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


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.  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 once 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 executive 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 visit to 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 on 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. 

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.” 


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].


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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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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