The Grace of Darkness

I’m just back in from a lovely walk. It’s still early but winter is now closing in on us here. There is just the hint of a waxing half-moon behind low, scudding clouds-the whole sky has been bruised by a day of heavy rain and gales, the leaves are stripped from the trees and fill the tracks and gullies with their beautiful yellow-brown patterns-decay never looks better than it does in the mess of  fallen leaves . Out across the woodland as the light fails you can hear the strange urgent, rusty calls of the pheasants as they settle up in the trees for the night. It’s a lovely time, the half-light of dusk. There is a quietening after the urgent matters of the day that I feel in myself and that I sense reflected in the land around me.

This is a time of year that brings me closer than any other to the strange patterning of life and death that is woven into the landscape here so clearly. It feels wholly appropriate since it seems that this pattern is what I am being called to name at the moment in my writing.

Out on the land the apples have all fallen and the trees will become dormant for several months, their buds tight packed against the cold, the essence of waiting and patience. Much of the apple crop has become compost but we have enough cider, cider vinegar, and apple juice to mark the year as a good one.

The vegetable garden has changed so much. The dried beans are in jars and the rest is already earth. We have good stores of vegetables and as I look out in the dim light I can see the winter greens sitting solidly in neat rows beside the wheat and winter oats ready for whatever the weather can throw at them.

Elsewhere, the bees are running out of days and daylight to get in provision for the winter. They are working hard now, compromising a lot on their usual love for warmth and sun to get the stores filled. They can travel up to 2 kilometres to find the yellow pollen that is stacked up on their hind quarters. Though lazy and languid in the summer, they are more irritable now and need to be met with respect, care and attention. Theirs is a selfless society I suppose; many will die soon, preserving the queen and a central colony that will live out the winter on the honey they have made in readiness for the coming of spring and a new cycle of life.

Ritual and Pheasants

Each season here is marked by its own rituals that connect people with the natural world around us-the traffic between domesticity and wilderness. This is pheasant country. As game birds, it’s a tough time for them. Pheasant shooting begins here on November 1st and already I can tell that the numbers of birds has dwindled significantly in the two shoots we have already had nearby. In this part of the country, pheasant shooting is without doubt a ritual of the season but also an important part of the local economy. People travel hundreds of miles to shoot pheasants.

It’s not something I’ve ever done and I can’t say it sits easy with me as I favour neither guns nor killing beyond necessity. I see the pheasants up close in the garden and they are large, very beautiful birds. Nonetheless, things are never that simple. The local shoot supports,  among other things, the survival of the dwindling art of game keeping, now quite a rare occupation in this part of England and going the way of most traditional  skills like hedge laying, charcoal burning and basket weaving that have been central to life here for hundreds of years.

Our local gamekeeper is a young man following in a family tradition. We spoke recently, after I had been admiring some of the birds gathered near an ash tree on the walk I take most days. He told me that he works fifty weeks a year, for a meagre income. His margins are tight. His biggest trouble is with the buzzards-there are many here, beautiful to watch when they circle in groups high up on summers days- but, being predators,  they love to eat the young birds. It’s a tough life he assured me though with the grace of freedom and an intimacy with the landscape that, if not romantic, is something he loves. He told me that gamekeepers have the highest suicide rate in the UK. Perhaps it’s the pressure, the poor income or the loneliness of the work.

I see him often in the fields and he works hard. Like so much of my experience the pheasant shoot throws up near impossible tensions. I have wondered how to disentangle my love of life, the quiet of the land, and the beauty I see in the pheasants, from the dwindling of ritual, the idea of ‘sport’, the volleys of gunfire, the gamekeepers  future and the future of game keeping. These are such complex tensions; at best I try to hold them openly and honestly.

Quaker meeting

I went to a Quaker meeting last Sunday. There were perhaps a dozen or so people there. There is no service as such in the Quaker tradition. Silence is the foundation of the hour of worship but any person may stand up and speak if they feel called to ministry. I went because I needed some silence.

Recently, I heard Quaker meeting described rather beautifully as ‘the peaceable inquiry after truth.’  Truth can mean a lot of things of course and I like this path because it doesn’t lay claims on what the truth might be-hence its welcome of inquiry. The only guidance offered comes in a thin book of ‘advices and queries’; a series of short passages that offer guidance and consolation but not more than that. They sit rather like meditations, encouraging consideration and reflection. The advices finish with a short passage written by George Fox in 1656

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.

What I hear Fox saying is twofold; first that it is my life rather than my words, beliefs or assumed authority that can most usefully speak to the world. I am wary of words like ‘preach’ but I think Fox is naming something quite specific here that is not about dogma and ritualism but something far deeper. Second Fox suggests that each of us bears within us something infinitely precious that can be met, spoken to, honoured and experienced. It’s an invitation, as I read it, to celebrate the ‘other ‘-it is an invitation to hospitality.

Jung described the religious attitude as ‘the careful consideration of superior powers’. I think that’s what is going on here-the art of consideration as it speaks to our work in the world.

I often sit with my eyes closed for the hour of silence that we hold together and enjoy the feeling both of solitude and shared community. I remember on Sunday however, sitting with eyes open watching the sycamore tree outside blow in the wind, listening to the bird call in the trees that surround the old red brick building, listening to the steady deep sound of the clock marking each passing second.

We were sitting together in the aftermath of the Paris bombings. I remember listening to the slow, solid ticking of the clock, wondering what event might cause the clock itself to stop. How painful, how terrible, must it be to stop time, to have time itself, or the tree itself or perhaps the birds stop their movement or their song and acknowledge what had passed.

The first person to stand up to speak was a woman. She shared with us, through tears, a few words from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians

 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Events in Paris have shaken us all to the roots here and the scenes of death and devastation were the cause of my friend’s tears, and indeed of her ministry-perhaps we might say prayer. I had been sitting; thinking a lot about love and suffering and it was very moving to be reminded of this powerful and perhaps definitive passage on the subject of this most important of principles. I sat digesting the words, feeling them shape the vessel of love itself and another reflection from Jung came to mind;

You cannot change what you cannot accept.

I wonder in some ways if that is what Paul was getting at. Acceptance not as resignation; well that’s just how it is, but a radical acceptance that says yes-this too. For such an acceptance we must turn to love as the only power sufficient to it. Love and justice are conjoined forces, not opposites and are only separated at great price to everyone. As Martin Luther King said;

‘Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

In the face of such immense and terrible power, in the face of violence, force or the outraged cry for justice that exploded on the streets of Paris, my friends voice offered a gentle and powerful corrective, she sought in her own way to right the wrong done-everything returning again and again to harmony, justice balanced by a love that ‘rejoices’. Harmony maybe sounds weak in the face of this trouble but it’s not. In the Greek myths Harmonia was the child of Mars and Ares-the fruit of war and love.

It was both a strange and somehow comforting feeling, sitting with Paul’s words, listening to the clock marking out each moment faithfully and unfalteringly-maybe like love itself-giving me the feeling of  a river flowing onwards of which this whole thing must be a part though I cannot understand it. ‘Panta Rei,’ said Heraclitus, describing his philosophy in two words; everything flows.


I have been thinking about someone whose friend died recently. When we talked about it the first words that came to me of course were ’I’m sorry’. That’s the first thing a lot of people say I suppose and I have wondered about it and frankly disliked it as a response- thinking it vacuous and timid, the kind of thing you say when you accidently tread on someone’s toes in a supermarket queue but too weak for death. It was what I thought until now. Today I have gained a new appreciation for the rightness of the word itself.  ‘Sorry’ is in fact a very precise and particular word.  I’m sorry, or I am in sorrow, comes from the Middle English word sorg; it means to grieve, or to suffer keenly. It turns out to be just the right kind of word for death.

To sorrow is really a verb, something active, something we do-it speaks to companionship-to be in grief with you who have not died but suffer in the face of death. Sorrow is mindful of the dead not as ‘lost’ but as fully present-to sorrow is to enter that landscape of keen loss that cannot make sense of a friend’s death or the family he has left behind but is simply with the immensity of it all. To sorrow is to meet the grief as a real task of a life-it says life is so much bigger than we are and this is an honest response to what cannot be measured.

It was Wendell Berry who asked us to consider what it means to live and die fully within the limits of human grief and joy. I think to be in sorrow together is part of our native response to that concern since it acknowledges so fully the very edges of the limits of our experience bound as they are by our grieving’s and our joys. This is our common land, our common acerage, our common heritage. I think the act of sorrowing can companion the dead too- I’d like to think so. In this way our grief and despair becomes part of the fabric of the canoe that bears the dead one onwards-homewards perhaps-the Odyssey continuing out of our sight but not out of mind.


It’s dark here now. I have heard that the first snow is on its way after weeks of mild days and rain. Winter is all about the play of darkness and light. We are a month away from the winter solstice here, the shortest day, the death of the old year and the birth of the new. On that day the light is diminished to its weakest point, the candle flickers, the weight and balance of the world is held for a time, it seems, precariously. The festival of winter solstice is still powerfully written into the land here. I live about half an hour from Stonehenge, perhaps the most well -known of the megalithic stone circles oriented towards sunrise on the shortest day. I’m not sure if there is a more powerful symbol of the eternal dance of life and death than is felt at midwinter. It is symbol made literal, felt and experienced and sensed. No beginning and no ending. I love this poem by George Mackay Brown, celebrating the winter solstice at Maeshowe, the ancient Viking Cairn oriented precisely to midwinters day on the Scottish Island of Orkney where he lived;


Circle of light and darkness, be our sign
We move in the shadows.
Brodgar has burned on the moor a dance of sun

Ring of quern and plough, contain
Our tumults of blood.
The stars’ chaos is caught in a strict rein.

Wheel of life and death, remove
The sweet warm breath.
Ingibiorg flowers in stone, all beauty and love.

Round of sun and snow and seed,
Out of those skulls
Breaks the first green shoot, the full ear, then the bread.

In the pilgrimage towards the solstice itself we must endure darker, shorter days. Endurance is part of the dark trial as, I think, is faith. There is a farmer’s faith that I know well, borne out of years of seasonal work. What appears dead is always intimately connected with what is alive; the apple tree sits, silently holding its vigil for spring. The blossoms will wait, I know, for the right moment-an uncorrupted and universal wisdom that speaks of some intelligence beyond my comprehension. The prunings and dead wood from the years growth will make kindling for a living fire. The blossom waits and its patience and faith will be rewarded we trust, by the warmth of days to come. I am always moved by the ways in which the trees here offer real guidance for my own life. Maybe that is what this season is about, what love is about-being patient and kind. There is I think a real grace in darkness.

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A fall of poems in early autumn



By the stream in the mountains

There we found words

To nullify the hurt we’d done with words,

Bridging the space they made between us

Inching our way back by slow steps of instinct and reason

There are words hewn out from the origins of stones

Broken on the valley floor,

Ages old the gods still listen for

Consolation, lamentation, lacrimae


Between an abyss and the blue sky

Fine as lightning, a crack opens up

Where the man of thoughts

Always hesitates, the dreamer always moves

We see only what we can admit

In the eternal discourse of Man and Myth

Here I scratch old words out of hard stone

With broken fingernails while another stands

Beside me and puts a feather in his hair

A simple act can bridge the worlds

Where eyes burning black

Distinguish darkness

From the deeper dark


Below us the stream is not dumb

Speaking only the language of eternity

It is we who do not understand unless

Deep in the memory, something stirs

A solitary harebell is wide eyed,

Breathing in the world on the flood tide

Words were forged here out of fire

Long after imagination found dark caves

To ship the dead across the sea

And back again, returning endlessly

Reincarnation is only what the world offers us

Year by year by way of explanation

Making love between snow and snow


Still the words with every utterance seem to

Separate us always by a hairsbreadth

From the ones we truly know

The things we really want to say like

Currents flow between us

As between coastlines where

Salt water floods the eyes

We pick out truth from lies

Words clothe the world

But always shroud the instinct

And still we work our passage home

The only way back, the only way in

As Adam named the beasts so they became,

It’s the naming makes things real-

A gift for angels

What the angels want?

A handful of hazel nuts

Or the feeling of wet berries after rain that stain

Inky fingers, a nettles sting

All more potent than a prayer, these being precious things

A messenger calls, a dream unfolds

And we return with all

We have contrived to be of worth

Simple gifts, clay, corn, earth and

A brief song forged in work

Between our deaths we come to make

Our own annunciation

Black Sun  For Paul Celan


 Black sun rise, black water,

Dawns cold light

I knew Celan had died

By his own hand

Before I’d read a word

Of Margarete or Sulamith


Oh Poor Celan,

Scrape music from your violin,

Play up!

Even as death walks in and all about you laugh

We are too late for the gods

And too soon for being



Such strangeness,

How the artist holds us

His face haunted

Hard against the fire

Of our small anxieties,

Traversing worlds, he dances

Sees all things mythically;


Outside Eden men will always fight

Out among the third day mountains

Tight between Picasso

And the Tomb of Holbein’s Christ-

Christ if he were right

And we are all forsaken?

To make us aware of our destitution

Is that what the artist does?



Fintan Mac Bochra,

Sits alone in his chair

Where the paint chipped door remains

Forever unlatched

To welcome those who find him there

A stranger in their dreams


A slow, low embered fire

Lives in ash in the hearth

Where a small flame tongues

Words in ancient Gaelic, borne

Out of the double mystery

That comes with the incantation

Of fire and burning roots

The mystery of root

The mystery of fire

Entwined forever

Travelling way down…..


Motionless in the smoky downdraught

He asks those that enter for a feather

They do not possess

But never the matter

The body is warmed,

The psyche hovers peregrine

The man was a salmon once

When his wife and children died

Became an eagle

And a white hawk too

Changing the way light will

In a blowy autumn wood


Beyond the stream on the lake that was a mist

A swan glides into the form of a girl

With auburn hair curling to her hips

She has eyes that will turn a man to stone

He cannot name her,

Banbha, Fodhla, Eire.

No incantation would save him from her kiss

You have made me cold with neglect She said

Leaving him stone dead, departing with a hiss

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A Gift of Plums and Other Things

Way and weighing

Stile and saying

On a single walk are found.

Go bear without halt

Question and default

On your single pathway bound.        Martin Heidegger

Since moving here some three years ago, I have come to know the local countryside well and there is a particular walk that is especially important to me. There are detours I take sometimes, but the basic pattern is the same and the small tracks and fields are very familiar to me now.

As I look back through my notes, I notice how the walk has been such a steady and true companion over the years, how it has at times comforted me through great difficulty, given me space to think, to reflect, to take on things and let go of things, how it has lifted me up in moments of grace, gifted me real insights and despite its familiarity, frequently surprised me. It was Rilke who advised that we should each have a favourite tree to company us through dark times and this walk has been that tree like companion for me over the years.

A few days ago whilst wandering the familiar pathway I discovered a lone cherry plum tree hidden away in a hedgerow mainly of hazel and field maple. The wild plum tree had naturalised in the hedge from a pip that had fallen there somehow many years previously. The fruits of the wild cherry plum are smaller than commercial varieties, larger than the blackthorn sloes that were ripening nearby but with a similar velvety blue, black colouring-though they can appear sometimes as yellow. The discovery of the tree, laden as it was with its cargo of ripe fruit was both a surprise and gift-the fruit is delicious and it was all the better for being wild.

Picking the fruit reminded me of another discovery-this time of a quite unusual Mirabelle plum tree- which we came across beside an old and little used track several weeks previously at the edge of the Wiltshire downs. We had hoped to break our walk with lunch at a pub only to find that the pub had closed down-something that seems to have been the fate of several pubs in the local area in recent times as habits and ideas of community have shifted and changed. The Mirabelle had shed the majority of its fruit all over the track-a galaxy of small, bright yellow suns that were the best plums I have ever eaten and were our free and unexpected lunch. The Mirabelle is rare in England; I had never come across one before that day. A few are grown commercially in Essex and Suffolk  but their true home in Europe is France, the Mirabelle de Lorraine accounts for most of the commercial Mirabelle plums in the world and they are harvested primarily for jam and Eau-de-Vie.

We discovered the Mirabelle as we were making our way back towards the village of Codford St Peter which had been our start point for the day. The Parish Church is the home of a remarkable Saxon stone which we had gone to visit. The carved stone was discovered in the chancel of the church in 1864 and now resides in the sanctuary there. It is thought to date back at least to the 9th century and quite possibly much earlier. The carving is in Bath stone, the piece is slender and around 2 or 3 feet in height and shows what appears to be a dancing man looking up at the sky. In his left hand he is holding a rattle and in his right, a branch of alder. The images on the edges of the stone are less easy to distinguish but there is a small Saxon cross, a pair of eels, an otter and a pair of fish to the east whilst willows, honeysuckle buds and comfrey leaves decorate the western face.

It is a wonderful, almost mythic stone and it evokes a relationship with the surrounding landscape that is of such intimacy and vigour that it made me think more about the ideas of gift, celebration, feast, season and blessing. There are no comparable stones in England to offer us guidance about the meaning of the work. It does seem surely that he is performing some kind of dance; we might imagine a ritual or ceremony closely linked to fertility and harvest. Dance, song and celebration were key means by which the year and its tasks were marked in ancient times. William Anderson in his book, The Green Man writes;

‘Actions ritually performed become memorable, the ritual sets a pattern in the memory for the timing and due sequence of tasks and actions….they impressed essential knowledge of the phases of the moon, of gauging when to plough, when to sow, when to cut the hay, when to scythe the corn and how long to let it stand in stooks and when to kill the cattle before the winter set in’

The dancer dances the relationship between earth, land and people. It is part propitiation, part celebration and part practical action, feeding the communal memory, marking the key points of the yearly cycle. There is a sense of celebration in the dance, in the uplifted face. Perhaps we can recall the May Day celebrations-the exuberance of Beltaine as it was once known; the May Queen and the May Lord dancing about the hawthorn amidst uproarious dancing or the wassail, common still in Somerset.

Wassail, being a derivation of the Saxon word Haile, meaning health-may have been a celebration that our dancer would have been familiar with. Wassailing the apple orchard was an act of thanks, of blessing and reinvigoration, thanking the earth for the cider to come, thanking the tree in expectation of a healthy harvest. Three gunshots over the apple tree served to wake the orchard to the labour of another year. It was of course a time of feast and celebration too;

Wassail and wassail all over the town

The cup it is white and the ale it is brown

The cup it is made of the good ashen tree

And so is the malt of the best barley


Our Saxon holds a drum, lending the scene an almost shamanic quality and the alder is not in hand by chance. Alongside the willow, the alder is the tree of the waterways and rivers both of which like blood, give life to the land, so we might imagine an honouring here of the River Wylye itself that runs its course  close to the village. Indeed the willow and alder were considered King and Queen of the waterways; the alder was held in considerable esteem by ancient peoples because it appears to bleed when cut, its sap quickly turning red when exposed to the air. This quality meant the alder was considered sacred, a tree that represented both the generosity of the gods and the health of the land.

I like to imagine that we see gathered here in the multitude of symbols surrounding the man a cosmology of reciprocity. Reciprocity is about balance and the harmony of relationships, about reflexive action and correspondence. Harmony is assured through acts of renewal that recognise the principle of fair exchange. The dance is an act then, not merely born out of an age of ignorance and superstition, but rather a physics of renewal and sustainability in time and space, and it is an act of humility. The seasons and cycles are set more or less in their mighty ways  but there is always surprise in store in weather, in the favour of the spirits and the gods and the balance must be kept where it can through respectful and sometimes raucous intervention. We cannot expect fair weather and a good harvest without first preparing the way for it through the rituals we make and keep. A society without rituals is poorer for the loss. The act of the dance is so important here that craftsmen memorialised it in stone; an act of commemoration that bridges centuries of time and aeons of thought.

It is simply too easy to write off the dancer as a superstitious image borne out of pre-scientific magical thinking. There can be no feast without gods so there is a cultic element to the stone that speaks of an animate world, an enchanted place. Feasting and festival are divine acts always; they have a transcendent quality that speaks to us of the possibility of transformation. In a world marked out mostly for acts of survival the dancer points beyond the mundane world to something else. Such actions, imbued with meaning-the work of affective presence, are the hallmark of a society and a culture that is still in touch with the hidden, the very essence of reality.

The community must have been very familiar with the vagaries and uncertainties of rural life. Hunger would have been familiar, alongside sickness and death.  Hard work marked the days in the labours of ploughing, sowing, reaping and storing and the management of livestock. The community would have been skilled in managing every aspect of the farming year that was in their power to control. What we imagine here is a wider interpretation of what power is, where its sources are, what we see is the non-ordinary expression of a radical acceptance of the conditions of living, of the harmony and unity apparent in the world between man and a land still only partially tamed.

In the dancer we see how the community recognised the hidden or unseen aspect of the work, the spirit of the land and the relationship between land and community that must be kept healthy through acts of renewal, through voice and dance. In this way the absolute servitude of labour-work characterised by its usefulness for something else- is offset by the dancing which is an action that is simply meaningful in itself. As such it is a contemplative action as well as sacred, holy and divine- allowing the dancer and the community to be in relationship with the core of all things, ‘the hidden, ultimate reason of the living universe’.

We are always called to contend with the tension between what we know, what we can account for, what we can achieve with our own hands and our own knowledge, and the eternally mysterious aspect of life. Our Saxon points to a different kind of relationship to these tensions than is familiar to us today, and we might too easily dismiss it as foolish. Nonetheless, any time spent immersed in the countryside will make us think again about the mystery in which we find ourselves. We encounter the small mysteries as surprise in a hedgerow- and receive the gift of plums for which we give thanks-it is a simple enough kind of gift or grace. We meet mystery in the glimpse of a fox or a deer whose eyes startle us still in the deeper recesses of our ancient brains, or the sudden  eruption of birds that were stone still as we approached but lost their nerve at the last moment. In wild places we feel the way a stream moves in eternity;

We never have pure space in front of us,

Not for a single day, such as flowers open

Endlessly into…


So lamented Rilke; in the natural world we are still called to reconcile our different ways of knowing the world and we feel the distance that intellect alone cannot bridge. It is in the dancing that we come closer to the flowers’ experience,  through the rituals we create that embed us in the land, bless its many forms, mark time and space with movement and voices;

Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter

Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes

Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth


The favour granted by the spirit of the land for a good harvest is a thing bestowed, not calculated. The good will of the spirits cannot be guaranteed but it can be propitiated and blessed. We forget in times of abundance the very tight margins that allow our lives to be led in comfort.

I want to imagine our dancing Saxon as a man fully alive, inhabiting the world between the poles of feast and famine, life and death, the explicit and the hidden. dancing in ecstasy, beside himself even-as one touched by the gift of enthusiasm-the being filled by the gods, marking the season, sealing the memory of the community, propitiating and celebrating the New Year and the possibility of fertility, bridging the land, the community, the mystery in word and movement and a carefree abandon.

We cannot say when or in which moments the world will offer itself up to us more fully. The gift is always, must always, be a surprise, be it a harvest of plums, a field of mushrooms, the flash of a fox or a landscape that quivers out of the mundane for a moment into some extraordinariness that leaves us awed. We can walk out, we can pray for insight, we can and should give thanks for the wonder of the natural world but we should remember with good faith and humility that no matter how smart we are the gift is always withheld until it is given.

Still, I think we can walk with the possibility of such gifts in the way we live out our days in nature and know that our lives, that our souls will be the better for being touched by the small moments of sweetness that the natural world can give us. That we take ourselves out into the world in good faith, matters, since it makes the wonderful and the marvellous possible. That we carry with us on the single pathway bound a questioning and enquiring mind, matters too. That we mark seasons, transitions, the vegetative year with song, ale and dance matters, that we carry the drum and the alder, the world of otter, eel, fish and honeysuckle-carry them inside us, matters, not as mere sentiment, but as a holy task.

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Lessons From Hare

I love this land. The season here is turning. I love the way that the mist clings to the hills on the far side of the valley, there is a faint wind from the west and to me the trees, though still green, seem somehow relieved that the intensity of the summer is coming to an end. I am the same, the low cloud and gentle drizzle suits my mood.  It is the end of August. In modern times we still think of August in England as the summer, but our forebears, the Celts marked August as the first month of Autumn which feels more accurate when I am out wandering  or working  on the land and when I am in the weather. Everywhere the fruits of summer’s efforts are ripening. This year the valley-alongside the usual cattle pasture- is full of wheat-it gives the landscape a beautiful golden hue. The first blackberries are ready, rosehips too and with a closer look the still green leaves on the oak trees and in the hedgerows are showing the first signs of decay.

Chlorophyll is a word derived from the Greek; chloros and phyylon, meaning ‘green leaf’. It’s a quirk of nature and science that the leaf itself cannot absorb light from the green part of the electromagnetic spectrum, preferring blue and red, hence the reason that it is, or appears to us at least, as green.The leaf performs the alchemical labour of conversion;  sunlight into new growth and life and its brief greenness hides temporarily at least, the imperfections, markings and bruising’s, the yellow, brown blotches of the true leaf, that are always there, though lost to sight briefly in the exuberance of our spring and summer months. There is something revelatory about autumn, even-maybe especially, in its first utterings. Not that, but this, she says, neti, neti; not that, not that. Reminders of the Upanishads, the world forever changing.

This morning I took my familiar walk down the hill and then back up the combe, following the stream to its source below Creech Hill. The land that borders the stream has been divided into several fields, wide strips of pasture and meadow divided by pollarded hedgerows of mature hazel, beech and oak. The footpath meanders out of Spargrove and really peters out these days at the combe’s head but it is still joined- field by field for half a mile or so, by a series of stiles. There is a particular stile that I like to sit on for a while most days and this morning as I sat there I was greeted by a hare.

The hare is a wonderful animal and truly a wild-as well as mythical- creature. The hare is very shy-except in springtime-the mad march hare. In the real world it can run up to 35 mph. In the mythic world, the Irish consider the hare to be sidh-one of the fairy folk. This particular hare didn’t see me sitting still on the stile so today I was really gifted some considerable time in its company and in the feeling for the world it inhabits. Noting its physicality first- this adult hare is a strikingly big animal, about the size of a small dog. Its ears were long, oversized, and stuck up like a pair of brown, black feathers, always moving, always sensing the environment. Its markings were quite beautiful; thick, coarse fur that had in it every imaginable quality of brown, and patches of black about the legs and face. It moved gracefully enough, a kind of lolloping gait, nonchalant not knowing I was there, stopping, sensing, nibbling the grass, moving on, both deeply relaxed and exceptionally alert all at once.

What came to me as I watched the hare was the Celtic word ‘neart’. Neart really describes the ancient Celtic understanding of the creative life force that is understood to pervade the universe, to be found in all things. Neart as a cosmological principle recognises ours as an animate universe, one that is alive in every sense and form, constantly changing and shifting but forever present.

The Celts had a particular love of trees and woodland and these were places where neart could be closely felt and directly experienced.  In writing about the spirit of the American Redwoods, Stanley Coblentz wrote;

‘I think that could the weary world but know

Communion with these spirits breathing peace

Strangely a veil would lift, a light would glow

And the dark tumult of our lives would cease’

Trees reside within the flow of neart-they are vivid expressions of it, and I read in Coblentz’ words the elucidation of the relationship between neart and trees and the power of trees to heal; to speak to the dark tumult in our own lives. Trees, and more generally, nature as healer and guide would be typical in the Celtic understanding of the world and I love very much the image of the tree as a spirit breathing peace.

The Celtic Christians respected and embraced the concept of neart and re-homed it in their own understanding, speaking of the immanence or nearness of God in all things. In the Vita Tripartia, St Patrick said;

Our God is the God of all things, the God of sky and earth, the God of sea and stream, the God of sun and moon, the God of the great high mountains and the deep glens, the God above heaven, in heaven and under heaven.’

As the Irish monk and writer Sean O Duinn puts it;

‘Advancement in holiness, according to the Celtic way, involves an effort to develop an awareness of the presence of God in everything and everybody, above us, below us and all around us at the four points of the compass.’

The Celtic tradition share’s much in common with many indigenous traditions. Here we see O Duinn’s reference to the four directions and the invocation of a whole world of cyclical or seasonal thinking. The Celtic language, with its cyclical rhythm  is participative and inclusive and encompasses paradox; this and that not either/or, for them God is here and there.  It is, for me, a language which gives me place, an axis mundi from which to make sense and meaning of the world.

The Celtic people were called muintir na tuithe: People of the land. The land and its creatures were teachers as well as providers, protectors as well as food- forming and informing the world through constant movement  and flow. The hare as teacher?

Here in the valley I can hear the simple words of the Irish mythological text, Cath Maige Tuired

Spring for ploughing and sowing, and the beginning of summer for maturing the strength of the grain and the beginning of autumn for the full ripeness of the grain and for reaping it. Winter for consuming it.

These are the words of a culture, whose ears, over large like feathers, sense the landscape, the weather, the signs for what will give and renew life, honouring the cycles of life and death and the proper place for both.

The hare’s presence is what connected me to the principle of neart. I watched the way in which its ears constantly moved, absorbed in the world around it, every sense alert in every moment, absolutely awake to every sound and smell, noting the familiar, seeking out or perhaps better put-absolutely receptive to-the unfamiliar. Receptivity seems keen when life itself depends on it.

There was a quality in the animal that made it both distinct but at the same time indistinct-It was indeed hare-in the world and yet, it was so profoundly connected and immersed in the world around it that it seemed in another way-not separate or at least ephemeral. It was both hare-in-form- and yet also it was the unexpected expression of an eternal principle-it was like witnessing a single thread of an immense, inter-connected web, pulsing with brown black, hare-shaped life. In this space, the animate quality of the trees, the wind, the bird, the call of a buzzard, the cows moving like slow clouds in the distance-became at once apparent to me. Where does the hare end and the rest of the world begin?

When I finally moved, the hare showed its other neart quality-its capacity to shape shift. Neart, is the creative force of life; on- out, back and forth, forming, re-forming, melting and freezing.

We listen here in this place and what comes are echoes of the soul. Once a hare, now in a moment, a clump of grass, a bushel of wheat, an old rock-absolutely still, no longer itself and yet entirely itself but with dark black eyes that see everything. The hare is a fine exemplar of the universal principle of change.

I am reminded of the Welsh poet, RS Thomas’ Taliesin, which expresses the deep Celtic understanding of neart so beautifully;

 King, beggar and fool, I have been all by turns,

Knowing the body’s sweetness, the mind’s treason;

Taliesin still, I show you a new world, risen,

Stubborn with beauty, out of the heart’s need.

 Sitting on the stile, watching the hare, I saw the old world well today, ‘stubborn with beauty’. Perhaps we see such beauty in the times of greatest flux, the space between the seasons, the uncertain times. Here it is no longer summer. The days are shortening, the nights are cooler, the leaves are tinged, the corn full and waiting, old John Barleycorn. Yet it is not entirely Autumn-the leaf fall is still to come, not yet the rituals of smouldering fires and burnings, Samhain is still far off.

We are feeling the shifting of the season only gently but its certainty and the rhythm it evokes gives me a sense of calm and assurance. The green leaves of summer are only a brief mask, a brief monotony in the shape shifting of the leaf through the seasons, from bud unfurling, through the green months and then showing themselves in their ‘true colours, their blotched and decaying maturity, before the fall and return to earth. I look at my hands and see the slow decay there, the season gently shifting-inevitable. I welcome it.

The hare hunkered low as I walked very slowly past it and away along the track. Its huge feather ears were pinned back against its head, its unmoving eyes, watched me intensely, it was stone made animate. At some moment, it deemed me far enough away and ran for it, fast and low; it set off bounding for the hedgerow and having made it, stopped and considered me. I waved my thanks –the breeze made a slow sound like sidh in the trees and the hare was gone.

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The Woodland Garden

The Woodland Garden

I was talking with my brother on a recent car trip and the conversation got around to work. He asked me to try and describe clearly what it is that I do with leaders and leadership teams. We have talked about my work in vague terms many times before but he seemed to think the whole thing a bit of a mystery and wanted some better explanation. It was an interesting invitation-it’s something I find difficult to talk about- and I was quiet for quite a while-because it doesn’t lend itself easily to discursive thinking. As ever, once I got started, I found it really hard to get to what it was exactly that I do with those groups and individuals and it all sounded clumsy. Words came forward like listening, exploration, coaching, enquiry, emergence, but they sounded light weight and they lacked the purpose and meaning I feel when I’m ‘in the work’. I felt troubled and vague.

When he asked me what he would look up in the yellow pages to find me, I laughed out loud. I gave up. ‘I have no idea’. I replied.

The conversation turned to other things and eventually after a time, moved onto the woodland garden that my brother has created in the last couple of years at his home. I asked him to tell me more about it.

The woodland garden had originally been a vegetable garden, surrounded by grass. In the first few years after moving to the house, the veg grew well and the lawn was in pretty good condition. Over the years however, as the environment changed, the productivity of the land fell away year on year and the grass started to get mossy and fell into poor condition. The main reason behind the change was due to the growth of a line of trees in a neighbouring farmer’s field that now threw the area in to shade for much of the day.

We spoke about the moment when it was clear that something needed to happen or could happen-that movement from redundancy to opportunity. In the end it boiled down to a couple of choices; either get the farmer to cut down his trees or adapt the land to the new context. The former option was not viable as this was a new plantation and thus attention turned to the question of adaptation.

It took a while for the potential to become clear but in the end the clue was in the small number of trees that already occupied parts of the land-that were growing well despite the changing conditions. During the winter, the direction became apparent to my brother- it was clear; he could re-invent the space as a woodland garden and bring it to life in a different way.

Over the course of the winter he and his son took long walks in the surrounding woods and  collected fallen tree limbs and branches and began to create a pathway through the land, one that snaked and weaved with the contours of the land, creating a pattern that became clearer with time, that took shape, felt solid, felt ‘right.’ With the arrival of spring, the path was complete and at some point he brought in some woodchip to define the pathways clearly-using that specific material because it felt sympathetic to the principles of the developing project. Slowly over several months, he found specific trees that seemed right-that had the right ‘feel’ for the space and the planting began. As we were speaking in the car that afternoon, things were well advanced, the woodland garden was established where the vegetables had been and it was looking really beautiful.

We talked for a while about the relationship between planning and listening, the way the design first made itself known to him, how it occupied a space in his mind that was at once clear and yet emergent, liable and vulnerable to change and adaptation as the eye sought and found possibility in the space. It was, I suggested, a living project defined in the space between the land itself, its inherent limitations and possibilities and his  capacity to think laterally and to hold uncertainty in a creative and playful way. It was not something he had considered but he agreed with it. It was a project that wanted to happen and that had its own life force.

We were quiet again for some time after he told the story. I was struck by the joy with which he shared the story; the experience itself was a pleasure-something that I have reflected on since in relationship to questions of purpose and meaning. However, something else fundamentally important happened as I listened. A sense of clarity came to me. After a while I laughed and said,

‘What you just described- that’s what I do in my work with leaders and leadership teams- that was a perfect description.’

‘People talk to me when the vegetable garden has stopped producing vegetables and when the grass has got covered in moss. Conditions have changed. So we sit together and we wait to see what else we could do with the space- what else wants to happen. The analogy is a good one.’

‘Old things must die off in their time and space needs to be made for whatever wants to come forward-the work is to sit very quietly- just like you did and hear what wants to happen-to notice the conditions-then follow what wants to emerge- into existence-in your case a forest garden is what wanted to happen-now its thriving.’ That’s what I do, I said.

We both laughed-it was one of those aha! moments and one i shall not forget. We both understood each other a little bit more that day-we both got what i do as though for the first time. We share a lot in common-for which I am always grateful.

‘One thing though,’ I said, ‘I still have no idea what heading you would give it in the yellow pages!’

‘Three words come to mind’, replied my brother; ‘deep, creative, potential’.

I like that.

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Wholeness and Reciprocity: Lessons in Life and Leadership from Bainbridge Island

Authentic leaders in every setting aim at liberating the heart, their own and others, so that its powers can liberate the world Parker Palmer

Last month I was staying on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound. I was there to begin a journey that will span the year, joining 30 other souls from around the world on the Academy for Leaders Programme run by the Centre for Courage and Renewal. Before the retreat began I paid a visit to the grave of Chief Sealth, later known as Chief Seattle whose name was given to the city I could see across the water. Looking across the sound from the little graveyard, my imagination felt the span of time and the relationship between two very different worlds. The words that boundary his grave are taken from a speech that he gave in 1854 and they came to me as an invitation to think about what it really means to be a leader, they  spoke deeply to what I had come to explore on the island;

Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch.

Walking later along the silent shore of the sound, I began to think about the kind of leadership that Chief Seattle described in these words. What does it mean to walk with a barefoot consciousness, a barefoot heart and a barefoot mind on the earth? Seattle’s cosmology was living, animate and interdependent. It was a world in which human feet walked as relations amongst the ensouled stones and the dust.  What must it have been like to live and breathe, to sense and feel from this ‘hallowed’ place, to live so respectfully?

For Seattle, every grove and plain was hallowed. To hallow means to set apart as holy, to be intimately and sensually whole. Seattle describes a world where everything is holy thus illuminating a paradox that sets apart each holy thing in a universe in which all is holy, wholes are part of larger wholes.  The depth and quality of a life lived in such reciprocity with the natural world, with such a sense of responsibility and freedom must have been extraordinary.

It seems a tall order for the western mind, the western consciousness to be able to take off its shoes and feel the aliveness of the world again. Yet, it seems to me that the work of leadership today is intimately bound with our capacity to recover and re-imagine the principles of which Chief Seattle spoke.  We must learn to call this capacity for wholeness forward again into our lives and our work, from the earth, from the ancestors from within ourselves.

A Spiritual Crisis

Our understanding of leadership today is intimately connected with big questions about the future of the earth itself. There are so many crises that require good leadership. When I reflect on the root of the crises that we face today it seems that the source of the trouble is not material but spiritual. Chief Seattle’s primary orientation saw the world as holy first, as whole and interdependent and as such, fundamentally spiritual in nature. We sense in the Chief’s words a balance between spirit and matter. This understanding of the nature of reality has been largely lost, certainly as a determinant of good leadership and this must be a profound concern.

In a wonderful essay from Pendle Hill titled Integrity, Ecology and Community, the Quaker writer Jennie Ratcliffe puts it this way;

At the heart of this crisis is a profound-yet false-belief in separation, a way of viewing the world that creates distances, dualities, polarities, oppositions, enemies, shadows and demons

I liken the Chief’s way of seeing with Thomas Merton’s understanding of Tao. He said;

…The way is still ours, but we do not know it since the effect of life in society is to complicate and confuse our existence, making us forget what we really are by causing us to become obsessed with what we are not.

William Stafford in his final poem ‘The way it is’, spoke about the relationship that each of us has with the threads of our lives. Whilst we hold the thread he re-assures us- we can’t get lost. Suffering and death will come our way of course, but they will unfold within a greater reality. The thread speaks to us of relationship with the vastness of reality; it speaks to a sense of place. The thread and our place in the world offer up a central metaphor for our relational lives and this has implications for our sense of leadership. That we have lost our collective thread seems clear.

Integrity and wholeness

Standing at the grave of the old Chief, another word really stood out for me as a summary of the man and his relationship to the world; integrity. The word integrity, in its deepest sense, points to a state of wholeness, to the unity and sacredness of life, the oneness of all that is, to a relationship with the world that is, as Martin Buber suggested,  I-thou rather than I-It.

Integrity as a principle makes certain assumptions about the world, specifically the primacy of the principle of unity. Unity contains multiplicity. Put this way, Integrity is another paradox, a condition that contains both the principles of unity and differentiation, that acknowledges our individual experience but also the thread of connection that binds us and all things, that lies hidden from our ego position and yet is a truth known intimately to the soul.

The Quality of Reciprocity

Reciprocity lies at the heart of integrity and wholeness and it was, as I imagine it, a principle that underpinned Chief Seattle’s world view, his profound understanding of the inter-relatedness of all life. In her essay, Jennie Ratcliffe identifies four qualities or aspects of reciprocity that provide us with touchstones for reflection on our own experience and practice as leaders.

The first aspect she suggests is that every part of the universe is connected, inter-dependent and co-creative-as she puts it so beautifully, it is our nature to be connected with nature. This insight is shared by every wisdom tradition in the world and it is very specifically at the core of Chief Seattle’s cosmology.

The second aspect is that the nature of reciprocity is Love.

I remember once watching an interview with Seamus Heaney. He spoke about how he rarely used the world love in his work. He described it as a ‘big ‘word.  I think Love, named in this context is the sense in which Heaney understood it. Love is a big word, big enough in fact to take on our biggest contradictions and hold them all fiercely. It takes real courage to understand and embrace the implications of this kind of love as a guiding principle in our lives.

Love in this reading of it is indeed a fierce condition.  Beyond our understanding of love as a feeling, love in its deepest sense is a state of mind, an attitude, that gets beyond the conditional love which only separates, bargains, demands of others and is capable of hate. Ratcliffe calls love the Great Attractor, it is not something we have but rather, something we live.

Love in the universal meaning is a state of being in relation, response and responsibility. Love is not opposed to hate or to what we call evil; it is that universal force that liberates from the dualistic cycle of love and hate, good and evil.

From this perspective, love is what allows us to carry and own our light and our shadow, to bring them forward as partners in the world, transforming not denying hate, giving us the courage to embrace otherness and others, and transform ourselves in genuine service to our deepest callings whatever they may be. We are asked to attend to what love requires of us and in this was we re-imagine the role of our ego in the deeper process of discernment.

The third aspect of reciprocity is like creates like. Put simply, violence begets violence. We understand from this perspective that the ends and the means are the same. We will never arrive at the truth by deceptive means and the end will reflect the means we use. There is a lawfulness here that surely contains a kind of ethics and morality but again it has a universal quality to it and demands much of us as we seek to understand its principle in our lives and our work.

Finally reciprocity imposes limits. We can experience this principle easily in the natural world. We see this in a forest for example, the way a tree grows in relationship to its surroundings co-responding to the environment with intelligence that reflects balance, sufficiency and proportionality. As with the tree, as with all living, complex systems including human systems;

In human societies, individual freedom of action and competition must co-exist with responsiveness and responsibility if there is to be overall cooperation and stability rather than conflict and instability. Reciprocity imposes limits that are essential if harmony, balance and the integrity of the whole are to be maintained

In these four principles I get a sense of the four cardinal points of a reciprocal life as I imagine it might have been lived by Chief Seattle. It was a tragic fact that the settlers who took the chief’s land had apparently lost or foregone that sense of reciprocity, what the Quaker John Woolman described as ‘the motion of love’.



Concluding thoughts

Chief Seattle spoke his words as a great darkness fell on his people and on the world but even then he was present to the turning tide of humanity, demonstrating a profound understanding of the cycles of life that have brought us to the place we find ourselves today, nearly two centuries on.

Acknowledging the end of the trail for his own people he said;

Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see.

Sad to say, our time of decay is no longer distant. Our time has come. Perhaps our fates will indeed make us brothers again for brothers we are, our destinies intertwined today in ways that no one could predict those many years ago.

Standing at the graveside of Chief Seattle one thing was very clear to me. The new leadership that I hear being called for so much today is not new;  what’s new are the circumstances in which we are called to lead; these are certainly unprecedented times.

Chief Seattle spoke his words as a leader 160 years ago and they describe a cosmology of leadership that is both universal and timeless as great wisdom always is. The lessons we can draw from his life and words are absolutely alive today though we have lost our connection with them for many generations. Nonetheless, it seems that wholeness as a core aspect of organisational life and leadership is beginning to take root again in our own times of extraordinary change. We are being called to recognise that unity is a greater force than utility. We are beginning to understand that to thrive as human beings we need to live and work in environments that bring us to life, that speak to our imaginative forces, our passion and our power to live in the state we call love.

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Late Winter Poetry

The poets work:


New Year’s Eve, 1968, sober.

After the death of his mother,

the poet regrets The lifelong struggle to leave her.

There is still, the beauty of his work,

Rune lit, Lux Perpetua,

A growing discipline of labour

Four hours every morning,

pen and ink

Weaving land and sea, stitching silk

Casting out the tides  

In rhythmed imageries

Shoring up depression


In a solitude as quiet as

A dark pool on the moor    



This afternoon after late snow

I crouch Near invisible, eased into the river bank

As much mud as man, hidden to all but myself

Dog walkers pass unaware of the slow moving action here

Water tails off the weir, heaves itself around the fallen tree

All effort in the icy blue, and me, fishing quiet as a stone;

I watch the rod tip, arced against the last splash of sun

Hands cold, unmoving, the animate heron, I hold a fine line

Between the worlds and wait.

  I am too small

I am too small for the immensity

Of the third day mountains

The Dead Mole and its Pennine shoulders

I am too small for the unveiled Bhairavic world

We don’t need the face to face terror of the gods

To be overwhelmed

Only touch the mind of the pre-dawn deer

Unsettling leaves here

Under thin moonlight biting blue

Touch only this And you will know

The way the earth breathes in and out

Beyond astonishment and doubt  



No day for inside

The sun splashed gold

Canvases the sky, calls me out

And the valley pregnant with mists, drifts

Like snow over

Grey lakes elevates the hills to the stature

Of holy mountains

Where I stand alone, now and new

In the nakedness of dawn, the first light is

Always the time before the Fall, before the world of men

Can catch my nakedness and only then, call it nude.


  Stone boat

The poet knows that a stone boat

Will travel sea lanes with cargoes of tiny flowers

Solid stone bursts with life that only silence hears

The poet carries this knowledge over many years

Bearing meaning in the weight of small things

Chipped out of stone that stood forever waiting for the hand

Each rune knows its place before it is laid down

Let us not lose the torque shape of words

Let us not lose the runic dragons gaze

That bridges life and death,


For winters darkest days    


Bird and god

Blood orange sun at dawn

The valley thick with shovelled mist

A benediction of light 

Nothing moves

The taught earth 

Knows the names of all the gods

Sees them all through the eyes

Of a solitary bird,

Facing eastwards  


Willow Spring

The hazels drip new embers flicker flame

The willow tree blazes up with stars, a

Whole universe appears to promise spring

But low clouds, snag and settle in the hills drift,

The track slides and slicks towards home

After rain and sleet, houses puddle together under sodden slates

Barely real bedraggled under a bruised sky ink blots of weather

Keep winter in though the willow would have it otherwise  


An afternoon walk

The world is silence in the ageing mind

Here words mouth in wordless feelings rhyme and

Fall like fine dew

Dampen our jackets and shoes, saying

Follow me, follow the way that leads

Where the feeling leads, subtle as a watercourse

A hundred feet beneath our feet

We wait by the roadside of memory and admire the view

Hearing the water, the two of us,

Allowing the spring inside to rise

And touch our childish eyes  



The world spins into life, gleams bright

Out of thick imaginations pulse

Things reveal their lucidity in quiet moments

Such as these the mountain and me

Seeing one another for what we are

Mountain as mountain

Man as man

Nothing more than this and the

Quiet drum that beats between our lives  


 The rabbi and the salmon

A friend was telling me about a trip up

North to Canadian waters,

Whale territory, salmon territory

Wild and all About the kayaks

Salmon leaping

Raising the question

Why do salmon leap?

After much discussion

The conclusion was that

Science does not hold the answers

No-one knows the salmon’s secrets.

Only later

Around the firelight of wild minds

An old rabbi leaning in from a long

Silence spoke how the answer had

Found him as things will in remote places,  

In a dream;

A simple thing Salmon leap to stitch the worlds together again.

That is all.

The world relaxed.

The men relaxed, the answer fit.

Obvious when you think of it.  


Yes and No

I watch yes circumnavigate the circle

Becoming no awhile then turning back again

In alternating courses

Beauty becomes ugliness

Happiness calamity

The clouds have turned to rain 

I stand beneath the big firs wondering

Is there any other way than this?

Of making things turn out marvellous.  


Sea Fog

In a dense fog the whole world

Becomes still and the space between worlds thins,

Beyond the trees an otter swims,

And wavelets suck the shoreline for the ten

Thousandth year

Bones become sand very slowly.

The ferry sounds its horn whale deep, 

It echoes long, hunts the forest then is gone


Pen and ink

Each moment

Slipping between sunlight and deep water

Porpoising between the worlds

Blowholes and soundings

Joy and despair

Rise and fall away

On their own tides

I don’t understand it.

In the silence of fasting

When even the stomach is stilled

A single thought might form as clearly

As a drop of light,

To make a word

The monk listens to himself

Empties himself entirely

Before the pen finds any ink

The dust falls undisturbed  


The Maze

A maze under trees

We walk out on a patterned sea

We navigate currents that carry us

 Far and near,  Never wholly separate

though it might appear so

To the untrained eye

We follow our feet and walk besides each other

Then part like solitary pilgrims,

Feel our aloneness, know we are not alone

Pay attention To the path,

The proximity and distance

Of our lives is not what it appears

Our lives both ours and not our own,

The path unfolds

The centre always holds

The purpose of arrival is return  


Peter Williams (Suquamish)

Peter Williams,

Not his native name

Blind from birth

Oarsman, Fisherman,

Master Carver In his spare time

A friend of the killer whale

They say he navigated his canoe

Solely by the stars  



For the longest time after her death

He wrung his hands

Like a tolling bell, black and

Aching with despair

I cannot say why or where that changed

When the wringing stopped  

How the hands stopped making fists

To form a prayer, a kiss

How he opened himself again

 Like a flower to the world

That met him there and smiled

I am here  



I was born in the year of the whale

Giant lumps of thunder and night

Oil and meat

Perhaps this accounts for why

I dream

The whale so much

Though I only ever saw them once  

In the wild seas off Cape Town and Good Hope

Breaching and lob tailing  

Southern Wrights,

Me breathless,

We making tracks for Home

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To Live Fierce with Reality:

The following blog was first published on the Centre for Courage and Renewal Site in early 2015-they are personal reflections on the influence of Parker J Palmer’s work on my own life and career in leadership development.

I Want to Live Fierce with Reality and Lead Who I Am

by Nick Ross

My work with leaders takes me all over the world and puts me in the company of men and women with tremendous responsibilities in the world of business. I work with major corporations at very senior levels, providing educational programmes; workshops and retreats, around themes of self-development.

At first blush it’s a stark contrast to my ‘first career’, which involved working with addictions, homelessness, social disadvantage and the UK prison system.  I say ‘at first blush’ because as the years have gone by I’ve come to notice how much of life is a deeply shared experience. I meet as much addiction and as much confusion in a corporate meeting as I ever did in a homeless shelter. The suffering is acute wherever soul and self are divided.

There are thousands of books written about leadership every year; it’s not news to say that leadership is big business. There are so many definitions that try to speak to what leadership actually is, but it’s difficult to define since it’s clearly not one thing. Leadership shifts with the identity and integrity of the leader. A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer, when I first read it, gave me some clues around the subject that felt honest, true and real to me and are now foundational to my work.

My work is not about helping leaders develop new techniques or clever methods to be more productive, get results or become more efficient or effective. Maybe that will happen as a byproduct of our time together, but it’s not the root of the work. For the people I work with, the greatest concerns are in the tension they feel day to day between the life within and the life around them.

In an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, many of the people I work with feel anxious, vulnerable and overwhelmed. Overwhelm in fact is probably the biggest private concern that executives share, along with fear and the behaviours that they adopt to try to keep things together.

When I travelled to San Francisco for my first retreat I was looking for a programme and methodology that I could apply in my work. But when I immersed myself into the depths of the work itself, I realized that the work is really about me. As the soul speaks so things start to change.

I asked myself: how does this apply to the way I actually live my life, the sense of integrity or division I actually feel? what does it mean to ‘let me life speak’, to allow my vulnerability to open me, even break me towards the one gift I really have to offer which is my self-hood, my wholeness? These are the questions I am still sitting with and living into today.

I remember reading a quote somewhere by Florida Scott Maxwell: “You need only claim the events of your life to make them yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, you are fierce with reality.”

What I have come to know is that I want to live fierce with reality—that this is my birthright. And such an undertaking requires, as T.S. Eliot put it, “nothing less than everything.” It helps me as a facilitator, as a son, as a friend, but it’s most essential because it gives me ground to stand on as I am.

There is a tremendous difference between using the work (any work) for the benefit of others, and actually embracing the work itself, owning it. A poem that speaks to me deeply around this is called “The little ways that encourage good fortune” by William Stafford.

Wisdom is having things right in your life
and knowing why.
If you do not have things right in your life
you will be overwhelmed:
you may be heroic, but you will not be wise.
If you have things right in your life
but do not know why,
you are just lucky, and you will not move
in the little ways that encourage good fortune.

The saddest are those not right in their lives
who are acting to make things right for others:
they act only from the self–
and that self will never be right:
no luck, no help, no wisdom.

I am starting to appreciate what Stafford was saying. Wisdom is having things right in your life and knowing why. Not nice in your life, not happy or good even, but right.

What does doing courage work mean for me? Most of all it has involved coming to terms with aspects of my own life I have not been able to own for a very long time. I have begun to find the courage to embrace my longstanding struggle with depression and the additional suffering caused by decades of self-medicating to keep the pain out and the show on the road.

I see now what I could not see before and that is perhaps the greatest gift of all in circle of trust. I feel vulnerable to my truth in a new way, but strangely, that vulnerability has not crossed a line into shame, which had been a long familiar companion to me in my life; familiar, stifling and distressing.

Today, more and more, I find that I lead who I am, I teach who I am, I befriend and coach and am the son and father and partner as who I am. I am learning the art of digesting. Digestion, I am discovering, takes time; it cannot be rushed or bullied by anyone’s agenda—even my own ego’s. It is more than integration and it requires silence and stillness, solitude and friendship.

I notice through my own direct experience that when I feel and allow the current of my life to move through me, when I let self and world meet in a spirit of love, discovery and exploration, that I feel a freedom I have rarely known, that I feel true, honest and real. I am aware at times of a feelinga feeling of faith really, a trustingthat the greatest gift I can offer in any moment is my Self-hood, and this is the pearl of great price.

To paraphrase a poem by James Autry, my life is becoming my work: We do what we know we must do, we nurture the threads of our lives and respect the lives of those we meet and work with as the most important act of leadership—we do all this…and business takes care of itself.

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Life after Success: The Challenge of Executive Education at Mid-life

Life after Success:  The Challenge of Executive Education at Mid-life

 ‘I learned this at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unimagined in common hours’  Thoreau (Walden)

The issue of legacy (including questions of continuing vocation, self- development towards maturity and preparation for retirement) raise profoundly interesting questions for late career Executive Development and for the wider role of organisations in developing people who may be able to continue to contribute to organisational goals in broad terms and in meaningful ways beyond the ordinary life span of their time ‘in the firm’.

Currently it is fair to say that organisations provide an environment that is attractive to a certain level of human development. Traditional educational opportunities within business typically expand people primarily towards levels of greater effectiveness in achieving core organisational ends:  the primary goal of organisational education is thus to develop individuals to become more capable of driving and delivering core business goals.

One very interesting challenge within the current learning and development model arises with regard to the unmet needs of the extensive cohort of highly developed late career senior executives whose roles, values and ambitions often begin to shift away from those of the broader organisation as deeper questions about life, values and meaning begin to alter.

Eventually most organisational business frameworks will prove too small to contain the aspirations of those senior executives whose goals have shifted towards questions of shared meaning , vocation and legacy rather than the next promotion, increasing profitability and the achievement of personal economic security-all of which represent legitimate and important though ultimately limited goals in early stage career development.

As experienced individuals grow towards greater stages of mental complexity and as pressing and often challenging life questions start to emerge a necessary tension begins to arise between the individual and the organisation.

The re-evaluation of personal goals is natural in the second half of life and will arise as a felt movement towards, what depth psychologists defines as, the personal individuation project, essentially the re-claiming by a person of the personal authority for their lives in post-conventional terms. Late career very often coincides with the individual’s entry into mid-life, a process that is psychological and spiritual in nature and is dictated less by the Greek concept of Chronos (worldly time) and more by the principle of time as Kairos (time that is opportune). It is a period of transition that is usually both enriching and extremely challenging and one that really encourages the individual in becoming psychologically and spiritually mature.

As stated, such urges or callings towards the reclamation of personal authority are concomitant with the psycho-spiritual process of individuation or maturation and also by the stage changes referred to in business literature and research as self- authoring or self-transforming. Typically, this profound calling to change will be accompanied by certain emotional or behavioural indicators typical of mid-life. The role of the organisation in addressing this period of life and career is largely unstated and unclear, but there may well be considerable value in organisations directly supporting individuals to re-assess or re-frame their experiences and then articulate a new vision that could extend the functional and creative relationship between individual and organisation for the greatest benefit and for the longer term.

This raises questions about the appropriate current and future role of organisations in supporting or directing an individual’s personal growth, learning and development as a ‘human good’ and in the relationship the organisation has or should have in meeting the needs and tensions between  a members professional and personal life. Globalisation has brought rapid change to the operating contexts in which many senior executives work today. As levels of complexity, volatility and uncertainty escalate, so demands grow on the leaders own capacity for self-regulation, self-awareness and greater perceptual acuity. This has seen some development in the way that L&D is regarded within organisations, a recognition that executives need more development opportunities to better manage in transformational times. That said, in most cases still,  primary organisational goals, its culture and the world view that underpins its activities and define its measures of success represent a natural constraint and limitation to the emphasis placed on supporting the personal growth of its members. Personal development is seen largely as an individual concern and separate from business objectives. In most cases personal development is not a core educational objective beyond developing effectiveness for task delivery and outside this scope is not necessarily encouraged nor is it seen necessarily as a good per se.

Currently, in many cases tensions over continued shared values, meaning and purpose as well as diminishing opportunities lead to fractured relationships between senior executives and the organisation. In some-perhaps many cases- the really good people leave and this represents a double loss:

  • Highly talented, creative individuals who leave the workplace often after a long career and ill-equipped for the tremendous psychological re-adjustment required for successful integration of their private individuation project alongside the trauma of retirement and
  • The loss to the organisational talent pool of an extraordinary resource that could yet have offered real contributions in the form of legacy projects potentially nested within an expanded organisational business framework.

Re-imagining the relationship between the organisation, those late career executives that are seeking to leave a legacy and the wider social and environmental   context in which the organisation exists in fact offers a tremendous opportunity for companies and individuals to make a really positive contribution and difference to the long term future of the communities in which they work whilst addressing wider social and environmental concerns. At best it provides an opportunity for an organisation wide re-imagining of the relationship to the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.

Recycling the extraordinarily talent embodied by senior executives with diverse, transferable skills and a high degree of maturity towards new opportunities represents an excellent expression of higher order values within any organisation providing opportunity for individuals with a sense of vocation, drive and a service orientation to use and share their talents in a spirit of legacy within meaningful, financially responsible projects, either individually or  sponsored by the organisation itself.

The counter-intuitive assumption here is that it is actually entirely appropriate and natural for an individual to outgrow the firm’s primary operational and learning frameworks as their own mental complexity and maturity develops and  important questions pertaining to meaning emerge in the second half of life.

Educational opportunities that allow individuals to address the psychological changes common to the second adventure of life; to re-frame their experience, to understand, to integrate, to imagine future opportunities within new contexts and to prepare for life after a successful first career are an entirely appropriate offer –one might argue responsibility-within any organisation. The individual power and potential that can pour out of a person in touch with vocation was captured by CG Jung;

Vocation is an irrational factor that destines one to emancipate oneself from the herd and from well-worn paths. True personality is always a vocation and puts its trust in it as if in divinity despite its being, as an ordinary person would say, only a personal feeling. But vocation acts like a law of divinity from which there is no escape. The fact that many who go their own way end in ruin means nothing to one who has vocation. Each of us must obey his own law as if it were a daimon or tutelary spirit whispering to him of new and wonderful paths. Anyone with vocation hears the voice of the inner person. Such a person is called.

One wonders about the potential reciprocity and benefit that might be available in the relationship between a liberally minded organisation, a person called and a community in need.

Practically speaking, at the level of the individual, thoughtful late career executive education will take into account the typical psycho-spiritual work appropriate for the second half of life. As has been stated, the second half of life really presses one to become more psychologically and spiritually developed. There is an assumption here, that the tendency of the human being is to move towards a sense of wholeness that orientates itself to two key areas of understanding: the integration of one’s own autobiographical story into a wider narrative without the story itself becoming sovereign and the cultivation of a meaningful relationship with mystery, a real sense that we are not the source of all our knowledge; At a certain point Individuals feel the need to take responsibility for their lives in their own unique way. Questions relating to an ethical foundation for life, to meaning, to values and to vocation will be typical of this period as will the relationship with those aspects of experience that seem to confound the rational ego, variously referred to as relationship with the ‘radical other’ or the divine-in short, the development of what Carl Jung would describe as a mature spirituality.

From an organisational standpoint, A mature invitation to the individual will seek to enhance that person’s on-going contribution to the firm by providing a robust psychological framework for further practice and opportunities to develop purposeful projects within or outside the organisation for the wider ‘common good’ . Ideally, though not inevitably, projects (perhaps in the form of Foundations) would be one’s that the firm itself sponsors, bringing to bear its surplus talent, time, wealth and resource for the common good.  Such a reciprocal arrangement could provide a win in three clear ways by:

  • Providing organisations with an opportunity to capitalise on their best human capital; allowing the organisation to continue to work in partnership with its best executive talent who might find authentic reasons to remain with the organisation as part time, split time or retiree contributors-working as mutually supportive resources for projects that can thrive outside the framework of the day to day business of the firm.
  • Supporting local communities through the development of meaning and vocation based legacy projects tied to wider social, ecological and environmental needs thereby addressing questions of social responsibility in meaningful ways.
  • By enabling individual executives to purposefully and safely address the challenges typical to the psychological processes related to the individuation project and the longer term process of retirement.
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Interpersonal Leadership for the 21st Century

Epoch of Transformation: An Interpersonal Leadership Model for the 21st Century

Nick Ross


”There is nothing in the world that does not have its decisive moment, and the masterpiece of good conduct is to see and seize this moment.” Cardinal de Retz

“Psychology must be gained for it is not given and without psychological education we do not understand ourselves and we suffer”. James Hillman 1926-2011


Existing and emergent global challenges are placing ever greater demands on leadership today. In order to meet those challenges more effectively, there is a growing need for leaders to overcome the limitations of existing ways of thinking and operating. As the external world becomes more complex and uncertain, leaders must become more conscious of the nature of their own interior world, including the varieties of inner states, experiences and resources available to them to meet difficult and often ambiguous demands in more balanced and integrated ways. Tremendous contextual changes in fields including business, socio-economics, and politics raise fundamental questions about the actual purpose and practice of leadership today. There is an evolutionary impulse emerging today that invites a reappraisal of existing executive leadership models as well as an honest, creative dialogue between traditional and non-traditional disciplines. Evidence presented in the first paper seeks to develop this idea and suggests that different practices are available from a rich diversity of fields that could enhance leadership development.

Part 2 of this article will build on this theme in more detail and address the question of practical application. Drawing on personal experience and examples from his work with senior executives, the author will propose a series of practices designed to support both leaders and facilitators in cultivating a dynamic interpersonal leadership practice.



The central argument of this paper rests on the following assumption: that the ability to reconcile the tension between a leader’s external and inner worlds is fundamental to 21st century leadership development (Jironet xii). Put another way, the psychological health of the leader will be a key differentiator in coming years. The external world is characterised as being essentially uncertain, complex, and subject to constant change. These are also characteristics of the leader’s inner landscape. It is the capacity to find alignment, coherence, and a dynamic harmony within and between these inner and outer states that reflects the leader’s capacity for greater mental complexity. The ability to self-organise across an array of mental states towards high levels of effectiveness in the world is critical for today’s leader.

The assumption is that the range and nature of worldwide challenges is so great and so different from previous experience that leadership development needs to be fundamentally redefined and reorganised in ways that mark this time as one of authentic transition–an “epoch of transformation” as Thomas Kuhn described it (in Holloway, 111). Einstein was correct when he said that our current problems cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created them. The model presented here offers a frame for further research and discussion towards a new model of executive leadership practice.


Interpersonal Leadership

Business as usual will not be sufficient in coming decades. Leadership capability will be a key differential in the future, and this will require a new and different emphasis on the leader’s capacity for development. I have used the term Interpersonal to describe this model. interpersonal leadership reflects an approach to leadership development that is new and different for two reasons.

Firstly, the term interpersonal recognises that each of us as individuals is made up of a multiplicity of selves or states. We show up to situations in different ways depending on the context. A woman who turns up to lead a board meeting is in a real sense, different from the same woman who tells a bedtime story to her child. According to Daniel Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, the key to wellbeing lies in our capacity for collaboration across interior states required to meet a broad diversity of contexts not always consistent with one another. For the purpose of this model I refer to each of the leadership functions proposed here as states, as Siegel defines them. In using the term wellbeing, I am referring specifically to the development of mental complexity, resonance, and flow. This model will present four states that could work collaboratively to support greater wellbeing in this context.

Secondly, the term interpersonal references the principle of collaboration between diverse disciplines across an array of fields, leading towards more integrated and complex levels of understanding among individuals, groups and organisations. Interpersonal leadership invites diversity of thought and experience. It seeks to find common and new ground between existing practices and other, non-traditional learning frameworks. Thus, interpersonal leadership has both outward and inward movement based on principles of diversity, cooperation, harmony, and integration.

 An Epoch of Transformation

Education always takes place within an existing framework or paradigm that defines the nature of self and reality and sets boundaries based on those assumptions around learning objectives and methodologies. In his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn reflects on the nature of paradigms. Kuhn notes that the history of science is marked as one of long periods of peaceful and stable research interspersed with brief, sudden ”epochs of transformation” (in Holloway 111). Each scientific revolution creates a new paradigm–a new worldview that forms an evolutionary description of reality. It is considered to be the truth. The paradigm remains for as long as it holds, and it is the persistence of unexplained anomalies that creates further crises. The vital point is that this process of change, adaptation, maintenance and collapse is not restricted to science but is common to all human knowledge (and life) in general. The implication of this is important–there is no final and absolute truth, but only a continuous unfolding evolutionary process with no end, always moving to overcome its own restrictions and limitations towards ever greater levels of complexity.

We can argue that executive development could and even should aim to model itself as an evolutionary process towards ever greater complexity and that it too is subject to periods of relative stability followed by epochs of transformation as old truths run up against persistent unexplained anomalies that force the hand of change.


A good deal has already been written about the nature and depth of the global crises we face in every field. These include energy resources, population growth, problems of obesity and starvation, food and water shortages, climate change, socio-political upheaval and profound economic uncertainty. These are highly complex times, challenging and difficult in ways and degrees that were inconceivable in earlier days of leadership development. The fundamental anomaly we face today lies with the struggle for leaders to meet these multiple and diverse problems effectively and with an eye to the long term. Important research highlights the problem.

Describing the tectonic shifts in the global marketplace and their implications within a leadership context, Cam Danielson notes the following:

Recent times have been dominated with technological innovations that connect people instantaneously around the world resulting in massive migrations of people (both digitally and physically) beyond their tribal or cultural boundaries. At the same time there have been major political changes such as the growth of the European Union; the breakup of the Soviet Union; the accelerated industrialization of China, India, and Brazil; and the emergence of radical Islam. The transformation of values in our age has been dramatic… A dynamic, global environment becoming more complex with less clarity of outcome creates the greatest degree of ambiguity and instability for collective endeavor of any kind.

The evidence suggests that leadership in the emergent world will need to be highly adaptable and creative, able to cope with extremes of complexity and ambiguity across cultural, political, economic and philosophical boundaries.

The 2009 IBM study, Capitalising on Complexity: Insights from the Global CEO, based on face-to-face conversations with more than 1,500 chief executive officers worldwide, anticipates a sea change in the priorities of CEOs. It draws upon four very important sets of conclusions in relation to complexity and creativity for emerging leadership:

  • Today’s complexity is only expected to deepen;
  • More than half of CEOs doubt their ability to manage this greater complexity;
  • Better performers manage complexity on behalf of their organizations, customers, and partners; and
  • Creativity will be the most important leadership quality in coming years (IBM).

The headline here is really important: leaders need to learn to meet global complexity with greater creativity. The Oxford Dictionary defines creativity as “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something.” The physicist David Bohm describes creativity as an act of discovery and originalityExisting leadership development does not do enough to encourage creativity, originality, discovery, or the use and exploration of the imagination.

Keith Eigel conducted a longitudinal study of 21 CEOs of major corporations having average gross revenues of $5 billion. Individual leaders were evaluated on their effectiveness in terms of their ability to challenge existing processes, inspire a shared vision, manage conflict, solve problems, delegate, empower and build relationships (Kegan and Lahey 21-24). One critical finding from a business perspective was a strong correlation between the level of mental complexity and effectiveness in meeting these leadership functions.

In their book Immunity to Change, Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey note the natural tendency of leaders to develop mental complexity over time as a response to meeting greater challenges. They identify three clear stages of development in the leadership mind that they call the socialised, self-authoring and self-transforming. In commenting on the diminishing number of individual leaders meeting the higher developmental stages they comment:

there is a gap between what business expects and the current capacity to meet that expectation. Data drawn from research suggests that there is a significant gap between what is expected of people’s minds and what their minds are actually capable of. In two large meta-analyses of studies with several hundred participants a majority of respondents were not at the level of self-authoring (58%). Only about 50% of the ‘very promising’ middle managers were self-authoring and only 4/21 of the CEOs were beyond the self-authoring stage. Note that those who are, do better than those who are not (28).

To put it bluntly, the evidence suggests that our current leadership capability is not adequate to meet the global challenges that are now emerging. Too few people are actively engaged in a developmental learning process that has an authentically transformational trajectory. Meeting the leadership demands of the 21st century will require some extraordinary efforts from ordinary people. Many of the developmental frameworks for leadership behaviour prevalent in the last decades of the 20th century are incomplete and cannot offer a meaningful response to the increasing complexity outlined above.

Developing capacity means raising awareness by bringing into conscious practice what has previously been obscured or unavailable to the individual on multiple levels. Evolved leadership means aligned practice that maximises and leverages access to and development through the broadest possible range of perspectives.

 The Self-Transforming Mind

As has been noted, Kegan and Lahey identify three key stages in their study of leadership development that describe an evolutionary trajectory of mental complexity: the socialized mind, the self-authoring mind and the self-transforming mind (Kegan and Lahey 17-20).

The socialized mind describes a sense of self in relation to the expectations of others. At this stage the self is shaped by the definitions and expectations of its personal environment. The self coheres by its alignment with and loyalty to that with which it identifies and expresses itself, primarily in it’s relationships with people, with schools of thought, or both.

At the level of the self-authoring mind, the sense of self is defined by one’s sense of purpose and an internal orientation that is primarily self-reflective in nature. One is able to step back enough from the social environment to generate an internal seat of judgement or personal authority that evaluates and makes choices about external expectations.

At the level of the self-transforming mind, the sense of self goes beyond the limitations of the personality to the essence behind individual purpose, essentially to a transpersonal orientation. The self-transforming mind is able to transcend conventional thinking and act in authentically transformational ways. From this perspective the leader can step back from and reflect on the limits of their own ideology or personal authority, see that any one system of self-organisation is partial or incomplete, be friendlier towards contradiction and opposites, and seek to hold onto multiple systems rather than projecting all but one on to the others.

Kegan’s and Lahey’s research suggests that greater mental complexity correlates with effectiveness and an enhanced capacity to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty in genuinely creative ways. According to Kegan and Lahey, developing creativity and the self-transforming mind requires that we transcend the limits of our current thinking and deepen our understanding of ourselves and our purpose. Herein lies the case for the development of transcendent and transformational states.


In considering a new model for leadership it is important to acknowledge paradigms that either form or could form our understanding of reality – the ”truth” as Kuhn puts it. Four frameworks are relevant: the rational dualistic, the contemplative sciences, the living systems, and the transpersonal.

Evidence from these disciplines presents a compelling case for an expanded practice of leadership development. The rational dualistic paradigm forms the basis of virtually all existing executive leadership education. Future developments must investigate wider concepts. Included in this assumption is a view that cultivation of mind and the transpersonal aspect of the self are essential to individual growth and development. Leadership therefore is understood to entail a journey towards psychological maturity across a broad range of intelligences. This type of leadership requires inwardness for 21st century leaders. Learning frameworks that create opportunities for deep self-reflection to cultivate mind and build mental capacity will be of central importance to the next generation of executive leaders. Technical excellence and expertise within one knowledge system will not be enough.


The Rational Dualistic Paradigm

As a framework, the rational dualistic paradigm has been instrumental to stage development in the Western mind. Axioms of this paradigm include the absolute value of reason, the application of rationality in the resolution of problems, as well as the establishment of objectivism, reductionism and positivism as fundamental systems for understanding and defining reality. The rational dualistic frame is defined by the dominance of scientific method and the development of the concept of the thinking self–the Cartesian cogito–as the valid mediating system for human experience. At the heart of this worldview lies the principle of separation.

From a psychological perspective this worldview has promoted and inflated the position of the personal self or ego. Focus on the individual ego has led to the development of concepts such as self-determination, personal freedom, self-awareness, individual uniqueness, and the whole concept of self as understood in many forms of psychology and psychiatry (Miller 1). Whilst important, the supremacy of this paradigm as the basis for all business practice over the last 300 years has come with consequences to our wider sense of self, including our sense of meaning, connection, and place in the world both individually and collectively.

Richard Tarnas suggests that the negative consequence of the revolutions in science and philosophy was disenchantment with the cosmos:

In a disenchanted cosmos, nothing is sacred. The soul of the world has been extinguished; ancient trees and forests can then be seen as nothing but potential lumber; mountains nothing but mineral deposits; seashores and deserts are oil reserves; lakes and rivers engineering tools. Animals are perceived as harvestable commodities, indigenous tribes are obstructing relics of an outmoded past, children’s minds as marketing target (56).

The issue today is not the relative value of this model but the assumption of its absolute value, dominance and rightness in determining our sense of reality, and our choices at the exclusion of other knowledge systems. The negative consequence of a one-sided approach to business and thereby leadership development is that leadership education has become trapped in a perpetual hall of mirrors and cannot evolve beyond its own assumptions. The rational mind is not reflective. Neither does it question its own logic. In fact, what it does rather well is defend itself against any other logic that might challenge it. Its unfailing certainty is its greatest weakness. Failure to recognise the ways in which the system perpetuates itself without courageous reflection in the face of new information means that a leader cannot be equipped to effectively meet emerging challenges. One wonders at what cost?


Living and Complex Adaptive Systems

The futurist Willis Harman described the Western industrial paradigm as “the science of separateness.” He described the emerging disciplines of quantum physics, evolutionary biology, living and complex adaptive systems theory, neuroscience and consciousness studies as the science of wholeness.

According to Harman and other commentators, in the paradigm of wholeness the world is experienced as a living, dynamic, evolving and participatory system. Underlying assumptions from this perspective include an understanding that the universe is fundamentally intelligent, creative, and experimental in nature, organising itself into patterns that are increasingly complex and that support more diversity and greater sustainability. It is assumed within this framework that people are inherently intelligent, creative, adaptive, self-organising, and meaning seeking beings. Principles of interconnection, unpredictability and the relative nature of time are important here.

Evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris suggests that we need a more complete model of the universe if we are to meet emerging challenges effectively. This is important in our reflection on an executive education in transition. According to Sahtouris education needs to give a central place to direct subjective experience as informing our understanding of reality. It needs to consider consciousness as axiomatic to a holistic understanding of the universe and to explore the idea of continuous self-creation (autopoesis) as a core definition for life. This is the process by which all galaxies, stars, planets, organisms, cells, molecules (including the trillions in our own bodies) atoms, and subatomic particles emerge and co-exist (Sahtouris and Lovelock, Earthdance).


The Contemplative Sciences

The contemplative sciences describe a body of practices specifically designed to support the cultivation of the mind. Daniel Siegel proposes that the mind itself is not the brain or an epiphenomenon of the brain. This is a common belief of the dualistic paradigm, but there is a third position that emerges directly out of the interaction between the brain and our relationships. Mind is what emerges in the tension between the external environment and our internal environment, and it is constantly evolving in the face of new experience. Cultivation and understanding of mind and the development of attention becomes fundamental to leadership intelligence.

According to B. Alan Wallace (Choosing Reality)the focus of contemplative science (including Buddhist, Yogic, and Taoist practice) is towards the nature of the mind itself, specifically ”the nature and problems of human existence and the untapped resources of human consciousness. Practices, developed in cultures over thousands of years are designed to deliberately cultivate the practitioner’s perceptions beyond those of the conceptual mind, sensory experience, and language to perceive the mind itself directly in ways that both include and transcend ordinary consciousness. Within this framework, disciplining the mind – ”calming the waters as Wallace describes it – and transcending the limitations of the ego are considered essential practices. Practitioners use an array of meditative and physical methods to explore the nature of mind, balance the body, and cultivate core qualities, including equanimity, compassion, joy, and loving-kindness.

Meditation has attracted a great deal of interest from researchers in recent decades. Evidence from numerous studies (Austin xvi; Segal, Williams, and Teasdale 311-232) demonstrates there is a strong correlation between meditative practices and coherent alpha, theta, and gamma brain states. These states are associated with mental well-being, mental agility, enhanced mental performance, access to flexible attention, self-regulation of the sympathetic nervous system, and an array of positive functions. These states of mind include improved mood, crisis management, resilience to stress, recovery from destructive emotional states, and the cultivation of holistic and creative psychological coping mechanisms.

 The Transpersonal: A Jungian Perspective

The final framework included here is connected to the field of transpersonal psychology defined as “the study of experiences, beliefs and practices that suggest that the sense of self can extend beyond our personal or individual reality. Important contributors to this field of enquiry include William James, Abraham Maslow, Stanislav Grof, and Ken Wilber.

As a founder in the field, C. G. Jung developed the idea of the Überpersonliche (transpersonal self) in his distinction between the personal and collective unconscious. Jung identified the personal and transpersonal selves as different mediating functions in the process towards psychological maturity or individuation. Each perspective offers a different way of collecting and interpreting the available data in the journey of maturation.

The process of individuation begins when the relationship between the personality/ego, the authentic inner world, and the outer world–which form the vertical axis of this model–become irreconcilably conflicted and can no longer effectively meet the demands of life. In this process the ego proves inadequate to meet the psychological struggle experienced by the individual. According to Jung, the path towards maturation entails a renegotiation that must take place at the level of both the personality and the larger (transpersonal) self, between the conscious and the unconscious aspects of the psyche. Anything less will not suffice. Human maturity demands a relationship with the transpersonal. If we assume that deep personal psychologos will be fundamental to future leadership, this must be taken seriously.

An Evolutionary Interpersonal Model of Leadership

The model that I introduce here proposes a leadership practice that consists of four core states: the transactional, the self-reflective, the transcendent, and the transformational.

Leadership development within this framework is an evolutionary process. Periods of stability within and between states are followed by periods of transition and development in a creative process towards greater complexity. Joseph Chilton Pearce describes evolution as, “the transcendent aspect of creation rising to go beyonditself” (xx). In this case it is a developmental journey of capacity building across four core states over time with no final destination. It is an inherently creative process of emergence, adaptation, maintenance, and collapse; it is a dance between the inner and outer world towards higher orders of expression. Within the framework it is assumed that the leader’s centre of gravity shifts across and between states with time, experience, and responsibility, as well as in relation to context. What is essential here, and is a mark of mature practice, is the leader’s ability to navigate across the four states, accessing and exiting each at will as context requires.

The four states, as a totality, are accessed through two discrete but complementary and cooperative aspects of the psyche–the personal and the transpersonal self. It is assumed that both aspects of self are necessary to support the individual leader to successfully navigate the tensions experienced between their internal world and their external environment. It is further assumed that the continuous reconciliation of this tension is strongly correlated to effectiveness in the world, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Interpersonal Model of Leadership. Source: Nick Ross, 2011.

The flow denotes a dynamic movement among the four core leadership states.


Terms of Reference

External environment (EE): This is the objective phenomenal world. The external environment reflects what is going on out there in the world. It may include our external relationships of all kinds with people, objects, situations, challenges, opportunities, daily work pressures, difficult staff, and the myriad other events an individual will meet every day. From a leadership perspective this paper argues that the external environment is increasingly defined by the triple pressures of accelerating change, greater complexity, and rising uncertainty.

Internal environment (IE): This refers to awareness of the various aspects of self and self states, access to the whole spectrum of body sensations, and information processing systems. These include visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, smell, taste, touch, feelings, emotions, thoughts, cognitive processes and phenomena, conscious and unconscious mental activity, habits of mind, the sense of time, and the experience of consciousness and awareness. The inner environment also reflects our emotional, cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal capacities for self-reflection, self-organisation, and impulse towards integration and coherence.

Personal self: “The individual person, from his or her own perspective” (Oxford English Dictionary). To you, self is you. To a different person, self is that person. The self is one’s consciousness of one’s own being or identity. The personal self has a number of aspects. From a Jungian perspective these include the ego, persona animus (female) and anima (male).

The ego closely reflects what is represented in this model and can be defined as a protective organising system of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that define our personal universe through the fear of losing our physical and psychological identity. The personal self experiences itself as subject, discrete and separate from other things that are experienced as objects depending on the quality of relationship between transactional and self-reflective capacities.

Transpersonal self: “Denoting or relating to states or areas of consciousness beyond the limits of personal identity” (Oxford English Dictionary)The transpersonal self experiences states of consciousness beyond the normal range of sleeping, dreaming and waking. It is concerned with higher, or ultimate, potential and purpose, access to intelligence and information beyond the ego or personal self, including the collective unconscious, experiences of transcendence, peak experience, and the spiritual realms.

Introducing the Model

Mature executive leadership development is reflected here by the capacity to navigate across the four well-developed core leadership states. Each quadrant represents a means of being present to the world in a particular way (Figure 1). According to Siegel every living system has an inherent impulse towards a healthy, dynamic relationship between different states or aspects of self. As human beings we are hard-wired to connect–both to different aspects of ourselves and to others through these states. Integration is reflected in the system’s capacity for flexibility, adaptability, coherence, energy, and stability. This is a useful definition of psychological wellbeing and a powerful working definition for the qualities of the self-transforming mind.

Siegel does not mean that we should become homogenous individuals. Far from it. We are vivid, living, heterogeneous beings with multiple selves that interact with one another in diverse and creative ways. Our health is determined by the flow of energy and information between the states, by the interpersonal relationship between our own various inner aspects, and our intrapersonal relationship within each aspect, as well as the internal coherence of each individual state in relation to its overarching goals and intentions. State integration, the coherent communication and relationship within and between the four quadrants in the model, is central. In a healthy leader, different states cooperate and communicate effectively towards mutually beneficial outcomes.

For Siegel, dis-ease is experienced as lack of integration between states. This emerges in behaviours that are either too rigid or chaotic, demonstrating a failure of communication and a lack of attunement within the system. The work of integration, which brings alignment and a sense of flow, will require leaders to access and develop a range of personal capacities and be prepared to address imbalances. This single commitment would represent a significant shift in conscious leadership behaviour.

Each leadership capacity invites response to a central question or meditation:

Q1 What can I achieve?
Q2 Who am I?
Q3 What am I?
Q4 How can I serve?

Executive development within this framework can be understood as the capacity to respond to each question in increasingly nuanced, integrated, and aligned ways. This is state integration according to Siegel. Evolution means alignment between states and towards ever higher purposes, whilst development refers to the conscious and intentional capacity to access and exit from the different states as context demands.


Primary Functions of the Four States

Q1: Transactional State:

The transactional state emerges out of the relationship between the personal self and the external environment. It represents the primary focus of almost all leadership thinking, practice, and education; and it provides the foundation for most organisational life and working relationships. Transactional leadership is defined as “setting clear objectives and goals for followers as well as the use of punishment and rewards in order to encourage compliance with those goals” (citation?).

The transactional state negotiates the external environment through the personal ego. It represents leadership development within a framework of esteem, status, ambition, drive, the will to achieve and succeed, and the desire to demonstrate and prove ability. Extrinsic goals are centrally important; career decisions made solely within the transactional state are aimed at enhancing personal position or status in terms of image, money, and popularity.

The transactional state is conventional. Experience is mediated primarily through the senses and intellect; thinking is linear, causal and literal. Its logic supports the truth of separation, creating a discrete identity separate from the world that is experienced as out there, but to which it is always relating in order to measure its sense of self-worth and value.

The transactional state is central to key capabilities including negotiation, competitive planning, day-to-day transactions with multiple stakeholders, short term goal setting and execution, the capacity to set and deliver targets, and an array of other skills considered essential to good business. Technical development and competency building (expertise development through instructional learning) have their root here and create a strong and necessary platform for future development and responsibility. Whilst essential for holistic practice, indiscriminate overemphasis on the transactional state as the modus operandi of business is fundamentally limiting in developmental terms.

Q 2: Self-Reflective State

This relationship within Q2 is between the personal self and the internal environment. The focus of attention is to influence and mature the correspondence between inner experience and the outside world, making this relationship more fluid, honest and conscious through a range of practices. Considerably less attention is paid to the self-reflective state within leadership development than is currently given to the transactional state. The reflective state represents an ego-activated approach to reflection, and its focus is on the continuing development of the personality/individual life in a context of greater success and effectiveness in the workplace. Its developmental focus is based on the integration of past experience (where have I been?) and future opportunities (where am I going?).

Self-reflection as a practice, including work on the individual shadow aspects of the personality, is essential to the process of psychological maturity. Self-reflection changes the experience of subject-object, allowing an individual to hold more as object the feelings and emotions, thoughts, beliefs and behaviours that they were once entirely subject to and therefore unconscious of. This shift brings choice.

Self-reflection can be enhanced through autobiographical work that offers a change of perspective and creates the foundation for genuine self-authorship. Useful work in this state can include processes such as life mapping and analysis of the tendencies of the ego, including the shadow aspect.

Life mapping is a process that I use frequently with leaders. Life maps create a sense of personal narrative and provide deep insights into the ways in which past experience can shape current choice making and future planning. As leaders, it is essential to know both what you are working on and also what is working on you. Self-reflective work is the work of personal integration. The process starts with understanding one’s current story, then moves into stories in transition, followed by shaping future stories.

Reflective processes allow individuals to nurture a healthy subjective relationship with their inner world in a way that can challenge existing operating assumptions and success strategies. Central to this capacity is the development of emotional intelligence, including qualities such as empathy, openness, objectivity, and emotional self-control. Emotional development is an essential precursor to more integrated leadership practice, and it has its roots in our capacity for self-reflection.

Autobiographical work represents a burden for leaders. Honest self-exploration can be extremely challenging. For these reasons, exploration of this capacity is at best inconsistent within current executive education as evidenced by the significant numbers of senior executives who fail to demonstrate authentic self-authoring qualities.

Q3: Transcendent State

The dominant relationship here is between the inner environment and the transpersonal self. The transcendent state represents our capacity to “go beyond normal or physical human experience and to exist apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe” (Oxford English Dictionary).

The transcendent capacity supports the development of an array of abilities that allow an individual to experience the world beyond the confines of their personality, to develop insights, and to access knowledge and information that are correlated with heightened and expanded states of consciousness. Opportunities to deliberately cultivate this capacity are rare within traditional executive leadership, and it is here that significant opportunities for development exist.

Access to different states of consciousness beyond the normal range of sleeping, dreaming, and waking are strongly implicated in the development of the capacity for critical existential thinking, meaning-making, symbolic and metaphoric thinking, the establishment of hierarchies of personal values, psychological well-being, greater interiority, extended states of flow, peak experience, access to intuitive thinking, synchronicity and other aspects of inner guidance, development of the imaginative capacity, personal vitality, the capacity to maintain high energy states, loss of self-consciousness, and high levels of creativity. It is not difficult to create a value proposition for the development of these qualities in executive leadership practice.

Practices that support the cultivation of the transcendent state include the arts, contemplative practice, and a deep engagement with nature–the wonder, awe, and beauty of the participation mystique.

The arts offer rich opportunities to access transcendent states. Art, narrative, drama, myth, and movement cannot be made, met, or understood by the left brain processes that anchor us to our ego centres. The arts speak directly to our right hemisphere; they transport us beyond ourselves in language that is metaphoric and symbolic. As McGilchrist points out, the right hemisphere “yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate living beings in the context of a lived world” (TED Lecture). These are qualities of a creative mind at work in a living universe. From this place interconnection, change and evolution are life. Art is curious, exploratory and playful. It is a principal way in which we make sense of our lives and find meaning in the world in non-literal ways using symbol and metaphor.

At Olivier Mythodrama, we use the works of William Shakespeare to provide a powerful narrative backdrop to our practice with executives. We have found that these mythic stories provide a rich context and framework for learning that enable us to draw on universal, timeless themes of leadership in memorable ways. Participants are able to identify and work on difficult personal and organisational challenges by accessing an array of non-ordinary frameworks that are inherently creative and that can yield extraordinary insights into future practice.

In terms of intention, the transcendent state has an intrinsic orientation (as distinct from the extrinsic orientation of the transactional state), defined as autonomy (self-government), mastery (excellence), and purpose (service and legacy) (Huppert, Baylis, and Kaverne).

 Q4: Transformational State

The transformational state represents the relationship between the transpersonal self and the external environment. Transformational is defined here as “making a difference” (citation?) and in its mature state this will have global implications. The transformational state is the seedbed of evolutionary thinking and represents our creative capability to transcend previous limitations and embrace new possibilities; to take “what is new and different from what has been inferred by previous knowledge” (Bohm, 6)to build new and more complex systems with a long term vision. Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi represent examples of action in the transformational state.

Transformational action arises out of meta-cognitive processes that include the ability to discern and explore different aspects of our lives as well as life in general beyond appearances. It enables us to recognize and act out of the transcendent aspects of life and gives the ability to perceive one’s own life and life in general from a viewpoint independent of numerous attachments (King)These perspectives give this state a quality of freedom of movement and expression alongside considerable energy and resolution.

Within the transformational state there is significant alignment between pathmeaning recognition of the specific realization that wants to be expressed through the individual as a calling or vocation in this life–and the daily practice necessary to achieve it. This is the vocational state, and it is what gives the transformational state real power; it is the soul’s voice that speaks from this place. Networking and a diversity of relationships are important in cultivating this state; and the impulse to wholeness, both personal and planetary has its roots here.

Integration work in the transformational state can be facilitated greatly by practices that develop clarity of mind. Practices that still the mind and engage the body include mindfulness-based meditation, contemplation, yoga, and some martial arts–particularly Aikido and Tai Chi. Mindfulness meditation is becoming increasingly popular, and it is something that I teach with ever greater frequency to executives as an essential practice for self-development.

At the School of Inspired Leadership in Guragon, India, the faculty have produced a wellness programme for students using a range of yoga, breathing, and meditation techniques. These techniques are designed to balance mind, body and spirit. Within this practice students are taught the benefits of engaging fully in the business world from a calm, rooted, and healthy inner centre. Speaking as someone who follows the wellness programme, I can affirm the value added to daily living is in terms of the clarity, alertness, and presence that the practice affords.

Meditation is linked to numerous positive physical and psychological outcomes. Meditation gives access to the mysticism of life in a very practical way. The word mystical is derived from the Greek root muein, which means to keep silent. Meditation allows us to meet the world in silence on its own terms, without any judgement. An interesting paradox about the transformational state is that whilst it is a place of action, it is also a state of deep listening and liminality. Holding liminal space and being present to the world between states of knowing is a core aspect of the transformational state. Silence supports the cultivation of the listening capacity. Silent reflection brings us to the mystery of life, giving us the space to reflect on the nature of existence in very meaningful ways.


As emergent demands meet the limits of current leadership thinking and practice, we find ourselves at an epoch of transformation in leadership education. Existing educational opportunities are largely transactional in nature. They are based on unexamined, outdated paradigms and operating assumptions, and are, therefore, insufficient to meet the challenges we face. By definition they cannot support leaders to go beyond traditional high performance transactional practices. Overdependence on one inner state always leads to incoherence and imbalance in Siegel’s model of psychological health. Wellbeing is the result of resonance and integration between diverse states. This is what is missing in current practice. Put simply, we need to become more: more aware and more conscious of the totality of whom and what we are. The model highlights both the limitations of current thinking and the direction of travel that might provide a route towards a leadership practice that will be fit for the 21st century. It is an evolutionary process of development and represents the creative impulse to overcome limitations that drives the transcendent nature of evolution.

Pearce (85) states that the ability to transcend limitations is a two-fold process: the first is to generate movement, and the second is to create that which lies beyond and manifests through that movement. The primary purpose of this paper is to create movement and then to highlight some of the ways in which we might create what lies beyond–the ways in which leadership capacity could be developed towards a more self-transforming trajectory. This could effectively narrow the gap between what businesses expect of the leadership mind and what the leadership mind is currently capable of.

Many questions remain regarding the ways in which appropriate development might take place. There is much work ahead if current assumptions about learning are to be challenged and overcome. Where a transactional bias exists, any discussion about reflective and transpersonal learning will be problematic, even conceptually, since it orientates to an entirely different and apparently counterintuitive operating logic. To the transactional mind, transcendent and transformational operating logics seem unconvincing at best, irrelevant at worst. A closed system always mediates itself to keep its own identity. Transpersonal education is always challenging to conventional systems of knowing favoured by the contemporary Western mind, but that is not a good enough reason not to act.

Sufficient examples of good practice exist in both consciousness development and the psychological work of personal development and integration that could provide a template for future practice. There is, of course, no one way to build a practice that addresses the development needs of all four states. There are multiple ways to build a practice around this model, and I list here a range of things that can be considered to leverage the model. It is not an exhaustive list, but I would suggest that it provides areas for further research.

Spiritual Intelligence

David King’s thesis ”Rethinking Claims of Spiritual Intelligence: A Definition, Model, And Measure” (56-117), presents a powerful case for Spiritual Intelligence (SI) as an emerging field with tremendous potential within executive leadership. King rigorously reviews existing data to present a compelling model for SI alongside tools for assessment and measurement of capability within this intelligence.

According to King, SI can be defined as” a set of mental capacities” that contribute to the awareness, integration, and adaptive application of the nonmaterial and transcendent aspects of one’s existence. King proposes four core components that comprise spiritual intelligence: critical existential thinking, personal meaning production, transcendental awareness whilst in the normal waking state, and conscious state expansion.

The concept of spiritual intelligence is important because it describes a range of mental capabilities and adaptive practices that authentically define it as a legitimate intelligence. The assumption is that it can be developed within an educational setting using a variety of methodologies. As such, SI becomes a focus for the intentional learning derived from new and ongoing practices rather than the description of an array of discrete extraordinary phenomenological behaviours or belief systems with limited application to leadership. King proposes that the development of the four core components of spiritual intelligence supports the cultivation of a range of personal, interpersonal, and global qualities that are of considerable interest.

The Role of Creativity in Leadership

Creativity is at the heart of the evolutionary impulse. The 2009 IBM study, “Capitalising on Complexity: Insights from the Global CEO,” cited at the start of this paper, concludes that creativity will be the most important leadership capability in coming years. Returning to Bohm, he states that creativity is founded on the sensitive perception of what is new and different from what is inferred by previous knowledge” (6). This is the evolutionary impulse to move beyond existing limitations.

In Bohm’s eyes, creativity would reflect a call to a different kind of understanding, including the deeper purpose of leadership. Bohm suggests that creativity has a childlike quality or playfulnessthat it can be nurtured and developed but that it gets easily lost in the confusion of our daily fears, desires, aims, securities, pleasures, and pains. The creative leader will be deeply interested in discovery and originality but also able to tolerate confusion and to self-organize around difficult feelings, distractions, and conflicting interests.

Creativity emerges when the conditions support it, and Bohm provides us with a rich template outlining both the kind of things we might expect to find in a creative executive programme and what we might seek to avoid. He argues that it is the natural condition of the mind to be creative and that it is both unnatural and unhealthy for the mind to think mechanistically. He suggests that mechanical thinking is precisely what leads the mind into confusion, dissatisfaction, and a variety of psychological problems.

Creativity is destroyed and mediocrity ensured by three things: fear of making mistakes (and the perpetuation of ego structures through the pursuit of perfection), mechanistic perceptions (dry learning and learning by repetition), and utilitarian thinking (unconsidered conventionalism).

For Bohm, as with Siegel, state of mind greatly influences the capacity to learn new things. Abilities derive from the practices designed to foster discovering and originality; the cultivation of a perception that is attentive, alert, aware, and sensitive; an understanding of universal principles including harmony, structure, totality, and unity; and a willingness at all times to challenge or overturn old structures and orienting systems in the face of new facts. This is the core of creative practice. This is surely an excellent description of the self-transforming mind.

Leadership and the Brain

A great deal has been written about the relationship between the brain hemispheres in processing and understanding data from the external world, developing a coherent sense of self, and supporting the formation of our understanding of the world. Whilst there is not space to discuss this in detail here, we can summarise that the Western rational dualistic paradigm that underpins most executive education is primarily an expression of left-brain hemisphere processes. This has been given pre-eminence in forming and articulating our understanding of reality. Right-brain processes, commonly described as holistic, individual, empathic, implicit, interconnected, and intuitive in nature, have tended to be less developed, and this has become a problematic bias. Iain McGilchrist quotes Einstein in a recent presentation on the brain:The intuitive mind is a sacred gift. The rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift” (TED Lecture).

Leadership practices that seek to align, synchronise, and give equal weight to both the brain hemispheres and that can explore the wider implications of integrated functioning between the different aspects of the brain (brainstem, limbic, cortex, and prefrontal cortex) offer considerable opportunities for research and development. Evidence from fields such as neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology strongly suggest that self-reflective and transpersonal practices, including meditation and autobiographical work, have profound effects on key areas of the brain as well as on the way the brain organises and develops. Mind is not the brain, but it influences the brain directly through the conscious flow of energy and information. Mind has a profound impact on important regulatory areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex and the temporal regions with significant benefits to mental well-being and the development of coherent internal states, suggesting that mind-based practices could become central to future education programmes. Old limiting patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving can be overcome whilst more integrated ways of being present to the world can be developed at any age. Practices that develop SI also demonstrate very meaningful brain responses with positive outcomes across an array of positive health metrics (King 134 – 156).

Alternative Cosmologies

As has been noted, a period of transition is an invitation to examine the fundamental paradigms that are used to describe reality in order to address persistent anomalies and so that more complex organising systems can emerge.

The Native Science Movement (Cajete Chaps. 1 and 2) has sought to find a language to bridge the subjective experiences of Native peoples with modern science within an eco-philosophical framework. The collaboration, headed by the Native American Academy offers profound insights into the nature of reality and finds striking similarities between the concepts of the world as held by native people for millennia and the findings of quantum science and other disciplines. Logic systems concur in part and then expand beyond the axiomatic references of the traditional Western paradigm. The native paradigm is based on an extraordinarily rich array of sources including observation, experiment, meaning and understanding, objectivity, unity, causality, models, instrumentation, appropriate technology, spirit, interpretation, explanation, authority, place, initiation, cosmology, representations, human experience, ceremony, eldership, life energy, dreams and visions and the concept of pathways.

From the native perspective individuals are active universal agents participating in a living and mutually dependent world. The idea of mutuality and participation within a living and animate world is central here and could add significant value to existing rational dualistic systems. Practice is upheld by elders and leaders who are developed deliberately to have a profound understanding of and responsibility to the maintenance of balance and harmony in the world. In this logic, each person is a separate agent, but action is not driven unduly by individual motives. The position of the ego is renegotiated to a more balanced place alongside other systems of knowing. The Native Science Movement proposes a living practice that coheres in every aspect of life and that manifests as an agenda for a sustainable future. It is path and practice in genuine alignment and as such offers a rich template for further research.


We find ourselves at a threshold in terms of executive leadership education; a time of transition in which old systems are no longer adequate to meet emerging demands. Research tells us that there is a significant gap between the challenges we face and the current capacity for leaders to meet those challenges in new and creative ways. Without the conscious cultivation of greater mental complexity through the integration of core leadership states and with development opportunities focused primarily on the transactional and self-reflective functions, consistent transformational practice will continue to be haphazard and largely consigned to chance. It is important to recognize that the reflective, transcendent, and transformational states must be accessed and nurtured through an operating logic different from the rational dualistic frame. Different frames exist that can both support and go beyond the limits of the current curriculum with its anchor in transactional development.

The reality of our global situation requires that we think both urgently and differently about the way in which executive education is conceived, what its future focus should be, and what paradigms and frameworks it should be modelled on. This is the nature of evolution. We are being invited to go beyond our existing limits. The gateway into transformational thinking and action can emerge through the integration of the transactional and self-reflective functions, with the transcendent and transformational mediated through both the personal and transpersonal aspects of self. This process can support leaders towards the cultivation of states of greater internal coherence, of expanded awareness and towards capacities for thinking and action that exceed normal, conventional limits–defined here as interpersonal leadership. It is this step that can make transformational leadership development an authentic possibility. As educators and leaders it is something that urgently requires our attention today.


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