Birmingham's Learning Marathon showcase

Brummies! This Tuesday!

I've been part of a cohort of 12 people following their curiosity over a period of six months.

Our learning questions range across: supporting Black woman to heal and grow, death dying and grief, citizen empowerment, nurturing humane leaders, embodied learning, sustainable creative practice, attribution, veganism and human evolution, ethical data, notetaking and journalling, creative identities, and developing a spirituality practice.

This Tuesday we're having an evening of sharing our journey. I'd LOVE it if you come (and share the event/tell people!). Tickets are priced so money isn't an obstacle.

Lots of us have 'stations' around the room with various interactive experiences where you can explore our work, plus there'll be some 5-min talks in the middle.

Loads of food - including veggie and vegan - and chill, warm vibes.

I'll be talking about my exploration of interdependent human and humane leadership that lead in part to the Circle of Curious Complexity, which is very sweetly growing.

Please come!

Here are the other learning questions:

  • Can storytelling and meaningful conversations help Black women to heal and grow?

  • How can I show that death, dying and grief can still mean life, love and hope?

  • How might citizen empowerment form the basis of changes in the urban environment?

  • How can I keep using embodied learning in how I work and coach?

  • How to stay in love with your creative calling when it becomes your vocation?

  • What is attribution and how can we use it as a tool to empower ourselves and others?

  • Where could veganism as a manifestation of spiritual connectivity to the Earth take our social, cultural, and cognitive evolution?

  • How might we gather and share ‘Ethical Data’ to help us build better places to live?

  • How can I continue supporting myself and communicating about the process?

  • How might I cultivate a spirituality practice?

  • How can we make creative identities for ourselves, as artists?


Accessibility: Impact Hub Birmingham has step-free access throughout. We couldn't raise the money for BSL interpreters, or palantypists for the presentations, sorry. There is a detailed printed booklet talking about the journey of each person.

Circle of Curious Complexity - TONIGHT!

Tonight is the Circle of Curious Complexity meetup - a space for forward-facing leaders and deep thinkers to get together.

At Impact Hub Birmingham 6.30 for 7.00-9.00 and I'll lay on a bit of (hot, vegan/gf - probably mezze or burritos?) food so it needn't cost you anything. Feel free to bring your own supper, though!

Here's more about it:

And a bit about what happened in December

Theme this month is our relationship to TIME (yes, I know, ironic as I'm letting you know at such late notice...)

Message me if you're interested/coming - - or on twitter/FB so I can plan food.

Impact Hub has step-free access throughout. It's 14 mins walk (according to Google Maps) from New Street Station. Circle meetups are quiet and chill.

Theme for December is: Relationships!

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Last week we had December's Circle of Curious Complexity meetup, the open space for interdependent leaders and deep thinkers.

The theme for this month (till the next meetup on 15th Jan) is: RELATIONSHIPS.

Could be personal relationships, work relationships, relationships between things...

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Six of us shared situations that were going on for us around friendships, marriage, work partners, gender... One person only heard about it minutes before and decided to stay! We listened, wrote questions, asked for advice, ate burritos...

I want it to be even if you can't make the meetups/suppers in Birmingham (UK), you can be a member of the Circle, so I thought I'd tell you the theme so you can use it as a focus over the next few weeks.

If any of this sparks thoughts, the hashtag is #circleofcc!

What happened in our first Circle of Curious Complexity

I’m holding a regular space for a thing I’m calling a Circle of Curious Complexity for interdependent leaders and deep thinkers to get together, hang out and get support each other. Even though I had some trepidation, the first one happened a few weeks ago and it was, well, pretty bloody great.

There is a Circle meetup once a month and a Circle supper.

For the first meetup, four of us… met up in my lounge to hang out and do a thing.

We started with M&S ready meals (I know how to treat you proper) then checked in with a colour for our mood (thanks Suriya!) and why we’d wanted to come.

Then we experimented with a process I’ve been meaning to experiment with from The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures.

The Process

Basically, the… client?… has a thing they could do with more time exploring. Could be a problem, but also could be an opportunity, a situation, a challenge, a thing.

They talk about it for two or three minutes. People in the coach role can ask clarifying questions.

Then the client sits in silence whilst for ten minutes coaches just ask whatever questions they can think of that might be helpful.

The client goes on to reflect back what their experience was, and what changed.

First go

Well. The first person tried it and it was really strange. They said it was hard to have a smart question that made them think deeply followed swiftly by another one. Then another one. Then another.

As question-asker, I think we had all felt it too.

Here’s the bit that made it magic

We then moved into a mode of thinking ‘What could make this work?’

Would it be better if we recorded our questions for you to listen to afterwards?
Would it be better if we recorded the questions and you were OUT OF THE ROOM?
Would it be better if you signalled when you were ready for a new question?
What about if we wrote down the questions?

That become the next iteration.

The client described their situation, took clarifying questions, then in silence we wrote down our more probing questions on index cards and put them near the client. When they were ready, they picked them up one by one.

This worked really well. There was no pressure on the question-asker or the question-receiver. Plus no worry about forgetting a question as you knew you were going to walk away with all the questions literally in your hand.

Then we added in an extra step with the next person - as we came to the end of the allotted time, someone asked ‘What’s the one question you’re censoring yourself from asking? Write it down.’

We realised that 10 minutes was actually way more time than was needed. Six minutes was plenty.

After everyone had been a client we reflected on the whole process

We talked about how useful it was to hear the reflections from the client after they’d received the questions - that we would like the option to ask one more question.

Someone said, ‘Well, the thing that I’m missing is… you’re smart people. I don’t just want your questions. I kind of want your advice too.’

New format for getting help with A Thing

We suggested next time we would do:

* Client describes their situation (1-3 mins)

* Coaches ask clarifying questions (1 min)

* Coaches write down questions on index cards (6 mins)

* Client reflects back what has shifted/what was useful (1 min)

* (Optional) Client can ask for one piece of feedback or one more question from each coach - written or spoken (3 mins)

Total of 15 minutes of, like, incredibly helpful intervention.

My experience

My partners are going to be away for a few weeks at a time, several times a year and I asked about how I could make that time positive and nourishing, rather than something I just endure (or feel like I waste).

The questions were WILDLY helpful. So many things I hadn’t thought of.

This whole experience really demonstrated the beauty of the Circle

Not only was the intervention deep and light, but also the form was held lightly and we experimented and iterated on the fly. It was fun and emotional and engaging every minute of the two hours.

This won’t be the format of every Circle meetup but maybe once a quarter?


If you’re in Brum here’s a description of the whole Circle concept

If you’d like to come to the next meetup on Tuesday 4th December here’s the link

Feel free to share with other human-and-humane leaders/deep thinkers who might want a some warm company.

Why questions and silence are important

Andi Lightheart Enrol Yourself

Ever had that moment where someone says something and it’s such a profound truth the room goes silent, but filled with presence?

That happened to me on Monday, and I was the one speaking.

I had been guiding the Enrol Yourself Birmingham team through some exploration of how to grow our capacity to deal with complexity. We’d moved through extending timelines, increasing the breadth and depth of empathy, and pattern-spotting.

Then it came time for me to get the brains and hearts of this really smart group on my area of inquiry.

The moment came when we had been talking about a circle I’m holding twice a month for humane leaders and deep thinkers. I was feeling a strange mix of pretty sure it was a good thing, as well as holding back from committing.

We’d been talking through a bunch of stuff and then Rachel asked me the pattern-spotting question we’d been practicing: ‘What does this whole situation remind you of?’ I closed my eyes and felt into it.

And suddenly I got it. ‘It’s like when I’d be in school plays that I was convinced were amazing, and when I look back they were awful. I’m scared that I’m going to think the circle is great and then later find out that everyone was rolling their eyes at me.’ Profound silence.

Luckily this group is, as my friend Jane identified, an amazing mix of both smart and vulnerable. We aren’t scared of silence.

Everyone made eye contact with me, smiled gently. 'When you look back now, do you feel the same?’ I realised that of course I looked with much more compassion. ‘I was just a kid. Plus… I wasn’t the director…' Then Mikayla asked the killer question, the one that pulled a whispered reaction out of me. ‘What did everyone else in the play feel?’ ‘We all thought it was great.’ ‘SO the people it was FOR thought it was great?’ Oooooh.

That was the one.

The people it was FOR thought it was great.

The circle will be great FOR THE PEOPLE IT'S FOR. 

Such a beautiful confluence of the right group, the right questions and the capability to listen in silence. 

First circle is tonight at mine, btw. Email me for details. 😊

A third of the way through my six-month learning marathon

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Yesterday I hung out with ten incredible people who I’m on a six-month learning journey with (there's actually twelve, but two were on holiday).

We’re a third of the way through our journey and we were sharing our progress, by each presenting our evidence tables, talking about what we’ve done and what we’ve learned. Five minutes of the learner sharing, ten minutes of questions from a whip-smart group of supporters, couple of minutes of writing feedback, questions, thoughts, encouragement.

Each participant at some point in the twenty-six weeks runs a session based on their expertise (we dot-voted on which topic we wanted each person to teach). Afterwards, they get the group's attention on their learning question for a good 90 minutes, helping contribute to the research or giving feedback or whatever the person wants.

Yesterday Rachel did a session on embodied learning - working off a hunch that our bodies know stuff that our minds do not, and that doing embodied work goes faster and deeper than just talking.

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One of the things she guided us through was an inter-psychic exploration of parts of ourselves. 

In pairs, we picked an object to represent our learning question, then wrote on pieces of paper selves - mine included my activist self, business self, academic self…

Then we intuitively placed them where they were in relation to the question.

Funny thing was, they were all quite far away from my question!

Uncovered some worry and stuckness.

I think this comes down to two areas:

1. When we lived in Singapore, I threw myself into some side projects which I thought would give me more business, but it didn’t end well. When I was doing Open University study (and writing the book) it took over my life.

2. I’d decided that I needed to get to a certain place by the end of the marathon and that would entail massive amounts of work.

I really need to be focusing on my business right now, being more visible, finding clients who really resonate with my new phase of work, and new phase of identity.

So if I were to really throw myself into my question in a huge way, a part of me was understandably worried that I’d take the eye off the ball, business-wise.

As soon as I realised all the above, I felt a release in my body.

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I’m going to narrow my question.

At the mo it’s basically: what’s all the scholarship on the transition between independent and interdependent logics, how does it compare, and how do I interview a load of people from both marginalised and non-marginalised identities to have data to analyse to see if there’s a difference in the way they/we transition.

I definitely want to do all of that. A million per cent.

And it’s unrealistic in the next four months.

So I’m changing my question to something like:

How do I develop a more instinctual understanding of the transition between independent and interdependent logics?

This way I can focus on the scholarship, plus the interviewing, but it does become about my understanding - not necessarily a comprehensive piece of scholarship… YET.

Then/at the same time, I can move on to see if there are differences in the people I’m interviewing.

What this feels like is giving myself permission to do all three of the things I presented on the evidence table - going through the scholarship, learning about Subject/Object interviewing, interviewing interdependent leaders - a BIT, rather than complete all three in four months.

When I was doing the embodied exploration, I kept coming back to

‘How do I hold this question as I move through the world, rather than it be a separate thing?’

This, I think, might be how. 

Where I'm at with gender

A couple of weeks ago made a post on Facebook that my name and pronouns had changed to AJ or Andi and either ’they’ or ’she’. I intended for this to just be a small thing, but was blown away by the love I received in response. 

The post I made about my name/pronouns was more of a… triage post. I just wanted people to stop calling me Andrew and ‘he', and I had to supply alternatives. I think it came across as a big, final announcement when from my perspective it was more of a ‘Can you stop doing this thing that feels jarring? Oh, and I suppose these are the less-jarring alternatives’.

I’ve been sitting with it all and I would like to clarify a couple of things. EVERYTHING I’m talking about applies only to me, and I’m in no way judging anyone else who makes a different set of decisions. I’m also aware that all of this sits inside my protective cocoon of being white, able-bodied/neurotypical, middle-aged, financially okay, and happily married. 

For me there are three overlapping aspects to my gender.

1. My internal sense of my gender
2. How I want to express that
3. How I want to be ‘read’ by the world.

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1. My internal sense of gender is complex.

If we’re going to assume/pretend the boy/girl gender binary is a thing, I’ve discovered I feel kind of 70-90% girl, 10-30% boy. Feeling that in my body has been a revelation, a sigh of relief where I can let go of this level of masculinity that I’ve been unknowingly working hard to maintain all my life, particularly my adult life. Things just line up when I feel that. What that doesn’t feel like (and this may be some deeeeep misogyny/transmisogyny but I don’t THINK so) is ‘woman’. i just feel profoundly not-man. In the binary world, not-man = woman, but #ithinkyoullfinditsabitmorecomplicatedthanthat.

When I say to myself ‘girl’, it’s like I can pick up young, soft, vulnerable bits of me that got lost on the way. ‘Woman' doesn’t match my internal sense of self, but ‘man' is (currently, often) dizzyingly wrong. Maybe if we had more mainstream concepts, I could just go ‘Oh, I’m that’. Somehow non-binary/genderqueer don’t really fit my concept of myself, even though probably objectively they are a description of what i’m saying here? Non-binary femme?

I’ve had moments recently with trans women where I felt incredible sisterhood, uncovering a longing I’ve had all my life. 

I also remembered that, right up until my late teens, that I would have to remind myself that I wasn’t a girl. And one day let me tell you about the two years I was in an all-girl PE group. 

In my twenties, I mourned not having a womb. My trans mum says that’s a standard experience for trans femmes.

Some days i feel a little bit more up the ‘boy’ end, but only within that 10-30% kind of range. 

There’s also the added complication of having done a particular type of meditation every day for 15 years, and the eternal ‘soul’ aspects of my self are not gendered, so what the heck am I talking about anyway?

2. How I want to express my gender changes on a daily basis. 

Literally I sit in bed and think, ‘What do I want to wear today?’ I’ve been experimenting in both directions. 

  • What is it like to shave my face and body hair, cover my stubble with makeup, wear dresses/other clothes/shoes/bags coded as ‘female’ in our current society?

  • What is it like to let my face hair grow, wear ‘boy’ clothes?

  • What is it like to combine the two?

  • Which aspects feel most like me?

  • More annoyingly, how long can I be bothered to spend getting ready (I’m a bit of a stay-in-bed-reading-to-the-last-moment kind of person), where am I going, what am I doing, who am I meeting? The weight of patriarchal gender expectations really fall on femmes, right?

Currently I can deal with a day’s stubble but two days makes me go ‘bleaurgh’. I feel really happy with some subtle makeup on, especially covering my stubble, but don’t feel like i need it every day. I feel such a sense of relief to not have hair on my hands, arms and legs. Like, DEEP sigh of relief. 

I love how I look and feel in a dress that suits me, and i also like the look of a dress and skinny jeans. My heeled Doctor Martins are awesome. I like the thought of heeled shoes and tailored office clothes. Also just casual femme clothes - doesn’t have to be ‘high femme’/glam. If I’m not working, I seem to default to femme clothes, if I have them. I haven’t worn ‘boy’ jeans for months. 

Funny thing is I don’t mind wearing ‘guy’ clothes sometimes, but it feels more like dressup, like, well, a girl wearing boy clothes. 

So, yes, there’s an aspect of finding the external expression that helps me feel comfortable in my body, but it feels connected but different to my internal sense of gender.

I currently have no thoughts of changing my body with hormones or surgery, but who knows what Future Andi might do.

3. How I am read by the world seems to be less important to me. 

I played with the idea of wanting to be read by strangers as a woman, and it was freeing. And, maybe if I was going through this as a young person now, I might be someone who’d want to transition socially and medically. 

But I don’t.

I’m bothered by the pronouns people close to me use, but I’m less bothered by the pronouns a barista uses, even though it can be jarring. (Please can we stop gendering strangers, though?)

I am currently growing my hair, and it is fun to play with makeup, and, yes, I like the thought of sometimes going ‘full femme’ and being read as a woman in public, but it’s the aspect I’m less bothered about.

So what the heck does this mean?

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When you refer to me, please say ‘they’ not 'he'. "They said... they wore... they are... they went to... " And it's cool if you don't get it right every time, intention counts here, for me.

I thought I might really like ‘she’ but it doesn't quite fit right now. I find it too awkward in our gendered society when I, you know, don’t appear like a non-trans woman, or even to be making any ‘effort’ to do so. So despite my internal sense of being very femme, 'they' it is.

I like AJ. Kinda neutral.

I really like Andi. It feels sweet.

Do with that what you will.

This is all in flux. 

All I can say is: I’ll keep you posted. 

Culture change starts somewhere

I've been working as the 'Culture Gardener' at Vanti for about a year, helping them to move towards a scalable, agile, inclusive culture whilst preserving the great things that already exist.

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I wrote about it in five posts on their site. We thought it was important to mark where the company is starting from, so that in months and years to come everyone can look back and see the distance we've traveled. It can be easy to look at successes and think 'It's easy for them,' so these posts are reference points for how things are now.

Thought you might want a window into a tech company that is doing groundbreaking things to become an amazing place to work.

1. We’re brewing some exciting culture stuff…

This post lays out the framework we're working towards.

2. Vanti’s strengths

Vanti has a lot of strengths already. Here's where I outline them from my perpective.

3. Some big challenges we face

There are some big external/slow-moving challenges that we're facing.

4. People questions we’re looking at

I split the questions we're working into two sections. People questions...

5. System questions we’re looking at

...and system questions.

I am LOVING working inside a company rather than just visiting. Culture change work is fascinating - you have to have long timelines in your mind, listen a lot, and start from where everyone is. I'll keep you posted as we do more. 

Embarking on my learning marathon


Today is the first Get Sh*t Done Sunday for the Birmingham Enrol Yourself Learning Marathon. Twenty-six weeks of exploring a learning question as part of an exquisitely curated cohort of twelve.

I'm exploring the transition from the independent leadership that comes from a very results-based form of mind to the type of interdependent leadership that comes from a less certain, more fallibly human, inclusive form of mind.

I have two hunches.

The first is that multiply-marginalised people go through this transition in a different way than people whose identities belong more in the dominant narrative.

The second is that we need more leaders who come from an interdependent lens, if we are to survive as a species through the massive ecological crises that are already happening, whilst creating a world that balances the wellbeing of ALL humans.

More immediately, if business and society want to actually walk the equitable talk, siloed results-based thinking isn't gonna cut it.

It's part of my job to help leaders evolve to a bigger form of mind that can look at inequity and turbulence in the face and still be able to take wise and timely action. You need to be able to unclench around the chaotic mess of world! 

I have five months to dive into the scholarship that already exists, do some interviews, think a lot, write a bit, peer at it all and see what emerges.

So: time to get sh*t done!

Framing the meeting

This is something that I’ve ended up talking to a lot of senior coaching clients about in different formats recently. I see people coming to them for meetings and not using the time wisely, and these are people whose diaries are incredibly full - I know because they have to battle to keep their appointments with me! This practice comes from a few patterns that I noticed in conversation with them:

  • leaders making forays into collaborative ways of running meetings but not getting the results they wanted (or secretly wanting people to collaborate, ahem, in a particular direction!)
  • meetings overrunning, to the detriment of the leader’s mental health/effectiveness
  • leaders wanting to grow a culture of collaboration but not knowing how to really grow different behaviours and attitudes
  • leaders developing into a more tuning-fork sense of being a leader, but people around them not really getting it.


A lot of my inspiration for these ideas is rooted in the incredible work of Sam Kaner and the Community At Work team. Their book “The Facilitator’s Guide To Participatory Decision Making” changed my life as a someone who holds the space for groups. Some of the idea of creating a process sequence and sharing it comes from my reading of Roger Schwarz, particularly his take on Unilateral vs Mutual Learning (itself an evolution of the work of Argyris and Schön, et al). He also influenced my thinking on the transparency of meta-comments (“I’m aware I’m not saying something to you, so I’m just going to come out and say it…”).

The Practice

Implemented well, Framing The Meeting allows for more productive and timely meetings that achieve their aims, but also more peace of mind for all concerned. Over time, this practice can build capacity and capability for more consciousness during meetings, for people interested in leading leaders.

This is how you do it.

I see two main ways of starting with this practice.

A. Being the framing guardian

There are many aspects to this.

Type: What type of meeting is this?

Is it a chat? Is it a consultation? Are you giving information? Is it a communal consensus-building meeting?

Outcomes and Decisions: What are you hoping is going to happen by the end of the meeting? Will there be a decision made, and if so, how?

Are there particular questions you are hoping to have answers to? Are there agreements that need to be put in place? Is it ‘just’ that you have both heard each others’ thoughts? Will there be an action plan?

If there is a decision to be made, who will be making it and how? Will you be consulting but ultimately making the decision? Will people vote? Do you have the deciding vote? If it’s by consensus, then does that mean everyone’s enthusiastic consent (ie can anyone veto it?) Or will you summarise and then check for any deep concerns, and otherwise go ahead?

Process: What are the big process chunks?

How do you see the meeting going? Is there an input phase? Who’s going to go first? Then who? Will there be discussion? If there is a decision/plan to be made, how much time will you need to keep for that?

(Although this seems complex and unwieldy, in most situations it just takes seconds.)

Reality check: Are we all on the same page?

If it’s been you laying all this out, now it’s time to (genuinely) check: Is that what the other people expected? Do they want to add to/alter the plan in any way?

Time: How much time have we got?

I always check with the other person how much time they have  - sometimes things have shifted, or one or the other of us was late. It’s important to know that in advance. Also, as the process guardian, its your job to neutrally say how much time is left maybe half-way through and as you’re nearing the end of the allotted time. If things are taking longer than planned, you transparently adjust the plan.

B Jointly design the framing

Jointly designing the framing involves the same aspects as above, but encouraging everyone to build the framing together. Many if not most people are unaware of the process of meetings, so you may need to build their process consciousness over time via being a visible process guardian.

But if you put out feeler-questions at the beginning (“What are you hoping is going to happen by the end of this meeting? Is there a decision to be made?”) and people respond well, it can be good to get their input - maybe before yours - then co-designing the process to include everyone’s inputs.

(How are you holding yourself to truly welcome co-creation? Do you have any tension around it? Some meetings need to be sharp and to the point - that’s part of your framing!)

Maybe after a time, people come to expect that when they have a meeting with you, they need to come prepared with these kinds of process thoughts. And perhaps they can then take them into their own meetings.

Again, I’m making this sound cumbersome, but it really can just be a couple of minutes at the beginning of the meeting which make sure you’re all aware of each others’ expectations. And sometimes you both agree you just want an unstructured chat and that’s what happens!


Even if you don’t have many meetings, you can practice this with conversations.


Simple things like “We’re half-way through our time. How are we doing, do you think?” or “You said you wanted to ask me some questions and i’m aware we’re ten minutes from the end. Do you want to ask me them now, or would you prefer to continue as we are and leave them for another time?” can introduce aspects of framing without being too cumbersome.

One of the ways I started was by starting a meeting or conversation with “Can I just check how long you’ve got? We’ve got this booked until 11.30. Do you need to run away at that time?” Knowing in advance that there is a limited time allows you to not leave things for when the other person might be distracted.


Adding in signposting comments can be a simple way of introducing consciousness, even in a traditional meeting with an agenda as well as conversations. “So we’ve just covered points one and two… are we still okay to move on to point three?”

Checking in

I find that pausing and finding out how the other person is doing can really help bring awareness back up to the framing/process level.

Come clean

An inner practice that I try to implement is noticing when I’m hiding what I’m thinking or feeling and somehow ‘managing’ the other person. I then try and step out of the meeting by saying something like, “I think you’ve gotten a little reticent in the past couple of minutes and I’m avoiding asking if you’re okay. Can i just check: Is everything okay?”

This level of transparency often allows a deepening of the conversation so neither party are wearing heavy masks. Even coming clean about the fact you’re practicing framing meetings better can help you do it better!

How does this sit with you?

This was published in an edited form in Street Smart Awareness - a collection of practices that focus on developing in-the-moment wisdom.

First time, last time - A practical way to get out of a rut

After meditating for a few years, I realised I had fallen in a rut. I was running on a (peaceful) autopilot. I don’t remember how I hit on this practice, but it rejuvenated my meditation and I started using it for other times when I felt like I was in routine or bored and it really helped. It harnesses the benefits of being ‘mindful’ but gives me a route in, rather than connecting to an abstract or mind-y concept.

The Practice

First Time/Last Time is so simple I can’t even believe I’m describing it. It can be applied when you’re going to a situation where you think you know what to expect, or something routine like getting on the bus, having a meeting, making dinner, hanging out with your significant person.

Here’s how I do it.

First time

Imagine this is the first time you’re doing this activity.

What would you notice if this were the first time?

What would you be feeling if this were the first time? (I’m an inveterate starter, so the first time doing something is exciting to me!)

What leeway would you give yourself in terms of expectations if this were your first time?

Last time

Now imagine this is the last time you’ll ever do this.

What care would you give this activity if this were the last time?

What would you feel if this were the last time? (I often feel a kind of fond nostalgia…)

How much effort would you put in if you know you’d never do this again?

First time/last time

Can you allow both of these possibilities at once? What if this were the first and the last time you ever did this? What if it were the only time?

What would you notice if it were the first and last time?

What would feel if this were the first and last time?

What freedom is there in letting this be the first and last time you do this?


The thing is, there is more than an element of fundamental truth about all three steps. It is the first time you’ve done this activity, today, in this way. It is the last time you’ll do it right now, in this way. And one day, it really will be the last time! Either because you stop doing it, or because you’re not doing anything anymore.

At different times, this practice can freshen my approach, supply me with more energy, reconnect me with my body and allow an escape from sleepiness.

Where in your life are you doing things on autopilot?

This practice was just published in an edited form in Street Smart Awareness, a really accessible book on really grounded practices for developing wisdom in the moment.


The leaders we need

As leaders and organisers we want to be doing the wise thing at the right time.

In order to do that, we need to grow our capacity and capability:

  • To think in terms of multiple timelines. We need to be able to be in the moment right now, to think about next week and next month, as well as thinking ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred years ahead.

  • To look this messy, broken, beautiful world in the eye. By the way, this includes your messy, broken, beautiful organisation! There’s something profound and necessary about not turning away from complexity, from non-binary spectrums, from uncertainty, paradox and mess. Sometimes we want things neat and they’re just NOT. In fact, if you can be somewhat at peace with the chaotic truth of the world, you can still do stuff, you can still take wise and timely action, instead of freezing or getting overwhelmed.

  • To spot systemic patterns and flows of history. The ability to go ‘This is (partially) an example of this...’, or ‘This is a bit like this and this…’ or ‘Something like this has happened before…’  means you can discover links that allow deeper change to happen.

  • To embrace your own humanity and the humanity of others. The ability to include more and more people’s perspectives, in deeper and deeper ways, is a hallmark of someone who can find plans and solutions that are sustainable and supported, robust and inclusive.

  • To be aware of your awareness. Thinkers like MIT’s Otto Scharmer have a hunch: the element that determines the effectiveness of a system intervention is the quality of awareness of the intervenor. What you’re aware of and how warm, how open, how gently focused, how wide, how still you are when thinking, listening, speaking, doing, is key key key to how deep your influence can be.

We need to aim towards these capabilities because the challenges we face as individuals, groups, organisations, humans and as a planet require them. Siloed thinking that operates from simple causality is what got us into this mess.

The planet

We are already on the cusp of irreversible environmental disaster and although some of the actions required are clear, how to make them happen, particularly at scale, demands all the subtlety of thinking outlined above if we have any chance of keeping a planet that is capable of sustaining human life.

Social justice for everyone

We live in a world that harbours a huge one-way imbalance of power. People of Colour, queer people, trans and non-binary people, women, disabled people, poor people (and people who live at the intersections of more than one of the above identities) are constantly harmed just for existing in the world.

If we are to create a world that is supportive for ALL people, then leaders and organisers have to do in-depth, often tumultuous, transformational work. We have to learn to nurture the parts of us that have been programmed to feel less-than and melt the parts of us that have been programmed to feel better-than.

We also need to dismantle the oppressive systems around us that are rooted in racism, slavery, genocide and colonialism, and grow new ones that are collective and radically inclusive, so there is true equity in who makes decisions and who holds power and resources. This goes so far beyond laughably simplistic ‘diversity’ thinking.

We also have to face the fact that our ways of living are already forcing millions of people to live in horrific conditions. Reconsidering the way we live as individuals, organisations and countries is vital if we are to look after all of humanity, not just a wealthy, lucky few.


The world is only becoming more complex and volatile. Organisations that cling to outdated models of hierarchy and siloed outcomes will only fall behind, if they survive at all. Nimble, self-organising, responsive organisations with inclusion, sustainability and equity at their heart are the ones that will survive and thrive. We need leaders who can plant the seeds and nurture the spaces for these organisations to grow, and that is a complex, challenging path-that-isn’t-yet-a-path.


Humans, particularly western humans, don’t know how to meet in groups. Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless identified the Big Five ways that we tend to meet - presentation, open discussion, managed discussion, brainstorm and status update - as holding inequality at their core. We need to find ways to meet which include as many voices as possible, which use participatory ways of making decisions, which deal productively with the natural conflict and deadlock that happen even in healthy groups. Neither bombastic, black-and-white thinkers nor I’ll-find-the-answer-for-you lead-from-the-front leaders are going to do a tenth as well as people who genuinely know we each hold only a piece of the truth.


Most of how we interact with other people is through one-on-one conversations. Knowing how to actually listen, how to not shy away from awkward conversations and stay present (even in the midst of conflict and strong emotions) are tough skills to develop and maintain. They need flexible thought, responsibility and boundaries that move beyond rigid certainty. They also require a knowledge of power differences and an awareness of intention and impact as societal inequalities play out even in our close relationships.


You’re good at getting stuff done in the world, you’re smart, you know how to influence, you hit your numbers, but when you look up at the world, you see how much is still broken. You care sometimes so much that it’s hard to switch off. You see that you can’t do it all, but don’t see much alternative. You struggle with the seeming intractability of the people around you, of the frustrating rollercoaster of translating your vision into real reality.

These pressures, these tensions don’t have to stall you. They can transform you, if we hold them in the right way. Mainly we evolve when life forces us to. Knowing how to be healthily at the edge of our current capacity is how we grow in functional (as opposed to dysfunctional!) ways. There’s wisdom to be found when we’re in over our heads...

Only by working on all of these things can you become the leader you long to be and, frankly, a leader the world needs.

Becoming a wiser leader

There's a framework I've been working with the past couple of years which looks at how we develop our capacity to take wiser and more timely action.

I recorded a couple of videos to introduce you to the concepts.

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Brief intro to Action Logics

Here's a six minute down-and-dirty intro to the concepts...

Captions are available on the video. Click here for a full transcript.

If you're more of an audio person, here's the mp3. Click the download link on the right if you'd like to have a copy on your device.

How to evolve into a wiser leader

If the short video made you hungry for more, here's a more in-depth peek into the leadership action logics.

Captions available. (Also, sorry for the coughing fit at the end - lesson learned about having a glass of water near me...) Transcript is here.

Voila the mp3, with download link.

Are you opening or closing?

I seemed to come to a new understanding of an old question today.

Listening to Pema Chödrön, the Buddhist nun, on an audiobook this morning and she was suggesting (I paraphrase) you pay attention to the question: ‘Are you opening or closing?’

Those of you who’ve hung out near me will know over the years I’ve talked a lot about clenching and unclenching.

Today, I notice that I close a lot. Especially in response to overwhelm at others’ sadness.

I close to my best friend having a terrible time.

I close to people in a FB group I’m in who are putting out requests for money and support.

I closed the other day when reading about the Great Barrier Reef bleaching white and basically dying. I often close to the facts of global warming and imminent/growing climate crisis.

I close to reports of the reality in Syria, Yemen, Burma…

I close to Trump, to Brexit, to possible nuclear war.

I close to Z when he is having a less than positive moment.

I close when wandering through the Christmas shopping mayhem thinking about people in the future asking why we didn’t stop buying stuff.

I close when I think that children have mined the ingredients of my Mac, my phone.

I close when I read about my friends having a hard time, struggling in the world the way it’s currently set up.

What I’ve realised today is that when I notice the closing and don’t turn away (either from the trigger or from the act of closing) I can take more action.

I can contact my best friend rather than letting another day go by without properly saying anything to her.

I can donate *some* money to *some* people in the group, rather than turning away in guilt and not supporting anyone.

I can continue to read books that offer clear-eyed ways forward to the climate crisis (like Doughnut Economics that looks at both social justice and the earth).

When I stay open to the closing (and maybe sometimes open more), I can take more action.

So, that’s my focus right now. Asking ‘Am I closing or am I opening?’ and noticing what happens when I, well, notice.

If it's broke, did you break it? (a Twitter parable)

On Friday, a simple coaching question filled a hole in my life.

I've loved Twitter for years - like YEARS and years. I love that you can connect with someone and there's no pressure on you to spend a lot of energy maintaining that connection (loose ties, innit?) and there's no pressure on their side to reciprocate.

I've kind of fallen out of love with Twitter in the past year, but, boy, we had it good for a long while.

I had a ragtag community of weirdos who would support each other when things were tough. I made some real friends, a couple of which I would think of as some of my closest friends, even though we might have only met or Skyped once or twice.

Twitter friendship is hard to explain.

We laughed, we cried, we hashtagged. Some people hired me. People (including, like, real editors) proofread things. Experts gave me informed advice. Conferences offered me speaking gigs. Personally, professionally, it was great. 

But more than anything, Twitter was like the best coffeeshop/breakroom you could imagine, filled with cool people WHO GOT YOUR JOKES. It was like living in the writers' room of the first four seasons of the Gilmore Girls.

Like any relationship, things changed.

And then I saw my friend Sas post on Facebook that she had deleted her Twitter account, because it wasn't like it used to be.

So, I went to Twitter and asked the question:

"Is it me or is Twitter broken? Is it time to leave?"

And for the next two days I had the best, warmest interaction I'd had online for maybe two or three years. We tweeted like it was 2012.

Some people shared my concern.

Some people said they still liked Twitter for certain things, but it was a harder place.

Some only used it for links and super-breaking news.

But others said they still loved Twitter, that it was a source of support and love and interest even now.

One of the common threads amongst these crazy idealists was that they did a fair bit of curation - lists, blocking, liberal (small 'l') unfollowing.

And it made me remember that I had a private list (called 'Checky') that I hadn't been to in maybe four years.

A list is a place you can visit where you say "When I'm here, I only want to see tweets from these specific people."

I clicked on that list and of course, all the old people were still there - I'd just been missing their tweets in amongst all the rest of the people I'd followed.

And I remembered: that's how I used to manage Twitter - I used to visit Checky more than my main timeline.

Then I thought some more.

I'd just regained some amazing interaction - like, stunning, heartwarming, the-old-band-is-getting-back-together interaction - and why?

Well, I'd asked an honest question. I'd then responded to the responses. LIKE I USED TO ALL THE TIME.

I'd been treating Twitter like a chore. Or worse: like (don't say it) INSTAGRAM. I'd been posting a photo once a day with a tiny message.

Pecking Twitter on the cheek.

Instead, I showed up. And my people showed up.

I realised: if Twitter was broken, it was because I broke it.

So, if you've got a situation that isn't like the old days... are you doing the things you used to do in the old days?

I mean, sure, things change. In the past two years I've had many more local friends here in Birmingham than I ever had in the Caravan Office years when we lived with my Mum-in-law or even when I was in Singapore. Twitter used to serve a really important emotional role back then.

So, yes, your environment might have changed.

And, yes, sometimes things are broken.

But before you totally throw in the towel ask yourself:

Did I break this? Can I fix it? What did I used to do? Can I just start doing that again?

You never know. Maybe it's not as broke as you thought.

Two questions that might grow your leadership agility

I was in Boston a couple of weeks ago on a training course, learning how to use a tool that helps assess leadership agility. (I'm going to be using it with coaching clients as an initial assessment plus maybe a progress check once or twice a year. I normally shy away from tools and profiles, but this one is based on the heroic/post-heroic leadership model I mentioned earlier, so it has a lot of depth.)

As we were examining the transition from less agile to more agile levels of leadership, one of the several capacities that jumps out is the ability to step back from a situation and see it in its bigger context.

In short, the wider and broader and more inclusive a perspective a leader is able to take, the more agile the leader.

Working with this stage development model, I've realised that a lot of what I ask leaders and teams to do may well be beyond what they are currently capable of.

For example, one of the things that I recommend in How to improve other people's terrible meetings is to notice what's happening and label it. If three people are talking at once, or certain people are doing all the talking or you have five items in a 45-minute meeting and you're 30 minutes in and still on the first item... say exactly that. Not in an accusing way - just in a way that allows everyone to get conscious of what's happening.

Thing is: noticing what's happening in the moment, let alone how it fits into a pattern, is not necessarily a capacity everyone has developed.

Equals: sometimes I might be setting people up for failure.

Same when you're doing anti-oppression work - you have to gain the capacity to be able to see who's talking and who's not talking. Who's interrupting and who is allowed to finish a thought. Who's in the room in the first place.

For example, white people are trained not to notice when we're in an all-white room. We're all conditioned to shut up when a white man speaks. White men are conditioned to interrupt pretty much anyone who isn't a white man.

Consciousness of that takes practice.

Most meetings rattle along in a particular groove - even if there's a plan. People don't always know if they're in a consultation meeting or if they're actually making a decision or is it just updates?

Teams seem like they're having the same meeting again and again because it's hard to spot patterns.

Our brain spots physical patterns very easily. Too easily in fact. We think cars have faces.

But spotting patterns in situations that are separated in time - that's hard.

Historians are yelling at us that what is happening politically is a repeat of a pattern that has happened before.

I noticed that when I was re-establishing habits this week I almost sabotaged myself.

I'm trying to do some things daily (language learning, fitness and so on) and the pattern I fall into is going, "That's not enough! If you do the maths, by the end of the year you won't have done much at ALL. LET'S DO MORE!"

Then I, well, do more for about two-and-a-half weeks, then something changes in my routine and I fall out of the habit, feel bad, start forgetting and two months later, it's all over. At the end of the year, I have done much less than I would have done if I'd done a tiny amount.

Having been through this pattern enough in the past FORTY-ONE YEARS, I was able to spot it.

So I asked myself, "What's the SMALLEST amount I could do every day?" So instead of doing FIVE lessons on Duolingo on BOTH Spanish and German, how about I do one of each?

If you've ever taught something more than a couple of times, or worked on a helpdesk, you know that the person's questions that seem so specific and original to them, are one of the same five that everyone has. You have a broader context that just their phone call, so you can easily help them.

Leaders who are able to place their organisation's work in global, historical, societal contexts are more likely to support truly innovative, timely interventions.

So: spotting patterns? Important.

Repetition may well help you see patterns, but only when the thing happens again and again and AGAIN.

I wonder if we could speed this process along by asking two questions:

1. What is happening right now?
2. What is this an example of?

In meetings, in your organisation, in politics, in your relationships, in the privacy of your own head.

Spotting what is happening is a skill, then seeing the pattern is another one.

And if it leads to us being more agile, making better decisions, stopping history repeating itself, that may well be a very good thing.


Our fear of public speaking is not simple.

Our fear of public speaking is not simple.

I mean, part of it comes from mechanical things - not knowing how to plan, how to make slides, how to tell stories, how to deal with Q&A, even how to "deal" with top-layer "nerves" - but for a while I've been sensing something deeper.

I think there's two things - one sharper, one more insidious.

First, there's past experiences. Did you have a bad experience at school which made you scared to stand up in front of a group? How did your parents do? Did they encourage you to speak up? Was your voice nurtured?

Those things cut deep. You don't get over them without some significant effort.

Secondly, even if you left school unscathed and your parents did a good job... there's society.

Being a person who has any kind of empathy or feeling or vulnerability in a society that values logic and rationality above all else does not set you up to easily speak out.

Dysfunctional corporate culture does not support you sticking your neck out.

Being a Person of Colour in a white supremacist society systematically undermines any deep safety you have about speaking out, that your words and thoughts are valued.

Being a woman or femme in a patriarchal society undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Being trans in a deeply transphobic society does not lead to safety in speaking out.

Being any flavour of queer in a heterocentric society undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Having a disability in an ableist society undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Being non-gender-conforming in a society that polices gender roles as tightly as ours does undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Being working class in a society run by and for the rich undermines your feeling that your words are valued.

Living in the intersection of any of those identities insidiously compounds and compounds that lack of safety.

And yet, presentations and speaking out in meetings, speaking "publicly", is a part of most of our lives.

So what am I saying?

Yes, learn the "mechanical" aspects, the skills of doing a presentation. Hell, I wrote a whole, very detailed book on how to do just that.

Yes, even learn the (somewhat) mechanical skills of lowering adrenaline and dealing with nerves.

And and and...have compassion for yourself. If you are, at times, scared of speaking up, speaking out, just know that the very fabric of our society supports only a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of people to feel safe and valued in being visible.

So, speak out, but be gentle on yourself when you do.

More post-heroic leadership, please

This year: I'm looking into how I can support more people to evolve into post-heroic leaders.

At the Gandalfesque instigation of the wise Indy Johar, I've spent the past few months reading, thinking about and being trained in a framework of human development which makes a lot of intuitive as well as science-y sense. It's weirdly little-known, despite having more than four decades of research behind it.

As we make sense of increasing uncertainty and complexity, we evolve through clear stages. This framework tracks these stages and, in the part I've been looking at, applies them to leadership.

Most management/leadership education is based on moving people from an expert orientation to what we would think of as a fully-fledged manager.

People whose current centre of gravity sits in the expert stage have strong problem-solving skills within their clearly-defined domain but manage each member of their team individually (more like a supervisor).

Fully-fledged managers are focused on outcomes and results, think strategically, are good at getting buy-in, manage teams as teams with regular meetings, give regular good-quality developmental feedback... the whole shebang.

Where I'm particularly interested is in the crossover to later, and much rarer, stages of development.

If you were to think of the above two stages as conventional development, the next phase is a move into post-conventional stages.

In the first of several post-conventional stages, a leader begins to turn outwards, seeing all the members of their team as leaders, and holds a space for new solutions and initiatives to develop from a deep sense of the intrinsic value of collaboration. They draw a much more porous boundary around the concept of stakeholders, and they are able to see the lenses they look through as just that - lenses.

Rather more evocatively, two writers in this field label this transition as moving from heroic leadership to post-heroic leadership.

Heroic leaders, no matter how inclusive and strategic they are, still have themselves at the centre of the process. Even though not necessarily single-handedly, they are still the one making the change happen, judging the correct course, the "hero" who is saving the day.

Post-heroic leaders, however, whilst still potentially driving the momentum of an initiative, see that they hold just one part of the truth. They see that involving people doesn't just build buy-in, but actually means a significantly better end result. They lead leaders.

Particularly in our increasingly volatile, wickedly complex world of slow-building danger, we need more leaders who can hold a space for inclusive change to grow.

Charismatic leaders are dangerous. Being able to allow timely movements to crystalise may just be a key to, I don't know, stopping this clusterhell we're in.

So, in 2017, I'm going to see how I can support more post-heroic leadership.


The transformational power of being aware of your awareness

A couple of weeks ago, I was sat in the park with a coaching client (What? They needed to get out!) and they said their organisation was using a leadership model. Inside, I did an eye-roll - in fact, it might have spilled over into an outside one. I find typologies and questionnaires and Models (tm) tiresome and limiting. People fall in love with them too entirely as the saviour and the way (and, hey, I've been there) but we shrugged and said, well, if it's useful and gives you insight, and it's held loosely, then it can be worthwhile.

As I looked more at the model they are using, I got more interested. Then I ordered the guy's book and got more interested. Then I ordered books by the author's intellectual siblings and, I don't know, it's got me. The broader concept at least, if not only the expression by this author.

There are two main ideas that William Torbert puts forward in his book Action Inquiry. The second, and most... graspable one is that there are stages of human development that leaders (in whatever way we're describing that) can move through. Four of these 'action-logics' happen pretty naturally for lots of people (referred to as 'conventional') and three of them are less common and perhaps need more cultivation (the 'post-conventional' stages). This concept of ego development has been looked at quite a lot by a bunch of scholar-practitioners and seems to have some academic and practical legs.

You get assessed by completing 36 (I think) sentences stems such as "A good leader..." or "When an employee steps out of line..." and a trained assessor gives you the results. So far, so unsurprising.

I like the idea, however, that these stages are mutable and an evolution of consciousness of the one before, and therefore not largely fixed like personality typologies such as Myers-Briggs'"16 personality types".

It's also clear that one doesn't move lightly from one stage to the next, but that that evolution happens over months and years. It's not necessarily without turbulence as it requires letting go of parts of your worldview and increasingly expanding what you pay attention to and how.

The evidence suggests (as far as I understand - this is new to me so I haven't really had the chance to look at the studies) that organisational transformation only happens when the leader of an organisation - and potentially their team - operate from post-conventional 'action-logics'.

The part of this that currently has me really interested is that as you progress, particularly to post-conventional action-logics, it depends on shifts in the quality of your moment-to-moment awareness.

Which is where Action Inquiry comes in, the first part of the book. Action Inquiry is the ability to be taking action and be aware of the action you're taking at the sametime and therefore able to pivot to take the right action in that moment.

Kind of.

It's posited that there are four time horizons:

- moment-to-moment emergencies and opportunities
- day-to-day routine - maybe with a three month awareness
- goal-based awareness stretching to, say, three years
- vision-style thought that thinks maybe 20 years ahead.

These map to four aspects of experience:

- the external world
- your actions
- your thoughts, feelings, goals, action-logics
- vision and the quality of your awareness

and also to four aspects of communication.

The point that speaks to me at the moment is that if you can hold awareness ALL THE TIME of

- the present moment/external world AND
- your actions and routine AND
- your thoughts/feelings/goals AND
- vision/awareness

that that will transform aspects of your consciousness.

And I keep coming back to a particular phrase, that you hold this quality of awareness and allow each aspect to be vulnerable to transformation.

Can we stay conscious and hold our actions to be vulnerable to transformation?

Can we also allow our goals and thinking to be vulnerable to transformation?

Can we also allow our vision and awareness, our sense of purpose to be vulnerable to transformation?

I think there's something in that, you know.

So my current focus is two-fold:

Can I do all of that?
Can I help you to do all of that?

It happens that I'm sitting in the Quaker centre just opposite Euston station in London as I'm typing this. The Quakers are very focused on what happens when you sit in silence together and keep your awareness of what that together-silence is like.

The Quakers are one set of people with one way of evolving your awareness. There are many others. As a long-term meditator, I work daily on the quality of awareness in my meditation AND remembering to be aware during the rest of the day (which is really bloody hard/impossible, just to be clear).

Seems to me that, whatever stage you are of leading whatever it is you want to lead, that moving towards this quadruple-level of awareness can only be...good. Useful. Potentially transformational.

I'm gonna experiment. You?