Getting “The Whole System” in the Room

One of the suppositions I make during Conversation 2018 is that a leader’s impact can be expanded through whole system futuring—engaging in dialogue about the future (aka, planning) by getting “the whole system in the room.” Exploring this concept takes me (and, perhaps, you) through layers of challenge, insight, and discovery.

The first challenge is often the language. I’m often reminded that my choice of language and forms of expression make my ideas and questions tough to access for some people. While continually in pursuit of a simpler, clearer way to convey my thinking in the most accessible way, I am also continually in pursuit of the true depth of meaning and intention beneath the words.

Some believe that “futuring” or planning is not their leadership responsibility; that they are participants in or contributors to a planning discussion, but not the one tasked with designing and implementing a planning process. Perhaps, but underneath that response lies the possibility to reframe one’s thinking.

In organizational life, nearly everything we undertake is done with an eye on a preferred future. So, if your default posture is that planning is done episodically (like annual budget prep or cyclical strategic planning), you may miss the opportunity for greater leverage. Some organizational development models like lean thinking (continuous process improvement) attempt to seize this daily opportunity.

The first step in unpacking the language is to check for your default assumptions of what’s involved and the extent to which you are involved. If you’ve unconsciously side-stepped the notion of daily engagement in futuring, you’re missing a steady opportunity for greater impact. Valuable research over the past several decades reaffirms that organizations (like individuals) move in the direction of that to which they most attend. Even if you don’t have primary responsibility for plan design or implementation, you can still suggest and influence where attention is being placed and with whom conversations about the future are being held.

Additionally, the language of “the whole system” is also a stumbling point for some. The language emanates from systems thinking, which is a discipline of seeing the interconnectedness of everything. Businesses and organizations are examples of complex human systems. Most of us have come to accept (if not understand) that working narrowly on a single part of the organization has only limited value when all the parts are “bound by invisible fabrics of interrelated actions” (Senge, 2006, The 5th Discipline, p. 7). Yet the system doesn’t end at the boundary of the organization. The organization exists in a larger human ecosystem which includes the individuals, neighborhoods, organizations, and entities in your operating environment.

Being committed to getting the whole system in the room necessitates engagement well beyond the boundaries of your team, unit, division, and organization. Just as we move in the direction of what we study, meaningful and reciprocal engagement yields relationships and deeper trust with those with whom we spend the most time. Therefore, decisions to engage your whole human ecosystem in an appreciative (re)discovery of high point experiences—times when the organization was at its best and most vital—enriches your learnings by illuminating things in your blind spot, strengthens your understanding of the positive core, and evokes a powerful sense of anticipation about what’s possible if the best of what is gets amplified and extended in the future.

Which brings us to the second challenge many encounter in doing whole system futuring: getting outside our familiar bubble. By design or by default, leaders often end up spending most of their time with a narrow band of people. Whether conscious of it or not, they tend to hear more of what they’ve already heard. Daily huddles and weekly management meetings serve many valuable purposes, yet they can also serve to reinforce the prevailing and shared world view of those few participants. Exploring opportunities for impact and learning from the best of what is in place already can, therefore, be artificially limited by this familiarity.

The better path to impact is not found outside. It resides inside of you. Getting outside your familiar bubble first requires your own opening—of mind, heart, and resolve—and a letting go. The letting go need not be viewed with dread, as if it signals loss. Rather, the letting go can be viewed as (re)learning and adapting. The letting go must happen first as part of your inner work as a person; as a single leader. If you are to consciously reposition yourself to see the landscape with new eyes—the implicit requirement of planning—there is some inner work needed. Consider these insights:

  • “At the heart of a learning organization is a shift of mind—from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world, from seeing problems caused by someone or something ‘out there’ to seeing how our own actions create the problems we experience. A learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality. And how they can change it” (Senge, The 5th Discipline, p. 12). He continues with a bold perspective on what it means to be human: “Through learning we re-create ourselves” (p. 13).
  • Two powerful learnings were gifts to me from Conversations many years ago. The first came from a Kenyan woman who, during a discussion of borders and boundaries, said in the most hopeful and energized tone, “The boundaries are where I go to meet my neighbors.” The second said, “we learn the most from those least like us.” These viewpoints reinforce the rich value of going beyond the “safe” and familiar to where new perspectives can further open you to deeper insights. As I reflect on my own longstanding rhetoric about the value of diversity, equity,inclusion, and meaningful engagement, for me it all rang a bit hollow until I began to feel the shift—the opening—happening within me. Now, getting the whole system in the room through a diversity, equity, inclusion, and meaningful engagement lens are truly powerful and richly rewarding, both personally and organizationally.
  • Leaders from the International Futures Forum (IFF) remind us to give up on the myth of control. They point out that many of us were raised to control what we don’t understand. Exacerbating this situation is the pervasiveness of power and privilege in which so many of us have been raised (individually and organizationally), which seems to call for holding on even tighter. This self- and other-damaging orientation is part of a myth to which many of us have subscribed as we attempt to address our best futures amidst great complexity. Two IFF authors suggest instead, “An alternative is simply to accept and acknowledge complexity as an inevitable fact of modern life and instead of trying to avoid or control it, participate in it. Relish diversity, welcome surprises, look for the ineffable and appreciate the richness and the unique quality of all things. Such an embrace engenders a sense of belonging and reinforces the motivation to participate. Driving this reinforcing cycle are love, empathy and relationships” (Leicester and O’Hara, 2009, Ten Things to Do in a Conceptual Emergency, p. 10).

Odd as it might sound that for someone like me who for decades has helped organizational leaders and planning teams design and implement strategic direction, I’ve come to realize and trust that the first shift that must happen is an inner shift—an individual letting go and a trusting willingness to inquire, discover, and learn. When I reflect on an earlier professional chapter of my life, I now recognize that I was trying to master techniques that helped leaders cascade their plans throughout their organizations. Thinking back on some early engagements, I now see that some constituent research and planning dialogue was launched from the status quo—almost as if to validate the status quo. Therefore, without the pause up front to reflect on the leader’s view, assumptions, blind spots, and patterns of behavior, the planning design was flawed from the beginning and, unintentionally, went on to reinforce the status quo.

As I continue practicing letting go, I can feel my mindset continually shifting, or as Senge said, through learning and experience re-creating myself. My approach to planning has likewise evolved over the years. Now, I am far more inclined to approach each task influenced by three thoughts:

  1. The work is first/always inner work. My attention is a signal of my intention.
  2. Pay unconditionally positive attention to life-giving forces. To do so, I must go beyond my bubble and see those forces through the whole system perspective.
  3. Learn to dance with the system. This image, borrowed from systems thinker Donnella Meadows, is a reminder that we can’t control systems or figure them out…but we can dance with them. This individual and organizational dance, while applied to our professional and intellectual pursuits, is no different than dancing with other great powers like white-water kayaking, gardening, making music, etc. In all those endeavors, she notes, one is required to “stay wide awake, pay close attention, participate flat out, and respond to feedback.” Her overview of “the dance” resonates with me:
    • Get the beat
    • Listen to the wisdom of the system
    • Expose your mental models to the open air
    • Stay humble; stay a learner
    • Honor and protect information
    • Locate responsibility in the system
    • Make feedback policies for feedback systems
    • Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable
    • Go for the good of the whole
    • Expand time horizons
    • Expand thought horizons
    • Expand the boundary of caring
    • Celebrate complexity
    • Hold fast to the goal of goodness

And so it is with whole system futuring. Through a process reflecting the leader’s authenticity, the inner work of letting go is a pathway to generativity and imagination. Reaching this point of opening (again and again) reinforces and sustains the quiet confidence to focus unapologetically on the life-giving forces in your organization and in your environment. This mindset, coupled with the humble invitational spirit that takes you beyond your boundaries to engage all your “neighbors,” can lead to a “letting come” that is far more powerful and supportive of innovations for the future.

The drawing above is by Ken Hubbell, interpreting the central
metaphor of Otto Scharmer’s Theory U.


Leveraging Leadership Authenticity – Conversation 2018

Several years ago, I decided one way to leverage my own passion and contribution to right action and wise leadership was to hold space for its deeper exploration among people seeking their own clarity and deepening their own leadership purpose. Conversation 2018 is one such contribution. Through it we’ll focus first on illuminating your own inner authenticity, wisdom, and inherent value. That becomes the scaffolding for exploring how leaders evoke greater and more lasting impact by: a) fostering an appreciative culture; b) inviting whole system inquiry and dialogue about the future most desired; and c) engaging partners (donors, investors, collaborators) with reciprocal meaning and deep trust.

Each Conversation is a cohesive package of components over a six-month period that includes one immersion workshop/retreat, reflective readings before and after the retreat, participation in moderated video conferences among the learning cohort, and individual virtual coaching throughout the period.

Nominations are currently being sought for the next Conversations scheduled to date:

    • Minneapolis, MinnesotaApril 18-20, 2018 – hosted by Cohen Taylor Executive Search Services

Contact me to learn more or to nominate someone for consideration in this cohort. A limited number of partial scholarships will be available for gifted leaders unable to afford the full tuition. In so doing, together we can support some of the most vital work being done in community despite deep resource limitations.




Your partners, donors, and investors (…and employees, board members, referral sources, family members…you name it) want the same thing from you—meaningful engagement. Meaningful (intentional) engagement is a reciprocal deposit in a sustainable, life-giving exchange based on values. When it’s present we feel nourished; when absent we feel starved.

Arguably, few things are as important as our relationships. I’ve long been fascinated observing how people seem to be in relationship—to self, others, work, and world. Patterns of behavior seem pretty clear to me. Individuals who seem grounded, affirmative, humble, and curious often seem the most consciously aware and confident. It often appears that they have the strongest and most reciprocal relationships, regardless of context. Alternatively, individuals who are gripped by ego, convinced of their center-of-the-universe status, emboldened by their own expertise, and bent on giving you the answer seem to have far fewer genuine relationships. A more likely reality is that most of us are somewhere in between these poles.

Because of my work in organizational change, I remain fascinated by leaders who exhibit strong alignment between good intention and their own daily attention. Leadership—like life—is a practice. Our growth, maturity, and effectiveness follows a similar pattern, yet fewer progress through all stages of this evolution. Whether reading from the ancient wisdom traditions, or studying human psychology, or exploring barriers to change, I find that we’re all somewhere along a progression that influences our thoughts, language, actions, and expectations. The progression stages of this evolution are:

  1. Being unconsciously unaware – not knowing what we don’t know and, therefore, unlikely or unable to do much about it. As a result, we tend to “bump into” some hard realities—usually the relationship kind—because we are prone toward control, manipulation, short-term “fixes” to get more of what we think we want. Language, however we may dress it up and “say the right things” is often not an outgrowth of a nourishing and conducive mindset. As a result, the language rings false in our listeners’ ears (and often in our own). Our “talk-to-do” ratio is way out of balance, as is our focus on I, me, and mine.
  2. Being consciously unaware – knowing what we don’t know and, therefore, feeling a bit disturbed toward some action to rectify the feeling of disturbance…through (experiential) learning. While this can be a liberating phase, it’s usually fraught with doubt and uncertainty, along with some predictable failures. We try on new language as we try to give voice to thoughts stemming from an evolving mindset. So focused on what we’re learning (and still want to learn), we’re often not being effective listeners. It’s like we’re trying to demonstrate mastery of some newly felt truth; our attention is on the technical aspects of the new learning more so than on the nuanced, organic nature of the new learning if we could just trust it to evolve, to let it come.
  3. Being consciously aware – evolving to this level of conscious awareness usually signals more success, growing confidence, and trust in your inner alignment of good intention and close attention. More aware of all there is to learn, you sharpen your ability and capacity to listen, trust, and invite. You are coming to explore the possibility that each of us has something to teach and something to learn. The idea of separateness is starting to dissolve. You are witnessing your adoption of a longer point of view. You’re beginning to hold more loosely the drive for milestones (achievement) and more tightly the drive for meaning (purpose, sustainable impact, equity). Failures and shortcomings still arise but you are no longer surprised by them (at least for long), nor do you deny them or explain them away. You lift them up so that you may learn from each, recognizing them as the gift they are. You begin to feel more at ease, more “in the flow.”
  4. Being unconsciously aware – describes that point of your evolution when what you “do” is eclipsed by how and who you “are.” You’re no longer consciously aligning intention and attention. It’s happening organically as a result of your practice. You find yourself generously supported by many around you, each of whom feels nourished in your company. A dimension of joy becomes more prominent…and profound…for you in your life/work. Meaning matters. Questions matter. Relationships matter. Your practice matters. Everything you need is here, right now.

“Wow….where’d that come from, Gary?!?…I thought you were talking about relating to partners, donors, and investors—that part of my work as a leader that occupies a huge percentage of my time.” In fact I am. My point is that one’s ability to relate effectively to others—to ENGAGE others in the vitality of your work and purpose—is equal to the level of one’s conscious awareness. In my view, this has less to do with skill building and more to do with discernment and contemplation/reflection—the very things leaders seem to treat as luxuries and indulgences for which there is little time or external appreciation. Locked in that frame, leaders stay trapped in a cycle of unfulfilling tension and trade-off, often suffering strain on their physical, mental, and spiritual health.

So, let’s go back to the title: Meaningful engagement is an intrinsic reward. Regardless of the context, we want much the same things from our relationships. We want to be invited to matter to others and we want others to know that they matter to us. It is intrinsic—baked in to our being. Simply said, right. But what would close observation of your thoughts, language, actions, and expectations say about what matters most to you? Being more outwardly effective in a leadership role necessitates that you are more inwardly attentive to growing our own conscious awareness. In so doing, EVERY relationship will benefit…especially the one with yourself.

What’s possible at the union of self and service, the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need?

“How can I raise more money for my organization when we’re so big and we make gifts/grants in the community?”

This was the question that prompted a former client—a large hospital system foundation executive team—to invite me to help them answer that question. With apparent variations by sub-sector, it’s a common question among fundraising professionals. Why? What’s at work among so many professionals where these barriers serve to shrink possibility and constrict action and lift?

The story of this former client has many parallels. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the story….

Clearly, as I interviewed a few staff by phone and then arrived for an on-site staff retreat, this question had been bothering the team for quite some time. They explained that, while feeling well supported by administration and board, they operated daily under a felt pressure to raise more money. In their eyes, the context they were facing was narrowing the likelihood for success rather than expanding it. Staff, veteran fundraisers and newcomers alike, were feeling a pinch.

What to do? They asked, “How can we get organizational leaders to see that by being the largest employer in the area, by making grants to sponsor, underwrite, and support other community organizations, and by routinely seeing media headlines about the high cost of health care…foundation staff are running into stiff headwinds when trying to ask people to support the projects and people of the hospital system.”

“What if we take a few minutes to see if we can verbalize our assumptions beneath this question,” I suggested. Fine. OK. Whatever, their eyes said to me. “You work for a big, high profile nonprofit organization whose work potentially affects everyone and you’re asked to raise money on the organization’s behalf and gift or grant money on their behalf out in the community. Why is this a problem for you in your work as a fundraiser?” The responses came quickly:

  • “The hospital system’s big size is problematic.”
  • “Health care costs are high.”
  • “We (the hospital system) don’t/can’t demonstrate need.”

Undeterred, I pressed on. “So, why is that a problem for you?” Responses were:

  • “We think and act small (we’re modest).”
  • “The foundation isn’t as well-known as the hospital.”
  • “We’re part of an historical wave of need-driven fundraising in this state.”

“OK, why is that a problem for you in your work?” Their responses were:

  • “It’s (the message) about us.”
  • “Need is the principle driver of giving.”

Asking for their patience, I persisted again. “Why is that a problem?” Their responses—sometimes quite emphatically delivered—were:

  • “The priority is the money. It’s all about the money.”
  • “We’re fundraisers; therefore, it’s all about the money.”

Despite the shared exasperation in the room, I asked one final time: “Why is this a problem? What’s going on inside you that leads to this feeling like a problem?” Here the responses came more slowly and with less surety and far less intensity:

  • “We want our jobs to be easier and/or more rewarding.”
  • “I’m just plain uncomfortable with money conversations. I know ‘they’ won’t give if I don’t ask. I have to couch the ask in such a way that’s less objectionable.”

Don’t you feel tired just reading that conversation? In the room that day, I sure felt that way and I sensed the staff team did as well. I could see it in their faces and body language. It’s like we had stripped away the layers of psychic self-protection to expose a core vulnerability. Now what? My intent, then as now, is to highlight a required process of introspection, challenging false assumptions, and letting go of those that are in the way. Where we sit determines what we see. Our mindset, mental model, and prevailing assumptions govern the causal (operating) structures we put in place, which produce our repetitive patterns of behavior, which leads to daily occurrences and events. Those things that we initially identified as insurmountable barriers to our success have their roots in our internal constructs.

Working with the staff that day, we exposed these previously unspoken assumptions to new light; new scrutiny. Here’s what we came up with together:


Old Assumption

New View

“I’m just plain uncomfortable with money conversations. I know ‘they’ won’t give if I don’t ask. I have to couch the ask in such a way that’s less objectionable. We want our jobs to be easier and/or more rewarding.”

I operate from a deep belief that people not only want to give to something outside themselves—bigger than themselves—they LIKE to give. Therefore, my job is to uncover their joy and inner gladness. To serve it. To celebrate the intersections with my organization’s direction and to honor it when it leads a person in another direction. In that way, little of my work is about money. It’s about what Frederick Buechner defined as vocation: when one’s inner gladness meets the world’s great need. Freed by this viewpoint, the size of my organization, the headlines it evokes, and the profile of our community collaborations is far less important than the inner journey of a donor. To help illuminate that self-selected path with a donor is a reward beyond most. Pride and confidence results.

“We (the hospital system) don’t/can’t demonstrate need.”

We’re responsible for meeting our own organizational needs. Therefore, operating profitably is a necessity and a signal of effectiveness and strong leadership. We turn outward to meet the real needs of community. Unchanged for over [100] years – the [hospital system] mission is unrelenting in its focus on [the poor and vulnerable]. We invest in community as guided by that same mission. We invite you to do likewise. Pride and confidence results.

“The hospital system’s big size is problematic. You act like a big corporate donor.”

Despite our big size, we can’t and won’t act alone. The social determinants of health are too pervasive and pernicious to be addressed alone. We choose to act in partnership with other community players, some of whom need and deserve our support for their efforts. Our big size is good. The hospital system has the infrastructure, knowledge, and connection to act with and in community to produce better health outcomes. Pride and confidence results.

“Health care costs are high.”

Agreed. Yet, health care reform is pulling hospital systems toward more “upstream” focus, rather than treating illness as presented in patients; and 2) the rising acceptance of hospital systems playing the role of “anchor institutions.” Best practice systems – like Kaiser Permanente – continue to demonstrate that leveraging our multiple assets as a total health organization contribute to community and economic vitality. The more fully we play these seven anchor institution roles, the more likely we will be to make lasting improvements in community well-being. Going “upstream” is a major step in the direction of creating leverage for lasting change that corrals high cost. Pride and confidence results.

“We think and act small (we’re modest).”

The profile of the foundation is largely immaterial. The profile of the hospital system is what matters if that profile can serve the biggest dreams and imagined possibilities of a donor. Pride and confidence results.

“We’re part of an historical wave of need-driven fundraising in this state.”

I will no longer be bound by how others have repeated manipulative messages of immediate organizational needs, lifting organizational vulnerability like it’s an asset. I will respect myself, my colleagues, my organizational scorekeepers, and donors with the truth. If in so doing, we appear to walk an independent path; so be it. We believe what every donor wants is to:

  • Be understood – “Know me, care for me, ease my way”
  • Interact with transparency in a real, reciprocal relationship
  • Be part of something important; something bigger than myself
  • Know that my gift is connected to some impact of the greater good

Pride and confidence results.

I am proud of Suzanne, Cynthia, and their whole team for their collective courage to illuminate what was in their blind spots. They started out chiefly concerned about what they thought were widely shared opinions by others. The team concluded that those opinions were largely projections of their own fears, magnified and codified as a story they had been telling themselves for a long time. So long, in fact, that they had come to believe the story was not only true but overwhelming. It was in the way of their success.

However, they came to see that the story was of their own construction…or at least their own passive, unchallenged acceptance as “just the way things are.” They had come to morph that storyline into one of their own heroic stance in the face of great odds—succeeding despite great odds.

Once able to step back with new perspective—seeing with new eyes—the team came to see that the primary blockage was their own internal frame. They had to challenge their views that people really didn’t want to give and wouldn’t give significant gifts joyfully and gratefully—in search of deeper meaning and lasting impact. They had to challenge their views that their success was largely the product of spending 95% of their time in prospect research, strategizing, secondary staging and all manner of “set design,” believing that their very limited (“one shot”??) time with the “prospective donor” had to be “just right” if they were going to succeed in “persuading” the person effectively enough to “get” the gift.

The beauty of the lesson embedded in this true story is that NOTHING in the external environment changed, but ONE BIG THING in the individual staff members’ internal framing and mindset changed. Each staff person was now being invited to practice shifting from pursuing their work from a position of overcoming barriers and manipulating (albeit kindly and with good heart) “prospective donors” to do something they instinctively didn’t want to do…to a position of prioritizing and savoring every possible moment with community philanthropy partners as an opportunity to discern that person’s greatest aspiration, wildest hope, deepest gratitude and exploring in the most transparent way how to work toward serving that intention together, all the while being unapologetic for the time required to build and nurture this trusting relationship.

Is a mindset shift like this as simple as waving a wand, peeling back faulty assumptions and gaining some new insight that unlocks potential? No. Neither this staff team nor I are that naïve. I believe that any new stated intention requires attention…and practice. This staff has the benefit of an employment context where everyone undergoes a personality profiling exercise (in their case, Personalysis), wherein each person gets a peek at how they are wired to think and respond. Knowing that inherent construct and now enlightened by new insight, the next phase is intentional practice. I also suggested this team routinely meet to share their individual insights about their journey to make the shift. In that way, not only do they teach and reinforce one another, they each practice their introspection in a transparent way with colleagues.

Best of all, this new shared commitment to this type of exchange is rebuilding team culture—reshaping their shared story of their heroic battle to one of joyful coaching of self-motivated partners. Collectively, they are rebuilding a healthy, energizing, appreciative culture at the union of self and service, the place where their deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.

While this story is obviously hospital system philanthropy-oriented, the parallels to other sectors are significant. What self-limiting prevailing assumptions are holding you and your program back from its optimal success? What’s possible when your deep humility meets your authentic desire to serve a donor, helping her uncover her most important dreams and motivations? What’s your highest and best imagination about a lasting solution to an issue that both your organization and your donor co-design?

These are conversations that matter. Getting to them involves the courage to be vulnerable, to challenge long-held ideas of what’s true. To let go of false assumptions.

Ask yourself, “What conversation do I most need to have? How could the clarity from that conversation open new possibilities—for me and for those I care about? What will I do about that now?”

Please call me when you’re ready to shape your conversation; when you’re willing to step beyond technique; when you’re ready to create or rebuild a team culture of authenticity, deep relationship, trust, transparency, joy…and love. That’s a conversation I’ll lean into with my whole being.



What Must I Learn?

“Through learning, we re-create ourselves.”1 For as long as I can remember, I have subscribed to what is now the commonly accepted concept of life-long learning. I love to learn and I’m learning to learn in new ways. For me, having a mental map for my learning journey is important. In so doing, I become more intentional about what I seek to learn. Reading, writing, presenting, and group discussions have long been my preferred ways to learning.

The current “phase” of my learning is comprised of four related elements.

    1. Physical wellness – while I’m descended from a long line of rail thin family, the full presence of health is only partially connected to the absence of extra body weight. Endurance and physical strength naturally lessen as one ages, so it becomes something for which I must make more time and effort. Married to an avid distance runner, I’m routinely shown a deep appreciation for the physical and mental benefits of getting my heart rate up with my running shoes on. Mirroring the national dialogue on health insurance and affordability, I find myself taking more responsibility for my own wellness and avoiding behaviors that cause illness. We all have these inner conversations, but once the light switch goes on, commitment deepens and the rationalizing and procrastinating stops. Time to get moving!
    2. Systems thinking – Another learning from transitioning into my 2nd half century of life is that purely technical prowess is not enough if I truly want to understand how to have a greater impact on the world I care about. Many years ago I was introduced to the language of systems thinking but it seemed a distant and obtuse idea until beginning to work more closely with my brother, Ken Hubbell, in 2006. Ken’s continuing search for a better understanding of systems has sparked my further study and practice. I have come to accept and appreciate the interconnectedness of all things. Therefore, any of my previous attempts to produce good were unintentionally narrow and limited and, worst yet, possibly creating other problems as a result.In his book by the same name, Peter Senge defines the fifth discipline—systems thinking—as…a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots.” It is a set of general principles — distilled over the course of the twentieth century, spanning fields as diverse as the physical and social sciences, engineering, and management….During the last thirty years, these tools have been applied to understand a wide range of corporate, urban, regional, economic, political, ecological, and even psychological systems. And systems thinking is a sensibility — for the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character.”2

      Other great systems thinkers, Margaret Wheatley and Donnella Meadows, share equally helpful learnings about systems. Wheatley reminds us that systems are unknowable by themselves; they are irreducible.3 Meadows adds,

      “Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them. We can’t impose our will upon a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone. We can’t control systems or figure them out, but we can dance with them.”4
    3. Bigger questions – the key to intervening on any situation or system is to know the questions to ask that will produce the most leverage. Bigger questions will be tougher to answer, no doubt, yet they are the ones that more likely get to greater understanding of causality. In many organizational situations where I work, I see many passionate, well-intentioned professionals working feverishly to figure out what to do and how to do it. Too often missing from their perspective is a bone deep understanding of why something is being done. They work tirelessly in a myopic way, often only focused on their stated priorities and targets. This is like pushing rope uphill if their work is not imbued with an awareness and appreciation of the balancing reactions their efforts trigger in their environment (whether elsewhere in their own department, in another unit of the organization, or externally in their constituency). Systems thinking familiarity will help me be better able to advise these clients on how to navigate these situations.
    4. Spiritual journey – While I will continue to have—and feed—a strong desire for acquiring new knowledge, I recognize a growing desire to develop deeper wisdom, which I equate to being on a spiritual journey. For me, this is a journey of discovery and practice. I am nearing a place where I will be able to articulate my true purpose. Kevin Cashman reminds us that “purpose is spirit seeking expression; awareness of it allows us to see our lives more clearly from the inside-out.”5

1Peter M. Senge (1990, 2006). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Currency-Doubleday, p. 13.
2Ibid, pp. 68-69.
3Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers (1999). A Simpler Way, Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco, p. 72.
4Donnella Meadows (2001). Dancing With Systems. The Systems Thinker, Pegasus Communications, Vol. 13, No. 2, March 2002, p. 2.
5Kevin Cashman (2008). Leadership From the Inside Out. Berrett-Koehler Publishers: San Francisco, p. 75.

The Source of My Nutrition

What we believe, we become. That which we feed our subconscious minds becomes our language and behavior. So when I think about being intentional about my work I’ve got to focus on what I’m feeding my soul. What am I reading? With whom do I surround myself? Are my professional endeavors life- and energy-affirming or are they draining me (despite the corresponding monetary reward or public recognition)? These are the questions that I think about a lot. Personally, I draw energy and great personal benefit from my professional life and from developing and hosting GHC Conversations. Relationships are central to my personal satisfaction. Therefore, I seek to engage in my client work and in sustaining Conversation as a key source of what is nutritious to me.
Helpful to me decades ago was my learning about the relationship of the subconscious mind to the conscious. I came to recognize that it is my subconscious mind that is the source of my words and deeds. I became aware of the torrents of poison that I had been feeding my unconscious mind through a variety of self-limiting inner talk, dinged self-esteem, and recurring doubt and worry. While I can’t eliminate all the “chatter,” I found that I can choose what and when to cancel the inputs and replace it with nutritious fare for my subconscious mind. Now, nearly 30 years after learning these helpful constructs, I’m now opening myself to meditation, which will become another source of nutrition. “Meditation becomes both a refuge and a training: a refuge into being, and a training into doing.”1
1Martine Batchelor, “A Refuge Into Being.” Tricycle Daily Dharma, February 8, 2014.

In Pursuit of Wise Action

How does one come to grips with the idea of wise action in community? How does one keep from immediately feeling overwhelmed? Where does one start?

These are but a few of the questions that jump to mind. As I navigate the thousand thoughts I have about the topic, I soon realize that whatever next step I take in the direction of wise action toward some bigger improvement in society begins with me.

First, I’ve got to relinquish the ego-driven thought that I might possess within me “the solution”—as if the world (or my country, my region, my community, my organization, my unit, or my family) was something to be “fixed.” Second, I quickly acknowledge that I have little hope of making positive impact outside if I have not found some inner gyroscope spinning well and straight. So I find myself returning to the idea of “right being,” trusting that if I can be in right relation to myself I will be more likely to act with wisdom and, if led by a good heart, contribute in community in ways that produce good for others.

What is My Work?

Throughout many of my first 50 years on this earth, I thought of my work (my vocation) as the jobs I held, the titles I was given, the activities I pursued, and the accomplishments I made in those roles. I’ve come now to realize that the last 50 years of my life should be about seeing my “work” quite differently. I now see my work embedded in the theme of Conversation 2014: right being…wise action…in community. My work is about gaining and sustaining clarity of purpose and intent, which guides my behavior and deeds as I endeavor to act together with others for good. So this inner clarity and harmony becomes the guidance system for all I will do.

Writer, teacher, and activist, Parker Palmer, explores the concept of a divided life. He posits that we fear that our “inner light” will be snuffed out and/or that our “inner darkness” will be exposed for others to see. In so doing, we guard and block, keeping at bay a true relationship with ourselves and, as a result, living without real integrity and separated from our soul. He says “as soon as we succumb to someone else’s definition of who we are, we lose our sense of true self and our right relation to the world.”1 So what is the essence of my true self? What is my integrity—my moral code wiring that is unimpaired, unndistilled, and genuine? What is the source of my joy? What is my work?

Frederick Buechner defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”2 There it is; the connection of right being…wise action…in community. Therefore, my work is about listening—first inwardly to know my deep gladness and outwardly to recognize the world’s need. This won’t happen automatically and it’s not likely to happen with big loud, neon lights around what I need to hear and learn. I’ve got to be intentional, to practice listening—to myself and to the world—in ways that might be new for me. I’ve got to push through my ego to live with intention. As I do, I am more likely to find alignment of my intention and my attention—the personal integrity Palmer talks about. The better listener I become, the more likely will be good alignment of my right being with wise action.

Yet, this is not about a destination but a journey, a practice, a life’s work. Despite the alignment of intention and attention, one can’t guarantee the desired results. The beauty of this path is in the trying of it, observing, learning, “leaning into it” in order to gain deeper wisdom to be subsequently applied. None of our lives are pure linear progressions and growth curves. We get distracted, disturbed, deluded, and demoralized. Thus, it must become my work, my practice.

Some may see this path as the epitome of selfishness or self-centeredness. I tend to see this more within the framework Palmer presents. Being whole and good, being in right relation with our inner selves, being undivided so that we are living with soul is all our work. If it is this work that creates the context for all outer work, as I believe it is, then this is exactly where my focus ought to be.

Four questions help me with alignment and tend to foster greater internal wisdom about what is right being, leading to wise action. They are:

  • What is the source of my nutrition?
  • What must I learn?
  • What disruption or disturbance will I walk into?
  • Whether conscious of it or not, what does my organization need most of me?

1Parker J. Palmer (2004). A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 102.
2Buechner is the author of Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, and is quoted in Parker J. Palmer (2000). Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 16.


The future dawns.

We prepare by turning to wonder.

We understand that we are part of a current that began long before our arrival and will continue long after we depart. We do not control its course—so we must learn to flow with it.

We believe that world-changers are self-changers first.  We lead not mainly by leaps, but by small steps. The way may be uncertain, but the ground we share is hallowed. All we need is here, and it’s all important. The greatest promise exists in the smallest seed. We belong to each other. We can feed each other.

We feel an energy around and about us that we don’t necessarily understand and can’t quite articulate—but which we can increase and extend by our presence.

We recognize that power emerges from spirit, from intention.

United by a sense of responsibility, and a desire to improve the landscape, we commit ourselves to dropping old baggage, opening fresh eyes, and finding new ways to examine, reflect, and shift.

Further, we pledge to:

  • Take the long view, adopting an unfettered vantage point from which to see the horizon. • Round the square tables, holding safe spaces where all are seen and heard. • Listen attentively and well, inviting and welcoming disparate voices.
  • Observe and discern wisely, knowing that some of our best teachers are least like ourselves.
  • Perceive that there is no such thing as failure.
  • Be worthy of trust, deeply reflective and authentic, flexible, humble, and grateful.
  • Remind others of their dignity and hold their stories tenderly.
  • Laugh heartily and often, especially at ourselves.
  • Act nobly—with care, compassion, respect, and grace.
  • Plant seeds, confident that they will germinate and blossom in their own time.
  • Become a liberating force, unlocking barriers to passion and unleashing the vitalizing power of creativity and courage.
  • Go gently down the stream, leaving only love in our wake.

*This powerful affirmation was co-created by the participants of Conversation 2011, then artfully harvested and crafted by Tom Soma. Each of us who attended put our names to this pledge as a symbol of our commitment to lead from the inside out.