Seeing with a Full Moon in Each Eye

October 2022

Admit something:

Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”

Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise

someone would call the cops.

Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.

Why not become the one who lives with a

full moon in each eye that is

always saying,

with that sweet moon language,

what every other eye in

this world is

dying to

hear?

     – Hafiz (14th-c. Iranian poet and mystic; trans. by Daniel Ladinsky)

As the New Year began, several inter-related questions were very alive for me with a fresh intensity that has only grown stronger with 2022’s poignant surprises, both domestic (e.g., the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision curtailing women’s rights) and international (e.g. the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine).  In the fall season, I am inquiring more urgently about the intersections among polarity theory, the role of love in my professional work as a leadership coach, and what it will take at this point to save the planet.

What we’re eyeing

As I understand it, polarity theory – first propounded by Barry Johnson – is the idea that many of the seemingly intractable issues we encounter in our individual, societal and global experience are not problems to be solved, but polarities to be navigated.  Polarities are pairs of apparent opposites.  On the surface, the poles can be easily mistaken for either/or choices.  However, the two poles represent two interdependent things that – when inquired about more deeply – reveal themselves to both be necessary for bigger-picture success over time. 

For example, common polarities that leaders in my coaching practice grapple with include Confidence and Humility, Task Focus and Relationship Focus, attending to the organization’s Inward-Facing and Outward-facing needs, communicating with Candor and Diplomacy, and Learning from the Past and Sensing into the Future.  Once you’ve identified that the dilemma is a polarity (rather than a problem), you can map it out to find breakthrough insights that involve some kind of transcendence and fusion of the two poles.  When I do this with a client (I employ the process outlined by Johnson’s students Brian Emerson and Kelly Lewis in their book, Navigating Polarities), the client eventually lands on an idea, image, mantra or way-of-operating that resolves the tension at a higher level of effectiveness than either pole can do alone. 

What does this look like? One of my clients and I identified that a challenge she was facing was not a problem but a polarity: she knew she needed to carve out more time for self-care, yet she kept repeatedly prioritizing care for her staff while the team was rapidly expanding.  So, we mapped it out, and she came up with the unifying motto “Self-Care for Others.”  This leader realized that taking care of herself in general – and specifically improving her mental and physical health by increasing exercise – would boost her energy and stamina for steering her division through a major growth period.  It also served as powerful role-modeling for her direct reports. Suddenly, it was no longer an either/or proposition about how to spend her time; she had found a magical “and” that helped her to further maximize her already-formidable leadership talent.

To see is to love

“When we can see a person, group or country completely, love is a natural result,” says Johnson in a compelling essay on American racism entitled “Proud AND Critical.”  Complete seeing – a.k.a. unconditional love – of others (which, speaking of paradox, requires the healthy boundaries that enable unconditional self-love) is hard!  Unconditional love necessitates a courageous letting-go of beliefs that are defining yet limiting to us, which is a vulnerable feeling.  We have to find enough safety in our minds and bodies to unlearn stories we thought were “right,” and loosen our grip on ideas that make us feel secure or special.  It might show up as curiosity, at first. But when we are able to gradually awaken to this more expansive consciousness, unconditional love transmutes alienation, separation and marginalization into a profoundly liberating sense of connection.  We slowly move from a constricted, scarcity heart-set to one of creativity, spaciousness and generosity – including toward ourselves. We see more completely, with a full moon in each eye.

Ever since I read Emerson and Lewis’s Navigating Polarities shortly after it came out, I’ve been kind of obsessed with a footnote in it about the “Transformational Third Way,” which is their particular innovation to Johnson’s polarity mapping process.  The footnote cites a newsletter from the Center for Action and Contemplation in which the progressive Franciscan monk Richard Rohr writes about dialectics, polarities and the power of the Trinity (Christianity’s “Third Way”).  Rohr, in turn, quotes modern mystic Cynthia Bourgeault observing this provocative thing:

The interplay of two polarities calls forth a third, which is the “mediating” or “reconciling” principle between them. In contrast to a binary system, which finds stability in the balance of opposites, the ternary system stipulates a third force that emerges as the necessary mediation of these opposites and that in turn (and this is the really crucial point) generates a synthesis at a whole new level. It is a dialectic whose resolution simultaneously creates a new realm of possibility….Third force is there because the Trinity is real, and if you are alert to it, you will be able to find it….The problem is that most of the world is third force blind.

This concept exists in other Western and Eastern wisdom traditions as well, perhaps no more succinctly than in the Taoist yin-yang symbol.  The duality of darkness and light are in perpetual flow, each containing a bit of the other, depicting infinite emergence into a Third Way: wholeness.

As a leadership coach, I have a favorite polarity-invoking question that can sometimes hack directly into seeing the Third Way: “In this story/belief/conclusion you’re sharing with me, how is the opposite also true?”  As ridiculous, woo-woo or even offensive as this question might sound at first blush, it’s backed up by science!  Consider physicist Niels Bohr’s famous statement that in the quantum field, “the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”  I had a CEO client who feared that his dysfunctional board of directors was about to force him to resign, “which is the worst thing that could happen to my career,” he added.  When I asked him how the opposite of this truth was also true, he released a little chuckle of epiphany and observed, “Well, it could be the best thing that ever happened to my career.”  In this illuminating moment, he took a wide-open perspective on the arc of his decades of work, and landed with clear-eyed equanimity on a “let the chips fall where they may” attitude toward his commitment to keep using his leadership in service of the same cause, regardless of organizational context.  He had entered “a whole new realm of possibility.”

Recommended resources

I don’t know whether life on this planet will be saved from modern civilization’s pathological addiction to destroying animals, forests, deserts and oceans under the myopic delusion of short-term gain (of profit, territory, power-over dominance, etc.).  But I’m a realistic optimist, and believe humanity can still wake up to a healthy enough perspective on itself to change this pattern at scale. If we do pull it off, it will be an accumulation of tiny love-centric actions we choose take every day – towards ourselves, as well as everything and everyone else entangled in this gorgeous web – that delivers us to that omni-nourishing place.  Are you willing to practice seeing with a full moon in each eye?  

To learn about the latest research on how love, nervous-system regulation, connection and belonging can effectuate individual and collective healing, check out Thomas Hubl’s global Collective Trauma Summit, currently streaming free of charge, through October 6th here.  (Photo: Samer Daboul, Pexels.)

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Leadership Library Review: “Unleash Your Complexity Genius: Growing Your Inner Capacity to Lead” by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Carolyn Coughlin (Stanford, 2022)

September 2022

It turns out that when we need to handle complexity the most, we often are least able to…Complexity tends to trigger us, to make us anxious or afraid or overwhelmed. When this happens, our nervous system creates a whole series of shifts in our body that lead to reactivity and oversimplification. So we have a funny paradox woven right into our humanity: when we are calm, we are able to handle complexity better with play and collaboration and co-creation. But complexity kills the calm, making us less able to handle these things.

– Unleash Your Complexity Genius (pp. 2-3)

Beyond Complicated

Unleash Your Complexity Genius is anchored in theorist Dave Snowden’s conceptualization of complicated problems versus complex challenges.  As I understand it, the primary distinction between the two is that complicated problems have identifiable “root causes” that knowledge can fix, whereas complex challenges are the unpredictable by-products of so many factors within the system that produced them that cause-and-effect is no longer a useful analysis.  Therefore, in complexity there is – by definition – no certain approach to the uncertainty.  As the authors say on page 9, “if you get lulled into believing that you can use your experience and expertise to predict and control complex things, you’re likely in trouble…You need all the creativity, agility pattern-recognition, experimentation and learning you can muster when you’re dealing with complexity.”   And we also need to let go of the illusion of control.  Berger and Coughlin offer many do-able, effective approaches for helping ourselves make these shifts.

GEMs

This slim but potent volume is full of GEMs (Genius Engagement Moves), which are practices for intentionally accessing the best that our own nervous systems naturally have to offer us as leaders in our increasingly uncertain and unpredictable times.  It starts with emphasizing the inner work of cultivating present-moment awareness (“the genius of noticing”), and then builds on that to explain how we can train ourselves – like exercise – for our fitness at handling complexity with the GEMs of breathing, moving and sleeping.  (The difficult irony at play here is that, when it detects a perceived threat, our sympathetic nervous system causes us to feel the urge to take action, when often we are actually better served by slowing down and switching on the restorative gifts of the parasympathetic nervous system.)  The book goes on to use research, as well as dialogue between relatable fictional characters, to demonstrate how leaders can then create conditions for flourishing in complexity at the intersections of our personal and professional lives.  These three big “geniuses” are: utilizing experimentation to navigate change, understanding how we construct our emotions (and therefore how we can construct new ones) to transform overwhelm into thriving, and harnessing the “the genius of loving” to value human connection over more traditional values such as competence (which are more suited to complicated problems than complex challenges).

Love and Connection

One of my favorite bits in this cutting-edge book is its calling-out and calling-in “the genius of loving.”  Not many leadership and management books do this yet, but we will be seeing it more and more, because the deep truth at the heart of all human endeavor – including in every business sector and disciplinary field – is that we are made for love, and everything in the universe is interconnected.  When we are able to inhabit this truth in healthy, whole and functional ways, nearly anything is possible. 

The practical, counter-cultural implication of this for leaders is observed by Berger and Coughlin on page 112: “One of the most surprising ideas that arises from complexity is that in a complex system, the thing that makes the biggest difference is the number and nature of connections among individuals rather than the excellence of any particular individual.  Take that in for a moment.”  In light of this remarkable statement, the authors offer several habits, workplace strategies and thought experiments for: emphasizing our full humanity in all the overlapping dimensions of our lives, breaking down the alienation caused by competition and the drive for unattainable perfection, and invoking the extraordinary power of gratitude (which they role-model beautifully in their equivalent of an afterword).  Yes, yes, yes.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Unleash Your Complexity Genius dovetails nicely with the book I reviewed last month, Leader as Healer by Nicholas Janni, as well as my recent reflections on the VUCA and BANI world we’re living in, and the value of not-knowing in leadership.  For more on the somatics of leadership and change, I recommend Amanda Blake’s Your Body Is Your Brain and Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (Central Recovery Press, 2017).  For coaches interested in a deeper dive into how to leverage the miraculous capacities of the human nervous system in our work, see Richard Boyatzis’s Helping People Change (Harvard, 2019).

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Leadership Library Review: Leader as Healer by Nicholas Janni (LID, 2022)

August 2022

The cultures in which toxic leaders hold the greatest power are those that uphold the outmoded belief that traits like empathy, vulnerability and connection equate to weakness…Executors endorse these biases, while Healers dismantle them. The Leader as Healer understands that unless we acknowledge our grief, we cannot feel our joy; unless we embrace our fear, we cannot know true strength; unless we learn to embrace emotions unconditionally, we limit our access to higher levels of intelligence and insight. 

– Nicholas Janni (Leader as Healer, p. 21)

Embodiment of Presence

In this inspiring book, somatic intelligence (the wisdom of the body) is also among embrace of emotion, clarification of purpose, and mindfulness and meditation as the keys to Janni’s paradigm of Leader as Healer.  For Janni, the journey to becoming a healing leader begins with the leader’s shift from “I as thinker” to “I as Presence who thinks, feels and senses” (p. 38).  As a result, the way the leader shows up is an integration of doing and being: what she is doing arises from who she is being.  The message to those around her is I am here, and I am available (pp. 46-47). 

The scientific and spiritual dimensions of embodied leadership

Janni argues that one of healing leadership’s primary effects is the “restoration of unity [his emphasis], bringing those parts of us and the systems within which we work that are fragmented and/or exiled back into a coherent whole.”  Characterized by the “awakening of transpersonal levels of consciousness” (i.e., non-egoic or transcendent states), it’s noteworthy that Janni’s Leader as Healer concept is explicitly spiritual (p. 16).  That said, he also makes the neurobiological case for using meditation and mindfulness to support the flow states needed to promote the kind of relaxed attention necessary for being a healing leader, as well as the case for fostering right-brain activity to counter-balance our Western culture’s “left-brain takeover” which Janni persuasively describes as “dangerously fragmented and mechanistic” (pp. 49-50). 

In another scientific example, Janni also discusses the latest epigenetic research on intergenerational trauma and suffering.  He describes how it is through the gateways of body-based emotional and nonrational awareness that we can release old patterns in order to access fresh creativity:

[I]f we are to thrive in an increasingly complex and uncertain world, we must bring all of ourselves to the problem-solving table.  To do that, we must represent an embodied, coherent whole.  The rational mind alone is no longer enough; we have forgotten the deep wisdom of the body, and it is now time to resurrect it. SOMETIMES THIS IS SIMPLE AND IMMEDIATELY TRANSFORMATIONAL.  [Author’s emphasis, p. 110]

This is, Janni argues, a cornerstone of the Leader as Healer’s own practice, which grounds her healing presence so that others are able to do the same.

Life purpose, and the call

Janni uses the chapter on life purpose to link the somatic work in Chapter 3 to the mindfulness and meditation work in Chapter 5.  Drawing on psychology (Carl Jung), poetry (David Whyte) and physics (Alfred Einstein), Janni asserts that “purpose arises from the deepest essence of who we are” (p. 134).  Among a number of excellent pragmatic coaching questions, physical exercises, attention-building and mindfulness practices that Janni emphasizes throughout the book, one of the most intensely valuable moments in the entire volume is when he synthesizes leadership, purpose and spirit in the brilliant list of prompts he offers on page 142.  Several of them are versions of my own favorite go-to coaching questions for exploring this territory, such as: “What do I really stand for and against?” How do I welcome and navigate the sense of unknowing?” and “What happens when I open up to what I have always excluded?”

I agree with Janni’s conclusion in the final chapter of Leader as Healer, entitled “The Call,” that the “gravity of this moment is an unprecedented evolutionary opportunity: the choice to integrate timeless contemplative wisdom with the advances of modern science and psychology” (p. 189).  We start by collectively deciding to face this moment squarely, and accepting What Is, then choosing action.  Making this choice is really all that’s left to humanity of we are to have a chance at preventing the planet from tipping over the precipice to which our over-rationality and profiteering have brought it.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Don’t miss the “Postscript” to Leader as Healer, in which Janni tells the story of his extraordinary (i.e. adventuresome, multi-disciplinary, generative) career path into leadership development work: he is a truly fascinating guy.  Otherwise, I recommend many of the references Janni relies upon for the structure and elocution of his ideas; you can find them littered throughout the Leadership Library: Brene Brown, David Whyte, Otto Scharmer, Robert Kegan and Joseph Jaworski.

To be Present in the way Janni describes, to meet the world just as it is, necessitates a certain fierceness which we can also approach gently.  One of my favorite meditation teachers who embodies this thoroughly, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, offers a 4-minute guided “Fierce Meditation” you can try.  (The same article hyperlinked here includes mindfulness meditations by two other teachers whose work I love, Tara Brach and especially Sharon Salzberg.)

One final recommendation.  As I publish this post, we’re entering the last few weeks of summer in the northern hemisphere: in these turbulent and perplexing times, be sure to HAVE FUN as part of building your “Presence muscles”!  Articles at the Greater Good Science Center explain how humor and play can improve your work life, contribute to creative group flow and team success, and benefit your partner relationship.  It’s noteworthy that play is “a radical and liberatory activity for Black children.”  Connect that thought to this Elements of Play chart from the National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y.

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It’s a VUCA and a BANI World

July 2022

The BANI framework offers a lens through which to see and structure what’s happening in the world. At least at a surface level, the components of the acronym might even hint at opportunities for response: brittleness could be met by resilience and slack; anxiety can be eased by empathy and mindfulness; nonlinearity would need context and flexibility; incomprehensibility asks for transparency and intuition.

Jamais Cascio, Futurist, Institute for the Future

Covid-19 continues mutating around the globe, war has returned to Europe (on top of everywhere else it rages), and gun violence proliferates in the U.S., recently abetted by the same Supreme Court that last week overturned the 50-year precedent of Roe v. Wade (against prevailing public opinion both before and following the ruling), a decision that touches everyone in large ways and small, regardless of their beliefs about Roe. Cascades of unforeseeable consequences for generations to come are being unleashed by just these few examples, alone. How do we wrap our minds, hearts and spirits around the depth and scale and speed of the evolving unknown?

VUCA

As I understand it, the acronym VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) was coined about 30-35 years ago by U.S. business and military leaders to starkly name the difficult conditions for managing and planning within large-scale systems in the accelerating complexity of post-Cold War world.  VUCA has always been a short-hand but nonetheless useful frame for describing not only the wonkiness of global change (climate, geo-political, economic, digital/AI, etc.) but also for indicating how to wake up from our modern human sleepwalk through it.  People in my line of work – developmentally-informed leadership coaching, training and consulting – employ the idea of VUCA to help our clients stay alert to the risks of pretending there is any real stability, certainty, simplicity and clarity so that they can instead focus on growing their capacities for navigating through – and even thriving within – unpredictability. 

BANI

In the early days of the pandemic, a futurist named Jamais Cascio published a piece called “Facing the Age of Chaos,” in which he suggests that VUCA as a descriptor is growing obsolete.  “We have become so thoroughly surrounded by a world of VUCA that it seems less a way to distinguish important differences than simply a depiction of our default condition…declaring a situation or a system to be volatile or ambiguous tells us nothing new,” he says.  “With a new paradigm we need a new language. If we set VUCA aside as insufficient, we still need a framework that makes sense of not just the present world but its ongoing consequences as well. Such a framing would allow us to illustrate the scale of the disruptions, the chaos, underway, and enable consideration of what kinds of responses would be useful. Ideally, it would serve as a platform to explore new forms of adaptive strategies.” 

Cascio offers BANI as the fresh acronym: Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear and Incomprehensible.  This list can sound totally overwhelming, but I would argue that BANI does for individuals, organic situations and emergent movements what VUCA can still do – to some degree, at least for the time being – for big, formal organizations and agencies.  To my mind, BANI points to human ways of being inside, outside and alongside structured entities’ adaptations to the VUCA environment. By my interpretation, BANI tells each of us not to delude ourselves that ideas/institutions/systems that are assumed to be strong are indeed strong, it emphasizes that we must slow down, it reminds us that our cause-and-effect expectations are human inventions that might not even hold true in how the universe works, and it tells us not to overvalue intellectual “knowing” with our heads.  As noted in the quotation above, Cascio observes that “brittleness could be met by resilience and slack; anxiety can be eased by empathy and mindfulness; nonlinearity would need context and flexibility; incomprehensibility asks for transparency and intuition.”  This is a recipe for flourishing leadership.

VUCA and BANI

It’s becoming increasingly accepted that the 20th-century “command and control” leadership paradigm was an illusion originally manufactured and leveraged by profit-centric forces for short-term gain at the expense of long-term effectiveness.  I understand it: a huge human blind spot, forged in the evolution of our species’ brains, confuses dominance with security. But this myopic narrative will finish us off if we can’t open all our eyes widely enough to see the beautiful precariousness of our planetary picture. Readers of this blog are aware I believe that in leadership as in life – ambiguity is actually opportunity, complexity is wholeness, uncertainty is possibility, and not-knowing is the way of nature so therefore embracing it (i.e., a less ego-driven pattern of thinking and behaving) is to embrace the emerging future with wisdom. 

We needn’t view VUCA nor BANI as threats but as a combined formula for thriving: taken together as a kind of polarity, the VUCA and BANI frameworks call for our awakening to the collective cultural transformation necessary if we are to pull ourselves back from the brink of collapse and leave to our descendants a world of possibility instead. Where to begin as a leader? Literally slow down and nurture your resilience (see a list of 12 strategies here) to keep yourself in a growth mindset. Stay connected to people (at work and at home) and to what’s meaningful to you. When you feel afraid or down, take an action step from the heart, even a very small one. Consider Maya Angelou’s advice: “Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space. Invite one to stay.”

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Leadership Library Review – “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (HBO, 2021)

June 2022

“She is doing what television would do if it loved people instead of trying to sell to people.”Official Trailer

“Street Gang” is the story of many leaders contributing to the collective “workshop” leadership journey of bringing education, meaning and social justice to publicly-financed children’s television. This charming and nostalgic as well as ultimately enlightening documentary is a timely reminder of the convention-shattering creativity that can be born in equal measure with chaos during periods of intense societal uncertainty. 

“Sesame Street,” which debuted in 1969, was a radical “experiment” even for its radical era.  It was explicitly intended from the beginning to use federal dollars to help bridge a growing nationwide racial and socio-economic education divide.  As “Sesame Street” co-founder and producer Joan Ganz Cooney put it, “We weren’t so worried about reaching middle-class children but we really, really wanted to reach inner-city kids badly. It was hardly worth doing if it didn’t reach them.”  A recent Guardian article summarizes well what the show has taken on since then:

Sesame Street has taught kids about all manner of life topics. Not only racism (most recently with the introduction of two new African American characters, post-Black Lives Matter) but also poverty, addiction, autism, HIV and Aids, public health (Covid was not Big Bird’s first jab, he also got a measles vaccination in 1972), and gentrification (in 1994, the street was under threat of demolition from a loud-mouthed property tycoon named “Ronald Grump”, played by Joe Pesci). Sesame Street has even tackled the concept of death: when Will Lee, who played storekeeper Mr Hooper, died in 1982, the show featured a wrenching segment in which neighbours, clearly tearfully, explain to Big Bird that Mr Hooper is dead and is never coming back.

My favorite quotation from the entire documentary – and there are some beauties (e.g., Frank Biondo, who’s been Camera 1 operator since the very first show over 50 years ago, says, “I remember thinking, ‘Who’s going to watch this shit?’”) – is about the optimistic, constructive subversion that Joan Ganz Cooney was perpetrating on American culture’s inter-related systems of oppression and education.  It is from a guest on the Dick Cavett Show (forgive me for not noting his name and role in “Sesame Street”) who observed to Cavett that “[Cooney] is doing what television would do if it loved people instead of trying to sell to people.” 

This love-based, inclusive and life-affirming approach was also reflected in the show’s unprecedented use of non-condescending humor and quasi-managed unpredictability to meet 3-to-5-year-olds where they are, and in the psychological world they inhabit.  Truth be told, quasi-managed unpredictability is the world we all inhabit. The sanest forms of processing absurdity are those that allow us to take it seriously while holding it lightly. Perhaps this is why the show’s huge emphasis on comedy – including lots of parody (e.g., from The Beetles belting out “Letter B,” to any of Kermit’s field-reporting for Sesame Street News, and the game shows hosted by Guy Smiley, who responds to the Count explaining “They call me the Count because I love to count things” with “They call me Guy Smiley because I changed my name from Bernie Liederkrantz”) – has always appealed to adults, too. One reason Oscar the Grouch is so funny is because he edgily yet age-appropriately represents the shadow side of “Sesame Street,” by which I mean the self-protective voice inside each of us that is skeptical of believing in “Sesame”‘s positive, utopian vision because we fear our heartache in co-existing with the gaps between What Is and What Could Be. We are invited to see the Grouch tenderly as comically lovable, an integrating move.

“Street Gang”’s narrative of how “Sesame Street” was conceived, researched and mostly funded by the government – and then how vastly popular it became and how quickly – is full of leaders, well-known and relatively unknown.  The documentary’s testament to them is, alone, revelatory.  But one of the quieter leaders profiled in the film is the head composer and lyricist, Joe Raposo, who literally set the tone for the show.  He wrote many of its most iconic tunes from the earlier days (he died in 1989), including the “Sesame Street” theme, “’C’ is for Cookie,” and “Bein’ Green.”  “It’s not easy bein’ green,” laments Kermit in a moment of existential reflection in the swamp; to many listeners, including cast member Sonia Monzano (“Maria”), the song was concretely about skin color while more broadly pointing to the ineffability of alienation.  (To me as a middle-class white girl in the suburban Boston area, it was a piercing ode to profound longing and the empathy that comes from bearing witness to another’s suffering, although of course that’s not how I would have been able to articulate it back then!)  Who knows how many hearts have been broken open by Joe Raposo’s words, which were written in response to director Jon Stone’s simple prompt: what does Kermit think about when he’s by himself?

“Street Gang” is trip down memory lane well worth taking.  I recommend pairing it with another uplifting documentary from last year about a similarly under-told story regarding the same era in which “Sesame Street” televised the revolution through kids’ programming, “Summer of Soul:…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised” (Hulu, 2021).  Could you use another dose of Muppet-level silliness right now? If so and, like me, baseball was as pervasive as “Sesame” in your childhood (I was raised by life-long Red Sox fans), check out the effort to revisit and revise traditional baseball – including its rules – in this fun L.A. Times piece about the recent Savannah Bananas team phenomenon. 

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Nature, Human Nature and Leadership

May 1, 2022

[T]here is great solace in remembering that what we call human nature, with all of its terrors and transcendences and violent contradictions, is a humble subset of nature itself: In nature, where stars are always being born and die and give us life, creation and destruction are always syncopating; in nature, the seasons are always changing; in nature, every loss reveals what we are made of, and that is a beautiful thing. 

Maria Popova

Not-knowing

It’s counter-cultural in Western leadership contexts to admit we do not know things.  We are taught that a good leader has answers – and the right ones!  To serve this twisted bias – which, not coincidentally, overlaps with the characteristics of white supremacist culture – we unconsciously conspire to perpetuate the illusion that we can and do know unknowable things.  Aided by our neurobiology, we do this to comfort ourselves, to separate and privilege intellect over bodies and intuition, to not appear stupid or lost, to prevent being exposed to emotional or physical harm, and to be perceived as forwarding the very materialist (as opposed to life-centric) ideals that if uninterrupted will, ironically, be the end of us.

Not-knowing is more truthful in our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.  The socially-constructed story that any of us is in control of anything meaningful is comi-tragic: it actually further alienates us from who we really are.  While it’s human nature to blind ourselves to the astonishing beauty, wonder and humor in VUCA conditions due to our hard-wired reflexes to seek stability, simplicity, certainty and resolution, these tendencies cause us great suffering.  We could, instead, surrender to the grand complexity of nature’s flow, working in cooperation with messiness, questions, energetic exchanges, generative tensions and transitions.  My experience is that most leaders are instinctively looking to tap into this change energy, but it’s scary.  In nature itself, radical change often happens in dark and chaotic bardos (supernovae, Earth’s core, an elephant’s womb, robins’ eggs, the black swallowtail’s chrysalis, sunflower seeds).  Mysteriously, life emerges in these liminal threshold states and, arguably, so does inspired leadership.  If this edgy not-knowing way of approaching life or leadership terrifies you, that’s a totally understandable and adaptive response. To fear the unknown, when the stakes are high and nothing is assured, makes perfect sense!  Yet, certainty should terrify you more.  (Who is more certain, Putin or Zelensky? and certain of what? for the sake of what?)

Surprise, disruption and opportunity: a leadership example

There are also pleasures in not-knowing.  While unanticipated events are inherently neutral, haven’t each of us at some point experienced profound delight in being surprised?  This has useful leadership implications.  For example, I recently had a conversation with a young coaching client whose inquiry was, “How does a leader plan and execute a vision, when there are always disruptions and unforeseen circumstances, and lots of people are depending on you?”  Because I knew he was an avid traveler who has taken other people on trips abroad to places he had never been before, I asked him, “How do you plan and execute a tour in a foreign country?”  We ended up enjoying a powerful exploration of self-management strategies and the importance of nurturing adaptability, compassion, resourcefulness and a habit of recognizing and seizing opportunities in the unexpected.  What he realized is that he has a knack for navigating both the journey and the destination in a (literal or metaphorical) adventure, and that this can be broken down into a sort of packing list of best practices which is transferable to leadership. The overarching paradox at play here is, of course, the Universe’s constant state of evolution, so it’s who we choose to be in the midst of cosmic mischief that matters. 

Practical thresholding

threshold (n.) Old English þrescold, þærscwold, þerxold, etc., “door-sill, point of entering”

Individually and collectively, humans are perpetually on the brink or cusp or threshold of unfolding newness, whether or not we welcome the forms in which it comes.  A couple days ago I (virtually) attended the first-ever Inner Development Goals (IDGs) Summit in Stockholm, Sweden.  It was convened to advance an international effort to persuade the United Nations to adopt Inner Development Goals, a blueprint of the capabilities, qualities and skills needed to achieve the U.N.’s (“outer”) Sustainable Development Goals.  The culminating presentations were about pragmatic action steps and featured co-founder of the Presencing Institute at MIT, Otto Scharmer.  Scharmer explained his Institute’s work on awareness-based systems change, emphasizing that “the deeper territory of leadership” is fostering the “eco-system awareness” patterns of “open mind, open heart and open will,” noting that what we are seeing in the most troubled parts of the world right now are “ego-system awareness” patterns of ignorance, hate and fear.  

Scharmer observes that in every moment there is the threshold choice to turn away and close down, or to turn towards and open up.  I love how the late poet John O’Donohue describes this dynamic: “[T]he given world that we think is there, and the solid ground we are on, is so tentative. And I think a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and I think that very often how we cross is the key thing” [my emphasis].  The daily practice of choosing who to be or how to cross every threshold is why I believe the journey to becoming a transformational leader is an inherently spiritual one. All the great wisdom traditions invite us to keep our minds, hearts and wills open, regardless of the circumstances. 

Additional resources, inspired by the Inner Development Goals

The Inner Development Goals initiative is crowd-sourcing a “field-kit” that may be available as soon as September 2022.  In the meantime, I heartily endorse all the tactics I heard at the Summit: engage in meditation/mindfulness/contemplative/spiritual practices (individually and in groups), somatic work, creativity exercises, attention to nature, human connection and relationship-building, listening (especially to those whose voices are marginalized, e.g., ecosystems, youth, “invisible” communities, whoever/whatever stakeholder is not in the room, etc.), other dialogue models and support structures – and I would add coaching – in order to cultivate: present-moment awareness, humility, courage, realistic optimism, empathy, reflective action, commitment, playfulness, persistence – and I would specify – love-in-action.  In the meantime, when in doubt, just start something and feel your way with curiosity and a willingness to run “safe-to-fail” experiments.  Practice Scharmer’s “open will” (letting go and letting come) and learn-as-you-go, sensing into the emerging future by walking the path. “[In] nature, every loss reveals what we are made of, and that is a beautiful thing.”

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Leadership, Depression and Possibility in These Times

April 2022

If you are not depressed, you are (probably) out of touch….Yes, people are depressed. But a diagnosis of physical or emotional depression does not take into account the agency of the human spirit, the agency of our better (our higher or capital S) Selves, a dormant awareness of the whole that we can activate. Just as Putin was blind to the shared awareness and agency of civil society and collective human action in Ukraine, in Russia, and around the world, in our widely shared sense of depression we are blind to our highest future possibility and agency.

Otto Scharmer (“Putin and the Power of Shared Awareness” Part 2, 3/15/22)

Presencing and Absencing

In a recent pair of stunning essays in his “Field of the Future” blog, Otto Scharmer of MIT’s Presencing Institute brilliantly summarizes what Russia’s war on Ukraine has to teach us, within in its context of other current international humanitarian catastrophes, all embedded in the global climate crisis.  Scharmer identifies the issue at the core of Putin’s aggression as the dynamic of ego-centric, domination-based and destructive “absencing” which happens as a result of natural human blind spots.  (To be clear, both Putin and the West have their blind spots in Scharmer’s Ukraine analysis). Many of us bearing witness to the devastating effects of absencing, he posits, are experiencing a twofold response: (1) depression in the face of cumulative overwhelm, and at the same time (2) a strong feeling of possibility in this disruption, but not necessarily knowing what to do with it. 

The way to navigate through this somewhat contradictory pair of psychological states, according to Scharmer, is to sense into the emerging future by activating our agency and action (i.e. our leadership). As Scharmer says, “[D]epression and a sense of possibility. These are the two conflicting feelings I have as I tune in to our current moment: the déjà vu of repeated disruptions that amplify the noise of absencing, and simultaneously the acute sense of future possibility that many people feel, yet don’t know what to do with. The first feeling is well known — it’s amplified and retold millions of times every day. The second feeling [possibility] is part of a more important and largely untold story of our time. It is usually crowded out by the noise of the first one.” 

Possibility

Scharmer lays the groundwork for possibility by emphasizing five key areas of progress in human development over the last two centuries: war; decolonization; slavery and civil rights; the status of women and rights of those with non-conforming gender identities; and poverty.  He observes:

These changes were driven by a constellation of civic movements — peace movements, liberation movements, abolition movements, civil rights movements, women’s movements, and human development movements — that inspired others to join the cause. All of these movements were started by small groups of committed citizens who in one way or another created a support structure for themselves and others that allowed them to cultivate an intentional social field (examples: the Highlander Folk School, the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, and the NAACP for the American civil rights movement; or churches for the Eastern European civil rights movements during the cold war). As activists were attracted, trained, and equipped with methods and tools, they gained traction and attracted former bystanders to their movements. Eventually, these movements helped societies to reimagine and reshape themselves for the better….In other words, these movements operated from a felt connection to a different field of real possibility, the field of presencing a future that hasn’t manifested yet.

He says that what makes people want to cross these societal thresholds is connection with others, making the movement experiential and personal, which in turn sparks motivation to action or agency.  In the essay, Scharmer outlines the architectures of separation that lead to absencing, and the architectures of connection that lead to presencing. Whereas absencing is built on three types of disconnection, “[a]rchitectures of connection transform these conditions by building containers that hold the possibility of deeper reconnections on the level of knowing, relating, and agency.  In other words, the transformative and healing architectures of connection are based on the principles that mind and world are not separate, that self and other are not separate, and that self and Self are not separate” [Scharmer’s emphases].

Connection

Deepening our consciousness of connection allows us to move from what Scharmer calls “ego-system awareness” to “eco-system awareness,” or awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings and the planet.  As readers of the Leadership Library already know, I agree with Scharmer that this is where (individual and collective) leadership derives both its power and its imperative: amidst cosmic mischief, the place where the art and science of leadership intersect is in the tonal quality of attention a leader brings to this complex web of unfolding. 

Scharmer concludes that humanity is now “looking into the abyss” between the death of one civilizational era and the birth of another.  He doesn’t know any better than anyone else how to handle traversing this gap, but he does argue it must be a “pull from the future” rather than a “push from the past.”  More specifically, he recommends learning from what we can sense is wanting to emerge from the present moment by: starting small; bridging the ecological, social and spiritual divides; weaving the movement; shifting consciousness to “align our attention and intention with what is ours, with what is mine to do” [his emphases]; and mobilizing collective action from shared awareness.  He ends on a not particularly optimistic note, calling for collaborative diplomacy specifically in the Ukraine situation, and – in the bigger picture – calling on the agency of each of us. “Where are you an activist in building containers that foster architectures of connection (rather than those of separation),” he asks.  “[W]here are you creating and co-holding these learning infrastructures for yourself, for your team, and for the initiatives you participate in?”

Recommended Resources

I believe in taking our profound challenges seriously while holding them lightly, if our efforts are going to be psychologically and emotionally sustainable.  Part of how we do this is by opening up space in our minds and hearts, by using healthy humor to give ourselves perspective on the chaos and darkness, and by making time for the playfulness and joy that are the true wellsprings of creativity.  In that spirit, I pass along three of my very recent discoveries:

  • Meditation snacks.  I just listened to a handful of 5-minute meditations newly offered by the Well section of the New York Times.  There are other free guided short meditations I like better (such as these), but this NYT collection is a handy little source of refreshment.
  • “Ted Lasso” (AppleTV+).  OMG, I’m a little bit in love with footballer Roy Kent (“He’s here! He’s there! He’s every-fucking-where! Roy Kent!”), who’s only one of several delicious characters in this insanely bingeable series about a charming American football coach named Ted Lasso who moves to London to coach the AFC Richmond soccer team.  A counter-example to outmoded, toxic, Western, masculine (as distinguished from male) command-and-control ideals, Lasso embodies a positive, whole-hearted, nurturing, team-oriented leader who is no less manly nor effective for expressing his full humanity.  The delight of watching Ted, Roy and the other main characters develop (you find yourself rooting for all of them!) through Season 2 is balm in these times. 
  • A couple of weeks ago, when my husband and I were visiting Rochester, NY for something else, we happened upon the National Museum of Play.  This sprawling institution, which abounds with interactive exhibits and immersive experiences, reflects a fascinating philosophy (see its Elements of Play chart) that mutually informs several disciplines including leadership, engineering, psychology, art and design.  It was lovely to act like a kid together with my husband for several hours, to reminisce, and to somatically access a form of nostalgia that can actually relieve pain: it was a powerful reminder that more leaders must make more time for play.  (Here’s a quick article on how to prioritize play in your life; note that you can microdose on it.) A National Museum of Play highlight for me was stopping by Sesame Street and listening to favorite old songs. “I Love Trash,” anyone?!
At the National Museum of Play on March 18th.
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Leadership Library Review: “Your Body Is Your Brain” by Amanda Blake (Trokay Press, 2018)

March 2022

There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and the culmination of wisdom and awakening.

And what is that one thing?

It is mindfulness centered on the body.

– Buddha (quoted by Blake)

What are the big take-aways?

Somatic intelligence (the wisdom of the body) is – in my opinion – critically underemphasized in leadership development and coaching, although that has been changing in recent years, certainly in my own practice.  Unlocking access to our physical resources adds power to our lives in ways needed now more than ever as we reach the two-year mark in the globe’s grappling with Covid-19, and Your Body Is Your Brain was published before the pandemic!

Why do I like it?

I like this book because it makes a compelling evidence-based case for “embodied leadership” that relies on research from several scientific disciplines, including neurobiology.  Leadership is, indeed, embodied whether we consciously approach it that way or not (even on Zoom!).  And when we do embrace the body-based aspects of who we are, how we show up, whom we influence – and in what purposeful direction – we are not only more effective but generally healthier in the process.  Blake demonstrates throughout Your Body Is Your Brain that it’s also through our physical, i.e. behavioral, manifestation that we do the critical leadership work of continuous learning (p. 42):

Part of the process of learning new behavioral skills – adopting new perspectives, seeing new possibilities, taking new actions – means changing the lens of perception and instrument of action that is your body.  Fortunately, that change is far more possible than we tend to realize…[Your Body Is Your Brain is about how] we can come to embody the best in ourselves, in ways that are gentle, fierce, loving and strong…and deeply rooted in our natural embodied intelligence.

Two other things I like about the book are its focus on social and emotional intelligence (purpose, resilience, empathy; inspiring others through the whole self and not just “from the neck up”), and also its very skillful use of more relatable and engaging real-life examples from Blake’s vast coaching experience than those one typically finds in books like this.

In what situations would it be useful?

Your Body Is Your Brain is an excellent choice for leaders and leadership coaches who are looking for an accessible, introductory resource for exploring somatic intelligence.  I just recently found out that this book is now required reading in my coach training program (which I attended 13 years ago!) at Georgetown’s Institute for Transformational Leadership. 

There are larger life situations in which cultivating somatic awareness is vital to human and planetary flourishing.  As Zen teacher and leadership trainer Ginny Whitelaw points out in this Forbes article:

As we work with the body, we get access to a laboratory, a mini universe, where we can enact systemic transformation. For when we embody an insight, a goal or a relationship, it means we resonate with it enough that we let it change our neural maps and pathways, connective tissue and tension patterns – our habit-formed infrastructure – thus enabling creativity and adaptive behaviors. Tackling the systemic roots of racism in oneself, for example, fuels the creative wisdom needed to unwind the systemic roots of racism in society.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For more on the somatic aspects of race and racism, I recommend the work of Resmaa Menakem, the author of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, whose work I first learned about in this beautiful On Being interview.  For more on the neuroscience of leadership and transformation, I recommend the work of Rick Hanson and Dan Siegel.  To access more of Amanda Blake’s wisdom and experience, especially for coaches, check out her interviews on the Coaches Rising podcast.

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Leadership Library Review — “The Science of Life and Wellbeing: Integrating the New Science of Consciousness with the Ancient Science of Consciousness” by Frederick Chavalit Tsao (Journal of Management, Spirituality & Religion, Vol. 18, 2021)

February 2022

[S]o, with a higher elevation of awakening of consciousness, with the practice of mindfulness toward oneness, and with the new worldview that is arising, by the year 2030 we are going to be looking at systemic change quite differently. There will be the rise of quantum leadership, in society and business, and more importantly in the government sector.

Fred Tsao

Readers of this blog will know that I’ve been on a consciousness-development kick lately, and in the midst of my meanderings I’ve come across this fascinating and appealingly optimistic idea of “quantum leadership.”  The subject of a book by Tsao and Chris Laszlo – which I have not read – quantum leadership apparently has been a concept in the healthcare field for some time and seems to be relatively new in private business.  It recognizes that humanity is, to quote Tsao from this article, “experiencing a shift in eras, from the era of the First Scientific Revolution defined by the materialistic ideas of people such as Isaac Newton and Adam Smith to the Second Scientific Revolution defined by the quantum paradigm…The new era is the dawn of an age of wellbeing, where humanity embraces a new narrative of life, a new worldview based on oneness and holism, validated by quantum science and practiced by traditional Chinese culture.” 

It just so happens that the current three-month leadership discussion group I’m facilitating, “Beginning,” is reading parts of the timeless Chinese leadership treatise, the Tao te Ching – “The Way of Virtue,” written in the 6th century B.C. by Lao Tzu – for inspiration at the intersections of leadership, consciousness and renewal.  (As to the beginning of the Way itself, the 1988 Stephen Mitchell translation reads: “Approach it and there is no beginning;/ follow it and there is no end./You can’t know it, but you can be it,/at ease in your own life.”)  My interpretation of the entire Tao te Ching is that a great leader is one who sagely observes and follows the natural flow of emergence, humbly participating creatively in what arises, for the compassionate benefit of society.  Within the quantum-field-like net of potential in which things arise according to Taoist philosophy, Tsao says, “[a]ll forms of matter have a basic binary code, a Yin-Yang (陰陽), like a sine wave, constantly oscillating back and forth between the two elements. The energy moves as coordinated vibrations.”  The nickname I give to this vibrating energy is “cosmic mischief.”  I think I understand Tsao when he observes that this oscillation, for the purposes of insight into leadership, “is not a matter of right or wrong, it is just cycles in which we evolve. If we follow the impetus of the universe, we can create everything and anything…”  In other words, we can use our human consciousness to synergize this energy in concert with cosmic generativity.

Tsao’s article is, ultimately, a call for a more profound process of healing our individual and collective well-being – which are obviously intertwined – so that humanity can bring itself into greater alignment with evolution on the grandest scales.  He says, “[i]n quantum science terms, healing is defined as the re-establishment of coherence in the physical body, mind and spirit of an individual with the cosmos.”  Tsao cites the rise in Eastern spirituality, philosophies and practices – specifically mentioning yoga, tai chi and meditation – in the West over recent decades as examples of ways humanity has begun this much-needed process of cultivating consciousness, connection, oneness and re-alignment.  He is clear that any practice that deepens stillness and listening allows any of us to tap into emergent creativity, and to bring it forth in service of well-being and flourishing: “We all have the potential for infinite creativity — which in the final analysis is love.”

Additional Resources

  • If you explicitly fold into the ingredients of quantum leadership the theory of “complex adaptive systems,” you get this wonderful chapter on “Twelve Principles of Quantum Leadership” from Zero Distance: Management in the Quantum Age – which is another new book I have not read – by Danah Zohar.  (I’d add a thirteenth principle, “Playfulness,” to make it a baker’s dozen…)
  • As Tsao notes, the United Nations has begun integrating new ways of measuring global sustainability and development.  Some of my favorite thought leaders, such as Susanne Cook-Greuter, Otto Scharmer, Bob Kegan and Jennifer Garvey Berger, support an initiative advancing 23 “Inner Development Goals” for growing or collective developmental capacity to address the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. If this idea intrigues you, I recommend visiting the initiative’s website.
  • For more on Chinese culture, philosophy and medicine and how they mutually inform adult development theory and leadership, I highly recommend the paradigm-shifting work of Spring Cheng.  Originally a hard-core scientist by background and career, she has become a profound indigenous philosopher, and is now also a coach.  This Coaches Rising interview provides a beautiful introduction to Cheng and her radically illuminating perspectives.

A final note: Reflecting on the steady burgeoning of Eastern thought and practices in the West over the past 50 years, I cannot help but mention the loss of an early ambassador of mindfulness in the U.S., Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whose passing on January 22nd deeply touched me.  Sometimes known as “the other Dalai Lama,” Nhat Hanh was – to many – a living embodiment of peace. The specific type of interconnectedness of all living and non-living things that he taught – “inter-being” – hearkens to Tsao’s main point, above.  Maria Popova in The Marginalian, quotes Nhat Hanh: “[T]here is no such thing as an individual separate self. A flower is made only of non-flower elements, such as chlorophyll, sunlight, and water. If we were to remove all the non-flower elements from the flower, there would be no flower left. A flower cannot be by herself alone. A flower can only inter-be with all of us… Humans are like this too. We can’t exist by ourselves alone. We can only inter-be. I am made only of non-me elements, such as the Earth, the sun, parents, and ancestors.”

Photo: Susan Palmer, Naples Botanical Garden, Florida (2019)

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Cosmic Mischief in the Leadership Context

January 2022

In rivers and streams across the globe lives a tube-shaped carnivore. It paralyzes and captures prey with a crown of tentacles, then draws it in through its mouth (which also serves as its anus). 

“Hydra DNA Reveals There’s More Than One Way to Regrow a Head”

What is “cosmic mischief”?

To be candid from the outset, I do not know what I am talking about in this essay.  For at least ten years now I have been at the beginning of a learning journey which I am sharing here because what I’m observing is astonishing, and because it may be of service to you as a companion on this nutty Life pilgrimage (unless you’re one of the many readers who are already way ahead of me down the trail!). 

But what I do know is that I have had some strange and wondrous experiences, including in my professional work, when I am in certain states of clear consciousness.  Sometimes these glimpses – which have mostly been brief – are spontaneous and unbidden, and sometimes they are induced by an intentional letting-go of egoic “Susan-ness.”  When ego falls away enough, it can be followed by a receptivity to what reveals itself to be pre-existing “awareness of awareness,” which I’m guessing is what babies’ minds are like, and perhaps other animals’.  (Sufficient dissolution of Susan’s identity does not always happen in the letting-go! Most often the thinking, strategic, striving Susan is still attached.  Notice the capital S!)  Anyway, these occasional awakening states carry with them a heart-based feeling of pure presence.  By presence, I mean the energy vibrating through the field that is us and includes us, which is doing its thing, being What Is.  That energy is cosmic mischief.

Is this crazy-talk, or is there something practical about it?  (Answer: Yes!)

A very effective teacher of pragmatic techniques to “unhook from the thinker” is Loch Kelly, who asks: “What is here now when there is no problem to solve?”  I like his approach because I’ve intuited versions of it on my own.  For example, when I’m in a coaching session and I am able to fully give over to total presence with my client as she is sharing what matters most to her, and therefore Susan is entirely laid aside (“no-problem-no-ego”), an empty but alive awareness or witnessing takes over.  Time is irrelevant, sensations arise and subside in my body, and although the coaching questions pop right out of my mouth, they are not “my” questions.  Unmistakably, the questions are coming from elsewhere, but if my mind actively inquires about their source, the inquiry itself (because it is coming from Susan) closes off the flow, at least momentarily.  The “elsewhere” feels like Love: a calm nowhere place, beyond myself, from which the client is – and I am – being held and viewed.  (Most of the great wisdom traditions teach that we are Love.) In any case, when that mysterious – some would say sacred – thing happens, I’m just a willing, appreciative conduit of its grace.  My client and I are utilizing cosmic mischief for her purposes. (Musicians, artists, athletes and others also describe playing in this field.)

To reiterate: I’m not special or enlightened, I don’t “live” in this attunement, and I watch myself get reactive on a regular basis – sometimes all day long!  Learning to soften into stably embodying awareness of awareness for longer periods – especially when I have feelings of anxiety from resistance to What Is – is the territory of my ongoing inner game of hide-and-seek.

What does cosmic mischief have to do with leadership?

My research into the subject so far suggests there is both a scientific and a spiritually artistic basis for the transformative possibilities of the kind of presence I just described.  Both the scientific and the artistic perspectives point to the concept that what we take to be our continuous encounter with “reality” is an illusion (which isn’t to say we aren’t having a real, human experience of it).  The illusion is made of cosmic mischief at play with us, and us with it.  When we are able to be awake to observing this dynamic illusion in a non-attached way through eyes of Love, that’s emergence – and it’s magic. 

Cosmic mischief is the Universe’s way-of-being, and as such, is neither inherently positive nor negative.  Cosmic mischief is afoot in stars exploding, the violent aspects of childbirth and typhoons and lions savaging gazelles, as well as in our ordinary human suffering from illness and aging – natural processes which our fearful minds tend to label in negative terms.  But as an all-pervasive energetic field of infinite potential, the condition of cosmic mischief resides within an invisible Wholeness bigger than any either/or, including: either good or bad, destructive or generative, particle or wave, receptivity or agency, intellect or intuition, red or blue, parts or systems, stillness or motion, feminine or masculine, matter or energy, and even life or death.  (If predominant physics theories are correct that universally everything in all states of existence arose from a singularity, e.g. the “big bang,” then everything is inextricably entangled and unified in every dimension.)  That said, when we are in our clearer states of consciousness and able to artfully choose “who to be” while channeling the energy in this field of potential by entering into a back-and-forth exchange with it, we can relax into a maestro’s ability to synergize with it.

How, exactly?  In practical terms, the tonal quality of attention – i.e. whether it is based in love, worry, imagination, boredom, curiosity, sadness, control, compassion, anger, play, pessimism, joy – with which a leader observes what is unfolding within her purview determines the future that emerges.  What I notice from my own career, plus many years of working with scores of leaders, is that when we are willing to be in a playful, trusting, cooperative “dance” with cosmic mischief it produces results that skew intelligent, healthy, integrated, adaptive and impactful in the world.  Moreover, these refined states of consciousness can be intentionally nurtured by sincere pursuit of any number of authentic integration or awakening practices (psychological, indigenous, somatic, neurobiological, spiritual, creative, etc.).  There is one catch, however!  Opening up to this type of leadership/human/consciousness development is not for the faint of heart.  It requires from us a core commitment to something that’s more important to us than our own safety.  Decentralizing ego, giving up control, feeling our painful vulnerabilities, engaging with our shadow parts, and risking our (false) sense of security for the sake of something much bigger than ourselves – often in public! – is an uncomfortable and messy adventure that is relentlessly humbling. 

Where else can I learn about this stuff?

For a Zen Buddhist take on the physics of leadership, connection and emergence, see this amazing piece by Ginny Whitelaw in Forbes: “When a leader exactly matches in thought, word, deed and relationships, who they would be when a creation they’ve imagined is realized, that creation is brought into the present, because that’s where the leader exists.”  For more about this idea on living “as if” the imagined state has already come to pass – specifically in the social justice context – check out Krista Tippett’s On Being interview with the late Congressman John Lewis entitled “Love in Action,” as well as this Guardian story about the origins of “Sesame Street.” 

For scholarly research on leadership development using an awareness-based approach, see the captivating work of Jonathan Reams at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (his personal website is here).  Regarding the spirituality of emergence in group process, a la Otto Scharmer, see “Presencing with Soul” by Jessica Bockler in the brand-new Journal of Awareness-Based Systems Change.  Also, an introductory workshop on “Emergent Leadership” is periodically offered by the folks at Pacific Integral; I took it in spring 2021 and thought it was superb in both content and delivery.

For more about literal artistry and cosmic mischief, consider this: as a reviewer of M.C. Escher’s both/and drawings summarizes, “looking can be a magical kind of thinking.”  (One last fun thing: it’s possible that cosmic mischief has a current hue!  Check out Pantone’s “veri peri,” the color of 2022.)

The Inner Eye (Susan Palmer, 2009)
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