Eight – Gentleness – Flawed but Willing



Hard to articulate, but I suppose, don’t read it like a business book and look for the structure, themes and key messages (the critical eye - which most of your reviewers seem to have done including me), but instead read it without trying to make sense of it and stuff will pop out that hits an emotion or past feeling; then stop and make sense of what it means. Some bits of the book have really hit me at an emotional level (which of course is what stories do brilliantly) other bits not at all. I imagine this is something like the reactions people get to abstract art where the meaning comes from the person and not the artist per se. Sounds a bit pretentious but the art is medium for sensemaking and not the sense-making in itself... that is how this chapter and the book as a whole strikes me.

What I struggle with is what and how much conceptual stuff you are holding in the background and whether me making Links to my own might be helpful or just another distraction. It may have been more helpful to Lay these out more clearly?


Practices for inside myself


I am talking to a board member of a corporate multi-national as she tells me about her plans to change their impact on the environment for the better. She is well-groomed and has an easy way of talking about the superficial. I suspect this has come from many years of corporate networking where engagement is less important than exchange. She hears what I say and then responds in a way which shows me she heard but the response feels hollow somehow. She makes her excuses as she has five minutes’ preparation time left before delivering her keynote presentation.

Half-way through the presentation, we have learned about her personal history and how she came to be involved in this work; to what the business is committed; how it is combining the need for profit with the need for inclusion, especially in her home country of India. I am being lulled into a drowsy state of passive acceptance when something she says wakes me up just a little.

“Our increased environmental profile is bringing many active, passionate youngsters to our business, but when I follow up with them a year or two afterwards they have succumbed to the status quo. I am left disappointed and I don’t know what is happening here.” Members of the audience are shifting in their seats and there are some silent looks being exchanged that don’t feel very positive to me. I wonder how this is happening. They should be fascinated and engaged in this presentation, they have invested time and money to be here, yet the energy in the room suggests they want her to stop talking and to leave. Some angry, whispered side conversations are starting to spring up in the room.

Then it hits me. She is describing a top-down vision for this change, from the top of a business that is at the top of its industry that is at the top of this movement for environmental change... but I can’t feel her in it. The words are full of care for humanity and I can’t feel her in them.

There is no personal experience that underpins her top-down vision. So we are left feeling disconnected. She has plenty of personal stories but little contact in those stories to the world she wants to create.

The negative reaction in the room reaches a crescendo when she says: “We don’t want to give things up, I know I don’t want to, not my shoes or my pension plan, and neither do any of you, so this leaves us with a complex predicament”.

We don’t feel her in the conversation until the very end of the questions and answers session. She is describing a long series of ways in which she maintains her resilience in the face of an organization that resists the change for which she is responsible.

“When nothing else works I remind myself that I am human.”
The room breathes a collective sigh and there is a pin drop silence as we take her in and make contact again.

That could have been the starting point of her vision and presentation, not the ending.

Maybe this needs to be the starting point for all our adventures into the novel and edges of The Establishment.

It is less slick, more vulnerable in a gentle way. It is a way in which we can make connections deeply enough and quickly enough to engage the real interest of those whose support we need.

• What is the personal experience that underpins your over-arching vision for change?

• If there isn’t one how will you find one?

• Where is your gentle humanity in the vision?

• How can you better frame your personal desires, limitations and struggles?

You will know it when you touch it. You will feel different on the inside and tell the story in a new way on the outside. It will focus on who you are behind the corporate persona and will include much of what you personally struggle with. (See figure 33)


The experience of being with him is like being in one very long interruption made up of many small ones. He is twitching, looking at his phone every few minutes, jumping to answer it when it rings, often just to say he is in a meeting and will call back later. He injects the conversation we are trying to have with humour that makes everyone laugh but also distracts from the issue at hand.

Always in a rush, never on time for any of our meetings, he prides himself on the extraordinary workload he is juggling. He forgets my name in an instant and finds it hard to hold eye contact for long when we do meet. A smile comes regularly to his face; reserved for all those at whom he has to smile,but doesn’t really want to.

He jumps up to refill his coffee cup and comfort-eat another muffin, just a small one. The meeting finishes as it always does - early - so some time can be clawed-back for the next urgent thing that has just landed on his agenda. I notice that what I sense in him is the same thing that other people sense: irritation. And then, just behind that, pain - of a quality I can’t describe. One day we have a chance to work together on the pain as it expresses itself in his body.

“My neck and shoulder have hurt for a long time. It is only on the left side - it makes me want to jerk my shoulder back so that it clicks,” he says. “Or turn my neck for a similar click higher up. It is becoming a compulsion - when I do it I get some immediate relief but it tips into a series of repeating clicks until something takes my mind off it.”

I ask him to stay on this subject and we explore the symptom, trying to describe in detail what it feels like. He is becoming more uncomfortable; there won’t be much time before he switches his attention. I am watching him rotate his shoulder.

‘When you click you grimace; you also close your eyes”.
“Yes, it makes we wonder whether there is a part of this that is about privacy and distaste?”

He laughs.

“Now i am thinking of you on the toilet!” I say.
“Ok but is there something private about this movement?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let’s keep following it.”

He does it again.

“Now i want to click my neck left-to-right, at the same time I keep following the sensation. It doesn’t go anywhere in the same form but I notice I am standing straight with my chest out and breathing more deeply.”
“You have your left hand on your side.”

This is new so we bring our attention there.

“It hurts - a kind of stabbing pain. If I put my hand flat against it,the pain goes away.”

“Do that again, take away your hand and put it back again.”
“As I take my hand away I notice my energy dip, I feel more irritated and aggressive. when I put it back I feel peaceful.”

He continues rubbing the side of his stomach and his neck feels better.

“Could you lift your hand a little? Maybe you aren’t rubbing your stomach, it might be your heart.”

It is unusual for corporate leaders to feel their way into thinking something new. They would rather think their way into feeling something new. They focus so much on cognition they forget about the importance of their feelings, particularly heartache. And heartache is a helpful, if painful, way of gaining insight into the struggles of the transition. If we allow it a place in the corporate conversation, the seeds of the solution may be in the problem, if only we can open ourselves fully to it, with all the heartache that will involve.

• Under gentle examination - what is your heartache?

• What is unwelcome in the heartache?

• What may be trying to emerge?

• How might it be helpful here?


When I was 16 years of age I came under the influence of the family of a school friend. They were everything that I fantasized a family could be, in direct contrast to my belief about my own at the time. This led to me spending as much time as possible with them and I ended up ‘adopted’ in an informal sense. I was probably less welcome than I imagined, being there at all hours, but was happily oblivious to that.

They were a devout Christian family and this friendship eventually resulted in my being co-opted into their Sunday evening youth club run by the local vicar. I guess, looking back, I was a conversion target to their faith but, in my naive mind, I was simply enjoying the company of other teenagers, having a laugh every Sunday night.

The highlight of my time with them was being asked to take part in their annual amateur pantomime production which, that year, was to be Aladdin, I ended up with the part of the emperor. Although the vicar’s daughter ended up with the plum role of Aladdin, the emperor was a relatively challenging role with plenty of lines for me to learn.

Opening night and the church was full: somehow we had managed to sell all the tickets and the press of bodies was heating up the old gothic stone church on the high street. A local company had donated lights and sound so the production had a professional feel to it and we were ready for our first performance.

There was one particular line I had to deliver, following the stage direction to “lie down on my imperial sofa at the edge of the stage”.

“All citizens of China will be forced to pay extra taxes in order to pay for the best food and wine in the land.”

Only, this opening night, someone had placed the sofa too close to the edge and my sitting down caused the whole thing (and me) to fall off-stage mid-sentence, disappearing into the gloom with a thump.

I lay there, slightly bruised, highly embarrassed, trying to recall my next line.
I slowly lifted my head above the stage to be greeted with a wall of laughter that didn’t stop for five minutes. I was a hit and a star was born. Despite my best efforts to convince him otherwise, the vicar wouldn’t let me repeat the feat on future nights.

It was a strange combination of feelings. One of my colleagues talks about a desired state for teams in complex transitions and that is to ‘fail happy’.7 I imagine that acting experience was one of the few times I have understood in my body quite what that means. I had failed and I was happy, not only was I happy, the whole church was also happy as a result of my error.

I wish we all had enough gentleness towards ourselves to enable us to ‘fail happy’ on a regular basis. Whenever we are fearful, avoidant, blaming, self-hating or antagonistic in our failures, we could all do with summoning our own version of the internal emperor.


The room is long and stark, but in a peaceful way, with a floor-to-ceiling window all the way down one side. I wonder what this conference must look like to anyone peeking in, there must be 200 of us milling around the room, exchanging a few words with one person before we move and find our next partner and repeat the same words to them.

I am taking part in the exercise, having suggested it as a way in which we could replicate an aspect of the unseen, unexpressed emotional environment in which our leaders have to operate every day. Each person has been asked to articulate the positive voice and negative voice inside their head about the particular project with which this group of 200 is tasked.

The sentences have to start with ‘you’, replicating what the internal voice would be saying. My voices are “you know can do anything you put your mind to” and “you don’t really want to be here, this will be dull and exhausting.”

When confronted with someone else’s inner voice it is hard not to feel it is commenting on you. After a few exchanges, I am absorbed by the emotional waves inside me and around me and amazed how real the reactions feel, forgetting I am doing an exercise, being stung by some of what is offered.

“You are so lazy and useless what makes you think you can succeed?”
“You are interesting to others, they stop and listen to your ideas.”
“You always finish what you start, it is a great quality.”
‘You are never afraid to try something new.”
‘You’re not like everyone else here.”
‘You work with these people but they don’t really like you.”
‘You are really good at recovering from disappointments.”
‘You’re fine on your own, you don’t need them.”
‘You won’t be recognized for your work, you never are.”
‘The only reward for good work is more work.”
‘You are too old for this.”

It is an amplified, but powerful, proxy for what it feels like to work on this project at the moment across the whole population of 200. Then we stop for a moment and take on a new practice before returning to the exercise. This time, anytime we feel moved or unbalanced by what has been said to us we stop and develop a new, gentler response. We stand in front of each other, looking at the other person, or with our eyes closed, and breathe in the difficulty from the other person.

I imagined it as a dark, heavy, hot texture and then breathed out again, imagining something lighter and cooler; something that reconnected us and promoted a sense of kindness, clarity and spaciousness. When complete, we moved to the next partner. There was no conversation about the difficulty, where it belonged or an analysis of its sources; just a gentle awareness that it was there and we could use ourselves as an echo chamber of some kind; hearing it, processing it, sending it back feeling different.

Months later, I noticed a connection between those who loved this practice and found some way of making it work day-to-day and those who contributed most, in terms of leadership, to the success of the project. It was as if they were able to see and make connections and opportunities out of whatever arose; in my story this is because they had a gentle response to the difficulties that could operate beyond what was going on in their ego.

There are furrowed brows; lots of that hyperactivity that suggests people need to be seen to be doing something. They have stumbled into a regulatory nightmare in one of the Asian countries and he has flown over to be with them. I was working with the team as this most recent difficulty unfolded and had the experience of hanging out, doing what I could to help and getting some insight from watching him operate. Imagine a room full of senior people all triggered by the stress they are under, creating dramas at every turn, worried for their own security and about the mistakes that may have been made. They feel resentful towards the corporate centre that our protagonist represents; they didn’t heed the early warnings and now the company may be kicked out of the region completely.

There is an anxiety associated with what can and cannot be said in the public forum of the team and lots of side conversations that take place in the corridor; they seem to be more legitimate somehow.

I picture him in the middle of it all, people rushing past, snatched pieces of conversations that never seem to finish, claim and counter-claim, quick changes in status and power that are happening in a moment and still he keeps smiling, listening, responding.

I notice something else: he pulls himself upright, head almost elevated, opens his body to the person speaking and takes a breath - almost as if he is breathing them in and breathing them out. It sounds a bit weird but looked very natural. I ask him about that afterwards.

“I found, in these situations in the past, that I was literally holding my breath, it was like a kind of panic reaction to the stress. When I did breathe it was very shallow, the air was getting stuck in my chest but not making it down into my lungs, diaphragm, pelvic area. So I focused on it more, my breathing seems to bring a calmness to me and to the situation I am in, I believe it affects everyone in the room somehow. I have taken it a step further now, in my mind’s eye I imagine that on the ‘in-breath’ I am taking in the stress and anxiety around me; on the ‘out- breath’ I am reconnecting with the person, repairing some the damage this much stress causes to the relationship.” (See Figure 36)


Practices for between us


The conference was 10 years ago; I can’t recall any of the data presented or any of the key messages they spent so long honing and delivering. I can’t remember which fancy hotel we were staying in or exactly which colleagues had left the organization by then. I can’t remember the food we ate.

I recall one aspect of that conference: it was the CEO and his presentation or, more specifically, one line of it. The room was dark, we were sitting in neat rows, line upon line of the audience comprising the brightest and best, the most senior leaders of the organization ready to be inspired, guided and provoked.

“You don’t come to work to be loved,” he said, hands on his hips standing upright behind a Perspex lectern. “If you want to be loved, get a dog.”

There was much guffawing around the room, he had hit the right frequency for this audience, there was tough work to be done in the months ahead and they were all straining at the leash to show just how tough they could be. Knowing grins were exchanged and the audience leaned forward as one to hear what was next.

I recall not hearing another word that was said, I just sat there stunned in the audience. I think I almost lost faith in the organization that day. I wanted to stand up and scream “bullshit!” before flouncing out of the ballroom we were seated in. I didn’t, I waited until the end and left with everyone else as the lights came up to the accompaniment of Queen’s It’s A Kind of Magic. I didn’t have the guts to voice any disagreement at the party or dinner that followed, I stayed quiet and listened to all the tough talk around me.

I have experienced some profound moments in my career since the events described above and they have all been within a setting of teams that loved one other. We don’t talk about it in those terms in corporate life I know, maybe words such as care and kindness are a good substitute for what I mean. This is much of the promise of the Age of Connection.

Over a short period of time we can create something between us if we talk at the right level about the things that have most meaning for us. It means all the rules, regulations and contracts that we rely on to keep us in check are hardly needed. We do not need to manufacture something called collaboration, it just arises naturally somehow. We keep pinching ourselves – how are we so cohesive without many rules and hierarchies being enforced? And after projects end we are all desperate to recreate that environment in the next team we work with.

Do the people who are working on your project care for, and take care of, each other? That turns out to be the best predictor of something novel emerging from the edges; much more so than anything that legislates for collaboration or creativity. (See Figure 37)


He has such good intentions, and such lack of success that my heart bleeds for him. Wanting to connect, inspire and empower the hundreds of people he is leading to great feats of invention, collaboration and courage. He knows the job won’t be easy; he has recently joined an organization that has been struggling for a while. It is in that no man’s land of realizing change is necessary to avoid collapse but being scared of acting for fear of the recrimination that has been present in the past.

The issue we are struggling with together today is the lack of people stepping forward with their ideas, despite his assurances that he doesn’t care how stupid the suggestions may seem on the surface or how small their impact may be.

He is exhausted of saying the same thing over and over again and today we stumble on something that may be helpful.

We are experimenting with questions of status, hypothesizing that there is something about the status difference between him and others in his business that is causing a blockage to response. Of course, there is a natural status that comes with the position but we are curious about more than that. We stand looking at our reflections in the large expanse of glass that makes up one wall of the office looking out onto the security gate through which cars come in and out of the facility. The nights have drawn in; in the late afternoon, the office lights and dark evening allow us to use the window as a makeshift mirror.

I ask him to speak out loud and listen to himself at the same time; to repeat his last request for input that was made from a stage in the auditorium.

“What do you see and hear as you listen to yourself?”
“Hard to say.”
“Go on have a go.”

He starts describing his appearance; it is a bit too literal, we are stuck now.
“Let me have a go at playing you and you tell me what hits you.”

I draw myself up a couple of inches taller and straighter and do my best to impersonate him.

This time a different quality of observation shows up.
“Your speech is quite clipped.”
“You are articulate.”
“You are taller than me.”
“There are no ‘umms’ and ‘ahhs’ or any kind of hesitation as you speak.”
“Your appearance is manicured.
“Your clothes fit well - you have taken time to co-ordinate.”
“Your legs are shoulder-width apart - you look balanced and stable as you stand.”
“You are willing to voice an opinion, make a demand.”
“You process information very quickly and form an opinion that often sounds like it has weight of evidence behind it.”

We imagined what effect those outward expressions may have on his accessibility and the ability of others to voice anything of perceived value.

We both lapse into introspection, I leave him for a while, wondering about my own interactions. As we sit quietly together, I notice one other aspect of our contact. As he looks at me his head is turned slightly to the right, with his left ear pointing towards me. He gives the impression of having to look out of the corner of his left eye. I wonder if I am imagining it but there is also a hint of his left lip turned up in a light snarl. I feel under examination in some way and we play with this idea for a while.
“Could you try changing your position as we talk so that you do the opposite? Turn your head to the left, point your right ear at me and look out of the corner of your right eye.”

He tries the new position.
“It feels very uncomfortable, very unnatural, like I have to force myself into this position. It takes an effort to hold it here even though, in theory, it is such an easy physical movement.”

“OK hold it for a little longer and see if anything starts to emerge in your feelings, sensations or ideas.”

I notice, sitting opposite him, that I am feeling less defensive myself, less challenged and more inquisitive. The curiosity and the interaction suddenly have a gentler feel to them. Most importantly considering where we started, I feel more able to approach, make contact and make a fool of myself if necessary. His right lip can’t help but smile a little.

The message here is not about changing the way you project your status, it is about identifying it and acting accordingly, with awareness. It is about understanding how unconscious high status can sometimes show up as arrogant, disinterested and overly intellectual. It is about how you can bring a gentle dissolution to the aspects that prevent contact between you and those you lead. (See Figure 38)

• What do you perceive to be the differences in status between you and the people around you?

• What are the unconscious symbols of status you may be projecting?

• How does this difference show up? How does it help?

• How does it limit your relationships? Where is it getting in the way of contact with others?

• What can you do to check your impact on others?

• What can you do to move from strong certainty to gentle uncertainty, discomfort, openness and accessibility?


The CFO has gone a little red in the face. He is tired because of the late nights and early mornings and working across the whole conference that is into its second day. He raises his voice to me, in exasperation.

“You knew what we were planning, you have had a couple of months to make any changes and now a couple of hours before they are to go on you are suggesting a new approach. No, we won’t do it and will stick to what we planned.”

The problem was that the presence of the senior leaders on stage during this conference had been desperately stage-managed; I was looking for some way, any way of ensuring they didn’t look like a group of statues in this next session - to be able to demonstrate a different quality of listening to a business gathered in front of them;a business that had no belief in its own future.

The CFO had his set way of doing these things. A pretence at interaction by walking among the audience with a hand- held microphone, followed by a long set of slides that had a relentless quality to them. As gently as I could, I had dared to question this and do it in front of his peers.

A cold, slim smile preceded his next bruising statement.

“I haven’t done many presentations in my career, yes, you must be right about the changes needed.”

The rest of the executive team stand around in a semi-circle and shuffle their feet. No one looks at me. “Shit I have messed up again,” I think.

“We will give them their questions in advance, they will have time to process the answers and no one will be surprised by what comes from the room. At. All. Now go and make it happen... please.”

I duly did what I was told and cringed my way through the panel conversation - except it wasn’t a conversation; it was a pre-prepared script with each of the actors delivering their lines in the agreed order. They sat uncomfortably on their comfortable sofas, fixed grins on their faces while they waited for the next question to be posed in exactly the order that had been pre-determined.

There was no tingle of the unexpected, daring or difficult. And they were delighted with the outcome. It was clean, went to plan, the HR director was lauded for his efforts and nothing changed, no one was touched, no one was inspired, no one had a view of anything other than the polish. It was an exercise in defence of senior egos.

The biggest opportunity missed in the situations described above is one of the audiences being heard, using them as a collective intelligence that has something critical to express. To use them as a way of amplifying voices that wouldn’t normally be heard by the senior leaders sitting on that stage.

He takes to the stage in a very different way at the end of the conference. This is usually a time when loose ends are tied up and the leader makes sense of all that has gone on over the past few days. There is rousing applause and everyone leaves with a bounce in his or her step. But this wasn’t what happened this time.

The thing that was different was the way in which he has been listening. It was as if he has placed himself outside of the conference or at least at the edges of it; quite different to being the driving force at the centre of it on whom all eyes are turned for the answer.

And in this last set piece of the conference it shows. It is as if he has been a reflective wall against which the voices of the past few days have bounced, but it is an intelligent wall that takes the voices, picks up even the quiet ones and finds a way of reflecting them back to the room with added force.

I watch for clues in his presence. In the conversation with the room there is something about his presence that welcomes the contact, invites people to go further than they thought they would, mirrors their emotion, person-by- person.

These are not pre-planned, conditioned cues and responses.

He is acting as an echo chamber, is there such a thing? If not there should be, I like the image it creates of how leaders of the Connected Age need to differentiate themselves from those of the Industrial Age. The leaders’ role at the conference as echo chambers not ego chambers. (See Figure 39)

• What might it take from your ego to listen and echo in this way?


He is a softly-spoken man so many of the audience of 60 have to lean forward and crane their necks to catch everything he is saying. He is their new leader and they are keen to understand how to impress him… But he is confusing them so far.

They have spent two days in a poorly-ventilated hotel room not able to tell their teams what they were doing or why they would be absent. The faint Irish lilt continues for a while and then he asks them to get back to the office and implement all the changes they had talked about over the past two days.

This is a major change in strategic direction and one that will be a challenge to the existing ways of working. There is a range of reactions - complaints about the quality of our facilitation start to form on the tightly-pursed lips of a couple of the leaders; others turn to each other in bemusement looking for someone else to take a lead or ask another question, others rush to turn on their phones and return to the real work they had been missing. After what seems like a couple of hours but, in reality, was a couple of minutes, someone pipes up from the middle of the crowd.

“We don’t have any materials to launch this initiative, are there some waiting for us?”
“No” says the leader
“Isn’t it important that we all say the same thing though when we start talking to the business?”
“Sort of,” says the leader.
“Is it ok if we produce our own materials for the implementation?”
“No,” says the man of few words.
“No materials, no slides, no posters, just conversations.”
“Let’s do a series of roll out meetings which replicate the one we have just had then!”
“No. No meetings, no presentations, no pronouncements.

Nothing formal. No promises, no commitments. No shouting about what we intend.” “How will we communicate this then? We need some kind of engagement plan from Communications or HR.”

The Communications and HR people in the room shuffle their feet and look down at the floor, suddenly captivated by the swirly brown carpet. I suspect it was more of a burgundy shade at one time. I look down too, it reminds me of a carpet we had in the hallway of our home when I was eight years old. I am lost for a moment in a reverie, thinking back to that time and the cupboard under the stairs. I’m woken up by his next request.

“Whisper it, whisper what we are about and what we intend to do. Keep it out of the public domain for as long as we possibly can. We don’t want anyone to know about this before they have experienced the change we are talking about.”

“You know that group won’t be happy, we’re unpicking something they have committed to for a long time.”

“I know but we have to believe what we are doing is best for our customers and people. If anyone tries to stop you, find a way of circumventing him or her and help each other to do so. We’ll meet again in two weeks to share our progress and learning. Good luck.”

I have never forgotten this as a gentle approach to starting a phase shift; in direct contrast to the proclamations and ‘virtual shouting’ that goes on in most examples. It is almost a committed disinterest in generating a ‘campaign’, it trusts that, if the business wants to hear and act, it will pick up on the whisper and amplify it, in its own way and in its own time. The paradox at play is that the speed and quality of engagement is usually higher as a result and on the occasion that there is no response you waste less resource. (See Figure 40)

Why do we need everyone to know about what we intend?

How much of this is connected to our ego needs for significance rather than what is best for the project in hand?

Whispering is a way of strengthening the container, a way of giving connections a chance to develop in support of what you put out there.


There was a trend a few years ago, in the world of business conferences, to use the metaphor of music in its various guises as a source of learning for those leading complex businesses. I was involved in conference-after-conference with keynote speeches from famous conductors, or leaders learning how to conduct orchestras or jazz bands teaching the audience about how to improvise.

It was all interesting, entertaining and useful and, almost as quickly as it arrived, it disappeared with the conference organizers hungry for the ‘next thing’. One particular experience from this time has stayed with me as a source of insight for those leading this complex transition we are in from one age to the next.

We are in a converted loft in Copenhagen, Denmark; wooden floors, metal girders and old factory windows give some clues to the manufacturing history of the site. This was abandoned long ago and it is now low-rent studio space for artists. I’m sure in 20 years’ time it will be a location for future yuppies as is the way of these things.

We are sitting on hard, wooden benches without back- support, surrounding a classical quartet of musicians that has invited us to watch them rehearse. I think this time stood out from the crowd because we were here for the ‘warts and all’ rehearsal rather than the slick performance. There was a cellist; a flautist, a violinist and a viola player, who completed the four. They would play a passage (which sounded perfect to my ear) and then examine it together, letting us listen in on their conversation.

There were conversations about tempo and strength, tone and order, rhythm and musicality. Sometimes, we had to strain to hear what they were saying but we were rapt in our attention for the hour we watched them rehearse. Always wary of something artificial,I know this whole experience felt real to me as a spectator, rather than a prepared act of any kind. They were navigating a complex field.

They hadn’t played together in this configuration before and were under a high degree of performance pressure. Most importantly, this was a first-time experiment for them as much as it was for us, it felt like the conditions were similar to a team in a business setting attempting a complex collaborative challenge for the first time.

We were given a few minutes to ask questions of the quartet. I was particularly struck by how gentle they were with each other in the examination of their performances. They didn’t avoid pointing out each other’s responsibilities and failings but there was a degree of polite interaction I hadn’t been expecting, particularly after the tales I had heard of the drama that is often part of any artistic group endeavour. I asked them about this quality of interaction.

The cellist spoke first, describing the sensitivity he felt was necessary in any artistic group, as there was a strong overlap between the performance of the artist and their personal identity. So there was a gentle quality to the feedback, in recognition of how personally the recipient may take it. I understood that, and could see parallels for us, but it was the flautist’s follow-up that stopped me in my tracks.

“I haven’t thought much about this before but, for me, I think that if I am gentle in my feedback it is because it is a tentative thought. It is because the interactions between us, the tuning to each other’s instruments, the creation of the sound between us...is all so relational and interconnected... that in the back of my mind there is always the suggestion that if something sounds off, it might be me.” (See Figure 41)


Practices for across us all


I am 17, tall, thin, with round glasses, wearing a white coat that used to be my father’s old pharmacists’ uniform and an ancient stethoscope wrapped around my neck. I am regularly mistaken for a doctor by the elderly patients on the ward but am employed as what used to be called an auxiliary nurse, the lowest of the untrained grades of nursing.

I am not here out of any vocational interest, purely selfish motives: to gain experience that would look good on my application to medical school and also to earn good money (for a student). My school friend’s father has a nursing agency run out of a small, cramped, smoke-filled office that he shared with a hard-faced woman. The phones there are particularly loud and always ringing. The friendship meant they would often put me to the top of the list for the last-minute requests that came in when permanent members of hospital staff fell ill. If you were willing to change your plans at the last minute and work through the night then the money was good and I needed it.

Most of the other nurses treated the role I had in a transactional way. They were over-worked and under-resourced. I was there for one night, to do the work they didn’t want to do or felt over-qualified to do and, in many cases, we would never meet again.

This night stands out in my memory as an experience of what it meant to be led by an elder. One of the patients on the ward had died, it was 2.30am, I was rubbing my bleary eyes and looking at my first cadaver. The ward was more silent than usual, or maybe I imagined it or maybe I blocked out the occasional moans of pain and cries for attention that usually accompanied a night shift.

“You haven’t done this before, have you?” I thought, for a nanosecond, about bluffing, but one look at her face and I knew it was pointless.

“No. But just tell me what to do.” Ever eager to please in those days.

“We are going to wash and prepare the body before the relatives see him.


“I will give you some materials and things in a minute but the most important part of this is how you think about the body in front of you.”


“Well, you could do what many of our colleagues do, treat it as an unpleasant job, the body as a piece of meat, get it over and done with as fast as possible.”

“Understandable I guess.”

“Or you could do the following. Imagine what you are about to do as the last act of kindness this man will ever receive and then act accordingly.”

I wonder whether the transition we are in might have a gentle quality in the way it is facilitated between generations. For some reason, the role of our elders has become the focus of this section. How they stand between one age and another, helping us across the borders between the two. They don’t know and we don’t know what is coming next with any precision so what is needed is something more facilitative than directive; more kind than demanding.


They are members of the same peer group but you wouldn’t know it if you spoke to them. Roughly the same age, they are nearing retirement and I have watched them over the past 20 years, sometimes close up sometimes from afar. I have listened to the stories about them around the organization and have occasionally seen them mentioned in the media for a great result or a crisis they were managing. They have had their supporters, their detractors, fans and sycophants, alter egos and nemeses. They are both readying to retire, I have been asked to support their last organizational transition, one will leave this organization as an older, the other as an elder.

The older looks older too. He walks slowly, with a slight hunch in his back, people have joked over the years that if he wasn’t careful he might lean over too far and bang his head. His cough has become worse recently, although I notice it is often a substitute for saying something that feels unpalatable. I want to ask him what the cough is code for, what would he have said if the cough didn’t get in the way.

increasingly, he is treated as the elderly relative who must be cosseted from discomfort and, every now and then, he loses his temper and lashes out disproportionately. He knows his role is diminishing, his way of holding onto it for as long as possible is to put people down publicly, remind them he is still the boss until the day he walks out of there. He is holding on at any cost, I think scared of the loss of identity and purpose that will accompany retirement. In private, he expresses more and more cynicism about the organization, his treatment by the business. He is deeply self-involved and self-centred.

As he departs the organization, there is a lack of creativity and innovation in his unit. There is insufficient influence with business units outside his own; a vacuum of energy or ‘thought leadership’; disagreement, that had been limited due to loyalty to him, now coming to the surface. Political tensions that were kept in check are heightening and now have a chance for greater expression; individuals who were insulated from a degree of adversity due to his protection now have to face it alone.

The elder still has a speed of movement that would impress if he were 10 years younger, a curiosity and twinkle that means he has remained engaged with developments and changes. This means that, as well as growing in status as he progressed, he also grew in his human presence, putting roots deep into the ground that continue to feed him, often out of sight of the day-to-day work. In the midst of difficulty, people still turn to him, not for direction but for wisdom; not for past detail but for a quality of cultural memory that is helpful. Particularly when moving from one age to another.

Our elders help us navigate between one age and another. The elders are there to keep the space strong and open while we learn what to do for ourselves. They are there, ready to step in when needed but just as ready to depart without their ego being bruised or in the way. They have a commitment to the future beyond themselves, beyond their physical death, which means they easily navigate the organizational death, which retirement triggers.

The older stands for himself; the elder stands for all of us. (See Figure 42)

As you leave one stage and enter the next, the following questions may help you to do so as an ‘Elder.

You could even try them out as you leave one week and enter the next.

• Who are the people inside and outside the business who informed the leader you became?

• How did they touch you? What are you grateful for?

• How are you leaving this organization; better than when you joined it?

• What are your sources of pride? What have been the pivotal stories? What will be your legacy?

• Who, in your opinion, will struggle in some way as a result of your departure? With what can you leave them that may help?

• What do you want the organization to have learned as a result of your leadership? What is still left to pass on?

• How can you be of service as you leave and after you leave?

• What is the long-term commitment you want the business to hold onto through all of the short-term challenges?


We have just returned at the end of the day from a modern day ‘hunt’. I have come to learn from the Native American people in Northern California about their ancient rituals and forms of development; ways of living together and working together that have been lost to the more modern societies we live in.

In the morning, we were tasked with navigating to a particular point in the high desert, collecting berries and bringing them back to the campsite by a particular time.

It was a long, hot, frustrating day. The landscape was fairly desolate, a combination of rocky paths, juniper bushes and a kind of pine tree local to the area with much sharper needles than the ones I recall at home. We had been given water, basic self-care and navigation advice and were left to get on with it. They called this process ‘coyote mentoring’.

On our return, we were glad to see the part of the road that indicated the camp was at the other end. It looked so different in the light of dusk to how it had in the light of dawn, we thought we had missed it. Our speed picked up a little and we crossed the camp threshold to find most of the other groups already back and waiting on a couple of stragglers.

The facilitators in the camp had spent the day preparing food for our return, everything was laid out ready and we sat around the camp circle, thankful that the usual evening chores weren’t waiting for us. There was something about the spirit of service demonstrated in the preparation of the meal that was particularly touching.

But we had relaxed too soon. The second half of our test was only just beginning. Over the meal, we were asked a series of questions that showed to me how little I had actually achieved on the hunt.

An important contribution had been made in terms of the berries found, picked and returned to the tribe but there were so many other questions to which we struggled to provide a meaningful answer.

Having been involved in ‘outward bounds’ work many years previously, I was half expecting an examination of how the team performed under stress; I had mentally prepared for the questions but they didn’t come.

• Where were the biggest berries?

• What was the soil condition like?

• What was the water condition like?

• Who else had been on the site?

• Who else did you meet on the way? Where were they heading?

• Which animals, birds and insects did you see?

• What were the places for shelter or shade on your route?

• If you didn’t have a map how would you find your way back?

• What were your navigation markers?

After stumbling through the questions we were offered other processes that helped us access a lot of learning that wasn’t immediately accessible; journaling, meditative processes, imagination exercises, storytelling as memory, peer conversations and others.

The facilitators explained that this analysis served two purposes, one for the individual hunters who were being encouraged to a level of reflection that opened up different areas of learning. The second purpose was that the whole community benefited from the hunters’ individual exploration as much as they did the food.

As we set out to explore the unknown territories ahead of us, or ask others to do so on our behalf, it struck me that this ‘coyote mentoring’ form could be very useful. We could become as interested in what people learned on the way to and from their destination as we were in their reaching it. This could result in learning for the whole community, not just ourselves as individuals.