The Fear in Holding On
Apple: Nikon D3s

Apple: Nikon D3s

“I don't know what's right and what's real anymore,
I don't know how I'm meant to feel anymore,
When do you think it will all become clear,
'Cause I'm being taken over by the fear.”

(Lily Allen)

The spectacular, beautiful tree fell in a storm nearly two months ago .

Now, each day as I walk past, I check to see if this last remaining red apple, holding on to a newly vertical bough, has finally let go.

The rest of the apples are lying in the grass but I know I will miss the bright spectacle of this one when it finally succumbs to the combination of time and the reorientation of its environment. In the meanwhile, I’m not sure whether to celebrate its resilience or feel critical of its denial.

As I ponder, I notice reflections of my own capacity for heroic ‘resilience’ in the face of changed circumstances and the shifts that I have experienced over the last year. I’m not feeling so cavalier these days.

About 15 years ago, I gave up a guaranteed job for life and, on a wish and a prayer, set off on a new consultancy and academic career. These days, as my practice inevitably finds its way back to imagery, connection and witnessing, I realise that I am much more fearful as I try to resurrect a mindset of arrogant invincibility that underpinned previous professional achievements.

So, what does it take to step away from our conventional notions of status and success to seek a more meaningful, sustainable contribution to the world? As we experience the relentless fetishisation of (over)work, what would it take for me to achieve a healthy, balanced life? Do I give up my fast car? What about my phone? How about my glass of chilled, expensive Sauvignon Blanc?

When will it become clear?

I know that I am not in charge of who I am, my identity is formed and negotiated socially, and to step away from ‘normal’ is to be changed by the process, risking exclusion and shame. Genuine change is not easy.

So, from inside my Western privilege, I will try, half-heartedly, to consume less. I won’t eat meat. I will buy Patagonia or Everlane clothes, and vegan shoes.

But, even though I know that my own lifestyle is contributing to systemic failure and our collective demise, will I ever face the fear and find the courage to let go?


I’m indebted to @stevexoh and @paulettya for some excellent conversations this week on what it takes to commit to difference.

Elon Musk has advocated 80-100 hours a week; thankfully, we are seeing some push back…

Patagonia recently announced it would give away $10 Million in tax refunds to environmental groups.

Here I am on Jeff Weigh’s podcast joyfully nattering on about life’s Perfect Imbalance.

Steve Marshall Comments
Waving, not drowning
Selfie @TheShardLondon : Nikon D3s

Selfie @TheShardLondon : Nikon D3s

“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.” 

(Brené Brown)

The friendly face asked, “What if you could learn to appreciate the waves of depression? I wonder what they might tell you?”

But they seem to come out of nowhere. As I watch low light graze the road on a golden morning. Rustling though autumn leaves during an afternoon walk. When I get hungry. Sitting by the fire. Waking in the middle of the night. Driving my car. Waves of depression flooding through me.

“How is that for you?” He asked.

Well I don’t like it. It’s frustrating. It slows me down.  I know it took me more than ten years to accelerate myself into burnout and I can understand that it might take just as long to fully recover. But I will do this... I’m doing all the right things...

“Yes, we can succeed. We can be the best, the fittest, the fastest, the most creative, the smartest, the most resilient. Anyone can do this. There are whole industries depending on us, telling us we can do it. We’re worth it. And we should be happy.  All the time.”

 Right… I hear you…

“So, really, how are you managing?”

Actually it’s OK; I’m learning. The waves come and I know they will go again. I’m making a lot of sunrise photographs and that’s telling me something. The sun comes up everyday and I know I can depend on it even if clouds hang around for a while. 

And the shifts seem to be taking me back to someone I already know. It feels like I keep returning to familiar territory. I recognise myself in this place.

There have been some fabulous distractions over the years that dragged me away: military aviation, consulting, academia and permutations of all three. And I would be chasing, trying to get a good appraisal, gain a qualification, hit a KPI, a metric, always trying to be somewhere else, someone else…

But I realise that I keep coming back to imagery; photography and moving images that connect us, help express our identity and let us see who we really are. It’s what I care about.

Arnold Beisser says, ‘Change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not.’ 

So, maybe I can pause to understand who I really am rather than try to fix myself in an attempt to be someone else. Maybe I can know that I will trip and fall, that I won’t always be successful, that I will fail and that it’s OK.  Maybe I can be curious about the person that I am rather than the person that I am supposed to be?

“Could you have compassion for yourself in those waves of depression?” 

"And then, might you allow yourself to be seen?”


I’m a fan of Brené Brown’s good homegrown common sense (all underpinned by a ton of research btw) and my quote is from ‘The Gifts of Imperfection.

Arnold Beisser’s ‘Paradoxical Theory of Change’ is deceptively simple and an enduring challenge. He suffered from polio and wrote ‘Flying without Wings’ ~ an excellent, inspirational book for anyone living with impairment.

Steve MarshallComment
What did you do...?
Stag: iPhone

Stag: iPhone

“it’s 3:23 in the morning

and I’m awake

because my great great grandchildren

won’t let me sleep”

(Drew Dellinger)

As I drove through the spectacular autumn woods near @Ashridge_Biz earlier this week, a beautiful stag crossed the road in front of my car. I stopped for a moment to soak up the scene as the stag paused and glanced towards me before before gently going on his way. It looked like he was carrying a painful lameness…

Later that day I checked into a hotel in Windsor to meet a group of friends. We were to consider how we could support each other in developing significant work during this time of rapid ecological and social change. My iPhone image shows the driftwood sculpture at the front of the hotel; a haunting, ghostly representation of the stag caught in stark artificial lights.

As we closed our first day, I was moved to read Drew Dellinger’s poem, ‘Hieroglyphic Stairway’, which I have loved since @Paulettya brought it to one of our #EDOC doctoral supervision conversations. After the opening lines above, it continues:

“my great great grandchildren

ask me in dreams

what did you do while the planet was plundered?

what did you do when the earth was unravelling?”

I can’t imagine that I will ever meet my great great grandchildren but I notice, more and more, my intention to achieve worthwhile, generative change on their behalf. This week, my media feeds have featured daily accounts of potentially apocalyptic news. Among them, nearly 100 senior academics wrote to the UK Government demanding robust emergency action in respect of the worsening ecological crisis, it is becoming clear that global carbon emissions will reach a new record this year and we are seeing early signs that we are now routinely ingesting plastic. In the face of failing political conversations which are little more than polarised name-calling, it’s clear to me that our ideas about change must shift. We should stop relying on figurehead leaders and politicians.

We need to turn our ideas around. We must all lead.

Drew’s poem confronts us:

“surely you did something

when the seasons started failing?

as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?

did you fill the streets with protest when democracy was stolen?

what did you do

once you knew?”

So, as our small group gathered to express our values, discover our shared identity and purpose, educate each other in our individual skills and capabilities, and define our collective leadership offer to the world, I have a simple request.

Do it too. For all of our great, great grandchildren.

Start a dialogue, find your tribe, make connections, change the conversation, create a shared future that we can all value.

We will be right alongside you.


Read the rest of Drew Dellinger’s ‘Hieroglyphic Stairway’ via this link - and his book, ‘Love Letter to the Milky Way’, might change your life.

Have a look at the UN report that says ‘only the remaking of the human world in a generation can now prevent serious, far reaching and once-avoidable climate change impacts.’

If you think doctoral inquiry into how we can constructively shift our thinking about change might be your thing, either drop me a note or check out #EDOC at @Ashridge_Biz.

Finally, have a look at Anne Lamott (via @brainpicker) on love, despair and our capacity for change.,

Steve Marshall Comments
Another Sunrise
Ashridge Sunrise: iPhone

Ashridge Sunrise: iPhone

“Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, car and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it.” (Ellen Goodman)

Transition is a slow process; I’m learning that it takes more than just one sunrise.

But I’m awake early these days.

I made this iPhone picture during another morning walk at Ashridge; coffee in one hand, phone in the other, speaking into the voice recorder as daybreak shone into the forest.

Apart from these morning salutations, my sunrises take many forms; they have been conversations with good friends, a shared dinner together, a supportive email, a brief text, a chat around the kitchen table, a passing touch, an unexpected phone call… They have offered moments of illumination, insight and glimpses of a different kind of ‘normal.’

Each gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) encouragement has shifted me. One conversation, one gesture at a time.

Change is a deeply social process.

Every ‘sunrise’ reminds me that we are defined by relationship and I recall the Ubuntu phrase, ‘I am because you are.’ We often live with the illusion that we have an identity; that we are each individually in charge of who we are. But when we learn that it is family, friends, colleagues and environment that makes each of us, the illusion of self falls away.

I know that this is a time for me to be clear in my choices. It is difficult work but I am finding ways to confront myself with my freedom; reaching into the courage required progressively transform. I have lived in the fearful shade of over-work and, like so many, retreat into a ‘be strong’ script where ego, success and status darkly seduce me.

But, as one wise dinner companion plainly told me, “…..that life will kill you.”

As I look around, it’s hard to disagree. It’s killing all of us.

So how can we take small steps towards the sun and support each other with helpful, kind gestures that might let us see the world differently?

As I step away from ‘normal’, I know that I can’t yet see a clear path ahead.

But I’m betting on the sun rising each day.


I was stopped in my tracks by this Twitter conversation started by @CaitlinMoran.

This week I’m in Rutland, UK, working with @nicaskew of Soul Biographies. Nic has a great mantra; ‘There is nothing to do, nowhere to go, no-one to fix.’ It’s slowly starting to soak through me.

Listen to Ellen Goodman in Conversation with Lynne Sherr: What do you do after you’ve done it all?

Steve Marshall Comments
The Magic of Beginnings
Ashridge morning: iPhone

Ashridge morning: iPhone

And suddenly you know: it’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.” (Meister Eckhart)

As the effects of burnout subside, I’ve been immensely grateful to friends who have joined me in conversation, helping me to make sense of events and gently (or sometimes not so gently…;-) confronting me with my tendency to take on too much as I heroically overestimate my capacity to influence systemic change.

Time alone has been important too.

The notion of a solo quest appears in many ancient ‘wisdom traditions’ when transition or transformation is required. Even in the face of modern change ‘prescriptions’, we still recognise the value of quiet moments of solitude in an otherwise busy day. I’m fortunate to work at Ashridge and part of my recovery process has been to spend time in the beautiful spaces that surround the business school.

I’ve become increasingly convinced that we need to find ways to drop our habitual mental models before we can sense into something new.

Otto Scharmer writes that, ‘Standard theories of change revolve around making decisions, determining “the vision”, and very often acting through a charismatic figure who can command people’s “commitment to the vision.”’ He then offers an alternative where clarity is reached by connecting to an emerging sense of ‘inner knowing’ and, ‘in a sense, there is no decision making. What to do just becomes obvious.’

I’ve also been catching up on a small book by Quaker theologian, Parker Palmer, who picks up on similar themes in his writings on authentic living. Parker takes the view that, “Vocation does not come from wilfulness. It comes from listening….”

So, my ‘Ashridge Morning’ image comes from a moment of sensing, quietly listening in to my own authentic voice and drawing inspiration from the spectacular dawn of a beautiful new day. It’s a way of working with change that would scare the life out of most corporates.

But it’s taken me a while to get here and I’m enjoying the magic…


Take a look at ‘Presence’ by Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski and Flowers or ‘Leading from the Emerging Future’ by Scharmer and Kaufer which develop ‘the Theory U’ of change and transformation.

Parker J. Palmer has been a life saver and thanks to good friend Amanda Ridings at Originate for sending me a replacement copy of ‘Let Your Life Speak.’