Leading with Nature

walking in partnership with nature


Shifting Organizational Culture: Learning Transformational Roles from the Soil

Barley roots - a place where transformation happens.

Barley roots – a place where transformation happens.

By Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD

We sometimes hear about an organization that came through grave difficulties and became a success story. Even after hearing the story, we may not really understand how the transformation took place. There is no single way change happens, and it can feel nebulous or mysterious. Without deeper understanding leaders may hesitate to try new leadership styles or begin processes to renew a flagging organization. Today, to give you confidence and inspiration, I share with you a concrete example of how transformation happens… in the soil.

The soil, you see, can transform and nourish itself, with the help of several companions and help-mates. By looking at the different roles and forces that are needed to fix nitrogen in the soil – the biological equivalent of organizational renewal – we can understand how we already play these transformative roles, and how we can play them more intentionally. Supplying nitrogen to plants is a sort of “holy grail” of gardening and agriculture, just as creating a thriving, productive work culture can be the holy grail of organizations. Plants must find nitrogen in the soil to thrive, but not just any nitrogen. It must be nitrogen whose potential has been harnessed. Plants need the form of nitrogen called ammonium, which can be readily absorbed and used by plants. The process of making ammonium is called nitrogen fixing, and gardeners can set up the conditions so that it happens naturally while they sit home in the winter drinking chocolate. Pretty cool!

In the same way, organizational members need certain things from the culture to thrive, such as safety, respect, structure, trust, freedom, boundaries, clarity, and openness to creativity. You can name many more! As in nitrogen fixing, many players and forces come together in organizations to make these things possible so that members are nourished, inspired, supported, and productive. Let us look at how this works in the soil.

Transformation in the Soil: The Nitrogen Fixation Process

Nature’s ability to renew itself is remarkable. Here is a quick summary of how certain plants, like barley, can actually build the nutrients in the soil, just by existing!

  • First, barley grows roots. These roots form a loose chamber where transformation can happen. A species of bacteria called azospirillum just loves to hang out underneath barley plants because of the organic matter the roots release.
  • Next, the azospirillum know how to activate an enzyme system called nitrogenase. This happens to be the only enzyme system known to humankind which can fix nitrogen into ammonium, thereby making the nutrient easy for plants to absorb and use.
  • All of this happens in the soil which surrounds and interacts with the roots. This little clump of soil is called the rhizosphere. This space, embraced loosely by barley roots, is where a few key players come together to change grainy, packed dirt into dark, loamy, nutrient-rich soil. The roots hold together a space where transformation can happen.

What is the result? Well, one warmish February morning I went to the garden and pulled up the barley so I could dig it into the soil, and let it compost so that the nutrients would be available in my onion patch in the spring. When I saw how lush the soil was where the barley had grown, and how sterile the soil was elsewhere, I became a cover crop convert. And, by some accounts, my onion plants were the most vibrant in the community garden. Another gardener had given me half of her onion plants in the spring, so we had a semi-controlled scientific experiment. I planted my onions where the barley had been, with leaf mulch mixed in. She planted hers in soil enriched only with leaf mulch. By June she was astonished at how tall and healthy my onions were. Hers had wilted in the heat.

If you have ever heard leaders, facilitators, or consultants talking shop, you may have heard the phrase “holding the space.” Just as the roots hold together a clump of soil where transformation can happen, one of the key roles in organizational transformation is holding together a process or an intention so that a group can complete its work despite distractions, upheavals, or straying attention. Commonly this role is played by jointly an external consultant and/or a leader. This is a powerful way to proceed, especially if the leader sees him/herself as an integral part of the system and willing to reflect on his/her impact in the organization.

And, does it have to be a leader, facilitator, or consultant who plays the role of the barley roots, holding together the process for the good of the organization as a whole? You have almost certainly played this role for someone in the course of your life by being present for, listening to, and believing in someone. Today many leaders are increasingly open to receiving help from all quarters. By simply changing how we think of ourselves and how we relate to others, we can have subtle, real, and positive impacts on a system.

As we look at organizational equivalents for the biological roles of barley roots, azospirillum, nitrogenase, and the rhizosphere in creating self-nourishment, let us take a page from the book of Carl Jung, the renowned psychoanalyst who revolutionized the interpretation of dreams. Jung encouraged people to examine their dreams multiple times, eventually seeing that each actor or force or element of the dream could represent part of the individual’s psyche. If there was a child, consider the dream as though you were the child, he encouraged. If there was a dangerous intruder, think of that intruder representing an archetype within yourself. If there was a doorway, think of yourself as the doorway as you interpret the dream.

Since anyone can play these transformational roles, we can use Jung’s approach to thinking of ourselves as playing each of these roles.

Transformational Roles

As organizations learn to be adaptive and innovative, there is increasing latitude for any person to instigate or support transformation. I will focus on just four remarkable roles:

  • Barley Roots – The Space Holder – You may have played the role of barley roots, which “hold the space.” If you have listened deeply to a friend in need, you have created a chamber for renewal or transformation. Consultants and leaders use their attention, guidance, and skill to maintain a “chamber” when working with people. The chamber is a loosely held space, like the barley roots you see above, that contains and supports a transformational process. You may have done this by guiding the proceedings of a meeting and protecting progress from disruptions or distractions so that a group’s important work can flow and develop. Or you may have realized that there is another step or direction that the group needs to follow if the results are truly going to be of benefit, and you share your insights and help the group reshape its goals and process to yield a more durable, relevant result.
  • Azospirillum – The Activator – You may have played the role of this species of bacteria which activates the enzyme system which does the actual fixing of nitrogen. If you have ever challenged someone to examine an assumption or asked where someone got the numbers to back up an opinion, you may have played the activating role. Or perhaps you asked the “grail question,” which is traditionally, “what ails you?” In organizational life the grail question might be something inviting such as, “tell me more about that” or “I can see you are passionate about that and I’d like to hear more.” You may have stayed calm and not gotten hooked into a conflict, and instead probed deeper to learn what was really underneath a concern or hard-to-name feeling.
  • Nitrogenase – The Transformer – You have probably already played this role too. Nitrogenase transforms the inert potential of nitrogen into useable ammonium, creating fuel and nourishment for life and growth. You may have revealed a truth that everyone kind of knew but could not put into words. Or chosen to be the first to let go of something that everyone knew was not working anymore, but to which everyone was attached. You may have released a belief that was no longer serving anyone and thereby freed up a group of people to collaborate and create more freely. You may have told a story that shifted how people viewed you or saw a situation, and thereby helped others give themselves permission to tell their own story or open to a new possibilities for your team.
  • Rhizosphere – The Creative Space – You may have played this role with someone else. It can only be lived by two or more people together. It is a collective space. The rhizosphere is something that builds up through shared interactions. It is a collective suspending of judgment so that the true issues can be explored. It is the developing of trust over time, so that you know you can take risks, or others can take risks, without having the new idea or action being chopped down instantly. It is recognizing that creative tension is healthy for organizations, so that there is room for freedom and structure, accountability and creativity, and flexibility and control.

You may think of other transformational roles – what about the sun and rain? Birds and insects? Or you may define the roles differently that I have done. How would you play with these concepts to make them useful and in alignment with your life experience?

Putting Transformational Roles to Work: A Real Life Example

As a consultant, I know I am having a useful impact when an organizational member is willing to confront me, playing the azospirillum role of activator. This happened I was working with an organization to help the members prepare for a new leader. The leader had not yet been chosen, and the organization was somewhat in a state of shock. Their beloved leader had let the organization down, and had to leave rather suddenly. People were disoriented. Some were relieved, some were grieving.

I was working with a team of five members to design a workshop in which each member would facilitate an activity. We had worked together for about three weeks. The date of the workshop was getting close, and suddenly in a planning meeting, one of the team members challenged me. I will call her Tamara. I delighted in this because it was a sign of increased empowerment on the team. I “leaned into” the conflict by trying to learn more about Tamara’s concern and the passion underneath her challenge. That day we did not reach a resolution point, nor did we finalize Tamara’s part in the workshop. But she and I did agree to meet for lunch a few days later. She needed to tell me her story. I listened. We worked through the tensions.

At the time of the workshop, we still did not know what Tamara’s contribution would be. But she and I had developed mutual respect and trust. And when Tamara’s time to facilitate arrived, she had been closely following the development of the workshop, and knew what she wanted to do. She led a process that was appropriate to the group and contributed greatly to the healing of the organizational grief and shock. Tamara’s activity laid a foundation for the final activity, which was a cathartic conversation in which people forgave each other for long-held grudges, expressed the knowledge that they needed to work together if the organization was to have a future, released some fears about receiving a new leader, and even opened to a sense of excitement about new possibilities.

In the above story, all of the transformative roles are present. At different times, both Tamara and I held the space for our workshop design and execution, playing the role of the barley roots. Tamara played the role of azospirillum, challenging me and activating some conversation that allowed me to ask the grail question – what ails you? By telling her story, Tamara made herself vulnerable in a way that built trust between us. That is the role of nitrogenase – the transformer. The team and I together played the rhizosphere – the creative space – by not insisting that Tamara define her role in the workshop. She chose at first to play a barley root role – monitoring and following the development of the workshop, which gave her the intuitive information she needed to let her activity for the group crystalize, just moments before she was to facilitate.

The potential for leadership often lays dormant inside our organizational systems. By combining these four roles – the space holder, the activator, the transformer, and the creative space – potential can become active leadership. This helps the organization transform and nourish itself, just as in the nitrogen fixing process. What additional transformative roles do you see in the above story? How would you interpret what happened?


When I sit on the ground, breaking up clumps of soil with my hands, and mixing mulch or expired barley plants into the soil, I think about these roles. They seem the perfect analogy to help an organization rekindle its ability to overcome, grow, and thrive. We often wait for someone else to initiate change. Sometimes just by taking more time to listen, or to accept someone just as they are, or to challenge someone to see things differently, or to acknowledge something we have learned, we can open up possibilities for ourselves and others to change. We might not see the result immediately, yet when organizational members experiment consciously with these roles, an entire system might gradually shift and transform.

Please share your stories, experiments, and inspirations about roles you have played or seen others play in supporting transformation. Thank you!

1 Comment

Walking into the Woods: A Solstice PhotoEssay

By Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD

Dark times compel the heart to open.

Yet we don’t have to wait for the longest night of the year or a stunning tragedy. A walk into the woods or desert or along a shore can also open the heart.

Why do we want the heart to open? It helps us stretch how we see and experience the world, so we can be wiser and more skillful leaders. We need to walk in others’ shoes to truly assess risk and build society to work for all. Pioneering psychologist Carl Jung even believed that we have a primal force inside us which yearns for us to grow. This force draws hardships to us to compel us to reflect, learn, and evolve. 

The Buddhists have a name for heart opening: Bodhichitta or the awakened heart. I read about Bodhichitta when I experienced a devastating loss. I felt an unstoppable, burning ache in my heart. When I read that this was something good, like a candle flame from deep within, I learned to be grateful that the ache would make me truer to myself and more compassionate in the world.

If we practice opening the heart day-to-day, of our own volition, we can expand our hearts and wisdom even without the deep darkness of solstice or unimaginable tragedies like the massacre at Sandy Hook.

A thoroughly used telephone pole stands near a living tree.

A thoroughly used telephone pole stands near a living tree.

A living tree resides in a village of metal and concrete.

A living tree resides in a village of metal and concrete.

Heart-opening is vital when we live in high-tech, concrete cities or economically depressed towns where conditions may inspire or require us to shield and close our hearts in order to get by. Even as efficiency and control can bring us prosperity and new possibilities, they can also bind our hearts and minds into a knot. 

A knotted mind can (forgive the pun) be our undoing. We can undermine our very efforts when we limit what we allow ourselves to see and feel; and what we choose to value, promote, and protect.

So what is a simple way to open the heart?

Walking with Trees for an Open Heart

I like to walk away from places that stifle into places that inspire. The act of moving from one environment to another can open the heart and mind in small, daily ways that help us grow.

Recently I walked from my urban village to a woodland park about three miles away. I decided to observe the trees along the way. Just the trees. At first I judged and classified them: big, small, majestic, chopped, broken, withered, evergreen. That was my left brain talking – the mental function which is so good with facts, names, analysis, and decisions. This is an organized, useful, productive way to be in the world.

But after a while, I felt like there was a snapping turtle in my head. This snapping did not match what was going on around me – breezes and blue skies, curving branches and running children. Naming things was knotting up my mind and wearing me out. So I let the images of the trees wash over me. I did not hold them in my mind. I took them in: their grandeur, wounds, fruits, and quietness. I relaxed. The fresh air and calming movement changed my state of mind.

Entering suburban areas, my mind shifted. I noticed different dynamics between nature and human settlements. Nature had more space to be nature. Nature seemed less choked than in the “DO NOT ENTER” picture above. Nature and civilization existed side-by-side to a greater degree. 

Residents enhance a garden with a rock wall and wind chimes.

Residents enhance a garden with a rock wall and wind chimes.

Bare winter branches stand with the shell of a new house, both awaiting new life.

Bare winter branches stand with the shell of a new house, both awaiting new life.

Roses express their whimsy through a fence.

Roses express their whimsy through a fence.

Benefits of an Elastic State of Mind

Before we get to the woods, let us pause and think metaphorically about implications of different states of heart and mind for leadership.

Our challenging times ask us to lead and operate in new ways. As Einstein indicated, we cannot create problems with one state of mind, and expect to solve them without a different state of mind. And to think in new ways, we need new experiences, such as walking away from concrete and telephone poles and into a community of nature.

Maybe we tend to lead and work in only a few states of mind (e.g., slow or fast snapping turtle mind), and we begin to think those are the only legitimate, useful ways to think. We may be living in an extreme or narrow state which makes our reality brittle and vulnerable. For example, if we mainly see trees as urban ornaments to squeeze into concrete habitats or raw material for telephone poles, as above, how then will we see our fellow human beings? The viewpoint we use with one arena – trees – may mirror how we view other situations and beings. Will we view employees in the most utilitarian light, or live in fear and disdain of fellow citizens who think differently? Will we shut down new opportunities because they are unfamiliar? These limited states of mind seem to protect our security, at least for the short term. Ultimately they may limit our potential and even be dangerous to ourselves and others.

But maybe snapping-turtle mind is all we know. It’s not that we are being stubborn. We simply may not know how to be another way. Fortunately, new experiences can open us to new states of mind. Let’s continue walking to the woods.

Walking into Wonder: A Totally Useful Activity

I have been walking for an hour. I approach the woods. As I enter the woods, I feel a completely different atmosphere. I feel relief. My body suddenly takes a slow, full breath. The trees here bask in the community of other trees. They can be themselves here. So can I. 

Sidewalk ends. Trees can be trees together.

Sidewalk ends. Trees can be trees together.



Overhead tangles do not have to make any sense. They just are.

Overhead tangles do not have to make any sense. They just are.

There is a network of trails in the woods. I walk for 30 minutes and descend into a hidden valley. A rocky stream runs through. There are no formal bridges. I crisscross the stream on scattered rocks. I am coming to the heart of the park.

I look up. I feel two trees are speaking to me. One is smooth with a dark, narrow cave at its base – a yawning mouth. The other radiates energy from exposed layers of shaggy bark with random, artistic beauty.

Entering a hidden ravine, I was greeted by these two beauties - probably an American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) (left) and a Pignut Hickory(Carya glabra) (right).

Entering a hidden ravine, I was greeted by these two beauties – probably an American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) (left) and a Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra) (right).

Together they captivate.

Together they captivate.

The indented topography of the Hickory bark seemed to form a shallow mouth, echoing the cave mouth of its neighbor.

The indented topography of the Hickory bark seemed to form a shallow mouth, echoing the cave mouth of its neighbor.


Their message was simple: welcome, slow down, notice our beautiful community.

Why did these particular trees speak? Upon reflection, I may have been able to connect with them more than with other trees because their facial features – their mouths – felt human. Maybe trees with anthropomorphic features – those which appear to have human form – are able to penetrate my being and be heard. Maybe when we see ourselves in others, we are able to open to their spirits. Maybe when we notice others’ miraculous qualities in ways that remind us of ourselves, our spirits are able to connect at levels beyond pragmatism. This is a totally useful activity that will help us survive and thrive in this utterly changing world.

Yet seeing others because we see our reflection is not enough. We need to look beyond the surface, because others with intrinsic value and desire to contribute and thrive do not always look like us. They may be from a different generation. They may be from a religion, ethnicity, or culture that feels foreign and confusing. They may have different mental or physical abilities. Or they may be from a different species entirely. We may have low ability to include their needs and gifts in our vision. Ongoing visits to the woods, or any meditative practice over time, will deepen anyone’s ability to connect with the other.

Seeing the Woodland Community and System

After being greeted so gracefully, I begin to see the community of this hidden valley more completely. I am in my right brain. I can see beyond the concrete and immediate.

When we see a single tree in isolation, we forget that like humans, trees are capable of forming community with all of life. Seeing them all, we can feel there is something more present than a collection of trees and plants. We can see a living system.

Communication and cooperation is happening among these trees, even if we are not trained to see it.

Communication and cooperation is happening among these trees, even if we are not trained to see it.

Life is palpable here.

Life is palpable here.

Cathedrals were designed to mimic the lines and light of the forest.

Cathedrals were designed to mimic the lines and light of the forest.

What can seeing systems mean for us as leaders, as we think about our employees, partners, and communities? As leaders we have experiences with people and may have deep-rooted beliefs: “if groups are left to their own devices, they will… (fill in the blank).” But do we really know what human systems look like when they are left to their own devices? How can we learn how people behave in situations that are more organic than what is possible in cubicles or mines or assembly lines?

One way is the simple, yet powerful, method for group exploration and dialogue called Open Space Technology (OST), originated by Harrison Owen. An Open Space meeting usually lasts 1-3 days, focuses on a particular issue, and invites all players in the system to participate. It may involve tens, hundreds, or even thousands of people. Open Space has only a few, minimalist rules: enough to keep the process constructive while allowing freedom to express, explore, argue, collaborate, and emerge with organic results. Because the few rules for Open Space have been honed to let the organic power of groups emerge, they are surprisingly powerful in their simplicity.

Harrison Owen has worked with Open Space meetings for many years, and has observed similar patterns of movement and behavior among participants, regardless of the culture, topic, size of meeting, or language. “A group will have an ebb and flow,” says Harrison. “It will be circular, or split into groups. There is a dance.” Like natural systems, human systems appear to have innate abilities to heal themselves and resolve issues. Open Space meetings let us see those abilities in action. (You can read more about Harrison’s experiences observing Open Space meetings in notes from one of his presentations, including references to his web site and books.)

Open Space also strengthens compassion and empathy – the ability to value what others need or feel. Experiential processes like walking into the woods or participating in Open Space will help us understand how other beings – whether trees or people – exprience life. We know from Sandy Hook and other tragedies around the world that individuals and groups either miss or ignore signals that danger is imminent. We may be able to help avert disasters in the future by expanding our spectrum of experiences so that we can see, acknowledge, and act on signals with wisdom.

Saying Goodbye

After a walk in the woods, unless we are squirrels or deer, we probably need to go home. When leaving the woods, I had the most perfect experience to complete my connection with trees: I met another anthropomorphized ambassador:


As we look to turn challenging times into growth and evolution, I wish you the benefits of connecting with nature and other beings. I would like to hear about your experiences walking in the woods or marsh or desert. I would like to hear what you learn and how you apply it.

Please remember those who may not have safe access to nature and/or may be so consumed with survival that they have no time or means to be in nature. Indeed, I ask you to remember nature itself. If you are so inclined, please join me in contributing with service or money to a social or environmental nonprofit, whether local, national, or international. Here are several that I recommend: 

– Arts for the Aging
– Daughters of Mumbi Global Resource Center
– Institute for Conservation Leadership
– Latin American Youth Center
Our Task  which is holding its Earth 2100 Conference with George Mason University in July 2013
National Council for Science and the Environment which is hosting the Environment and Disasters Conference in January 2013
National Parks Conservation Association

Special thanks to the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority which cares for the woods in these pictures and is also a worthy recipient of donations.

Please share your comments, questions, and stories at the link below. Happy Solstice and a Peaceful New Year!

Leave a comment

New Name and Look

Thanks to you who have read and contributed to my blog over the last two years.  Through my interactions with you and reflections on work with my clients, my posts have increasingly focused on the connections between leadership and nature. 

For this reason I have changed the name from “Insight and Interaction” to “Leading with Nature,” and given the blog a new look.  

Watch this space for new posts drawing on experiences with nature to explore leadership, personal development, and organizational culture.

If you are a member of WordPress you can click “Follow” in the upper left corner to receive notifications of new posts.  Otherwise, watch for my announcements on social media. 

Thank you for co-creating and shaping this blog!

Kristen, Principal, Opening Creativity


Finding Hidden Treasure in Organizations

For three years I did not even wonder what these fruits were, growing in a tree above my garden. Now I want to know. Image: Jim Conrad

Author: Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD

We may have battled fiercely, but it’s only because we love this country deeply, and we care so strongly about its future. — President Barack Obama 11/7/12

A few weeks ago, in the midst of political uncertainty in the United States, I was googling botanical terms: serrate, acute, pinnate, and elliptical. I had a mystery tree on my hands.

I could not ease my anxiety about political turmoil, but perhaps I could learn what kind of tree this is, hovering over my garden. It frustrates me. It blocks the sun, slowing plant growth. It drops little seeds which sprout and have to be weeded. And the tree runs its roots into my raised vegetable beds. For three years I have been struggling against it, and recently started asking myself why.

Why fight and ignore what I cannot change? I can trim the tree where it overhangs my garden, but the tree itself belongs to the neighboring property, a large apartment complex. Getting permission to cut the tree and managing to cut it down are bigger tasks than I care to take on.

Besides, I am deeply grateful for the shade. On hot summer days, what a relief it is to take a break in the shade and eat a slice of cold watermelon!

Why not accept the tree as a quirk of my garden patch? How can I come to know it and work with its presence rather than fighting it? How can I transcend this push-pull of loving and being annoyed at something at the same time?

Deep in the night on November 7, in his acceptance speech, President Obama called on us to honor what is difficult about the political process. He named the fierce battle as a surface-level result of a deep love of nation. He said that people in other countries put their lives on the line just to be able to argue. The desire to argue shows there is life and passion.  It shows a love of country and hope for the future. We often experience struggle, difficulty, and inconvenient fervor in organizations too. How can we embrace Obama’s call to love what is difficult?  In my low-stakes organization (my garden) I try to do just that.  Here are three steps I took regarding the tree I love which annoys me, and three lessons I learned:

Continue reading

1 Comment

Sky-Walking: A Metaphor for Organizational Learning

Between the railroad ties of the Kinzua Sky Walk in Northwestern Pennsylvania, one can view the valley floor 301 feet below — offering a chance to confront fear. Image: Nicholas A. Tonelli

Author: Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD

 “Not even my foot could fit in that gap,” I told myself, “so how could I possibly fall through?” I was stepping from railroad tie to railroad tie on the renovated half-bridge that soars 301 feet above the Kinzua Valley in Northwestern Pennsylvania (see photo). Yet my legs would not believe these platitudes, and continued to wobble and ache.

My partner, Anthony Hyatt, and I were returning home to the Washington, DC area from Lake Couchiching, north of Toronto, where we presented a workshop at the Mindcamp creativity conference. We planned a relaxed journey so we could explore local sights around the Allegheny National Forest: the quirky Zippo museum, the Timberdoodle Flats birding trail, and the Kinzua Sky Walk. Little did I know I would come away from Kinzua with an experience and metaphor about how people learn in organizations.

“Feel the fear and do it anyway,” I thought, as I walked on the ties until I could no longer stand the aching and anxiety, and moved to the walkway. Back on the ties, back on the walkway. On and off, on and off. (Sounds like a train!) Anthony and I reached the end of the Sky Walk and took in the sweeping valley where in 2003 a tornado dashed this miraculously long and high railroad bridge to the valley floor, leaving scattered piles of steel wreckage which are still there. Or were they crumpled dinosaur skeletons?

After we enjoyed the view, joked about bungee jumping, and were photographed by some amiable men in Harley-Davidson jackets, we returned on the railroad tracks to the park entrance. Anthony began to walk on the rusty metal rails, and I followed suit. Suddenly I could walk over the same space without fear. The continuity of the rail across the same space, while requiring me to balance, gave me confidence in my safety. I walked down the rail feeling free and light.

Now the test: I walked again on the ties. And voilà! No fear, no aching, no anxiety. Gone!

Continue reading


Organizational Culture: Soil and Nourishment for Staff Growth

Two pots of pepper plants, started from the same seedlings, nourished with different amounts of soil and water.

Author: Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD

Early this summer I was minding my own business, shoveling mulch in my community garden plot, when a man came down the sidewalk and spoke to me across the fence. “Hello,” he hollered, as though we were old friends. He gave me a small tray of pepper seedlings and a bag of assorted seeds. He wanted me to give him some mulch for his own potted plants at home. Learning that he would become my gardening neighbor the next season, as his name was on the waiting list for a plot, I agreed to fill up the plastic bag he brought with our community mulch.  

While the man has not yet reappeared, the pepper plants live in my garden, and a few live on my apartment balcony. Some got planted in the large blue pot you see in this picture, with four or five gallons of good soil. I never managed to obtain more large pots and soil for the remaining seedlings, which, well, remain seedlings. You can see them in the small, dark green pot: pale and stunted.  

I have never grown peppers before, so I did not know what to expect. In fact, the three well-nourished plants are nearly three feet tall and have three dozen buds that will grow into peppers. Those in the small green pot are 1/2 foot tall and, needless to say, will not be producing buds or peppers. For comparison, the peppers I grew in the community garden (not pictured) are one to 1 1/2 feet tall. I gave them all as much water as their soil could hold and plenty of sunshine. 

Why such a difference? Did I pick the three healthiest plants to go in the large blue pot? Possibly, but that doesn’t seem to explain the huge difference. Is it the quality of soil? Or the quanity of soil? Something supported the innate potential in those three seedlings to grow vibrant and strong.

The stunning difference in outcomes made me think of how organizational culture is like soil.  a healthy culture, organizational members can grow and thrive, and help the organization generate revenue and positive impact. They produce ideas which serve as seeds for an innovative future. While every organization needs a culture unique to its mission, purpose, history, context, and values, certain qualities are often present in the healthiest, most productive organizational cultures. 

One key quality is the shared ability to use simple concepts to keep ourselves and our colleagues from falling into pitfalls, and conversely, to be constructive together. They are methods of tracking what is happening in a group so that we don’t run through the guardrails together by proceeding without questioning faulty assumptions. Or supporting each other by building on what others have said to create the strongest ideas and outcomes. It’s the shared understanding that we all bring gifts and goodwill to a process, even if it doesn’t look like it on the surface. Here’s an example:

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Embracing Reinvention: Part Three: Hold On Loosely

Celebrate your reinvention and be open and ready to shift again. Image: freeimages.co.uk.

Tony Bond, MBA, MPOD
& Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD

How do we know when we are reinvented? We wrap up our three-part blog conversation by looking at the tangible, external results of reinvention.

TB: In Parts One and Two we turned inward, looking at the personal heart and mind. While looking within is essential, reinvention also involves other people. It is a contact sport. We transform in relationship, not in isolation. In fact, engagement with others propels us forward and allows us to see the progress we have made, when we might otherwise miss it. Reinvention can sneak up on us, because we are so busy striving, judging what we have not yet achieved, or looking for the next new strategy. Meanwhile, we may have arrived at a new station in life without realizing it. Here’s an example:

Years ago as a graduate student in positive organizational change, we were required to craft our own personal development plan that would include goals and aspirations for the next ten years. This came after a long process of defining our own personal vision, identifying personal strengths and gaps and building a personal network of relationships that could help us along our journey. The end result would be a total transformation into our ideal best self.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Embracing Reinvention: Part Two: Moving into the Heart

The interior space of a shell reminds us of the heart, where transformation can happen. Image: freeimages.co.uk.

Tony Bond, MBA, MPOD
& Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD

Deepening our earlier conversation about our own practices supporting personal reinvention, in support of our consulting and coaching practices – and of your reinvention needs, we now explore the theme of creating space in the heart to allow for transformation.

TB: It’s hard to bring about transformation while living in the head. Transformation happens when attention is centered in the heart. A few years ago I participated in a transformative retreat with Father Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation. It changed my life, and every day I still connect with the experience and Father Rohr’s teachings.

During this men’s retreat, which was a modern initiation process based on ancient practices, we were asked to not refer to anything outside ourselves: not even our jobs, spouses, or children. For the entire week, we did not know the profession or status of our fellow participants. We could only identify ourselves as who we were at the core. The best part: this stripped away the identities I carried. It was basically me. At first, we were apprehensive. Not really knowing what to expect from the experience (letting go of control) and not being able to rely on the false identities we normally think of as our true selves, we felt vulnerable.

Once the ego is put in check and the focus is directed inside, there is room for growth and true transformation. This is what took place for all who were a part of the experience. There are leadership lessons to be drawn from this type of experience. Accepting the fact that we really cannot control most things, and being intentional in developing a high level of self-awareness can have a positive impact on others and the organization as a whole.

– Practice 3: Explore on the internet for a teacher or speaker who offers daily messages of inspiration, reflection, or inquiry, and subscribe to his or her list. Or choose a book of daily meditations from your bookstore or library. Commit to spending 10 minutes a day reading and journaling about what comes up for you during the reading. Spend an extra 3 minutes writing about how the reading and reflection changes your state of mind or the place of your attention. Keep it up for 30 days, and write a final reflection about what you learned and what you noticed about yourself. This might be about three pages long. If you choose, you can renew your commitment for another 30 days. Here are links to two teachers who offer emails and other resources for meditation: Father Richard Rohr and Tara Brach.

Continue reading


Embracing Reinvention: Part One: Connecting and Seeing Anew

A defocused, decreasing, spiral fractal pattern, suggesting the true self being reinvented and released into the world. Image: freeimages.co.uk.

Tony Bond, MBA, MPOD,
& Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD


In a sense, we are Tony Bond and Kristen Barney. Yet like you, we are reinventing ourselves. All of us –individuals, leaders, and organizations – are being challenged to move beyond who we were yesterday or last year. This is the gift of our challenging economic times. All of us are called to be more, to dig deep within ourselves to draw out more of our potential. The good news: this is a chance to be truer to ourselves, which basically means shedding unhelpful thoughts, beliefs, or habits which are generating unhelpful results, and embracing more helpful ways of seeing and being.

The starting place for transformation is always at the personal level. And as consultants and coaches, in order to support others in transforming themselves, we (Tony and Kristen) must first be adept at self-transformation. So we sat down via Skype for an open-ended conversation on this question:

  • How can we share the essence of transmutation – shedding old skins and embracing different or refined identities – with individuals and organizations who might not connect with buzz words like innovation or reinvention, yet are being urged by the new circumstances of economic and other conditions, to change?

We have created a three-part blog post to share our conversation, including several practices you can use in your daily life to support self-transformation. We have used a wide range of terms to refer to  transformation, including change, transmutation, reinvention, innovation, and refinement. Many authors have written about the different meanings of these words and for this post we are using them interchangeably to refer to internal shifts that generate new kinds of results in your life. We invite you to explore what these terms mean for you.

Part One: Connecting with the System and Seeing from Different Levels

Tony: When I think of the reinvention process, and how insights can be transferred to other contexts, I am reminded of Professor Chris Argyris’ research, which found that the more educated one is, the less likely one is to look reflectively within.  (See Argyris’ Harvard Business Review article on this theme.) As leaders, we are tempted to look on our organization as something outside ourselves that we are managing (like a puppeteer with a marionette), while at the same time forgetting to manage (or reflect on) our own impact on the situation or system.

The truth is, the idea that we are “in control” as leaders is somewhat of an illusion, and our efforts to control actually block critical insights. When leaders and individuals can look inside at their own role in a situation, that’s when organizational transformation begins. I experienced this myself: when I paused to see how I was contributing to a situation, a veil of illusion was lifted and I could see more clearly.

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Update: Stakeholder Engagement in the Community Garden

Tricolor Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis) shown through the garden fence, is a planting intended to give passers-by a connection to the garden while the organizational boundary (fence) remains clear.

Author: Kristen Barney, MA, MSOD

So, what has happened in my experiment with stakeholder
engagement in a community garden?

  • As I tend my plot, people walking by continue to speak with me and even compliment the garden.
  • There continues to be little or no evidence of littering.
  • Only a rabbit or vole has committed theft (and murder by the way), neatly executing a promising zucchini plant at the base and knawing up the first squash. (I may not cast any stones, however, as I mashed some harlequin beetles, or Acrocinus longimanus, which breed quickly and transform kale leaves into lace.)
  • Today a petite elderly woman in a turquoise tunic spoke softly to
    me in an Asian language and made hand gestures about my weeding activities and how she was exercising her legs.

Stakeholder engagement aside, the blackberry brambles have tripled in size, the cabbage is nearly ready to harvest, and I snack on gold and red cherry tomatoes with every visit.

Organizations (and farmers!) usually have more ambitious goals than stemming the tide of litter, preventing theft, and having friendly conversations; yet, the principles of stakeholder engagement do scale well. I hope you will tell more gardening and/or stakeholder engagement stories below and share posts with friends and colleagues.