On August 15, 2019, I gave the keynote address at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits Essentials Conference. I've pulled the content from that speech into a series of three blog posts on change.
With nature as our teacher, we have the opportunity to reconnect with our human experience with change. You’ve been riding those perpetual rapids, and you are still here. You’ve already been doing this your whole life. I invite you to do your own little naturalist exploration of your own past for just a few seconds. Think back to the you that you were three years ago. Where were you? What did you look like? What were you doing? What were your priorities at the time?
You already inherently know what it is like to experience change. You are literally experiencing it all the time. This is how change actually happens is: Change is not episodic, it’s constant. Those disruptions I was talking about? They either accelerate the pace for change or shift or nudge its direction. But change is in fact a constant flow. It’s already happening and you are moving with it. Our ability to handle it comes with our ability to move with it and to ride those rapids.
But that actually requires us to become very comfortable and ok with change. We have to jump in. We have to say yes to riding the rapids. I’m not an experienced white water rafter, but I do know that the easiest way to get hurt or worse when riding rapids is to stiffen up, to try to go against the water, to move away from the flow rather than with it. But I also know the easiest way to drown is to jump in without a boat or just limply be carried away or carried under.
Why do we resist going with the flow of change? The biggest reason is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure. Uncertainty, ambiguity. It’s scary. We are not completely in control. We can’t necessarily control the outcome. We can read the river, but we can’t control it. But let’s turn again to mother nature, our greatest teacher. What if we handled this the way nature does, using our intuition to intentionally ride the rapids without really knowing what might happen? What if we let go of the outcome and just let it be? The caterpillar has no clue that it will become a butterfly. The tadpole doesn't know it will become a frog. They don't have a choice in their change. It just is. In nature, these happen all the time. You know what nature doesn’t do? Six months of strategy planning to decide the direction. It does not get stuck in analysis paralysis. It just happens.
You do not make change happen. You can create disruption. But as I’ve already said, that’s not the change. So, that term “change maker”, let it go. You may very well be a disrupter, a shifter, a nudger. But change is happening whether or not you do anything. That river is running. How much do any of us like to be forced to change? What happens instead if we allow change to happen organically?
I have a few favorite examples of organic change from nature, these first two are described in the book Systemic Leadership. If you’ve ever run barefoot on wet sand, you know that when you are running and moving fast, really slapping your feet again wet sand, it feels hard, almost like running on concrete. But, if you stop and just stand there, you will slowly start to sink and your feet will be absorbed by the sand. The sand accepts your presence. You become part of the system. Change should actually disappear within the system. Just notice where you might be doing one or the other. Are you slapping people upside the head with what change you think they should be making? How well is that going? What would it look like to sit with it rather than try to force it?
The other image is birds on a wire. When you see a bunch of birds hanging out on a wire, it’s very rare that they all take off at once. When one of them determines it’s time to move, it will get up and circle away and then come back, then another one will join and they will circle away and come back. A few more join in until all the birds get the hint and the whole flock takes off of the wire.
My third favorite is the way the bees self-organize to collaborate on complex tasks, which you can read about in the book Honeybee Democracy. To select a new colony hive site, a few scouts go out and find a new place, and then come back to the colony to perform a “waggle dance” that shares the site location, quality, etc. When a “quorum” of 15 join the waggle dance, the whole colony moves to a new location. Doesn’t that make change sound like fun?
Where are you resisting the flow of change in your life?
Is there anywhere in your life you are trying to force change to happen? What would happen if you let go of trying to make change?
Read Part 1 and Part 3 of this series!
I'm part of a women's group that meets monthly. We talk about everything, but it's a group with purpose. We process what's happening in our lives, we explore our core values, we have tough conversations about what's holding us back, we support each other through the difficult times, and we nudge each other to take risks to live the lives we desire. We share meals, take turns hosting, and rotate who leads the conversation each month. I feel so lucky to be part of an amazing group of women like this who want to intentionally to walk through life together.
Our facilitator this month brought several prompts for us to think about, and we were supposed to speak to the one that called to us the most. There were phrases such as, "First, honor the divine." Or questions like, "Why not now?" I knew the one I would choose immediately when I saw it: "Metamorphosis is the process of intentional destruction."
This concept doesn't just speak to me right now. I FEEL it in my bones. I have been intentionally destroying some paradigms in my life that have gotten me this far but are no longer serving me. And this kind of breaking down in order to build something new is not neat and clean. It can't be planned out. It feels messy and disruptive and murky. And I'm really uncertain about what will happen next. At several stressed out moments, I have asked, "What the heck am I doing?!? Why would I blow up my life like this?"
I was describing this to one of my mentors, and she asked, "Is it that you are blowing up your life, or is it that you are at the early stages of transformation? What would nature tell you about what you are experiencing?" Nature tells us to get purposefully messy before beauty emerges. It tells us we have to cause a little chaos in order for the new path show itself. Or, in a very unscientific description of the process, we have to make bug soup in order to have what's next.
Because it is intentional destruction it means that we HAVE to go through this phase in order to get to the next. There's no clean way through this. The only way out is through. And so we have to destroy somethings that we know or believe or are holding on to for the next phase of our lives. This is how emergence happens.
This is natural and occurring around us constantly. What if we handled this the way nature does, easing into our intentional dissolving without really knowing what might happen? What if we let go of the outcome and just let it be? The caterpillar has no clue that it will become a butterfly. The tadpole doesn't know it will become a frog. They don't have a choice in their change. It just is.
What paradigms are you bringing down in order to bring out the new? What are you decomposing so that something can grow? What transformation in your life is asking you to let go and ease into it? What do you need to move through in order to have what's next?
It's winter here in Minnesota. We are currently covered in more than two feet of snow. Spring may be around the corner, but it feels very far away. I'm craving the company of green, living things. My house plants are doing their best, but I can't wait to walk through a lush forest of leaves again soon.
When you are overwhelmed with snow, there is no better book to turn to than the illustrated edition of The Hidden Life of Trees. This is a seriously gorgeous book. Is nature porn a thing? If so, this is it. You can't help but be captivated by these pictures of trees from all over the world. I put a little video below, flipping through some of the incredible pages so you can see for yourself.
Peter Wohlleben used to be a forester. He looked at trees as a commodity, lumber to be sold. But then he started to pay attention to the trees. He's no treehugger, but he has collected what he has learned about his experience with trees into this beautiful book. Now, Wohlleben manages a forest in his country of Germany on behalf of the community. Brain Pickings has an excellent summary of the unillustrated version of the book, and you can read an NPR review of the book or listen to the author himself talk about trees as social creatures.
I often look to nature for lessons on how to live a better life. We are surrounded by tall, 200 year old teachers who we can learn a lot from about our own humanity. Here are some things I learned from this book I believe we as humans have the potential to replicate for our own growth and sustainability:
There is so much more I could say, but I promise you that if you were to pick up this book yourself, you would not be disappointed.
I have to make another confession. I've recently connected with Kathy and she's become a mentor and friend to me as I am exploring working within living systems and within the realms of organizational development and leadership. I'm grateful to have found such an inspirational guide at this point in my career.
Ok, but there is much more to love about this book other than the fact I'm a fan girl of the author. Leading from the Roots offers us a different way to lead people and organizations. The industrialized way in which we work in Western society, especially in organizations in which we are trying to work on complex social problems, is doing much more harm than good, both inside and outside our organizations. We've come to view the world in a hierarchical, mechanistic way where parts (people) can be replaced and problems are solved with logic, force, and coercion, coupled with punitive policies and procedures that strip the humanity from those with whom we work with and for.
There is no better example of this than in our education system. As Sir Ken Robinson describes in this animated TED Talk, our public education system was built in a time when certain things were valued over other things, such as rote memorization over creative or divergent thinking. And the system that was created to reward certain behaviors and abilities no longer serves the students or the needs of our communities (if it ever really did). We treat students like robots who will go out in the world to perform jobs. And we rate their ability to be successful in a capitalist society through standardized testing, which acts as the dashboard through which we start to measure their productivity and potential contributions.
This isn't just a problem in education. Name a complex social problem and you can see the ways we have created machines of systems around them. And all of this leads to worse outcomes for our communities, increased disparities and inequities across the board in all categories, and exhausted, burned out people who are treated like replaceable cogs in the machine rather human beings.
Leading from the Roots says we don't have to view the world this way anymore. If we use nature as a metaphor and lead with a living systems mindset, we start to see the innate connectivity, interdependency, and reciprocity between people, organizations, and communities, and what it takes for all of them to thrive. Kathy talks about how organizations can evolve their consumptive practices into generous organizations that are multi-dimensional, diverse, and complex. She talks about the seven dynamics of living systems that we can draw on to shift our mindset:
The rest of her book describes the eight design principles nature has already shown us that can create more sustainable organizations. She wraps up the book by talking about what it means to lead from a living systems mindset and how we can create more generous organizations. Each chapter is packed with questions to consider for practitioners who want to lead organizations in a new way.
I'm intentionally not saying more about the contents of this book because I sincerely believe that you should buy it and read it for yourself. It will completely change the way you see the world, your organization, and your leadership. If you want a glimpse into what the book is like, check out Kathy's blog and peruse the amazing number of resources she has posted on her website. She embodies the notion of generosity. You can also sign up for her newsletter to have her wisdom delivered directly into your inbox each week. Kathy is committed to starting a living systems movement that can radically shift the way we lead organizations today. Join her.
Today, I am in Maine with three of my best friends in the whole world. We decided to travel together this summer for a short getaway where we could find peace with each other through deep conversation, time in nature, and lots of laughter. Two days ago, we met in Boston and drove up to Acadia National Park. In the car on the drive up, we spent time reconnecting, catching each other up on all of the things since the last time we talked, and excitedly making plans for our next three days.
As we are all passionate about the connection between our spiritual, professional, and personal lives (and because the drive was 4 hours long!), we made time to listen to and talk about Cory Booker's interview with Krista Tippett on On Being as we made our way up north. In the interview, Booker talks about the difference between tolerance and love. He says that while tolerance sounds good on the surface, when you dig deeper it essentially means that there is still something that we find distasteful about each other that we are putting up with. Booker urges us all to move from tolerance to embracing a daring love for each other. Without love, we won't be able to find the humanity in each other nor the common ground to lead to lasting change. It reminds me of what bell hooks describes in Love As The Practice Of Freedom, although I think hooks takes the need for love even further. hooks says, "Without an ethic of love shaping the direction of our political vision and our radical aspirations, we are often seduced, in one way or there other, into continued allegiance to systems of domination--imperialism, sexism, racism, classism." If we truly love each other, then there is no way that we can or will use domination and oppression of people to inform our policies, laws, and practices; liberation for BIPOC will not be achieved without it.
What would happen to the public parks in this country if we applied a politics of love, that didn't utilize systems of domination? What kind of relationship and healing could we create with the people from whom this land was originally stolen, and how could we all have a different relationship with the land itself? These are questions that will continue to stay with me, long after we leave this place. These are questions in which I'm determined to spend my life exploring for answers.
This morning, we decided to watch the sunrise on Cadillac Mountain. We spent most of last night singing around a fire, gazing up at the stars, basically howling at the moon. We got very few hours of sleep before we woke up at 3:30 am in order to make it to the top of the mountain in time to greet the sun. Cadillac Mountain is the first place in the United States to see the sun each morning. Bleary eyed but determined, we made the trek.
To our slight surprise but also great joy, there were already lots of people on the mountain when we arrived. We thought, "People who are willing to wake up at this time to watch the sunrise from the top of a mountain are our kind of people." We found a spot on some rocks on the hill, listened to the murmurs of the other conversations around us, and watched the horizon in anticipation of what was to come.
As we waited, one of my dear friends turned to us and asked, "What intention should we set on the sun today?" Setting intentions are a powerful way to live life with purpose. As Deepak Chopra writes, "An intention is a directed impulse of consciousness that contains the seed form of that which you aim to create." As if there were any other intention we could set that morning, we agreed on an intention of fierce love for each other, humanity, and the world. As we watched the sunrise, we pictured that intention following the sun as it shines down on the living beings on this planet.
Tomorrow, we'll leave this beautiful place and take this intention with us. We'll go back to our homes, our jobs, our responsibilities. We'll leave with a new sense of commitment to practice fierce love in ways big and small. We'll remind each other of this moment and ask ourselves, "How did you love today?"