Shifting Ground

Saturday morning and I’ve walked the couple of miles along the beautiful Sussex coast from my house. Passing the ‘new town’ part of Hastings I wend my way further into the ‘Old Town,’ wandering along the waterline towards the black huts and the fishing boats basking in the sun on the stone beach. My Dad grew up in an island community on the West Coast of Ireland, and I find a sense of comforting familiarity surrounded by the boats, and the fishermen selling their morning catch from the huts. I love the contrast between the old and the new, the way in which they sit respectfully alongside each other, each confident of the role that the other plays in the world.

In the midst of all of this is the Jerwood Gallery, one of my favourite places to sit, think and write. The current exhibition is by a local artist, Gus Cummins. As I wander the fascinating exhibition I’m struck by a quote of his on the wall.

‘I am constantly trying to shift my ground. Alarming myself by stepping off safe and familiar territory.’

Sitting amidst his art in the gallery I can see exactly what he means amongst his work, Hugely varied, drawing on different disciplines and having obviously shifted, changed and developed over his 75 years of age. I find myself reflecting on my recent move to a new organisation. Something I’ve done on a number of other occasions over my working life. Constantly seeking new, challenging, unfamiliar territory, that scares me just enough. But have I always made the most of it? Have I actually used it to ‘shift my ground’ in the way Cummins describes?

Moving place is one thing, but as I reflect on my earliest moves I’m conscious that I moved role and yet perhaps didn’t move my mindset, the ‘ground’ on which I was standing. I took with me my existing views about what worked, the classic ‘canon’ of HR theory and practice: my subconscious ideologies which sat unexplored beneath the surface of all of that. I’m struck that it’s one thing to step away from the safe, familiar territory of an organisation or a sector but what about shifting the ground of what we think we believe?

My own recent experience of joining the Ministry of Defence has introduced me to working with military colleagues for the first time. The ways in which they see the world of work, leadership, people and organisation have felt in some ways quite different to some of my own. This could lead to me feeling threatened and to a desire to hang on to what I know, the ‘safe and familiar territory’ of my own views and beliefs. I’ve been fortunate though to work with great colleagues who have created an environment that I think has enabled me to be open to ‘shifting my ground.’ One example of this is perhaps the way that my manager and I have worked together.

Its starts with an environment of mutual inquiry

My military ‘boss’ is as curious about civilian ways of working as I am about military ways. Genuinely curious to explore each other’s perspectives, and yet knowing that we can never possibly fully understand each other’s worlds. Perhaps it’s helped by our respective fascinations with people, me from a career in HR, him starting much earlier as an anthropologist. We talk about WHAT we’re doing, but also spend time understanding HOW we see the world of people, organisations and work. We take time to explore how the way that each of us has developed in our respective worlds of work has formed our own thinking. And what that might imply or explain about how we see things and what we believe to be true.

We let go of having the right answer

All of this could fall down if either of us believed that we had the perfect ‘right’ answer that would work for all our many tribes. Despite many jokes to the contrary I’m confident neither of us feels that way. We’re both able to have ‘strong views held lightly’ (as Chris Argyris might have said) and this enables us to inquire together into what we’re noticing, bringing our different perspectives to the discussion. Both are open minded to the fact that our ways of working are different for a reason, and that its important that we understand what those reasons might be (or have been) if we are thinking of bringing about change.

We use experience and theory to disturb our certainty (not to restore it)

It would easy to fall back on convenient explanations of why things are as they are. To use theory and history as ‘gospel’ rather than as a potential explanation. A way of restoring our certainty that we know something to be true or right. To do that would simply be to continue to stand on the ‘ground’ that we have each always stood on. To stay safe. Instead we make a real effort to disturb our certainty, to be prepared to ‘shift our ground’, to countenance the fact that something we have always held to be true might in fact not be. This of course is scary, as it moves us from a place of feeling that we ‘know’ to a place of ‘not knowing.’

Which is easier when its ok to say ‘ I don’t know.’

Very early on I noticed that my boss is someone who says ‘ I don’t know,’ in fact he has a regular and deliberate practice of making sure he says it at least once a day. This simple act creates an environment in which its ok for me to do the same. Making our ability to inquire and shift our ground so much easier.

So where does all this leave me? I’m reflective about the fact that we often set expectations that people should move to different types of organisations as they develop their career. Whilst overall I agree this can be helpful, I’d also suggest that its possible to move and never allow ourselves to be changed. Equally its perhaps possible to stay where we are and yet learn how to constantly and continuously ‘shift our ground’ in ways that challenge us. Connected to that I’m conscious of the importance of high quality reflective development as one of the things that helps us to inquire more deeply into our own beliefs and views. It seems to me that providing space for this in organisations going through change is vital to enable us to shift our ground in the ways that might be necessary. I’m also struck that when inquiring into anything that we want to understand more deeply, it’s so helpful to do so with others, who see things in a different way. And finally I’m left wondering, if this is the environment that has been created for me, how do I ensure that I’m creating the same environment for others?

So thank you Gus Cummins for the provocation to continue to think about…

How might I/we create an environment that encourages and enables people to step off safe, familiar territory and to shift their ground?



Christmas Eve and my second shift volunteering for Crisis at Christmas. As I walked from my house this morning to do some things before going on shift I was struck by a sudden sensation that I have had before of there being more than one version of the world, some of us walking around in one, some of us walk around in another. Walking down the same streets perhaps, but in a subtly different dimension?

Firstly I noticed the families coming together for a special time of year, shoppers struggling home with shopping bags full. People recovering from their last night hangovers and the couple beside me in the coffee shop starting a festive row about who had given up their career to care for their child who is sleeping peacefully beside them. The world perhaps of wrestling with ‘more’ and ‘enough?’

Then I notice the Crisis world. Spotting fellow volunteers on their way to centres, Crisis transports moving people, food and medical supplies around London, and vulnerable people on the streets doing a last bit of begging before the shoppers all make their way home.

These feel to me like somewhat separate worlds. Do we only live in one or the other? Can we only hold one in our vision at a time?

My local coffee shop spot my volunteer badge and give me my tea for free. My local grocer asks if we can make use of all the stock she will have left over at the end of today. A message arrives from someone who wants to donate a hotel room to any of our volunteers who might be able to use it. I see a shopper stop with food for a persona begging on the streets. The couple embrace as they put some money in the charity collection box on the counter of the coffee shop. The coffee shop guy spots the tears pricking my eyes and comes to give me a hug.

And it strikes me the the worlds do indeed connect. They connect inside us somehow. Perhaps at the place where our humanity resides.

Because none of us is ‘better’ than another and the world could change for any of us at anytime. My tears were provoked by Rag ‘n’ Bone mans beautiful lyrics.

‘In the eyes of a saint I’m a stranger

We’re all trying to find a way

At the death of every darkness there’s a morning

Though we all try

We all try

We’re all one step from Grace….’

Little Bird

Today we met a little bird

Who desperately wanted to be heard


Feathers fluffed bright and clear

Sadness underneath, nastiness and tears


Wanting to be heard and seen

Squealing loudly me, Me, Me!


Underneath such care for others

Pure intent, nurturing mother


Did we help her? How could we know?

Was our intent pure as snow?


Sat with her and heard her pain

Helped her face another day


Didn’t flinch from being tough

In the moments it came with love


Held the mirror, helped her see

Her in all her glory be


Little Bird


Give it a go….(just please not in PowerPoint.)

“Education of the mind without education of the heart is no education at all”

We were sitting in a restaurant having a lunch-time bite to eat the first time that Aidan Halligan said this to me. I remember his look, the tilt of his head, the mischievous smile as he said it. Aidan had a talent for saying at least one thing in each of our conversations that would flutter in and out of my mind for months afterwards. The master of the ‘beautiful and disturbing question’ as the poet David Whyte would say.
It took me a while to work out that it was Aristotle rather than Aidan who had said this first. And it came back to me last week as I stood with the cool metal of a spray paint can in my hand, staring in excitement at the wall in front of me, which was looking tantalisingly bare and inviting. Graffiti. My first time. The excitement was wrapped around a kernel of fear which in turn concealed a sense of delight in the illicit subversiveness of what I was about to do. We had spent the morning observing our target of choice. Watching people come and go. Seeking to sense the pulse of the place. To understand its patterns and its rhythms. It’s comings and goings. To immerse ourselves in it. And now, here we were, the four of us ready to unleash those spray paints. We planned a little, talked about what we might like to create, what it might be like. Nervous about what we were about to do and the potential consequences, we soon realised that planning wasn’t really what it was all about, that we just needed to begin. And that we would work it out as we went along, or rather that it would reveal itself. We knew we wouldn’t have long before people returned and if they found us there would be questions about what we thought we were doing that we wouldn’t be able to answer. We didn’t yet ‘know’…that was the point. We began, it was about to rain so most of the people had gone but we needed to work fast.

The next day dawned bright and clear and we returned to the site of the previous evenings adventure. Each of the four of us nervous and yet eager to see how people would react to what we had done. As the work was revealed one group at a time we eagerly inspected what others had done. As we took turns to share our work we said nothing. We immersed ourselves in each of the exhibits as we would on a Sunday afternoon trip to a favourite gallery. There were no powerpoint slides, no words, no theorising. Just an opportunity for others to experience what we had created and share with us what they were experiencing too.

Each group had expressed, in a different art form our experience of spending time immersing ourselves in an organisation of our choice. I saw a shopping centre in the form of photographs that connected me to a slightly sick feeling about the damage done by my participation in consumerism. Experienced the discovery of a riverside community in the form of ‘found art’ that provoked deep pride in the ability of human beings to connect with and help others. Felt pain and anger in the installation art that represented an organisation going through a confusing merger. Shared tears with fellow students moved by what we were seeing and feeling. The subsequent conversations about those organisations and our own experiences of them had a depth and an honesty to them that I have rarely experienced in organisational life.

It was beautiful.

Returning to the books a few days later as an accompaniment to my session on the exercise bike (or was it the other way around?) I continued to read William Isaacs book, Dialogue. In it, Isaacs refers to ‘The Good, The True and the Beautiful,’ the way that ancient societies considered an appreciation of all three of these to be vital; ethics, science and art combining to offer a fully rounded education. Suddenly I better understood what Aidan had been saying back then. We had been talking about my time working in financial services and that I felt that there was a creative side of myself that I had put to one side in service of seeking to fit in and speak the language of those around me. I had recently happened across the work of David Whyte and was finding his poetry provocative and stirring. Aidan, wise as always was encouraging me to engage both my head and my heart in equal measure.

A short while after that lunch with Aidan I met someone who has become one of my favourite academics, Professor Rob Briner, a passionate advocate of Evidence Based Management (@Rob_Briner).Having worked for a long time in very data oriented analytical organisations, when I first encountered Rob’s work I wondered whether it was merely replaying what I had already been so thoroughly schooled in. Data mining, the development of insight from numbers and quantitative data, objective cold hard analysis. And yet what Rob was saying made total sense at some sort of level for me. Was it possible to hold this focus on evidence and my redeveloping sense of creativity, heart and intuition at the same time?

Having listened to Rob speak a number of times, I realised that I felt there was an important nuance in what he was saying about what constitutes ‘evidence.’ Feelings, emotions, experience, all of these things he acknowledged, are evidence too. Evidence of a certain quality (and I am sure that Rob and I could debate at length the relative importance of a feeling against a set of quantitative data) but evidence nonetheless. To ignore that we have them in fact would be to ignore a set of factors that fundamentally affect our decision making and the way we make meaning in the world. So perhaps it was better for me to find ways to be aware of all the evidence available to me, to notice and express it in whatever way makes sense? I found at the time that it was easier and more familiar for me to access a thought than to connect with what I was feeling. As though I was used to reaching for what my mind was thinking far more than reaching into my body to see what it might have to say.

So how could I bring all of this into my work? How could I find space for the good, the true and the beautiful. For educating my mind and my heart?

Fortunately James Traeger (@jrtraeger) deftly steered me in the direction of Chris Seeley’s work on Artful Knowing and Geoff Mead (@NarrativeLeader), her equally inspiring husband encouraged my curiosity about his wife’s work and also introduced me to this fabulous incantation from William Ayot (@PoetryPresence)

‘Me? I say make a sacrifice to the doodle; pick some flowers, speak a poem, feed the tiny muse. Draw, paint, sing or dance, and you’ll bring the gods back into the board room, the laughing, smiling weeping gods of the night-time and the wild

Or as Steve Marshall (@VisionInquiries) says in one of his recent tweets:

‘We seem to question the validity of ways of knowing such as writing, poetry, painting – but not PowerPoint.’

So if I accept that there is validity in these approaches then what next? How do I know where to start in seeking to express myself in ways that I have rarely done before. To develop new practices to support my ability to be able to access all of the many ways of knowing available to me?

As I explored further I came across this YouTube clip in which Chris Seeley is in conversation with @chrisnicholsT2i just a few days before she died from a brain tumour. It is the inspiration for what I am currently seeking to practice. 


‘Give it a go, step in, take someone’s hand, drag them with you.’

Chris Seeley



Our paths crossed on the doorstep. 

It had been a pretty full on Friday at work and as I approached home around 6.30pm I was looking forward to a cup of tea and sitting in the garden to enjoy the last bit of gentle warmth of the early summer sun. As I walked across the square towards the house I passed groups of people sitting outside the two bars catching up over a glass of wine. The gentle bubbling chatter between colleagues who had just finished work for the week, couples meeting up for the start of their weekend, people generally going about their lives in this city we call London. 

As I crossed the square towards my house I saw him, sitting cross legged on the door step of the house next door to mine. There was an large battered carrier bag beside him and he got up and cleared some rubbish from the pavement then turned and went to sit back down. As I got closer he seemed to try to sink further into the doorstep that he was sitting on, recoiling towards the old brickwork seemingly seeking to camouflage himself against it. As I got closer to my own front door he almost appeared to flinch.  

‘Sorry, sorry…’ I noticed that he was wringing his hands and his eyes darted hesitantly towards and then away from me.  

Spoken as gently as I could. 

‘Sorry for what?’ 

‘ For being here…sorry.’ 

His pale blue eyes caught mine across the top of his heavy rimmed glasses and the hand wringing increased pace. Sorry for being here. Sorry for being. Sorry. 
‘That’s OK, it’s a lovely place to sit and rest for a while. You’re really very welcome.’ 

He was wearing trousers and a pale blue shirt with a dark grey jumper over the top and a jacket as an extra layer. Nothing quite fitted, everything a little too large giving him the fragile look of a small boy starting school for the first time in a uniform just slightly too big for him. A few stains dappled the front of the jumper and his sockless and slightly swollen feet were crammed into a pair of pale brown shoes. The dye from the shoes had stained the creases of his ankles leaving them a pale shade of slightly antiqued orange. 

He peered at me across the top of his glasses 

‘Are you sure? I like it in this Square but I don’t like to be too near all of those people over there’ 

‘I can understand that’ I smiled ‘sometimes the bars are a bit too noisy for me too’ 

I lifted my key to place it into the lock, still intent on that cuppa. He seemed to sense my departure and the end of our conversation. He spoke again. 

‘ It’s my birthday next week.’ 

I stopped and turned to look at him more closely now. 

‘ Really? When is your birthday?’ 

’29th of May… May 29th, next week, that’s my birthday.’ 

Time slowed for me a little and my arm lowered the key away from the lock. A different kind of filter slipped across my eyes and as I looked at him again what I saw was a little changed. 

‘Well can I tell you something? That’s my birthday too.’ 

A huge smile broke across his face and he scampered the few steps between us to half shake my hand. 

‘I’m Siobhan’ 

‘Oh, I’m Andrew….Andrew.’ 

He retreated rapidly to his step like a slightly startled animal and eyed me again across the top of his glasses.

‘You couldn’t give me a cup a of tea could you? 

The turmoil in my tummy told me that this was the least that I could do. We shared a birthday. Our journeys in the world had started on precisely the same day. 

‘Of course, let me go and make you one.’ 

As I stood inside the house making his tea I knew that I wanted to share more with this man with whom I shared a starting day in the world than to give him a cup of tea and retreat into my house again.

‘Do you mind if I join you?’ I appeared tentatively with two cups of tea. Maybe he wouldn’t want to talk to me? 

‘Oh that would be lovely. I don’t get to talk to many people. Only really the people at the Maudsley, they look after me. I suffer with my nerves you see, have done for years. I’m 62 now. My Mum used to look after me but when she died there wasn’t anyone else so they help me now. I don’t suppose you have any biscuits? It’s just a cup of tea is nice with a biscuit? 

I had to admit that I didn’t but a text message dispatched to my on his way home from work husband resolved that fairly quickly. So there we sat, drinking tea on the two doorsteps in the corner of the square. 

‘Do you live nearby Andrew?’

‘Yes. I have a flat near the Blue. But it’s such a lovely evening. I like wandering about a bit but it gets so busy at this time, the buses are all crammed with people, they move so fast and you can’t talk to anyone. You have to be careful don’t you? Careful when you’re around other people? And the roads are so busy. Everything moves so quickly. Everyone moves so quickly. You have to be careful don’t you?’ 

I looked again at the City around me and saw it suddenly through different eyes, Andrew’s eyes. A city that he loves, that he has lived in all of his life, but is moving so fast that it frightens him. A city in which he has to be careful. Careful. 

‘Have you ever worked Andrew?’ 

‘Yes, I did for many years. I was a messenger in the City, in the Banks.’ 

I thought back to the many messengers that I had worked with in my own years in banking, Ralph, John, too many to name. And all of them characters right at the heart of the branch that they were a part of. Constantly busy, constantly needed by the team around them. Andrew had once been right at the heart of a team, many teams in fact. Those sorts of roles don’t exist anymore of course, cost saving and whizzy IT have seen them fade away. 

‘There aren’t many jobs that I could do here now. I went to Weston Super Mare a while ago. It was lovely. Quiet like. But I can’t move away from here or I won’t get any help will I. I’m schizophrenic see. That’s what they say anyway. I don’t normally tell people that. There would be no one to help me if I went somewhere else. And I can’t go again now over the summer as it will be busy and there will be too many people. I’d have to be careful’ 

‘Do you like to travel around and talk to people?’ 

‘Yes but I have to be careful you see. Some people don’t like me. They say that I scare their customers. They’ve said that to me. And then they ask me not to come back. So I have to be careful don’t I? But the Maudsley look after me.’

As I tried to comprehend what it must feel like for this man to be asked to leave places for scaring people it contrasted starkly with hearing, not for the first time of the deep compassion of the people in the NHS. The team at the Maudsley one of the few connections to the rest of the human race that Andrew seemed to have. One of the few places he feels safe and understood. 

‘Them budget cuts are a problem aren’t they? They are struggling. I mean there’s only so much they can do isn’t there. They can’t provide a talking service anymore. Not like you are doing now. They can’t do this.’ 

‘This.’ What was ‘this’? 

I was startled by the idea that one human being talking to another might be considered a ‘service.’ Touched that he had so much compassion for the NHS staff who were seeking to help him. Unnerved by his concern that they might not be able to do that for much longer. His fear of being left isolated and without help cast a dark cloud over our conversation and my skin started to chill slightly in spite of the warmth of the evening sun.

We sat and chatted until the sun started to cool, Andrew sharing stories of his life and experiences and me learning more and reflecting more with everything that he told me. We finished our tea and he stood up to leave. 

‘I don’t get to talk to many people these days. It’s so nice when I do.’

‘Andrew, it was really lovely to meet you. Thank you for chatting to me for a while’

He returned the tea cup, half shook my hand and popped the rest of the biscuits into his carrier bag before heading off across the square towards his home. 

As I sat that evening Andrew continued to come back into my mind. There we were on that doorstep, two people, born on the same day, in the same country living in the same city, and experiencing it in such different ways. I found myself thinking about the question that I had posed at a conference only a week before. 

‘What is the thing that you are presiding over now in your organisation that in 10 or 15 years times someone else will look back on and say ‘how on earth did s/he allow that to happen’?’ 

I recalled that my own answer to that question is often about whether I am doing enough to support the creation of organisations and a society that provides a nurturing environment in which for the wide variety of people that make up human kind can really thrive and fulfill their potential.

I sat in my living room that evening and pondering my meeting with Andrew. Thoughts and questions tumbled over each other in my mind. So many that as I grasped at thinking about one another was lost. Too much to think about all in one go. How do we build cities, towns, villages, communities that can be safe, nurturing environments for all? What role do each of us play in that? What role do organisations have to play in ensuring that as wide a variety of people as possible can work and experience the pride, confidence and self esteem that comes with that? Is it time that we stopped relying so heavily on the NHS, welfare state, local authorities and charities to do what is perhaps some of the work of being human beings and communities? What can I do to better contribute to the mental health and wellbeing of those around me? 

I am learning so much from that chance meeting with Andrew and I hope that our paths will cross again. I would really value learning even more by hearing what thoughts this provokes for those of you who have taken the time to read it?


Aidan Halligan: A very special soul 

‘One of the deepest longings of the human soul is to be seen’ John O’Donohue

I’ve started to try and write this a few times now and deleted the words every time.


Because I was trying to be wise, eloquent, thought provoking, inspiring, honest. 

And he never did that… Or at least he never seemed to. He never seemed to try to do any of those things. He just was. Wise, Eloquent, Thought Provoking, Inspiring, Honest. 

Do I miss him? 

Yes… and in a strange way no.

Yes because he’s not here to sit and have lunch with. Not here to ask for advice and have wonderfully immersive conversations with. Not here. 

And yet no… because I still feel his presence every day when I look around and see something of him in things he helped to change or to build or made a difference to:

     An NHS perhaps a little better able to talk about compassion and humanity and what matters in patient care because he helped to start the conversation

     Professionals in homeless healthcare who continue to seek to find better ways encouraged by what he helped to start

     Charities and other organisations affected by his presence on their boards or teams 

     A Twitter community still inspired by lessons that they learned from him still sharing them (#aidanhalligan) 

     Mothers with children they may never have had without his careful care and attention 

     Education and leadership development that might not have happened without him

     Hospitals that he worked in changed by the approaches that he developed in patient safety 

     Many people that he mentored, spent time with and inspired continuing to share the lessons that they took from knowing him, including me

When I first wrote a blog after his death I mentioned some of the many things that I learned from him 

   Connect with People Wholeheartedly 

   Compassion is action 

   Begin…. Don’t wait. 

   Ask the ‘Beautiful Disturbing Question’ 

(The original blog is here

All of these I continue to think about often and so for me his challenge, support and inspiration lives on each and every day. 

Of all the gifts that he gave me though, the question that he always asked me without fail is the one that has made the greatest difference to me over the past year. 

‘ At a lull in our conversation as I described the fullness of life and work he would always catch me out with the same question. Leaning in and giving me his full attention he would say in his gentle Irish voice…’ 

                  ‘And tell me Siobhan…. Are you happy?’ 

Aidan, I am happy to have had the chance to learn from you, to be inspired by you, to continue to be provoked by the questions that you left me with. I am happy that you live on in every mention of your name, the continuation of the work that you cared about, the wisdom that you left behind.  A small army who have been inspired by your wisdom, eloquence, provocation and honesty. Many souls busy in the business of life and work in this world today happier because you gave them the gift of feeling truly seen.

Perhaps appropriate to finish on a Maya Angelou quote that I know you used occasionally

‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ 

One year on tomorrow, 27th April 2016, I would say that she is definitely right on the last one and that you may well be proving her wrong on the others…. 

Modern day body snatchers


Those of you who know me well will know my addiction to a cup of tea. This morning I find myself settled with a perfectly piping cup of Earl Grey in a cafe near where I live. The Cafe is an unusual octagonal building with seats enough for a dozen or so people. It’s interior brick walls shows the signs of many whitewashing’s,  a lovely log fire burns to offer arriving customers both welcome and warmth and gorgeous pastries from the bakery down the road accompany the tea. 

The building has a very different history though. Built in the 19th century it was a Watch Tower for guards to watch out for the body snatchers who would use the dark cover of night to try to exhume recently buried corpses to steal away for medical research or other purposes. As I sit reflecting on the events of my week I am struck by the concept of modern day body snatching and the role that I might have inadvertently played within it…

Perhaps I should explain? Earlier this week I had a meeting to discuss a forthcoming presentation I have been asked to do to on managing a career. I was curious about what the group would already have covered by the point that I joined them and I asked whether the subject of individuals values was one that was covered.

‘Yes, we talk to them about the five values we believe are required of leaders in this area.’ 

Really….? I found myself thinking…. 

‘What about their values? Do you do anything with them on that subject?’ 

‘No, we don’t really cover that on the program.’ 

My question was really one to myself as I realised the number of times over the years that I have run programs rolling out organisational values, competencies, behaviours, leadership frameworks. I wondered whether I hadn’t been responsible for asking people to ‘become’ something that they are not. One organisation that I worked with had 23 competencies that it expected every single individual to demonstrate. I have often reflected that if anyone had managed to perfectly ‘be’ all of those things they might have been a somewhat curious creature, perhaps akin to Frankenstein’s monster! 

Looking back there have been points in my own working life when I have attempted to ‘conform’ to the expected norm of an organisation. To respond to the subliminal cultural command to ‘be like us if you want to get on around here.’ I can see moments in time during which I ‘hid’ who I am in order to try and ‘be’ what the organisation wanted. There have also been precious times when I felt no need to do that at all. One such point was when I had a fabulous opportunity to work in the US for a while. It didn’t take me long to realise that the only thing that my US colleagues and neighbours expected from me was that I would be ‘different’ and this ended up being an unbelievably freeing experience! It left me completely able to be myself in all kinds of ways. It was the point at which my love of quirky clothes and artful dressing came to the for, and I have never let that more creative side of myself retreat again. 

Now I am certainly not saying that there is no need to manage our wonderous selves at all as we relate to others in the world. Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones coined a wonderful phrase in their book ‘Why Should Anyone be Led by You?’ in which they encourage people to ‘Be yourself. More. With Skill.’ All of the relationships in our lives require us to bend and mould ourselves somewhat around the other. But there are some aspects that sit at the core of our being that I feel should not be supplanted or hidden or compromised. 

Having been the architect of a number of the kinds of programs that I talked about earlier I sit now, with my second pot of Earl Grey,  wondering whether I haven’t been guilty of a kind of modern day’ body snatching.’ Have I sometimes participated in the creation of a kind of ‘walking dead’ environment in which people come to work only able to bring part of the fullness of their life with them? Have I colluded with organisations in taking only the ‘bits’ of people that they want and leaving the other parts of them floating in some kind of semi lived purgatory? One of my favorite writers John O’Donoghue said; 

‘The most subversive invitation that you could ever accept is the invitation to awaken to who you’re and where you have landed.’ 

The joy of creative, critical reflection is that if I have a realisation that perhaps I have contributed to creating soul-less environments in the past; I have the opportunity to choose to go forward in a different way. Poacher turned Gamekeeper; Body Snatcher turns Watch Tower Guard. Committed to safely escorting the living, fully awake, through the graveyards of organisational life. 

Stories: The Flesh and Bones of Our Lives 


How many times have you been asked by someone to to tell a story about your life? 

Perhaps you were asked to talk about your career at a conference or tell a leadership ‘story’ at another event? A beautiful and disturbing opportunity that we want to respond to with an engaging story, full of colour and life. 

All of our lives contain a myriad of amazing stories. Whether they are our own, the stories of those around us, history in all its glory or teaching tales full of wonderful ancient wisdom. Whether they are stories of achievement, of disappointment, of love, of things we got right or all that went wrong. How to tell those stories well is an ancient ‘craft’ in almost every culture in the world. Ursula Le Guin is oft quoted as saying ‘there have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.’ 

So is it a craft that can be taught? I certainly hope so. This weekend was my second weekend with the International School of Storytelling seeking to learn from some of the best storytelling teachers in the country. Before attending my first weekend “Begin it Now’ with Sue Hollingsworth I don’t think I had ever told a traditional story in my life! Sue deftly took us through the basics of how to ‘bone’ the story; to take its main structural points to make it easier to recall. Then to create an ordnance survey map of the story and walk through it; to make sure that we really understood the territory of the story and where things in it are in relation to each other. And finally how to wallow in the sensuous detail of the story to touch it and taste it and feel it so that we can describe it with colour and depth that takes both us and our listeners into that story with us. All of this creating a level of trust between us and our audience such that they would allow themselves to be guided into our story by us, happy in the knowledge that we would steer them expertly through it and safely out the other side. 

On a practical level I was amazed by how quickly we were able to learn to tell stories that we had never seen before and with not a single note or prompt card in sight. And it was fun, a lot of fun! My second weekend of training with Roi Gai-Or further developed my understanding and provoked many questions about the application of storytelling in life and work. His patient and generous individual coaching of each of us delivered many new insights and for all of us our ability to tell stories was taken many steps forward as the weekend progressed. 

So I brought home with me much to practise and also many questions, wonderings and musings, some of which I’ve captured below. I’d be really interested to hear some of yours in return? 

  • What is the connection between leadership of organisational change and storytelling? I was struck by a realization that perhaps the leaders I know who have led change well are the ones who have taken the time to really understand not just the words on the page but the map of the story too, and have immersed themselves in it viscerally, in all of its sensuous detail. They understand it as an emotional journey not just a set of slides on a page, have explored how the journey will feel for each of the characters and they take responsibility for steering people into the change and safely back out the other side. 
  • Every person that we meet is a walking, talking library of stories. We all carry stories of our past, our present and our future. Amidst all our focus on personality trait or diversity characteristics it’s easy to forget that we are all different, unique, individuals with chapters of our lives that we haves already written and chapters yet to be composed. Anthony Doerr puts it beautifully when he says ‘ in our memories the stories of our lives defy chronology, resist transcription:past ambushes present and future hurries into history. Coming to know the stories of another person is both a privilege and the place where real intimate connection starts. 
  • Many times we are placed in positions as leaders where we are not the ones crafting the narrative, where that has been done by someone else. And yet if I can take an African teaching tale and find a personal connection to it of some sort I can tell it as my own. If I can find no personal connection to the story or if I don’t believe what it is saying then it’s probably best that I don’t try. There have been moments for me when I have known it was time to move on from an organisation who’s story was not one that I felt I was connected too any longer. I have been lucky though also to work in many organisations where I have felt deeply connected to the story and purpose and to what we are trying to achieve and able to tell that story in a powerful way as a result.
  • True storytelling means that the storyteller sometimes goes to places that their listeners don’t want to go. Perhaps that is why the storytellers in some cultures were travellers? Maybe we don’t always want to be confronted with the kind of provocation that great storytellers can bring? Stories of hope for example are vital to us as young children, indeed they are probably the only kinds of stories that we should hear at that tender age. But perhaps right now as adults in this world it is not a time to delude ourselves with stories of blind hope. We are living in an age of uncertainty. And whilst  within that uncertainty lies the potential for possibility, we need to be clear that the choices and decisions that we make will draft the next chapter for our world and the generations that follow. We need storytellers who are brave enough to tell those stories, to confront societies with what needs to be faced up to. 

My fellow storytellers and our expert guides told leadership stories, fairy tales, ancient teaching tales, tales to help children understand death and tales of history. Along the way they provoked laughter, anticipation, excitement, fear, reflection, thoughtfulness and tears. And as I witnessed their stories unfolding I found myself in profound awe of this wonderful ancient art. I left the college full of respect for those learning around me and full of anticipation of the effect they might have in the wide variety of places that they plan to take storytelling in the world. I was left wanting to learn more and wanting to take what I have learned thus far and to practice.

I’d love to learn from the reflections from others on stories and storytelling so please do share your thoughts. And if you are left wanting to explore a little further I’ve included some links below to some resources too.