Manhattan: Nikon D3s

Manhattan: Nikon D3s

“I believe I will never quite know. Though I play at the edges of knowing, truly I know our part is not knowing.”

(Mary Oliver)

I’m supposed to know stuff. It’s my job. I’m a CAW (Consultant, Academic, Whatever…) so I should know.

Yet whenever I’m asked my view on today’s specific circumstances, in the expectation that I can apply some of yesterday’s ‘change management’ thinking to an emergent case of business complexity, I hear the voices of insanity in my head.

The voices tempt me to give an opinion, to offer a definitive view. Answers are easy; just ask Alexa, say ‘hello’ to Google, read a book, check out Facebook, listen to your politicians.

But the danger in answers is that the audience might think they have a prescription, a handy management theory, a cure - will feel good that their situation is resolved - and believe that the world really works like that.

So, sometimes I’m courageous enough to say that I’m not sure - and then they think I don’t know my stuff.

Sometimes I offer to improvise with them in the moment - and then they think I’m unprepared.

But, despite this, I can usually help people, sometimes groups, learn together. As long as they are willing to enter into relationship and be vulnerable enough to admit that none of us really know that much anymore.

Without the illusion of easy answers, the real work is to think together, move out of our expensive facilitation rooms, and apply our embryonic learning to our actual, lived experience of struggling teams, fractured societies and damaged ecologies. As we do, we should step away from conventional logic, certainty, reason and rational knowledge; all of which imply that we can project past thought onto future conditions.

Instead, we need to work intuitively, aesthetically, artfully; and sensitively feel our way towards new versions of our world.

So, if you wish, enjoy the insanity of answers that offer certainty. There are plenty of (not so holy) CAWs out there who will give you that.

Or, take a step into not knowing and discover that the most important thing we can do is graciously live together with the questions.


I had no idea why that billboard was on Canal Street, just off Manhattan Bridge, or who put it there, until I found Baron Von Fancy (AKA Gordon Stevenson).

Stanford academic, James March, is an example to me. He would start his classes by saying, “I am not now, nor have I ever been, relevant.” He tried to communicate aesthetic joy as he worked with his students; their job was to apply that thinking in the world.

Have a look at David Bohm’s ‘On Dialogue’, where he writes about how thought itself is the problem behind many of our contemporary issues and proposes thinking together as a way to surface the unhelpful patterns in our thoughts.

Jim: Canon XA-11

Jim: Canon XA-11

“We are constantly invited to be who we are.”

(Henry David Thoreau)

Much of ‘leadership development’ seems to centre on crafting a ‘message’ that is delivered using practiced skills designed to give an impression of presence and charisma. Executives are schooled by media-savvy coaches, actors, TV presenters and news camera crews. A pause for impact here, a glance to camera just there and now drop the voice to a stage whisper before raising it again for the ‘killer line’…

Jim is a teacher and leader in a school for students with complex and specialist needs. We met with his colleagues in the Derbyshire hills at the field centre where he spends his days.

As he settled in front of my camera and I adjusted the sound levels, Jim confessed to nerves and that he didn’t have a clue what he would say.

I was grateful that this would not be a crafted, practiced, media-trained delivery.

After a few moments of slowly checking in with each other, Jim began to speak about what good leadership looks like. He told me of his attempts to role-model behaviour and his sense of who we should be as much as what we should do. His words were unprompted and unrehearsed yet lucid and profound. His colleagues witnessed him simply expressing a truth that he had come to know; a strong, principled but deeply caring perspective on leadership. A stripped back, raw version of leadership that requires no artificial polish or shine. As the rest of the management team came to the camera, they each spoke with the same sense of truth and conviction.

Presence, care and profound humility cannot be schooled, copied or rehearsed during a day of presentation skills training.

Instead, we might reflect carefully on who we are as join in relationship and community; true leadership arises through a clear sense of self and finding the capacity to genuinely see others.

It’s not an act.

The leaders we choose to be...

“We all wear masks…”

(Will Self)

Last week I was editing a film of the fabulous staff of a ‘special’ school.

As the head of the school was on camera, a few of her words really struck me; I’ve listened to them again and again.

“… I feel strongly about that sense of authentic experience. We’re all coming with difficult experiences and a few scars here and there…[…]… but it’s part of what role models resilience to the kids. I think they see that in all of us. That’s part of what works; that they can look and see people that have overcome…”

Yet acknowledging our difficulties and scars can be contentious in many work environments. Acknowledging that we might be need help now is even worse.

We are only slowly getting used to the idea that it’s (mostly) human beings who show up in the work place. Human beings who have joys, worries, vulnerabilities, sicknesses, dreams, ambitions, friends, families and loved ones.

But there is still resistance to hearing about our humanity at work. Senior leaders are expected to ‘contain’ their anxieties and shield their ‘followers’ from the realities of the world. Followers are expected to provide their ‘deliverables’ without question and demonstrate ‘resilience’ as they encounter what feels like increasing stresses and difficulties along the way.

Meanwhile, everyone disengages, puts on a ‘brave face’ and starts looking for the exit.

Our working lives are becoming more precarious and daunting than ever before. We need a better conversation about who we are in our workplaces.

As leaders, we can valiantly mask our vulnerabilities and anxieties while expecting others to do the same, or we can demonstrate a different kind of courage by showing up authentically, speaking differently and bringing our collective humanity out of the shadows.

We build our resourcefulness through visible expressions of care and love, not through blind denial.


I’m a fan of Helena Clayton’s work. Take a look at her website and click on the ‘Leading from Love’ research report.

My copy of Margaret Wheatley’s ‘Who Do We Choose To Be?’ is getting well thumbed, especially around the pages discussing ‘islands of sanity.’

Steve MarshallComment
This is not a daffodil
Daffodil: iPhone

Daffodil: iPhone

This is a not a daffodil; it’s a digital image. A daffodil is a completely different thing.

Despite my best efforts, you are not looking at a flower.

Even though I observed carefully, watched the way the petals became almost luminescent as the light changed, got close up with my iPhone, made the photograph and then worked it on my computer screen, adjusting the colours, contrast and saturation as best I could.

And, hopefully, this works on your screen too. But who knows?  Screens differ. Eyes differ.

So, let’s be clear. You are looking at a representation, an interpretation, an abstraction of my experience of the flower.

This kind of substitution is widely offered across consultancy, academia and learning. We are provided with a smart theory, a neat diagram, a model, an interesting idea narrated in an expensive book, even the dreaded 2x2 matrix. The ‘deliverable’ is an interpretation of someone else’s experience.

The assumption here is that it is possible to usefully know about a flower even if you’ve never actually experienced one.

But there is a big difference between ‘knowing about’ and ‘knowing’….

As I work with groups developing community, connection and identity, I realise that the models of human behaviour become meaningless. I don’t want to hear that our leadership experiences can be reduced to the tired metaphors of ‘juggling’, or ’spinning plates’, that trust can be reduced to a mathematical equation, or that our learning follows a defined ‘cycles’. 

These are convenient ‘images’ of real life but, as surrealist painter René Magritte might have said, that kind of ‘understanding’ can be treacherous. We don’t lead theoretical lives.

When trying to find a different way in the world, the questions that emerge are beyond simplified propositions and abstract interpretation.

It’s more about whether we can look each other in the eye and say;

“Yes, I know…. I know that feeling. I see you…” 

Real, practical, meaningful learning happens in community, when we find ways to deeply share our individual, personal knowing, rather than deliver experience as abstract theory.


Enjoy another look at René Magritte’s inspiring ‘The Treachery of Images’; his well known image of a pipe, below which he wrote, “Ceci nest pas one pipe.”

In ‘Daring Greatly’, Brené Brown invites us to ignore critics and pay attention to ‘the man in the arena’: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Finally, it’s an old one, but Stanley Herman and Michael Korenich’s ‘Authentic Management’ offers some really helpful notes on ‘about-ism’, ‘should-ism’ and ‘is-ism’. It’s a really helpful guide to our modes of thinking and experience. Only a few of quid on Amazon when I last looked.

I used to work really hard...
Selfie: Nikon D3S

Selfie: Nikon D3S

… but I don’t do that anymore.

Nor am I trying to hack my life, maximise my multi-tasking, or re-boot myself.

But for long time, I held to the belief that working hard, doing stuff I loved, would mean that I wouldn’t need to work hard, doing stuff I hated. The discipline served me well, almost right up to the moment when it suddenly didn’t and, last year, I crashed into ‘burnout.’

But as I’ve negotiated a sometimes tentative, still fragile, transition to a new way of being in the world, I see more easily the fear inherent in my limiting ‘work hard’ assumption.

We live in a media world that assaults us with the view that we aren’t good enough. The cult of ‘performative workaholism’ hustles us to work ever harder. Elon Musk and his call for an exhausting 80 hour work week are celebrated. We must continually work longer hours, obliterate our task list, reach ‘in-box zero’, move more ever faster, be somewhere else…

Yet my work is about showing up and being present; offering witness and paying deep, profound attention to fellow practitioners and clients.

Honestly. It’s helpful to be awake.

And I’ve noticed that as I make space in my day for considered reflection, take a pause for breath, schedule my energy (as much as my time) and take time out for family, colleagues, nature, exercise and creative endeavour, the quality of my listening, observation, perception and empathic connection increases.

It’s clear to me that less is more.

Better than that, it just feels so darn good.

We are starting to see renewed calls for a 4-day work week and corporate wellness programs remain popular (though often controversial).

But the more systemic intervention is to design routines work that are heathy, sustainable and well-paced, encouraging creativity and renewal rather than a fatally habitual 24/7 toil.

In a world where we seem to be accelerating ever more rapidly towards unhelpful chaos, time and attention are transformative.


Lila MacLellan looks at the ‘The risk of thinking of your job as a higher calling’.

Nancy Klein’s ‘Time to Think’ is a classic read for those interested in alleviating the urgency in our lives.

If that doesn’t work, are a look at Jeffrey Pfeffer’s ‘Dying for a Paycheck.

Steve MarshallComment