When many of us were pushed into remote work last year, the traditional boundary between work and home collapsed.
The commute shortened to a distance between the bedroom and whatever quiet corner at home became “the office.” Now it feels like we all operate out of our own “home studios,” interacting with each other through the screen.
For those of us with school-age children, our homes also turned into classrooms during school closures. It’s hard juggling Zoom meetings on screen, managing needs of children, pets, or other beings at home, and getting work done on both home and work fronts.
I may need “me-time” for self-reflection, digestion of current experiences, and integration of insights, learnings, and inspirations. Just to keep my sanity and the serenity to feel the ground under my feet and find my next step.
But I may also feel too overwhelmed or stressed to even imagine having time-and-space to myself, thinking: “It’s too selfish to take care of my needs when so many people at work and home are depending on me to keep going!”
And burn-out is just around the corner.
In the past year, I’ve unexpectedly discovered the benefits of gathering weekly in a community to reflect, digest, and integrate the learnings from those challenges together, and to grow our resilience and collective leadership capacity.
When the COVID-19 “lockdowns” happened last year, Charles Starrett and I felt that everything we had gone through in our lives prepared us for that moment. We felt called to contribute our knowledge and skills to co-create a learning community to support what might emerge from the uncertain, unknown, and unsettling time.
But how? How could two people co-create a learning community alone?
Fortunately, we discovered we were not alone.
On May 11, 2020, within a global initiative of the Presencing Institute called “GAIA,” Charles and I launched a “Hub” called “Leadership for Business Transformation” with Rafaela Rolim in Brazil. (More on the Hub later.)
We had no idea what we were co-creating then, but the reward of the GAIA journey turned out to be the learning journey itself. As I write this, deep gratitude and appreciation fill my heart for the Presencing Institute providing us with an online platform for co-creating a learning community, and for my co-hosts and co-travelers.
In the weekly Hub meeting on Tuesdays, our Hub members participate via Zoom from at least 10 different countries including: Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, India, The Netherlands, Spain, and the United States.
There’s no obligation or expectation on any of the members to show up. We gather weekly simply because we want to. An ordinary group of humans — longing to BE, BELONG, and BECOME our highest Selves, in service of transforming business as a force for good — in an extraordinary time.
Each of us knows that it begins with “this body and mind.” Like an orchestra coming together for weekly practice to refine, what Otto Scharmer, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management, and co-founder of the Presencing Institute, refers to as, “the three key instruments” of leadership: open mind (for curiosity), open heart (for compassion), and open will (for courage).
The music we make together is genuinely nourishing, novel, and notable.
I love the acronym GAIA for Global Activation of Intention and Action because it also evokes Goddess Earth in Greek mythology. Otto Scharmer and his colleagues at the Presencing Institute launched this global initiative in March last year as the Stay at Home Order or “lockdown” began spreading throughout the world. The GAIA journey still continues.
When I’m confronted with discomfort, disruption, or disturbance, I have a choice of “absencing” or “presencing”:
Presencing and absencing also happens at a collective level. As a team, organization, business, school, society, or country, we can choose “absencing” or “presencing” as a response to COVID-19 and any other disruptions.
Otto described GAIA as “an impromptu global infrastructure for sense-making, for leaning into our current moment of disruption and letting this moment move us toward civilization renewal.”
He shared that he has heard three realizations from people all over the planet: (1) that we know our current civilization is not sustainable, (2) we want to be part of a different story, and (3) that we don’t know how.
More than a decade ago, I was already one of those people, feeling trapped and stuck by (1) and (2) because I couldn’t find (3). So when Otto articulated what I had been struggling with for much of my career, I wished I had known the work of the Presencing Institute back then, and had learned the awareness-based systems change tools and practices to be part of a different story.
GAIA as a global community infrastructure provided an online space for change-makers, leaders, and citizens from all sectors, systems, and cultures, from home while in quarantine to learn, reflect, and tune into that emerging, different story together.
GAIA Journey launched on Friday, March 27, 2020. Over 5,000 people participated in multiple sessions and multiple languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese) throughout the day. Behind it was a global team of 50 people who rose to the occasion, sprung into action, co-designed (in less than 10 days), and helped to deliver a 14-week journey that ended in July, culminating in a virtual Global Forum, co-created among the participants and focused on the transformation journey of the next decade.
“Hubs are self-organized topic- or place-based groups which meet online or in person (where possible) to connect around a shared context and practice social methodologies together, towards reinventing systems.” —Presencing Institute
Charles and I met Rafaela in a Zoom breakout room during one of the GAIA gatherings. Although this was the first time we’d met, we sensed a shared intention toward an initiative. Yet, we couldn’t articulate right away what that was.
All three us resonated with what one GAIA participant shared in the launch session:
“Everything I have gone through in my life has prepared me for this moment.”
We were also drawn to Otto’s call for deep listening:
“What we are trying to do here really is to bring a state of listening together more deeply and more intentionally into this moment. To pay attention to what is emerging to our own experience, both at the individual level, but also at the collective level.”
One thing was clear: we could start a Hub and see what we might learn from the experiment.
I often ask, “What is the step before the step?” I sensed the step before starting the Hub was crystalizing an intention.
Charles and I put our heads together and came up with this intention and description of the Hub we ended up naming, “Leadership for Business Transformation” because of our belief in business as a creative force for good:
"Opportunities for leadership are all around us. The capacity for leadership is deep within us." —Madeleine Albright, Former U.S. Secretary of State
Otto has shared that the late CEO of Hanover Insurance, Bill O'Brien, summed up his own leadership experience with the observation:
“The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.”
Rafaela loved what we came up with, so we launched the Hub, not knowing how many people would show up, or what we would do. Our intention was simple: open the virtual space and listen to what would arise in that space with an open mind, open heart and open will.
On Monday, May 11, 2020, we held our first meeting with only one other person in addition to the three of us co-hosts. The following week we switched to Tuesday, and we’ve been meeting every Tuesday since!
Eight weeks after we started, Hub participation had grown enough to explore our intentions together by asking the question: “What is the Leadership for Business Transformation Hub for?”
We listened to everyone and the space, and uncovered the essence of how we see and sense the Hub as follows:
When my co-hosts and I started the Hub, we also felt the social isolation that accompanied physical distancing and remote work. So we sought to co-create a community where we could virtually gather online to remember that we were not alone.
As time went on, I was surprised to see how the weekly Hub space allowed us to reconnect with our own feelings and experiences by voicing them in the “virtual room” where we gathered, and by listening to and witnessing others who were going through similar feelings and experiences.
This feeling of “I am not alone” plus “I matter” and “I am enough, I do enough, and I have enough resources to go through this challenging time” has nourished each of us during and after our weekly sessions. It’s like a recharging station with sustainable fuel: joy, vitality, creativity, and gratitude.
Over the course of one year, the Leadership for Business Transformation Hub has provided a “third space”for me and other members to learn from each other’s experience. “Third space” because it is neither our home space nor our office/work space. Unlike many other places and spaces, one of the key aspects of the Hub space is the value we place on “not knowing,” and being open to listen and learn from the collective intelligence emerging in our virtual space.
When we presence (bringing our mind and body in one place) in the Hub, coherence emerges, and resonance in the social field amplifies our collective intelligence. I find myself feeling smarter and happier when our group resonance taps into collective intelligence emerging in the room! It’s hard to explain, but I can sense and feel when it happens.
The word “magic” has been used by several members to describe this phenomenon.
We’ve learned over the past year that, added all together, there are hundreds of years of combined life and work experience in our Hub space. Each person brings a wealth of wisdom, knowledge, and intelligence to the room.
Yet, as David Weinberger at The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and the author of Too Big To Know, said, “The smartest person in the room is the room itself.”
As I’ve experienced in my mind and body how collective intelligence arises in a space held with care and respect, I also felt inspiration, creativity, and connection between me and other participants in the same space.
Outside the Hub, many Hub members work as expert consultants, social entrepreneurs, or executive coaches, advising, managing, and leading projects and people.
For each of us in our work outside of the Hub, our clients, customers, colleagues, and co-workers look to us for answers, solutions, and fixes. The weekly Hub space is a unique place where we don’t need to know the answer, but we can simply honor who we are, and no matter what role we have in the business we run, manage, lead, facilitate, or support, we are reminded that:
We matter. We are (and we do, and we have) enough. We are not alone.
It’s a space for us to BE, BELONG, and BECOME more of who we truly are.
A space to experience and share our “feeling-knowing” when we’re allowed to feel and sense who we are, as we are, moment-to-moment in grounded presence.
A space to practice an open mind for curiosity to lean into discomfort as well as positive emotions; an open heart for compassion to see another’s perspectives and tune into their feelings; and an open will for courage to take the next step in service of those who would benefit from the work that is mine to do.
We practice presencing and sensing into the unknown as we tune into the generative field. A space to refine each of our mind and body as instruments of change.
This third space has allowed me to be at my best outside the Hub and many other members share that they’ve had similar experiences of growth. For instance, one member mentioned that it’s like going to a gym and getting her confidence muscles strengthened each week we meet in the Hub.
The biggest learning for me is the power of listening, and how it creates a collective resource for everyone who participates in the Hub space.
When I consider the diversity of this international group of participants from at least 10 different countries, and more than 10 cultures (some participants live far from their motherlands), I am simply amazed at our group’s capacity to listen to oneself, to each other, and to the space itself, with curiosity, compassion, and courage.
We’ve co-created a space to practice group presence, coherence, and resonance for the well-being of all members. In the weekly Hub gatherings, we’ve been building relationships in a caring and intelligence space. Slow and steady to build trust and safety from our common humanity, vulnerability, and authenticity.
I’ve learned that people want to be seen, heard, and felt. Especially last year when all of us went through so much individually, relationally, and collectively during the pandemic that still persists to varying degrees in all parts of the globe. And all the systemic blindspots, cracks, and chasms we’ve experienced and/or witnessed as individuals, families, teams and organizations, communities, nations, and world citizens.
Even those who do not speak up feel felt in the Hub space as they listen to and witness others’ experiences. We often see ourselves in another’s struggles and stuck places, and feel our common humanity. That all human beings want to be seen, heard, and felt. That each and every one of us wants to feel worthy of attention and affection.
And it feels good to see another’s genuine goodness in their heart, to feel what they feel even when it’s uncomfortable for me, and to sense what’s possible for them, for me, and for us, if we can hold one another in presence with deep listening.
We don’t have to agree, but we can feel each other as fellow human beings. When we can find common ground to stand together, we can imagine possibilities of walking together. If that’s not possible, we practice the patience of “staying with” until a possibility arises. Even if we lose patience, we can bring awareness to what is happening, as it is happening, and practice kindness toward ourselves.
I’ve observed that having a place where people can “drop in” (both as in “stopping by” and “going deeper”) weekly built a structure of connection to:
Arawana Hayashi, one of the teachers I admire and respect at the Presencing Institute recently published, Social Presencing Theater: The Art of Making A True Move. This description of mindfulness in her book resonates with how I’ve been experiencing it in the Hub:
“When we are mindful, we remember the present moment and its complete fullness. Our body and mind are an amazing system, innately synchronized, but we forget this. We are often so caught in memories of the past or imaginings of the future that we forget to experience the present moments of our life. Mindfulness practice invites us to remember.”
We are born with the innate ability to be aware of our mind and body, and to synchronize the two for information and wisdom to flow between them. But just because we know all this doesn’t mean we can actually do it. Words can describe the whole world, yet as Lao-Tzu’s wisdom reminds us:
“The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.”
On this first anniversary of the Leadership Hub I realize that we’ve been practicing this mind-body synchronization and enhancing our individual and collective leadership capacity to see, feel, and sense what is emerging in the social field.
Otto Scharmer introduced the concept of “presencing” — learning from the emerging future — in a number of books he authored, including Theory U: Leading from the Emerging Future. He sees a mindset shift from seeing the system as something “out there” to seeing the system from a perspective that includes one’s own self. This is “mindfulness” when it happens on an individual level:
This capacity is already built in each of us. Just like each human being is born with the capacity to learn a language to communicate with one another. But if we don’t teach language to children, they won’t have the linguistic capacity to communicate and flourish.
Just like our linguistic capacity needs to be cultivated and practiced, our capacity for mindfulness needs cultivation and practice for us to be fluent in attending to our moment-to-moment experience with awareness.
This capacity is also needed in leadership. And a leader is not just someone with a title or position. We live in an era where most of us who are privileged enough to be online have unprecedented resources available to us to be the kind of leader we want to follow.
This moment of disruption calls for distributed and collective leadership so that business, education, and society might thrive and sustain the well-being of all.
What do I mean by “for the well-being of all?”
Just yesterday I read how Peter Senge at MIT Sloan School of Management described Buckminster Fuller’s personal vision of the world as:
“a world in which each and every human being, individually and collectively, experiences themselves as an ‘ordinary extraordinary’ person creating a world that works for each and every person, and that nothing short of that would suffice.“
These words resonated with my vision of a world where the deepest possibilities in each and every one of us can come alive.
How about you? What transformation are you called to lead? What new story are you co-creating with people longing for a new way to live and work, and relate to people, profit, planet, and purpose?
If you would like to co-create a Third Space like the Leadership for Business Transformation Hub within your team, organization, or community to support the emerging future that is calling you, your attention, and your presence, I would love to hear from you at: firstname.lastname@example.org.