Paris: iPhone

Paris: iPhone

“To confront a person with their own shadow is to show them their own light.”

(Carl Jung)

A year ago, I was struggling with workload, obligation and fatigue.. A couple of months later, I stopped sleeping and it felt like my life fell apart. Diagnosed with burnout, stress and depression, I needed to spend 3 months recovering before I could return to work.

Of course, I know from my experience of consulting in organisations, coaching individual transformation, and working alongside my supervisees on the doctorate in organisational change at @Ashridge_Biz, that 3 months of recovery from trauma barely counts as triage, let alone provides any substantial ground for personal change.

And so I have continued with the work of change. Over the subsequent months, I’ve switched my job role, I take time to exercise, make space for creative work, I write, I’ve adjusted my diet, and spend time relaxing and being with family. At last, it feels as though I’m showing up ‘more like me’ in my life as well as bringing increased clarity and insight to my day job.

But as I’ve reset boundaries and commitments, I realise that I’m still carrying the previous labels and attributions projected onto me by friends and colleagues.

Last week at @Ashridge_Biz, one of our participants led a ‘Privilege Walk’ exercise. As a white, blue-eyed, male, benefitting from wealth and education, I found myself (unsurprisingly) near the front of the walk and curious that my ‘working class, child of a single parent family’ story didn’t seem to have had much effect.

The walk confronted my hero narrative of ‘working class boy done good due to his own hard work…’ and I began to realise that the ‘breaks’ I had been given might not have been offered to other young men; that despite my stories of disadvantage, in comparison to others, perhaps things hadn’t been that bad.

So, as I try to drop my old identity as a highly motivated, no-nonsense, reliable, hard working role model, and move towards a more developed, relational, holistic and graceful way of leadership, I’m aware that my organisation doesn’t seem to know how to categorise me and colleagues seem to struggle with my new contribution. What do you do these days, Steve?

I’m starting to see that the shadow of my power and privilege still reaches beyond me, dropping clues about how I am seen by others. I experience mis-communication where I thought things were clear; despite good intention conflict arises in ways that leave me confused; apparently random dramas beset me; it feels like I’m still ‘not getting it’; life feels chaotic. It’s as though I can’t reconcile a new self with my own blue-eyed, white, middle class wealth, privilege and power.

Pema Chödrön says that, “The elemental struggle is with our feelings of being wrong, with our guilt and shame at what we are.” She tells us to remember that our practice is not about accomplishing anything - not, as I would have previously framed it, about winning or losing - but ceasing to struggle and relaxing as it is.

I know that I don’t need to add more depression, disadvantage, anger or separation into a world that is already riven with fragmentation and division. Yet I carry privilege and advantage that implicitly situates me within a specific part of that reality.

Finding ways to shine a light into my own shadow, to see myself as I am, feels like the next step forward.


I really must congratulate our @Ashridge_Biz #EDOC participants for such an excellent workshop which both held and challenged their cohort with a sequence of thoughtful exercises and challenges.

Throughout this ‘post-burnout’ period, I have found that Pema Chödrön’s ‘When Things Fall Apart’ has been a very helpful guide.

Do your own ‘Privilege Walk’ - here’s how. Adjust the detail of the questions to your geography. The exercise doesn’t provide objective answers but, as I found, is a powerful prompt for reflection.

If a deeper dive into the shadows feels appropriate then maybe ‘The Essential Jung: Selected Writings’ might be useful.

Apple Blossom: iPhone

Apple Blossom: iPhone

If you could forget who you think you are, you might catch up with who you really are, and can’t see.

(Vincent Ferrini)

On the days when nothing is making sense, I resort to making art.

Sometimes, I write. Mostly, I photograph.

I feel into whatever is softly whispering to me; then let my mind wander a little, dropping the agenda of the senseless workday, and begin to make images.

This week, I realised how long I had been waiting for the apple tree outside our kitchen window to blossom. It’s a late starter and always keeps us nervously waiting so I was really delighted to use the process of photography to focus, explore my thoughts and reconnect with myself.

I guess I will never get onto the cover of National Geographic or, even, Apple Blossom Monthly, with my casual iPhone imagery but that’s not the point. The act of photographing, engaging with the sensuous aesthetics of the blossom is, in itself, restorative, therapeutic, bringing me out of the (mostly) illusory world of business and back into my own lived experiences.

Ethologist, Ellen Dissanayake tells us: “As individuals, many of us know in our bones that we need art, whatever that may mean. We cannot imagine life without music, or poetry, or man-made beauty in its many forms. We thirst or hunger for these, and feel deprived when they are absent.” For me, the seemingly mindless wandering with a camera in and among the trees just feels good.

And Dissanayake says, “…it should not be surprising that what feels good in most cases is what is good for us.

If you look carefully, past the ego-driven coolness, you will find folks doing this kind of work on Instagram and across social media; look out for @visionanalogue or @mymorningwalks who both take the daily discipline of this kind of practice seriously.

Today, the apple blossom is being battered by wind and rain so there won’t be much photographic soul work for me. Unless of course, working with the images for this blog counts.

I think it does.

It helps me to catch up with who I really am.


I’ve been a fan of Ellen Dissanayake’s work for a while; she gives us some very clear pointers to where art comes from - the essential day to day work - as opposed to the art gallery stuff. If you are into this kind of scholarliness, her book ‘Homo Aestheticus’ is a good start.

The ‘art therapy’ route isn’t really my thing, but I’ve just picked up a copy of ‘Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination’ by Shaun McNiff which I’m looking forward to reading.

It could be easy to worried about quality in the imagery - don’t - that’s not the point. The point is in the doing. JDI.

Steve MarshallComment
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