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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Leadership Library Review — “The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times” with Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams (Celadon, 2021)

December 2021

Hope does not deny all the difficulty and all the danger that exists, but it is not stopped by them.  There is a lot of darkness, but our actions create the light.  – Jane Goodall

What are the big take-aways?

The question that 86-year-old Jane Goodall gets the most as she travels the globe, leading efforts to address the dire plight of humans and animals and the planet, is whether she believes there’s still hope for the world.  She says yes.  Goodall believes that a combination of human intellect, nature’s resilience, young people’s energy and “the indomitable human spirit” are enough to save us from ourselves – if we so choose.

Why do I like it?

While I feel compelled to say that, personally, The Book of Hope was not as inspiring as Douglas Abrams’s earlier effort, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (which has been a balm to me during the pandemic), it is nonetheless a lovely deep well from which to draw sanity and wisdom.  One of the things I like most about The Book of Hope, which recounts a series of conversations between Goodall and Abrams, is how it distinguishes between and yet interweaves similar concepts, such as faith, optimism, idealism, resilience and grit.  (“Hope is more humble than faith,” asserts Goodall on page 10, “since no one can know the future.”)  I also like that Goodall – by my interpretation – believes that humans are neither good nor bad but just highly adaptable (p. 49): “The environment we create will determine what prevails.  In other words, what we nurture and encourage wins.”

Two other things I like about the book are (1) the interesting story of how Goodall first got to Tanzania in 1960 to undertake her now-famous study of the Gombe forest chimpanzees through the urging – and sponsorship – of legendary Louis Leakey, and (2) the surprising extent to which she was willing to share with Abrams her spiritual beliefs about the mysteries of existence, including how she views the potential “adventure” of death as “being able to understand the mysteries because we shall be part of them, part of the great pattern of things, but in an integrated way” (p. 215).

In what situations would this be useful?

Goodall’s clear-eyed approaches to realities of the climate crisis and its effects on living systems offered in The Book of Hope will be useful to any leader who is experiencing overwhelm/paralysis/stuckness.  Jane Goodall offers a type of psychological equanimity that derives from an enormous sense of perspective that – ultimately – relies on getting through dark times by taking very small positive steps because “our actions create the light” (p. 29). 

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For a quick overview of Jane Goodall’s formal efforts to foster hope and resilience worldwide, see this USA Today article and video about Goodall’s recent recognition by the Templeton Foundation.  For another powerful article by Rebecca Solnit describing specific attitudes and behaviors anyone can adopt, see her excellent “Ten Ways to Confront the Climate Crisis Without Losing Hope” from The Guardian.

A rich conversation about hope is taking place on the podcast On Being, where the “future of hope” is under discussion.  In the series’ most recent episode, journalist Pico Iyer interviews the sage and ever-scintillant Elizabeth Gilbert, who sums it up this way:

That feels like what the universe is asking for — more of this, less of that; more of mercy, less of condemnation; more equality, less injustice. So why wouldn’t I add my energy to that field?…you know, because actually, not to do that would be harmful.  So that’s what I go to. I actually have that quote on my refrigerator, of, “He wanted nothing but what God wanted, nothing but what God in all grace had already given.” I mean, that’s the — what possible more serenity could you have than that? And if I hope for anything for myself, personally, it’s to learn how to do that. If I hope for anything for the world, it’s that we learn how to do that.

One final note related to the science of hope: I am only halfway through it, but I already heartily recommend The Awakened Brain by Dr. Lisa Miller (Random House, 2021).  Neurobiological evidence shows that engaging our capacity for  spirituality – a heightened state of awareness of the world around us – is prophylactic against depression, addiction and trauma, and (here’s the particular implication for leaders…) helps us make better decisions.

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Leadership Library Review: “Navigating the Cultural Shift and Fostering a Developmental Society” (Coaches Rising Interview with Tomas Björkman)

November 2021

We think that we can negotiate with our planetary boundaries and are all subject to the fixed market, when it’s actually the opposite. Tomas Bjorkman

What are the big take-aways?

Note: This podcast dialogue speaks not just to coaches but to anyone engaged in contemplating the most perplexing health, equity, environmental and political questions of our era.

In a soaring conversation with Joel Monk of Coaches Rising, Tomas Bjorkman – “applied philosopher,” entrepreneur and founder of Ekskäret – issues a call-to-action for fostering adult development as our path toward evolving global civilization.  Bjorkman argues that a critical mass of humans must become self-authoring (a stage in Robert Kegan’s framework, described here in 5 minutes by his protégé Jennifer Garvey Berger) in order to create the necessary tipping point into a collective awareness of the constructed nature of our societal systems, so that they can be changed before they collapse.  While Bjorkman is not the only thought leader playing on this field of inquiry, he does it particularly explicitly and well.

Why do I like it?

Humans are suffering, Bjorkman suggests, from an increasing self-generated complexity that is beginning to outgrow the limits of our valuable yet entirely made-up modern systems (such as money and democracy).  I agree with Bjorkman that a cultural transformation is both needed and very possible: if more people could develop the complexity of consciousness that is able look at certain taken-for-granted systems from the outside, humanity could view them as the inventions that they are and change them. Enough of us imagining new ways of operating could better serve ourselves and the planet that produced and sustains us.  Thanks to adult development theories (a.k.a. vertical development or consciousness development), we know that this kind of individual and collective growth can be deliberately cultivated.  Nurturing adult development is, in fact, becoming a concern of diverse local and global enterprises that are at the forefront of accelerating complexities; because they live on the horizons of the emerging future, some of them are starting to realize how inadequate many of our current systems are for handling the types of changes we are experiencing – technologies like artificial intelligence being just one example – and the speed at which they are happening. 

In what situations would this be useful?

Regardless of whether you consider yourself a leader, if your philosophy is some form of realistic optimism, you’ll be inspired by this provocative conversation.  If you are heartened by validation of your life-affirming instincts that self-transformation is key to any larger transformation, you will enjoy the ideas Bjorkman skillfully weaves together.  Bjorkman’s ultimate exhortation for reckoning with complexity is subversive, counter-cultural and paradoxically simple: slow down, and – if you can afford it – be less focused on material things and more attentive to connection, purpose and meaning. 

It’s worth noticing that Bjorkman’s message is starkly different from the ones implied by certain recently much-celebrated titans of international business, including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who seem to be using their vast resources to build vehicles specifically designed to separate themselves from Earth as fast as possible.  (And via a gargantuan penis, in Bezos’s case. While Bezos decided to boldly go there for inspiration about what to do with his billions, by contrast, his ex-wife MacKensie Scott went in a distinctly different direction with her “Seeding by Ceding” project after their divorce.)

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Dr. Riane Eisler, another “practical visionary” whom I only discovered because she was featured in Thomas Hubl’s 2021 Collective Trauma Summit, offers a similar paradigm shift to Bjorkman’s. A lawyer, economist and scientist, Eisler identifies the last several thousand years of human history as reflecting a Domination System; the revolution she urges is recognizing this illusory construct for the incomplete story it is and rewriting our species’ self-understanding as a Partnership System.  On another how-to note, Otto Scharmer’s transformational change process – called Presencing – propounds a pragmatic approach to consciousness and systems transformation (what Scharmer calls a shift in awareness from “ego-systems” to “eco-systems”), in order to allow the future to emerge.

All of these theories of change require a deep capacity to come to healthy terms with our human past, including integrating its very dark parts, so that we can take an objective view of our outmoded constructs and let go of the destructive self-replicating patterns they perpetuate.  This is an inherently developmental set of moves, necessitating thoughtful navigation of uncertainty, ambiguity and polarities.  For more on leadership and adult development, start here with Jennifer Garvey Berger.  For a description of how coaches participate in “Leading with Humanity” through expanding consciousness, see this Institute of Coaching report, a retrospective on Covid-19. For the most ancient written leadership wisdom on polarities, consciousness development, systems awareness – and even the partnership paradigm – that I know of, check out Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (which dates to 6th-century B.C. China).

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Leadership Library Review — “Proud AND Critical: And-Thinking Applied to Critical Race Theory” by Barry Johnson (Polarity Partnerships, September 2021)

October 2021

If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright…./For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it./If only we’re brave enough to be it.    Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”

What are the big take-aways?

In his brief article “Proud AND Critical,” Barry Johnson, the originator of “polarity thinking,” puts his finger precisely on the fact that one’s love of country – one’s patriotism and pride – need not be affected in any way whatsoever by also recognizing how our country does and does not yet live up to its ideals.  “Being proud and motivated by our county’s ideals of ‘liberty, justice and equality for all’ comes with it a constant vigilance to live up to those ideals,” he asserts.  In other words, when it comes to the current controversy over critical race theory (i.e., the legal, social, etc. history of African-Americans in the United States), Americans have the choice to make a elevating move: we can apply an AND rather than do an OR.  We can both be proud of our nation AND act on the gaps between its aspirations and its realities. 

Why do I like it?

Paradoxically, it’s whether we are able, as a citizenry, to hold this AND that actually becomes the win-OR-lose proposition!  Johnson observes, “When we assume that we must choose between being proud of our country Or critically comparing our actions to our words and addressing any disparities, we create a false choice in which our country loses regardless of the choice.” 

I like Johnson’s message because, as part of my leadership philosophy, I believe in a fluid view of history that is informed by as many perspectives as possible as they are uncovered or emerge.  I favor seeing history as a panoply of continually-widening vistas into racial and gendered and ecological and infinite other data points, which cumulatively offer an ever more complex – and provocatively confounding – web of the past, for the sake of exposing present-day patterns.  When our triumphs, traumas, declarations, denials and assumptions are illuminated, they can then be consciously explored, integrated and – if we so choose – transmuted into healthier life-affirming systems. 

To my mind, the essence of Johnson’s piece is that the existence of myriad contradictory narratives does not invalidate anyone’s individual truth, AND our society can only thrive on its fullest scale, together, in our whole collective truth: this is not a zero-sum game!  As the leaders of our lives, what we can do is talk to ourselves about ourselves in self-compassionate ways that enlighten and include everything. We can choose to tell a grand multi-dimensional story about our evolving culture that is much larger than our incomplete, fixed and conflicting smaller ones.  We just have to nurture the courage within us (and role-model the vulnerability for each other) to inhabit the AND, which is another word for love.  “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it./If only we’re brave enough to be it.” 

In what situations would this be useful?

If you are, like I am, thoroughly (re-)galvanized by the racial justice movement sparked by George Floyd’s murder AND shocked by the prevalence of violence – toward others as well as self-inflicted – which plagues white men in America, Barry Johnson’s approach to polarity thinking (and that of his protégé Kelly Lewis, in her collaboration with Brian Emerson), can be transformative.  While I struggle to make sense of what is happening in the United States right now, for reassuring guidance I turn again and again to John Lewis’s idea of “love in action,” and all kinds of other phenomena that also shine light – to me, by me, through me and “as me.”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

There are endless sources of light, of course, but what Barry Johnson’s piece about critical race theory brings to mind is the prophetic life of James Baldwin, whose biography and writing I’ve been studying lately. Being a queer African-American intellectual and citizen of the world during the Civil Rights era, Baldwin’s very existence was a mirror he held up to many willfully-emblinded systems in our country, which he did at his peril out of love for America.  Nearly 60 years ago Baldwin wrote presciently about the prescription for resolving the problem of our racialized society: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” 

Although he died in 1987, Baldwin foresaw what could happen if a critical mass of Americans in the heat of our present moment is unable to muster enough self-accepting, courageous responsibility to be the light rather than the flames:

Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”

May we merge mercy with might, might with right, and change the history of the world.

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Leadership Library Review — “Waking Up” with Sam Harris: Introductory Course

September 2021

The purpose of meditation isn’t merely to reduce stress or to make you feel better in the moment—it’s to make fundamental discoveries in the laboratory of your own mind.”  –Waking Up website

What are the big take-aways?

Writing this post at the close of August, I am on Day 13 of the 30-day free trial of the Waking Up introductory course, and I love it.  A long-time meditator using a variety of techniques, I was in the mood over the summer to unlock a new set of practices from a different approach (plus, Jim Dethmer mentioning Waking Up in his blog didn’t hurt…), and I’m delighted I tried this one.  As a tool for leaders, Waking Up is a resource I’m already recommending to my coaching clients.  (And what is executive coaching but a co-creative process of making fundamental discoveries in the laboratory of your own leadership?)

Why do I like it?

More than a series of guided meditations for beginners – which, after a dozen years, I certainly still consider myself to be! – this course also includes huge amounts of excellent content in the forms of Q&A about meditation, lengthy Conversations with contemporary teachers (from Radical Compassion author Tara Brach to poet David Whyte, etc.), and short Lessons by Sam Harris himself.  The website is divided between Theory and Practice, and each is a treasure trove.

I like Harris’s intellectual-yet-well-grounded vocal presence, and in addition to doing the daily meditations (though not every day, because I’m pacing myself), it’s been interesting to learn about his own path of awakening.  For example, Harris describes his decades-long quest to understand the mind in his lesson on “Gradual vs Sudden Realization” in the Mysteries & Paradoxes collection.  Also, I appreciate his depth of exploration with the Conversations guests as well as the quality of wisdom shared in other sessions (an early favorite of mine is Joseph Goldstein on “Transforming Negative Emotions”). 

In what situations would this be useful?

The Waking Up introductory course would be useful for anyone inquiring about meditation practices in general and/or the nature of consciousness and/or freedom from egoic self.  It’s worth noting that I experience Waking Up as having a cerebral and masculine orientation, including – but not solely – due to the fact that the majority of featured practitioners and theorists are men and white.  To me, in terms of Waking Up’s effectiveness, these are overall neutral aspects of the course, but I could imagine other users having a different response to them.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

Based on the same Jim Dethmer blog post mentioned above, I’ve also recently begun reading Loch Kelly’s book, Shift Into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness (Sounds True, 2015) and accessing some of Kelly’s other material, all of which has proven immediately applicable and useful.  Kelly happens to be featured in both the Theory and Practice sections of the Waking Up website.

Another practical “how-to” book with a Buddhist – and, arguably, feminist-leaning – take is the late Kathleen Dowling Singh’s Unbinding: The Grace Beyond Self (Wisdom Publications, 2019).  Hear her thoughts about how simple, and even mundane, the awakening process can be in this lovely interview with Kate Ebner on Inside Transformational Leadership.  For a more socially-conscious angle on collective waking-up, I highly recommend Krista Tippett’s stunning On Being dialogue with the queer African-American Zen Buddhist angel Kyodo williams entitled, “The World is Our Field of Practice.”

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Leadership Library Review — “Where You Are Is Not Who You Are: A Memoir” by Ursula M. Burns (Amistad, 2021)

August 2021

“I could run this place, I remember thinking.” – Ursula Burns

What are the big take-aways?

This engrossing memoir by the former CEO of Xerox, and the first African American woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, is ultimately a story about how the personal and professional philosophies of an authentic leader are forged.  The book jacket says it best: “Candid and outspoken, Burns offers a remarkable look inside the C-suites through the eyes of a Black woman – someone who puts humanity over greed, and justice over power.  Empathetic and dedicated, idealistic and pragmatic, Burns demonstrates that no matter your circumstances, hard work and leadership can change your life – and the world.”  Not an overstatement.

Why do I like it?

Born into poverty but with a single mother rigorously devoted to her children’s safety and advancement, Burns survived the bullies of her New York City public-housing neighborhoods and the brutal punishment of the nuns supervising her parochial education to eventually discover her gifts for math, science and writing at Cathedral High School in Manhattan.  Having been admitted to Yale, Carnegie Mellon, Columbia, City College and Brooklyn Polytechnic, she chose Brooklyn Polytechnic (now New York University) for the practical and financial advantages of her HEOP (Higher Education Opportunity Program) eligibility there.  Her major was mechanical engineering, a field in which she immediately encountered racism as a student: “It wasn’t that they were mean to me (they weren’t); they just couldn’t comprehend how a Black girl could be as smart as or, in some cases, smarter than they were” (p. 101).  Burns’s career at Xerox began with an internship during her junior year in college, and she started working full-time for the company in 1981.  She became the CEO of Xerox in 2009 (a job handed off to her by another ground-breaking woman, Anne Mulcahy).  Xerox is also where Burns met her complicated, beloved and career-supporting husband, Lloyd, who retired to take care of their kids.

Who wouldn’t love that story?  And not just because it’s inherently inspiring for any number of reasons, but I also loved it because Burns’s narrative voice is frank, incisive, relatable and unsparingly “warts-and-all.”  Her intense journey – and the surprisingly gripping corporate tale of Xerox – through the 36 years she spent there is captivating and (for someone like me who’s less familiar with the visceral insides of for-profit global enterprise, especially in the manufacturing industry) quite educational.  Secondarily, it’s an ode to what the research of Zenger and Folkman has uncovered about gender and leadership: “Women are perceived by their managers — particularly their male managers — to be slightly more effective than men at every hierarchical level and in virtually every functional area of the organization. That includes the traditional male bastions of IT, operations, and legal.”

In what situations would this be useful?

Where You Are Is Not Who You Are is an engaging, almost conversational autobiography about authentic and inclusive leadership, which – in its thoughtful descriptions of how to navigate many key polarities in business and in life – could serve anyone’s development.  Although I imagined I’d be recommending this book to women clients and clients of color, the first person I found myself mentioning it to (before I even finished it) was a white male leader of an engineering college at a big university who’s creating new diversity initiatives. 

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

I recommend Daphne Jefferson’s Dropping the Mask: Connecting Leadership to Identity (New Degree, 2020), which happens to cite Ursula Burns as an example early in the book.  While geared toward leaders of color, especially Black women, Dropping the Mask is a comprehensive exposition of what makes any authentic leader – a person who owns and capitalizes on the whole of his or her unique life experience to purposefully influence others – so effective.  It nicely knits together a number of my favored leadership research interests, such as neuroscience, emotional intelligence, story-telling, communication and self-authorship.  

Relative to race and Covid-19, for leaders considering whether or how to go “room, Zoom or hybrid” at this stage of the pandemic I recommend this Washington Post article about African American women in the workforce and why some are not eager to return to the office.  (And if, for any reason, you yourself are seeking to work remotely, here’s some quick advice about how to negotiate a long-term arrangement.)

For a less conventional pairing – i.e. an audio-visual treat, arguably about (and itself an act of) African American leadership, authenticity and joy – I suggest the enlightening and exuberant new documentary, Summer of Soul (currently in some theaters and streaming on Hulu).

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Leadership Library Review — “The Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead Forward” by Kevin Cashman (Berrett-Koehler, 2012)

July 2021

All real change begins with self-change; pause is a catalyst of self-change.

– Kevin Cashman

I loved Cashman’s previous leadership handbook, Leadership from the Inside Out, which I previously reviewed here in the Leadership Library and wrote about again a few years later when the author added a new chapter in the revised edition on “Story Mastery.”  I hadn’t read his subsequent publication, The Pause Principle, until I was recently inspired to do so by my friend and colleague Dr. Ruth Zaplin, who supervises some new coaching work with federal employees I’m starting this summer in American University’s Key Executive Leadership Programs.  Note: The Pause Principle strikes me as particularly timely reading for addressing widespread burnout during this quasi-post-pandemic phase of Covid-19 in the U.S.

Pausing, Complexity and Adult Development

At its core, Cashman’s “pause principle” is an inside-out leadership orientation toward navigating complexity in VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environments in order to prevent overwhelm.  “The greater the complexity, the deeper the reflective pause required to convert the complex and ambiguous to the clear and meaningful.  Pause helps us to move from the transactive or hyperactive to the transformative” (p. 26). 

There are “pause points” peppered throughout the book, providing coaching questions, reflection prompts and easy practices designed to offer increasing perspective, awareness and self-actualization.  Considering the emphasis on various forms of mindfulness in the leadership work of (among others) Jennifer Garvey Berger, Robert Kegan, and Joiner & Josephs in Leadership Agility, I believe the consciousness-raising benefit of the pause principle is likely an adult development accelerator.

Indeed, the distinctions Cashman repeatedly draws throughout the three central chapters (on pausing for personal leadership, for growth of others, and for growing cultures of innovation) between the skills of “management effectiveness” and “leadership excellence” strike me as intrinsically developmental.  In my opinion, Cashman’s differentiations between management and leadership capabilities largely track the transformation from the socialized form of mind (at which things we perceive about ourselves come from external perspectives of other people or worldviews or our professional expertise) and the self-authored form of mind, which Berger describes as showing up this way in a recent article: “someone who is strongly guided by a purpose she sets for herself, who takes responsibility for her own actions and emotions and holds you responsible for yours, and who can name and reflect on (as well as edit and redefine) the values that shape her actions” (i.e., she authors her own perspective internally). 

One powerful example from The Pause Principle of how Cashman’s leadership-to-management shift manifests as developmental comes from the chapter on character, authenticity and integrity entitled, “Pause to Grow Personal Leadership.”  The author asserts on page 49 that “[m]anagers create processes and control mechanisms to regulate and enforce ethical behavior” while “leaders embody character to inspire ethical behavior in others.”  The former is a knowledge-based response to outer standards (socialized), whereas the latter is a whole-person expression of internal direction (self-authored). He follows this on page 53 with a chart listing the elements of “leading by coping” versus “leading in character,” which reads much like similar frameworks propounded by subsequent thought leaders whose models also smack of the developmental move from socialized to self-authored.  (Brene Brown’s comprehensive delineation between “armored leadership” and “daring leadership” in Dare to Lead leaps to mind as just one example.)

Beyond Developmental

There is much else that I appreciate about this book, but readers of this blog will not be surprised that one other subject I found especially captivating in The Pause Principle was Cashman’s provocation to an inherently spiritual mode of operating in complexity.  He terms it “transcendent leadership,” which acknowledges the existence of something vaster than ourselves (as evidenced by phenomena such as peak experience, the zone, flow, presencing, or non-doing in meditation: for details, see page 70).  The manager/leader contrast he draws here is this: “Too often, managers are Human Doers using energy and action to spend themselves in the pursuit of goals, whereas leaders aspire to be full Human Beings seeking the renewal of transcendence to re-create themselves and others in pursuit of service-filled purpose.” 

Bottom Line

It is my lay-person’s understanding that the psychology of adult development research shows the ability to wholly inhabit the paradoxical Doing and Being polarity requires at least a self-authored form of mind.  (In Kegan’s theory, there is one more form of mind beyond self-authored, called self-transforming.)  And I hypothesize that Cashman’s characterization of “service-filled purpose” probably requires self-authored sense-making, too.  Therefore, The Pause Principle might be frustrating for some of Cashman’s “manager” readers, but because of the book’s constant integration of thoughtful reflection practices, if the reader seriously works the program I believe it could provide the inspiration, perspective-stretches and scaffolding needed to support the kind of transformational change within leaders for which Cashman paused to write this book.

Recommended Pairings

For more leadership practices that support navigation of VUCA conditions with an explicitly adult development lens, I highly recommend Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnstone. 

If you are looking for cutting-edge perspectives on authentic leadership, based on a fantastic presentation by the author I attended last week I would recommend Daphne Jefferson’s Dropping the Mask: Connecting Leadership to Identity (New Degree, 2020). While geared toward leaders of color, women, and their white male colleagues, Dropping the Mask — which is now on my nightstand — sounds like it offers practical wisdom for everyone.  For other relatively recent books about the intersections between leadership values, authenticity and purpose, I recommend the following (ideally in this order): Discover Your True North Fieldbook: A Personal Guide to Becoming an Authentic Leader by Bill George, et al. (Wiley, 2015); Leading from Purpose: Clarity and the Confidence to Act When It Matters by Nick Craig (Hachette, 2018); and Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness and Trust by Edgar Schein and Peter Schein (Berrett-Koehler, 2018).

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All Play

June 2021

The Antidote to Shame

“Playfulness and connectedness are antidotes to shame” declares the warm, savvy and spacious team at Pacific Integral, whose enlightening course on “Emergent Leadership” I participated in this spring.  While Pacific Integral’s assertion resonates completely with me (as a person who has basically resolved all her remaining body-acceptance issues by dancing mischievously in her friend Megan’s disinhibiting Zumba classes), their basis for this precise notion is unclear.  My internet search for “play is the antidote to shame” yielded only one directly relevant piece from a few years ago in an old opinion series at the Huffington Post

That said, I’ve heard sociologist and leadership expert Brene Brown discuss the links between vulnerability, shame and courage in her research for years, and Brown’s formula for eradicating shame is empathy (explained succinctly to Oprah Winfrey here).  Empathy’s effects are not unrelated to the benefits – such as a sense of wholeness and belonging – that we derive from play, but to my mind empathy is qualitatively different.  For one thing, we can source play for ourselves. When we are playing we are joyful, spontaneous conduits of emergence, immersed in what we’re doing, liberated from our fear (of failure, of looking stupid, of being judged, etc.).  Effective leaders understand that play is a positive disruptor, allowing good stuff to channel through us into existence.  If leadership – from the smallest local grassroots movements to the juggernauts of global private enterprise – could be redefined as a form of play, the whole world would transform into a healthier place: a nimbler humanity would have the perspective to address intractable conundrums by taking its darkness seriously while holding it lightly.  

The Lever of Transformation

Transformation in any system always begins with self-transformation inside an individual (who, by the way, can be situated anywhere touching that system).  My professional philosophy aligns with the folks at the Conscious Leadership Group, whose Commitment #9 of The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership is about navigating play and rest “above the line” in an open, curious stance of learning: I commit to creating a life of play, improvisation, and laughter. I commit to seeing all of life unfold easefully and effortlessly. I commit to maximizing my energy by honoring rest, renewal and rhythm.  [Their emphasis.]  The “below the line” manifestation of this commitment is the following closed and defensive stance, primarily concerned with being right [my emphasis]: I commit to seeing my life as serious; it requires hard work, effort and struggle. I see play and rest as distractions from effectiveness and efficiency. 

We can’t be the generative fonts of imagination, innovation and experimentation that are necessary to our planetary flourishing if we are frenetically grasping at illusions like stability, certainty, simplicity or being right.  Imagine what possibilities could be unleashed if you, your team, your family, your workplace, your organization, your community and our society were “committed to creating a life of play”!  Having evolved our primate playfulness not just for survival (check out this gibbon’s territorial improv act) but for social, problem-solving – and even culture-building reasons in the example of bonobos – it seems that we homo sapiens pop out of the cosmos as newborns with a universal innate sense of humor.  (Otherwise, how could these tiny babies respond with such hilarity at their father’s antics?)  As we grow up we may get out of practice, but play is an ever-present living resource within each of us, always inviting a change in consciousness.

The Shift

Erica Schreiber of the Conscious Leadership Group describes in her blog post, “When F*cked Is Funny,” how she uses humor – and a particular song – as her shift move from “below the line” to “above the line.”  Do you use humor or play to change your consciousness?  If so, what’s your shift move?

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Returning to the Office: Whether, When and How?

May 2021

“[Microsoft] plans to remove restrictions only once the virus acts ‘more like an endemic virus such as the seasonal flu,’ an executive wrote.”

In the U.S. and some other parts of the world where Covid-19 vaccines have been available for a few months now, we’re approaching a strange, exciting, anxious and complicated moment: What exactly can we start planning to do now, and when?  Specifically, my leadership coaching clients and organizations with non-essential workers are grappling with the question, How do we plan a safe return to the office?

One of my immediate instincts as a coach is to offer my clients’ inherent wisdom right back to them, and in this case that’s easy to do because I captured the biggest pearls in this blog last April!  As it turns out, the “Seven Things I Am Learning from My Clients in the Pandemic” during the emergent transition to lockdown tend to mirror – like bookends – much of what the experts are saying now about the back-to-office transition, only in slo-mo and with these three additions:

Thoroughly inquire about the myriad ways you, your colleagues and your organization are very different than you were before Covid-19 arrived. 

We’ve all been transformed – in fundamental, even sacred ways – by our “liminal experiences” of the past year and we are not the same people we were in the spring of 2020.  How do these changes, collectively, affect your organization’s culture and thus inform your design of practical teamwork-supporting plans for whether, when and how to return to the office?  (Check out this short summary of a recent Harvard study showing that 80% of workers do not want to return to full-time office life; and most of those who do want to come back to the office are parents.)  Most organizations in my clientele are already experimenting with hybrid arrangements. What leadership and management strategies will offer you and your employees psychological safety in a hybrid re-opening phase?  (As for physical safety, Google may be showing us the future of office design for long-term hybrid workplaces.) How does your own state of consciousness about leading through this in-between time determine what’s possible for the organization as a whole?

Clarify what the pandemic revealed to you and your organization that you want to keep, and commit to it now.  Make “live lightly” one of them. 

Covid-19’s disruptions to American culture starkly illuminated gaps and subverted our assumptions to the extent that they actually provide a blueprint for societal-level change.  Of course, this it true on organizational and individual scales, too.  For example, many of us have experienced (welcome or unwelcome) opportunities to recapture our “beginner’s mind,” recalibrate our priorities in life, percolate on creative projects, (re-)turn to poetry, and deepen our accountability for racial equity.  What have been the pandemic’s “silver linings” for your organization, your team, and for you?  What have you and your organization learned so far during Covid-19 that you intend to keep, and how will you invest in those commitments with sufficient time, money, energy and attention?  Now that you know how much of an illusion “control” can be, what agility practices will you and your organization employ to “live lightly,” as Jim Dethmer of the Conscious Leadership Group describes it

Cultivate even more (self-)compassion and empathy.  

We are all really tired at this point, and for good reason!  So cut yourself some slack, and cut plenty for everyone around you, too.  Many of us are “languishing” (the “neglected middle child of mental health” between depression and flourishing), even if thus far we have fared relatively well in the pandemic.  And then there are those of us who have not fared well, financially or in health or career or family life – and those who have lost loved ones – particularly in the BIPOC populations disproportionately affected by Covid.  With self-compassion and empathy for others, keep learning about how to maintain well-being in response to the trauma that perhaps you and almost certainly your colleagues of color are going through (in terms of Covid, yes, and also the trauma surfacing amidst the movement sparked by George Floyd’s murder).  Continue expanding your organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts and working on your own antiracism.  In DE&I and in everything else, seek to balance accountability with forgiveness in a way that serves the purpose of growth-oriented learning, both your own as well as others’. 

Additional Resources:

  • This is a nerve-racking time, and I recently absorbed some new information about how to view anxiety as a habit that can be unlearned.  In this podcast interview of psychiatrist Jud Brewer by Ezra Klein, I was struck by the role of curiosity in unlearning anxiety, and I also thought it was interesting that research is revealing a mental “flavor” shared by curiosity and kindness.
  • Consider taking the Intercultural Development Inventory®, or IDI®, “the premier cross-cultural assessment of intercultural competence that is used by thousands of individuals and organizations…[to build the competence] to achieve international and domestic diversity and inclusion goals and outcomes.”  Inexpensive for what you get, in my opinion, the inventory is administered like any other web-based instrument, and includes a live debrief session with a certified IDI practitioner.  I found my IDI experience to be accurate and inspiring (even though the assessment showed I have a very long way to grow to get where I want to be in terms of how I handle my encounters with cultural difference).
  • Contemplate this reflection by the late African-American activist and writer, Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
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Leading in the Bardo

April 2021

The rupture of bardo inevitably leads to whatever is next…Impermanence is not just an illuminator of loss. It is an illuminator of newness, the ever-unfolding present moment and its creativity.  –Pema Khandro Rinpoche

Springtime as Bardo

At this transitional time of year in the northern hemisphere, lots of hibernating mammals, amphibians and other animals who have been in a torpid or frozen state – entombed/enwombed for many months – are stirring, as if resurrected.  They bust out of their dens or logs or mud reborn in hunger and, in many species, with offspring to feed.  Soon baby birds, looking like impossibly fragile miniatures of their dinosaur ancestors, will use up all their remaining energy to hatch from their confining eggs, just to initiate the next struggle for survival. 

Buddhists note that the bud is destroyed by the flower!  To me, spring is a confusingly ambivalent season of freedom, devastation, grace, turbulence, sweetness, peril and the transformative paradox – spiritually acknowledged at Passover and Easter – of what I will call “sacred violence.”  A couple of days ago my husband and I happened to observe the brief moment when a small long-tailed weasel slipped into an invisible vole-hole amid the straw on our back hill and efficiently popped out the other end, making off with its dead occupant clamped in her jaws; likely food for the weasel’s own litter.  

Leadership in the Bardo

For experiencing visceral attunement with the eerie edges between death, closing, rebirth and opening in the cosmic life cycle, springtime is – to my mind – the most poignant season.  Noticing these edges can be a powerful practice for leaders because leadership is, itself, a succession of bardos.  What’s a bardo?  It’s a Buddhist term for what exists after one thing has ended and a new thing has yet to begin.  Pema Khandro Rinpoche explains in “Breaking Open in the Bardo”:

The Tibetan term bardo, or “intermediate state,” is not just a reference to the afterlife [the phase between death and reincarnation]. It also refers more generally to these moments when gaps appear, interrupting the continuity that we otherwise project onto our lives. In American culture, we sometimes refer to this as having the rug pulled out from under us, or feeling ungrounded. These interruptions in our normal sense of certainty are what is being referred to by the term bardo. But to be precise, bardo refers to that state in which we have lost our old reality and it is no longer available to us.

Intermediate or liminal states happen non-stop in leadership, actually, because continuity is an illusion and disruption is constant.  A practice of acknowledging and breaking open in the relentless stream of bardos serves a leader well: it can bring to her – paradoxically – a stillness of interior presence amidst all the outward action.  Such presence, in turn, offers her sufficient space for the curiosity of mind, largeness of heart, and embodiment of perception that allows her to sense what’s emerging externally and choose whether or how to make a move.  Moreover, Otto Scharmer of MIT and co-founder of “U Theory” frequently quotes CEO of Hanover Insurance Bill O’Brien as observing: “The success of an intervention depends on the inner condition of the intervenor.”  Leaders are always encountering potential thresholds of intervention.  The late poet John O’Donohue put it this way: “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].  I believe cultivating our how – our who we are in disruption – is leadership self-development, in a nutshell.

Arguably, leaders co-create reality by sensing and observing as we move from threshold to threshold, across boundaries, into the unknown.  Ambiguity can be our friend.  Bardos – interruptions, in-between states, or what William Bridges names “neutral zones” – are as available every second of the day and night all our lives as heartbeats, waiting to be leveraged by our awareness.  And (to reiterate observations from prior blog posts), the direction in which a leader consciously chooses to look at any given moment determines where energy is invested in the organization, when vision becomes realized, and even how the future is made.  In addition, the “eyes” with which a leader sees the emerging future (eyes of love, eyes of fear, eyes of sadness, eyes of generosity, eyes of anger, or eyes of compassion, etc.) will similarly determine the tone and the potential for what is possible.

Hover in the bardo of absorbing that idea: The eyes through which a leader views unfolding circumstances determines what is possible.  With what eyes are you crossing the threshold into your next moment?

Additional Resources

  • Otto Scharmer’s presentation, “Innovating in the Face of Disruption: How to Lead from the Emerging Future” (12/15/20), and/or his book The Essentials of Theory U: Core Principles and Applications (Berrett-Kohler, 2018). Scharmer asserts, “There is no such thing as the future…The future is emerging from the quality of how we respond in the disruption of the current moment [my emphasis].”
  • “The World is Our Field of Practice,” an “On Being” interview with African-American Zen Buddhist cleric, angel Kyodo williams.
  • Notice the easy-to-spot bardos in your daily existence, and consider the implications of how you view them.  Here are just a few examples: passing through doorways, gates and other literal thresholds; that wonky state of consciousness between sleeping and waking; a global pandemic; twilight; waiting for the doctor to call with test results; a slumbering puppy; a rain delay during a baseball game; the shift from fully sitting in a chair to fully standing up; a cocoon or chrysalis. The photo below that I took from my back door on this post’s publication date prompts wonderings: Is this a picture of late winter or early spring?  Is it raining or snowing?  Where does field become forest become cloud?  In the trees, where is the snow line?
This is the view out my back door in Montpelier, Vermont on the afternoon of April Fool’s Day, 2021.
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