Natural ways of working
Last month some colleagues came together to practice what we call ‘participatory leadership’ for a day among practitioners. We are a growing community now, and we don’t all know each other, so it’s good to meet in a sheltered space to share stories, deepen our understanding of this work and take our practice further.
The hosting team had come together the afternoon before to design the flow of the day and, as these things go, we had moments of intense co-creation interspersed with bouts of chaos and not knowing. A real novelty, though, was that for the first time we found ourselves designing a process from out of a metaphor.
When we talked about it afterwards, we realised that we could trace back the germ of the campfire metaphor to a conversation on the Art of Hosting mailing list, and then track it through our design conversation by the way it showed up on the flipcharts in the middle of our circle – from a word, to a graphic spark, to a fully-fledged picture with all our associations written in the flames, to the 3-dimensional centrepiece we constructed the next morning.
The archetypal campfire guided our thinking as we sank into our chaos. It prized our collective fingers off each attempt to control the conversation we imagined unfolding the next morning. Since when did you control what stories were told around a campfire?
The campfire, so reminiscent of our earliest human roots, is a guide to natural ways that conversation flows among people sitting in a circle. And so, as I listened to people’s stories about their experiences of participatory leadership, I found myself distilling what I heard into some principles that could move us away from the stifling hierarchical paradigm that many of us find so oppressive and towards some easy attitudes that promote effortless thriving.
- Nature’s implicit purpose is to thrive – nature is in the business of creating life from life. It is the manifestation of living wholeness, evolving. Humanity is part of that evolution. Evolution is about awakening – through the higher mammals and us humans, nature is becoming conscious of itself as a living whole. In the workplace, if what we are doing is truly in service of the whole, to allow the whole to thrive, then we will seek ways to achieve our purpose that allow all affected to thrive in the longer term, and to enhance our own and each other’s wellbeing in the short term. Part of the way we can do this as individuals is to freely offer our gifts to each other, in service of each other’s thriving, and to ask others for what we need but cannot provide for ourselves.
- Attend to the invisible realms – a lot of life is invisible to the eye. What goes on under the ground or in the sub-atomic or quantum spaces is just as important as what we can empirically observe. The same is true of what happens in organisations and inside and between people. A lot of life is equally invisible to the mind. One often neglected place of invisible power is silence. Another is what happens in the wake of a good question. Most potent of all, though, is the invisible field that holds communities, conversations, projects – all shared entities, however nebulous or immaterial. The mind cannot grasp this concept in any but the most abstract terms – it is the domain of physical and subtle sensing, and not conducive to rational dissection.
- Flexibly adapt around constraints – nature doesn’t make a big deal about obstacles and constraints. It simply incorporates them or grows around them. If it can be said to have a focus, that focus is thriving and creating more life, not obsessing about restrictions. If we keep a constant eye on our shared purpose, and if that purpose is truly in service of greater wholeness, then the kosmos will tend to meet us half-way in the most unexpected forms, as synchronicity spreads like an algal bloom around us.
- Focus on relationship – the transformative power of simple human contact has been so overlooked in mainstream organisational culture, and yet it remains true that relationship is the soil in which the seed of task is sown. Relationships thrive on simplicity. Too much complexity tends to undermine the trust without which healthy belonging is not possible. Simple practices are often the most effective – things like celebrating birthdays, honouring people’s acts of courage, stepping up to help and support each other in small ways and remembering each other at important or challenging times when we cannot be physically present.
- Nature is participatory – in any ecosystem, all elements participate fully. The only participation required of them is to be fully themselves. The greater the diversity and the greater the interaction between the diverse elements, the stronger and more resilient the system. In human systems, inviting full participation creates ownership, which in turn creates belonging, which creates commitment. As natural beings ourselves, it can help us to remember that our best contribution is simply to show up as ourselves. Having the courage to offer our unique perspective, for the good of the whole, even when we are unsure how it will be received.