This post is dedicated to men and women everywhere who hunger for the new while feeling entombed in the old. It is was inspired by a recent 2-day inquiry among 30-odd practitioners of participatory leadership at the European Commission on how to effectively harvest the fruits of the collective conversations we host in our very structured, hierarchical and non-participatory context.
As I was writing this piece, I found I couldn’t let it go out into the world without placing it in a context that just keeps gets broader each time I revisit it. This document has been open on my laptop for a few weeks, sharing the screen with a stream of news about worsening chaos and fear in Europe. My view from inside the EU institutions shows me a very large collection of gifted, well-educated and well-intentioned men and women at a complete loss to know what to do to make things better.
The EU’s deepest calling at this time in history is to lay the foundations for a global society that works for all humans and all life. As Simon Anholt put it in a recent keynote address at the European Parliament, simply ‘reforming’ our multilateral institutions would be tinkering at the edges. If we were to design them now, from scratch, they would be so radically different that the idea of reform seems ludicrous. To start with, they wouldn’t be institutions. “It wouldn’t be large rooms full of fat bald old men in suits arguing about national sovereign interests.” It wouldn’t be just governments – it would be all stakeholders, including religions, including corporations. It would be a network, peer-to-peer (not top-down)… But how on earth could such a phenomenon emerge from the belly of the bureaucratic, hierarchical dinosaur that the European institutions have always been?
And yet, it seems to me that I am witnessing exactly the embryonic beginnings of the kind of thinking and doing that might spawn the new world order. They are sprouting out of the practices of participatory leadership grounded in the hosting of meaningful conversations among stakeholders. These practices are starting to spread like an algal bloom into different policy areas, DGs and even institutions. But the movement is still fragile, and it is struggling for breath in the fundamentally hostile environment that is a command-and-control hierarchical political structure that has lost its way.
To return to our collective inquiry about how to build on these hope-giving conversations, one of the outcomes I most wanted (having hungered for this focused inquiry for quite a few years already) was an articulation of some of the underlying principles from which intelligent and effective follow-on would arise as a natural consequence. The question I was holding was:
What are the principles which, if practiced, will naturally lead from meaningful conversation to wise action?
We ended up working on this question in different ways over the two days (Appreciative Inquiry in triads, group clustering in plenary, collective meaning-making in a smaller group, then conversation in an Open Space session, and finally allowing even more to emerge through illuminating that harvest during a convergence café). The inquiry continues, and here is where we are so far.
Inescapably, this offering bears my stamp. That is because I was the one who felt called to champion the question, at our gathering and beyond. And because I am the one who feels called to voice these principles on behalf of the whole. I am also aware that my illumination of these principles is voiced for people who are called to function inside a hierarchical context, where the unconscious ‘parent-child’ dynamic is so strongly prevalent.
One thing that surprises me is that none of these principles is overtly about ‘harvesting’ – at least, not about the surface-level activity of capturing the fruits of our conversations. To me, they read more like a sort of manifesto for freeing up our minds to serve our hearts… I notice, too, that all these principles are interconnected – facets of the same story. And so I trust that they resonate with a deeper truth that is serving us in our longing to bring healing to our organisation and enable it to move into true leadership on behalf of the whole at this time rich with challenge and opportunity for true renewal.
We act on real need, we invite real meaning, we acknowledge (only) real constraints, we serve deep intention
In the traditional, hierarchical way of doing things, it is very easy to be lured into going through the motions, staying with the forms and procedures, playing office. Even when calling in participatory processes, there is a tendency to skim the surface and shy away from probing into the deeper malaise that lies beneath our frantic busyness and pretences at professionalism and ‘realism’. Failure to connect with deeper meaning and invite people to get real with each other leaves us frustrated, dissatisfied and disheartened, wondering whether we are wasting our time.
This principle invites us to dig in our heels and do the real work. To sit together with the callers in the organisation, whoever they may be, and open up to what is real, and what is underneath. To identify what it is we need to help us stay grounded in the face of what scares us, and to go for what brings us the deepest YES! And, if there is no will in the calling field to go to that place, we need the courage to say No to a hosting request that will do nothing but cheapen our work and undermine our credibility as hosts of healthy transformation.
We practice right timing: if it’s not easy, it’s not now – or it’s not ours to do.
We instinctively know when the time is not right. When our work will flop like a failed soufflé if we go for it now. And yet the culture of our organisation (and most big organisations) is blind to anything but its own all-consuming agenda.
Often we are called to rustle up a process in too short a time, with no thought for follow-up and no space to dig for the real purpose. Worse still, the hierarchical caller wishes only to delegate preparation to the hosting team and is not prepared to make him/herself available for preparation meetings. In this context, it takes courage to say ‘No’, but the same applies as for the previous point. This work needs spaciousness. It needs time to get to the core of things.
Meanwhile, there is always preparatory work to do for when the right time comes – and all our work can and should be seen in this context: as preparation for GO! Building trust, clarifying purpose, taking those small, invisible actions that transform culture and bring us one step closer to liberating the (inner and outer) structures that are holding us back.
We support each other’s authenticity, trust our instincts and go where there’s joy
Whenever we are working in mainstream society, we are working within a system of indoctrination and acculturation that supports ‘the way things are done around here’. That makes a pretty powerful – albeit unconscious – field. To make any headway in such a field, we need to be creating pockets of coherence that are held in a strong enough container that we don’t implode under the pressure of systemic inertia that we are operating in.
That means working as core teams, building the intimacy, trust and safety that enables us to tap into our individual and collective power and inspiration in the face of incomprehension, fear and resistance.
We dare to be as curious as the cat
What do we really have to lose? … actually, we stand to lose everything if we don’t dare do things differently!
What’s the worst thing that could happen if we follow our hearts and act on our deepest YES? Can we just try it and see? Where can we harvest the courage to experiment without asking for permission? Perhaps we should stop taking ourselves so seriously? What happens when we think the unthinkable? When we challenge all our assumptions about what is possible?
We work on behalf of the whole
Sometimes it’s not participatory leadership that’s needed, but something else. What happens when we expand our vision to embrace a larger context? Paradoxically (in relation to the previous principle), what would happen if we started to take ourselves more seriously, daring to speak for the broadest perspective? How do we put our arms around the whole system, not just the parts that agree with us? How can we open up to ever greater vistas of wholeness.
We make the implicit explicit
Just as there are always deeper layers of purpose to unearth, so our disappointments and frustrations can reveal unexamined assumptions, help us to clarify roles, accountabilities and boundaries. This requires us to be willing to sit with our tensions for long enough to articulate what they are pointing to. It also requires us to step up and speak what we have learned in contexts that might not be expecting it. Sometimes it means calling out that the Emperor is naked.
We work with the power of “us” – we don’t focus on “them”.
This principle is connected with the wonderful principles of Open Space Technology: whoever shows up are the right people and whatever happens is the only thing that could have – given also the timing and the context we are working with.
So much energy is wasted on the “it’s not us that’s the problem, it’s them” and “somebody should…” conversations. When you make a snowman, you don’t start with the snow on the other side of the field. You start with what’s at your feet. When we start change – even systemic change – we start with whoever is in the room. If the next step needs a decision from someone who is not in the room, then let’s invite that person in. What will it take for that person to become one of ‘us’? And if we tell ourselves it’s not us who have to change, but some ‘other’, then we might as well all go home.
In a hierarchical organisation, this can feel very tricky, because the disempowering ‘parent/child’ mechanism creeps in so easily. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with hierarchy – it’s everywhere to be found in nature. But healthy hierarchy is about different levels of scope and reach, not dominance. The higher up you are, the further ahead and around you can see and think (in theory) and the more resources you have to allocate; the lower you are, the closer you are to the power to actually change things, make things happen on the ground. Bring the two perspectives into a circle together and we have both.
We work to liberate structures: there is no BOX!!
We are so often encouraged to “think outside of the box”, to be creative and think thoughts that have not been thought before, to come up with world-saving insights that will get us out of our collective stuckness. But in reality, the liberating realisation is that there is no box.
Part of our work in hosting meaningful conversations is to create a space where everything can be questioned. Where the assumptions held by the Mind can be tested and validated – or discarded – by the Heart. Where deeper truths can be unearthed, examined, espoused by the Will that then guides our steps to do work that makes sense, unhindered by the strictures of rules and procedures.
We have reached a place in our collective human history where we need to wake up. It’s time to change the game we’ve been playing for centuries – or, quite literally, die.
Waking up to the damage we’ve done, to the beauty that is already lost forever, isn’t going to be comfortable. I am curious as to whether the principles enunciated here can be helpful in keeping us on track when the going gets rough. Right now, for those of us privileged enough to recognise how privileged we are, there is still time to strengthen our community muscles before things start to get ugly. Will we use it wisely?
Photos by Dirk Stockmans