Leading with Nature

walking in partnership with nature


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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?

Conclusion

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!


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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.

Stillness.

Stillness.

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:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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!