during the Vietnam war was pervasive. I remember being amazed at the number of CEOs who claimed they had no idea their companies were polluting as Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring provoked a period of considerable media attention on leadership and their responsibilities. But today feels more serious.

In addition to rising uncertainty, we also face some very disturbing certainties. The world is steadily warming. Co2 is at its highest level in the last 400,000 years. We are not making progress in stopping this and the impacts are locked in for my and my children’s generation. And this isn’t the only disturbing certainty. As troublesome and less understood is the role that social media and AI is playing in fragmenting our awareness on the one hand, opening the world to everyone on the other, and fundamentally challenging assumptions about democratic process and collaboration. It feels like the attention economy is just another extractive mining operation not unlike the carbon economy, with profit considered legitimate so long as one ignores the impacts on children, local cultures (and now the globe itself)? This technology is on a runaway course just like global warming.

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What are we to do? And what have I, as a leader of several organizations, been doing all this time?

I’ve consulted to high tech, jetted around the world leading visual planning sessions, believed that collaboration and design thinking can make a difference, been a part of creating a new field of visual facilitation. But it doesn’t feel like enough. I realize I have not made deep enough friends with real uncertainty. Managing symbols on the wall is not enough. My ideas about visionary leadership are shifting well beyond appealing vision maps, as useful as they are.

Last year I attended a summer solstice gathering with colleagues in the change business. We were gathering at Sequoia Retreat Center near Ben Lomond, CA, amidst redwood forests that had been scorched by wildfire. It nearly destroying the retreat center but for the vigilance of many locals who risked lives to shield it. Many trees were blackened. In spite of that, much new growth was already coming through the ashes. Out of one of those groves I found a burnt shoot and married it with a hawk feather that had been on the path to breakfast. The feather is symbolic of the East and new visions. The burnt root of the fires of change we are  experiencing. 

Here is an image of the wand, sitting on my studio singing bowl. 

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The commitment I made this last year was to focus on supporting the new growth I see emerging in these times, to support new people learning to do change work, and to reach out and support people who have the courage to lead into our new challenges. I also committed to “see” this new growth—not in the future—but right now. What does it mean to be a “seer” of the new? What does it mean to experience potential when there are no clear rational ways to realize it? What does it mean to let the light into the present, and to stand in the ashes and look at the emergent new?

I don’t have a list of ready answers, even while taking a stab at some in a recent Grove article on Visionary leadership that appeared in our journal. What I have is a new hope, and a belief that there are others who dare to have these kinds of visions—visions filled with light and potential but not the clarity of plans—and held by people who know that inviting others into the co-inventing required to move forward is possible, and exciting, and the true hope. I want to find and support these people.

This is my vision for our Global Learning & Exchange Network (the GLEN). This is my vision for a new Grove that focuses on supporting visionary leadership. This is my vision for letting our do-it-yourself tools for visioning and change be available to the world through Grove Tools so people can connect with their own seeing. This eco-system of a consulting firm, a non-profit educational wing, and a tools business is something I’m experiencing growing under my feet, with the involvement of many others, and can now be a platform for this new commitment.

 My vision is to serve the light that comes into the darkness when we still ourselves and open to guidance and the new growth that is always emerging. I’m moving toward another Summer Solstice this June, a July vision quest on Mt. Shasta, and a silent retreat in Germany in September. My intention is to look more deeply into this calling and ask what it intends for me to do now.

Stay tuned. I plan to share about what comes through on a regular basis.

As the pandemic eases and world crises erupts over Ukraine, I’m finding myself embracing a real turn in my creative life. Beside writing poetry, I’m beginning to explore video as a medium of sharing. I’m returning again and again to the feeling that it is more important than ever to share my experiences in facilitation and change. This urge, which feels like a “calling” is leading me to turn my attention away from serving the outcomes others set for me as a consultant, to following my own calling and expressing it through our Global Learning & Exchange Network (the GLEN). Its purpose of supporting a network of change agents and facilitators in become even more capable of guiding collaborative processes seems more important than ever. We simply must learn how to work together to face the enormous problems of these times.

This post is to share a new video I created at The Grove during what we are calling a Grove Dojo session. I am beginning to do this in person at The Grove offices in the Presidio of San Francisco on a regular basis and welcome persons who might be interested to join in. They are held on Friday afternoons. (contact me if you are interested). Trent Wakenight, our new consultant is helping with the shooting and production. Krista Bremer, a person I will introduce soon as a new Program Director at the GLEN, helped support this particular expression.

I’m posting the Use of Self video here for you to enjoy, and to encourage myself to do more. It’s only 10 minutes long and is part of a series of “legacy videos” I’m creating about the many insights, principles and practices that have informed my visual facilitation work over the 45 years I have been practicing.

In his book American Soul, philosopher Jacob Needleman wrote, “The art form of the future is the group. The intelligence and benevolence we need can only come from the group, from associations of men and women seeking to struggle against the impulses of illusion, egoism and fear.” This quote animated Alan Briskin’s exploration of the headwaters of this idea at the first Leading as Sacred Practice (LASP) gathering in 2016 at Holger Scholz’s Beuerhof Retreat Farm in the Vulkan Eifle region of Germany. To support the dialogue that resulted, we co-created this graphic of thought leaders we knew resonated with this idea.

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The four of us guiding Leading as Sacred Practice (Gisela Wendling, Alan, Holger and I) had begun calling ourselves a facilitation “Ensemble.” We shared a deep interest in collaboration and supporting a mindset that values the whole human being— spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical— AND avoiding religiosity, ideology, and blind faith.

This first retreat sparked a shift in our work, and ignited a path of co-discovery. We have been meeting and working as an ensemble ever since through two more gatherings in 2017 at IONs Earthrise Retreat Center in Petaluma, and then in 2018 back at the Beuerhof.

We decided to take a gap year in 2019, and then for 2020 planned a larger conference. But COVID appeared and we delayed again. The pandemic pushed us to create a virtual version to continue the work, and the publishing of some of our findings so far in our LASP eBook. (We are giving this away for free in the description of our series of six LASP Online Exchanges starting April 23). Our learning focuses on six “ways” we have found to lead as sacred practice.

What is an Ensemble?

I was describing our ensemble experience to a close friend, Joe Ruffato, a musician and member of a Medicine Community that I am also a member of. I could explain the “ensemble idea” easily since the medicine community is very collaborative and Joe understands what this means musically. An ensemble is a group of musicians who play together. What is not embodied in the formal definition is the meaning that is understood by professional musicians. Joe told me a story that made the point.

“When I produced my first CD I worked with three professional musicians who brought piano, base, and drums to my guitar playing and singing of my songs. We worked through several studio sessions and produced a draft version. I then had a chance to talk to our producer about it and asked him what he thought. ‘Do you really want to know,” the man replied. ‘Yes,’ I said. “He then told me that I was over strumming and doing some other things that didn’t completely balance, “ Joe said. “I came away and put the CD on hold. So I practiced and then after some months came back with a completely up-leveled performance.”

Joe went on to describe what he learned from the three musicians he had worked with. They all were very skilled in what they did, and all shared a sensitivity to the “ensemble” level of play. “They never filled the space to the detriment of the other musical voices,” Joe said. “I realized that’s what it means to be a pro.”

And I realized in Joe’s story this is what is means to be a good ensemble—to never fill the space in a way that works to detriment of another player. This means honoring the rotation of the spotlight in jazz. It means not over playing. It means listening to the whole.

Ensemble as An Artform for the Future

Having spent my adult life facilitating group process, I realized that the Ensemble idea we have used to guide our Leading as Sacred Practice work, might also be a form that could be replicated and even celebrated professionally in other group work settings.

More and more it seems that one of the shifts that we need to make as we come out of shelter-at-home and move into other escalating global issues like global warming, is to open to more imaginative “we” forms of working together. No single person is expert enough to respond to the systemic challenges we face. No solo player can lead the transformation changes necessary to work with them. Collaborative networks, action learning teams, and yes “ensembles” are needed to allow pooling of knowledge and learning as we move forward.

Groups can be the art form of the future.

Join us for the Leading as Sacred Practice Online Exchange Series. April 23, 2021, and experience one.

A recent communication from the Organizational Development Network that outlined a definition of the field and its core values led me to think about the evolution of my own thinking about the field. I’m writing here to futureofodshare this reflection, and to share my hope for the future of the field. I’m not writing a history of OD, but of the quilt of understanding that provides me with direction as a process consultant, and might be useful to other practitioners who work in or with organizations.

Context

My “training,” or should I say first experiences with OD, were at OD Network conferences in the 1970s.  I didn’t know what the field was back then but found out about it when trying to hire Sandra Florstedt for our Coro Leadership program in San Francisco. She worked at Kaiser as an OD Practitioner and explained to me OD was an application of behavioral science theory for organizations, working to see the whole organization as a living organism and creating conditions that would allow people to find solutions to their own problems from within. I remember her telling a story about early practitioners drawing on the work of biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, crediting him with founding general systems theory. He was trying to understand open systems in nature. She also shared about Kurt Lewin, a German who helped found social psychology, arguing that a values orientation and democratic processes were critical to achieving planned change. I had been working to get Coro Fellows to understand the city as a whole system and Lewin’s advocacy of action learning and group dialogue was inspiring. Sandra subsequently introduced me to the OD Network conference at Snowmass in 1976 where I presented about Arthur M. Young’s Theory of Process and Group Graphics and became a practicing member of the network.

Evolving a Personal Perspective on OD

The seed idea of seeing organizations as living systems, and seeing change as a social process quickly put down roots in my work as I began to develop a practice. Initial work as a graphic facilitator evolved to supporting teams and developing the Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model,  then learning and facilitating strategic planning with Rob Eskridge and Ed Claassen, and now doing change consulting and multi-stakeholder processes on large systems. My current work with Gisela Wendling and The Grove’s new Global Learning & Exchange Network (GLEN) is living at the edge of inquiry into collaborative methodology. It is all driving back to the seed thought that open, living systems need different kinds of support than machines. In the process  my quilt of understanding pulled in ideas from complexity theory, cognitive psychology, social constructionism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Earth Wisdom practices. And always, tracking the tension and sometimes polarization between a materialistic and a holistic way of thinking about organizations and change.

Still Thinking About Whole Systems

My graphic work is inherently about making systemic sense out of people’s thinking, so the seed impulse for OD is still strong, but I’ve reached out to other thinkers beyond the field of OD.

I’ve been personally deeply inspired by the holistic work of Arthur M. Young’s Theory of Process. He didn’t deal with organizations, but as a cosmologist set out to reconcile the knowing from metaphysics with the best findings of physics and mathematics. He was a systemic thinker through and through, but insisted that purpose and process are more fundamental than objective structure, though purpose and process need these structures to express themselves.

I also discovered that researchers in complexity sciences support his orientation, finding that living systems organize around flows of energy from which structures emerge and embrace open, not closed, rule sets for interaction. Flows include money, information, constituencies, climate, and people themselves.

This process orientation has led to my paying attention to Frederick Laloix’s Reinventing Organizations , inspired by Spiral Dynamics, an orientation that is developmental at its core. It’s popular in Europe and leading people to experiment with much less hierarchical organizations out of trust that if people are taken seriously, they can manage and solve problems in a more “emergent” way. (There are missing elements I will explore in later writing). I also think that Theory “U” in its inclusive embrace of spirit, soul, mind and body is a clearly process oriented methodology that is very compelling.

Past Reflections, CURRENT EDGES

As the crises rising from climate change and accompanying mass migrations accelerate, I can’t help but believe that a huge amount of adaptation and change will be required in the future. People could (and are) reverting to img_5446fear-driven authoritarianism, simplistic, bunkered responses but might also be (and are) called to step up to higher level of collaboration. It’s not a given. What will support    this second option?

Will the lessons from neuroscience and social psychology about brain biases and hi-jack reactions help practitioners create safe spaces for collaborative co-creation of new alternatives and avoid numbing and dissociation?

Will reclaiming the role of ritual and ceremony and traditional practices bring nourishment and feeling into systems wrung out with efficiency? (My current life partner, Gisela’s, work on liminality and change is now recasting many of my assumptions about traditional OD approaches as I see how shut down people become without attention to the inner process of change or the creativity that lies in the in-between spaces where cultures meet.)

Will learning from Earth-wisdom practices and indigenous methods help restore our connection to nature and each other?

Under it all I wonder if somehow we can transform the deeply entrenched materialistic paradigm into something that respects relationship and spirit as much as objective truths? Can we reclaim an anchoring in core values that are deeply moral?

The original thinking of the founders of OD reflect many of these perspectives, reacting as they were to the trauma of world wars. But methods birthed in humanism have become canonized and abstracted to a degree that some of the original curiosity and experimentation gets lost. There are  exceptions. Lisa Kimball, a pioneer in computer conferencing and former OD thought leader, advocated an approach called Liberating Structures that deliberately mixes and matches different modalities to stimulate new awareness and jump out of siloed thinking. Bob Marshak and Gervase Bushe surveyed many new OD approaches is their book, Dialogic OD:The Theory and Practice of Transformational Change.  They see World Café, Open Space, Future Search Conferences, The Art of Convening, and other high engagement methods focusing more on new narratives and emergent, generative imagery than on diagnostic processes.

Are Organizations Even the Right Focus?

But deep down I’m personally awakening to the possibility that organizations may not be the most relevant focus for those of us who work for and within organizations. Today people and organizations are so interconnected and interdependent— embedded in overlapping networks and consortia, fields of practice, value webs, and a booming world of free agents—amid constant change—that “context” may be a more important frame for attention. And by context, I mean much more than paying attention to customers and constituents. It includes the environment, cultures and their values, other sectors and organizations, and larger social networks and relationships.

Some of my current GLEN colleagues’ are working explicitly with energetic fields and collective intelligence, using the learning from neuroscience to create “safe” environments for engagement and using design thinking for social change. Philanthropic organizations are funding for collective impact, asking for NGOs to cooperate and collaborate in facing important issues. Multisector collaborations and networks are arising to face systemic issues. The adaptation requirements of global warming will force us all into levels of reinvention we’ve never even imagined, well beyond nicely bounded organizations.

I also wonder how my and others’ years of focusing on “the organization” has contributed to our field supporting many organizations just becoming better at maximizing the extraction of value from people and the land and avoiding responsibility for impacts, and completely ignoring context.

What if OD Were…nasanorthamerica

So, wrapped in this quilt of reflection, I wrote out my own definition for a field of OD that I could live into.

“The field of Organization Development is inspired by the question of how to support human systems that are alive, evolving, and more like true ecosystems than mechanisms, although they depend on these for expression.

We help leaders, teams, organizations, communities, and larger networks learn to connect with purpose, motivate themselves to act, find appropriate processes to guide collaboration and co-creation, and create results that both improve the effectiveness of their organizations and contribute to the quality of their communities and the Earth as a whole..

We are not afraid of the complexity and inquiry required to respond to these questions. We learn by doing and do to learn. We continue to seek out and test theory that helps our clients make connections in the midst of turbulence and fragmentation. We are capable of being, at heart, a community of practitioners, schools, and networks believing that humans have only just begun to tap the full potential of people working together for the common good.”

I want to be part of a future in a field that differentiates itself not by the value of its answers for organizations alone, but by the depth and sensitivity of its questions in service of the whole.