Leading 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?


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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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

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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!

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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:

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