Scared of feelings

Quite apart from the indoctrination we’ve had that organisations are like machines (and so the people inside them are like machines too), mostly we’re determined not to talk about feelings at work because they force us to face the truth.

If people are scared, they’re scared. If angry, they’re angry. Bored, they’re bored, and so on. Aside from those times when we confuse ourselves about our feelings, or delude ourselves, there’s no denying that feelings are true for those who are experiencing them.

And so when people say “We can’t talk about feelings here, it’ll open a can of worms” what they really mean is “It’s too dangerous to talk about what’s true, about what’s really going on”. Similarly, claiming that feelings talk is ‘fluffy’ or ‘soft’ is a convenient excuse for turning away from a perhaps difficult, significant, and real conversation.

The simple truth of what you’re feeling, and what those around you are feeling, will tell you much about what’s happening in your team and in your organisation. It will tell you much about what you and others actually care about (because feelings arise from what matters for us). And it can open up the possibility of facing the situation you’re in, and acting upon it, together.

We’ve already had enough trouble in the world of organisations because people wouldn’t look at the truth of what was happening around them. Can you be sure your insistence that feelings are irrelevant doesn’t have you join them?

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Doing more with less

It’s the mantra of our times, ‘doing more with less’.

And it seems to have produced a frenzy of pace, of panic, of pushing, of blame, of shame, of anxiety. Hours worked go up, the number of emails circulating go up, and we turn ourselves into production machines, compensating in frantic measure for that which has been taken away from us. Everything and everyone feels like they’re on a knife edge.

And yet we’re not looking at the amount of waste this causes. The waste of attention as bodies first tire and then become exhausted. The waste of commitment as contributions are taken for granted. The waste of energy as we go faster doing work that’s not actually needed. The waste of trust as promises are broken. The waste of good will as relationships are allowed to wither and decay.

Doing more with less might, if you’re a machine, mean turning the crankshaft faster. But if you’re human, and working with others, it’s going to involve a certain measure of slowing down rather than speeding up.

You’re going to have to slow down to have conversations for relationship with the people around you. Are you all committed to the same thing? Are you sure? Have you addressed the differences in orientation between you? Have you listened well enough to understand what each of you care about? Have you worked out how you’ll respond to what you’re learning?

Going faster without doing this – and without returning to it regularly – is a way to become a supremely effective machine for producing resentment and resignation rather than the wholehearted commitment you’re going to need to get anything important done.

And you’re going to have to slow down to have conversations for possibility. Do you know what you’re actually aiming towards? Is everyone clear? Does everyone understand? Do you know how you’ll tell when you’re doing it? And how you’ll address the inevitable breakdowns along the way? Without making time for this conversation, you’ll be going faster but in different directions, spinning out further and further from one another as you go.

And you’re also going to have to slow down enough to have conversations for action, in which clear requests are made and clear offers made in return. Without skilfully doing this, you open up huge possibilities for duplication of effort, busy work, and the supreme waste of people working heroically to do something that nobody needs and nobody asked for. Modern organisations are full of this, and it leads to further resentment rather than the thrill of challenging work completed against the odds.

It takes bold, courageous leadership to take a stand against the tide of action and get people talking to one another in this way, because somehow we’ve concluded that talking and doing are in opposition to one another. But unless you make this stand and make it possible for others to do the same, you’ll be joining the growing ranks of depleted, exhausted organisations who tried to do more with less and ended up with a lot less than even they had bargained for.

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Alternative rules – a manifesto

A manifesto for those of us who think the rules of the industrial age economy stifle the ingenuity, courage and creativity we need. A set of alternative rules to live and work by:

Be courageous. Be genuine.
Step out from behind the mask. Stand out.
Speak truth. Listen deeply. Cultivate wisdom and compassion.
Get committed to something bigger than you, your family, your tribe.
Bring your humanity. Build trust. Connect people.
Turn towards life. Wonder.
Ask questions. Learn to see. Teach.
Commit yourself to courageous integrity rather than approval.
Lead. Create art.
Encourage others to do the same.

Not for everyone, perhaps, and certainly not easy to take up on your own, but orienting this way can make a huge difference to what’s possible for you and for those around you.

In the shaking-up, always-connected economy we’re in, the beginnings of a whole new orientation to work and business and commerce, we need people to be their most creative, most human, most generous and most artful.

Do the rules you’re living by make this possible?

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In an ancient Jewish myth, before we’re born a light is held behind our head so we can see the whole world, from end to end.

And then an angel touches us on the lips, and everything is forgotten.

Isn’t that how life is for us? Born into the world as shining beings, with our own unique form, our own character and gifts, we quickly learn to cover ourselves up in order to fit in. Because the family we’re born into already has its own culture, norms, language, and its own ways of celebrating and suppressing what we have to bring. So does the wider culture. And before we know it we’re thrown into all of this, finding out which parts of us we can safely bring forward and which are too much for others to take.

From the moment we arrive, we’re forgetting ourselves, taking on what ‘one does’ in our society to get along, leaving much out, in order to make our way.

And the task of adulthood, that allows us to bring our truest and most authentic gifts to the service of others, is to work always to remember what has been forgotten, that which was really right in front of us all along.

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Inputs to Outputs

An extraordinary number of people have effectively become processors, for much of their working lives, of the endless emails served up to them by the internet.

How much the intelligence of the world is turned into this: we become reduced to nodes in the network, transforming email inputs into email outputs, which then go on to be processed in the same way by someone else.

If you weren’t demanding people do this with their time, can you even imagine what might become possible?

Isn’t there a bigger, more courageous contribution they could be making, one that you and we so desparately need?

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On change

We’ve been in the midst of enormous change for some time now.

Has the world ever been different from this?

Perhaps we imagine that we are the first to face such uncertainty, the undoing of so much that had seemed secure and obvious. Whichever way we turn, that which we thought we understood is being called into question. The nature of work, of money, the structure of society. Our ideas of what is of enduring value. Our relationship to technology, other human beings, our place on this planet and our impact on its future.

We wonder where all of the endless shifting and changing will end.

Perhaps whatever anxiety we feel as we consider this can become a reminder to us  that the world has always been this way. What is changing now is unique to our times. But endless change is always part of the fabric of things, no matter how hard we work to deny it.

The nature of life itself is change.

And the opportunity here – if we can seize it with courage and resoluteness – comes from our human capacity to change ourselves. It isn’t at all easy, and it requires the action of many people simultaneously. But if you doubt it’s possible, just look at how much we and the worlds we create have changed in the last generation, in the last century.

Are you working on becoming someone who can stay in the anxiety of change so that you can contribute to our collective response?

Or are you living your life in a way that obscures all this and allows you to hide from it?

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World A and World B

World A: A world of mass market, mass industry, mass conformity, in which everyone only brings what the system tells us is required, and we can only contribute what the mass gives us space to contribute.

World B: A world in which people take seriously their responsibility to discover what is  theirs to bring into the world, and dedicate themselves to bringing it; in which we can at last benefit from the immense human capacity for imagination, relationship, truth, ingenuity, creativity, compassion and fierce love of life.

Which world are you in the midst of creating?

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Nodes in a network

In the past two to three centuries we have been swept up in some powerful cultural narratives that have served, among other things, to obscure the nature of our changing world and our inevitable part in it. The revolution in thought that ushered in both modern science and the enlightenment drew our attention to the apparently ordered nature of the universe and then opened up huge possibilities for shaping it through reason and technology. We began to conceive of ourselves as almost endlessly powerful, freed up from the constraints of nature through our ability to stand apart from it and intervene in it.

As this unfolded into the industrial revolution we also shifted our understanding of ourselves. Human progress would come increasingly from industrial processes that could be applied reliably at vast scale and over global distance. What would make this possible was the suppression of human difference (including our passions, that which we most strongly feel and which we most deeply care about) in favour of the idea of the mass – mass production, mass standardisation, mass culture.

And as science and technology have progressed we’ve understood ourselves more and more as part of them rather than as the creators of them (science, as a discipline, is a human creation as much as any other). Today we are increasingly likely to understand ourselves as the product of neural pathways in our brains (drawing on physics) or to treat ourselves as disembodied nodes in a vast computer network.

The technology we have created gives us unparalleled opportunities to make everyone the same, to obscure our uniqueness. But it also gives us huge possibility to free up our creativity for the good of everyone, to support people in reaching out to one another thoughtfully and intentionally.

So this is where we might work out together how to respond to the swirling uncertainty of today. It will take us understanding ourselves in new ways, paying much closer and more rigorous attention to what we truly care about, to what the totality of our experience including our emotions and bodies have to tell us, and to what it is to be a human being.

And it will take us understanding that we, and others, are neither nodes in a network nor neural machines nor simply animated lumps of matter, but deeply connected actors in a huge world of meaning and possibility. As well as our science – greatly needed at this time – it’s going to take each of us bringing forward our passion, our art, our love, and our lives.

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On Rage

We’ve lost touch with the life-giving possibilities of rage.

For the most part we understand rage only for its destructive possibilities, as a hateful force directed against others, as what shows up when we’re angry, or vengeful, or when we’ve concluded we’re superior to other people such that they deserve our scorn or our hatred. And of course rage can be all of these. The history of the 20th and early 21st centuries are filled with indescribable acts of violence that were stirred in this way.

But what we’ve forgotten is a more generous account of rage that’s been around since the time of the ancient Greece, that was once the central understanding but is now peripheral. This is rage as a vital, life-giving force that has us break out of the boundaries that hold us, rage as in raging torrent, rage that sweeps us into action that’s bigger than our own individual concerns. It’s a mood that attunes us to what needs to be done on behalf of everyone and everything, and which can lead us down paths that might be quite different to what we’ve been up to so far. What I am describing here is rage-for-life, and that’s quite different from the me-centred or my-group-centred rage-against-others that we know so well in our culture and work so hard to suppress in pursuit of civilised society.

In suppressing rage-for-life along with all other forms of rage we’ve blunted our ability to break out of constraints that could benefit from being broken, and to imagine together life-giving futures that could have us flourish. Instead, we’ve oriented our society around desire – a more socially acceptable mood that makes getting what we want our most pressing concern. And this is turn has given rise to an economy and to organisations in which being generous is often difficult and in which committing to something bigger than our own interests or those of our shareholders has for a long time been considered weak or peripheral. In a desire-led society acting on behalf of life itself is judged as a distraction from the hard-nosed business of the bottom-line, and we evaluate ourselves and others not so much on how we have lived but on how much we managed to accumulate.

But in a world in the midst of economic turmoil, in which we’re experiencing the cumulative effects of our pollution and wastefulness, and in which we still fail to feed everybody, we are starting to see the limits of our desire. Our deference to power and wealth and status, our understanding of ourselves as consumers rather than contributors, our willingness to stay quiet and keep our heads down and hope it all will pass: all these lead us into a small and self-protective stance. We could do with working urgently and seriously on all of them, and on cultivating more rage on behalf of the life that makes it possible for us to be here in the first place.

It’s time we allowed ourselves to feel the generous, rage-on-behalf-of-it-all that’s waiting to emerge from behind the protective facade of our conventional lives. Imagine what we could do if we could harness and express its fierce, energetic commitment to life and possibility for everyone and everything.

[I’m grateful to Norman Fischer for his work with me in preparing our shared workshop on ‘Rage and Imagination’ at the recent New Ventures West UnConference, and also to Peter Slojterdijk and his book Rage and Time which provoked much of my developing thinking on this topic]

Image: Wolfgangbeyer at the German language Wikipedia

Becoming It

I-It: when we treat human beings as an object, or as a means to an end.

I-You relationships: being in relationship with others that allows them to show up as human beings – undefinable, vast, essentially unknowable.

It’s not so much that you choose consciously whether you’re going to be a fully human ‘I’ in the world or live as ‘it’. It’s rather that you’ll find you’re becoming one or the other through the way you’re already living. In other words, the way you get to be in the world is shaped over time by your actions: your habits and practices.

Our culture provides many more ways to be ‘it’ than ‘I’:

driving yourself relentlessly, always on, never stopping

not taking care of sleep sufficiently to stay well and energised

omitting nurture from your life: receiving love, touch, being in beauty, encountering art

equating your value with what you possess: how much money, what kind of house, what job title, what status

worrying, feeling deflated if you’re not always producing results

distancing yourself from supportive human relationships: leaving out the cultivation of family, neighbours, community

distracting yourself endlessly from encountering your own feelings of uncertainty and anxiety: numbing yourself with TV, internet, social media

You open up the possibility of being ‘I’ or ‘it’ not so much by how you think but by how you actually live, and by how you work, speak, and relate.

Once you see this, you’ll see that you have an enormous opportunity to influence who you turn out to be. And with this opportunity comes an enormous responsibility too, because if you’re actively working on being an ‘it’ in the world we all lose out on your courage, ingenuity, and contribution.


You probably learned that you were meant to be a solitary hero at school, where you were first told that collaboration, partnership, and learning from peers are a form of cheating.

As a result, many organisations are populated by adults who feel desperately alone: the only one with this much to carry, the only one with so much to do, the only one who can shoulder the huge responsibility. And because you’re alone, and because you’re meant to be a solitary hero, the only direction is to turn away from each other: to pretend you’re ok, to look good, to never let the difficulty you’re in show.

Of course, the way we’ve set up our organisations so that so many people feel insecure about their roles and their future doesn’t help with any of this.

When you take the courageous step of turning towards one another and asking for help, you’ll find how many others are having a similar experience to you, and how much support there is available right in front of you if only you’d ask for it.

And then, instead of burning yourself out proving just how strong and independent you are you might start to make the contribution that you really came to make.

Image: Roger Kidd at Wikimedia Commons


Conversations frequently left out of the discourse of professional life:

What you’re feeling – a potential source of enormous insight and connection to others

What you care about – especially if different from those around you

Your history – the story of everything and everyone that brought you to this moment, the discoveries and losses and experiences that have shaped you

Your weirdness – the unique artfulness and way of seeing that comes from you being you

Your imagination – your capacity to invent beyond the bounds of convention, the energy for life which stirs you to break out of the ways you’re held in

Your longing – the life and world you’re in the midst of bringing forth

We shut them out with excuses. They’re ‘soft’ subjects, while business is ‘hard’. They’ll open a pandora’s box or a can of worms. This is a work-place, not a therapy session.

We lose so much when we continue to exclude the passions and possibility of the human heart from so many of our endeavours. And it damages us too, because before long we reduce ourselves and others to shadows of ourselves, inoculated by our cynicism against demonstrating care for much that is of genuinely enduring value to human life. Is this really the way you and your colleagues began your journey into the life of work? Can you even remember?

That work should be this way was sold to us by the early industrialists who needed scores of people in their factories to button down, fit themselves in, and stay in line. They appropriated the language of rationalism and science to fashion people into tools, cogs, and components so they could build their great money making machines. And we bought it.

And when you tell us how much of our humanity you will not allow a place in your work, you become their mouthpiece, continuing a pernicious myth that shallows our relationships and possibility.

The world faces many difficulties right now, and addressing them is going to take all the generosity, wisdom and heartfelt commitment we can muster. Do you really intend to be one of the people who work to shut that out from the world?


The idea of progress is so deeply built into our culture that most of us are conditioned always, and only, to look ahead. Our difficulties will be resolved, we tell ourselves, if only we work harder, or get clearer about what we want, if we can accumulate more, manage our time better, finish this project, get that job, win that customer. It seems so obvious, this idea that everything that human life and work is about is more, better, faster, and that we will only really live when we arrive in the future that it will bring.

The difference between what we imagine is supposed to happen and what often does can leave us feeling lifeless, depleted, shallow, resentful. And so we push harder, go faster, blame ourselves and others for our situation, because we believe we ought to be able to get just what we want. We become people with only an ahead, and we forget what is behind us. We become beings with no history to speak of, always judging life on where we have yet to get to, and excluding where we have been.

But it’s only one way of telling the story of a single life, or of a society, and it leaves so much out. For one thing, the world often doesn’t respond straightforwardly to our efforts in the way the story would have us believe should happen. How many countless hours of your effort leave the world just as it was before you started? For another, the story does not account for the events that were already in motion before we each arrived on the planet, out of which we were born and into which our lives are always unfolding, which are much bigger than each of us alone is able to see, let alone control.

Can you see the progress story acting in your own life, and what it brings? Can you imagine taking on a different story in which behind you and around you are as significant as ahead? A story in which you are an expression of, and always part of, something much bigger than you are that began long before you? And could you find a way of being fully, vibrantly present in your life even if it turned out that today – whatever it is like – is as good as it gets?

Why we need poetry

In the gardens of the hotel where I was running a leadership event earlier this week, I was lucky enough to come across the artist and poet Robert Montgomery setting up one of his evocative fire poems as part of an exhibition.

Good poetry does something vitally important that’s often unappreciated, expressing in language that which is otherwise very difficult to say in words. It can give us language for our longing, for new possibilities that we haven’t yet seen, and ways of connecting with and remembering our humanity when we’ve forgotten it ourselves.

We’ve all but excluded the poetic from our work lives – and from much of wider life – another consequence of our seeming commitment to reduce everything an everyone to an ‘it’ that can be measured and manipulated.

Robert’s work offers us a hauntingly beautiful alternative.

Here’s the poem I saw in the June twilight:


Images courtesy of Robert Montgomery

All made up

What we choose to measure
What gets to be valuable
The roles we take up
What to wear
What a relationship is
What’s in fashion
How to live together
How we travel
What constitutes success
How you talk with your colleagues
What’s worth doing
How to respond to fear, and love
What needs fixing
What’s yours to do

All of them, made up by human beings. Some of them even made up by you.

Of course, knowing we invented all of this doesn’t mean it’s illusionary, nor that any of it can be changed by an act of imagination alone.

But when you find out that so much of what we take to be ‘just the way things are’ is nothing of the sort, how can you help yourself from doing whatever you can to improve things?

It begins at Olduvai

Olduvai Hand AxeThis is the Olduvai hand axe. It sits in a far corner of the British Museum, nestled among artifacts from earliest human history. It’s around 1.2 million years old. It’s strikingly beautiful. And it marks the beginning of the distinctively human practices of tool-making and art that lead directly to what you’ll find here.

Hand axes are among the first great inventions of humanity, and probably came into being at the dawn of the development of both language and culture. They made it possible for the first time for people to cut with skill and precision, and would have opened up the possibility of turning animal skins and wood into products that went far beyond the immediate need for food.

They mark the moment when we extended ourselves from living in the world as it is to actively and consciously shaping it, when we first began to create the complex web of tools, words, work and culture that – a million or so years later – could bring about the society of today.

Millions of hand axes have been discovered around the world, but what makes the Olduvai axe so striking is that it’s much bigger than can be comfortably held in the hand. Its size renders it unusable for most purposes. In all other respects it’s a perfect tool – beautifully balanced, sharp edged, symmetrical – the result of many hours of skilled and careful labour. But it’s also a work of art, with a purpose that is a much symbolic as practical, an expression of the artfulness of its maker. That it was made at all reflects the human concern for beauty, for creativity and ingenuity, and for expression. And it’s deeply entwined with the practical world of making and doing, the work of providing for a life well lived.

The industrial age of the 20th century taught us that efficiency and predictability were to be prized above all else. Big organisations, mass production, standardisation all became possible. But the rise in living standards this brought still left many people’s experience of life flat, mundane. When we’ve tired of climbing the ladder or pursuing status, we find that living fully, fiercely, artfully and courageously are needed to lift us beyond the ordinary into the life and work from which we can make our fullest contribution. The Olduvai hand axe, from the dawn of our history, is a reminder of this – and the inspiration for everything that follows.