Imagine if you were the type of leader YOU would want to follow

December 15th, 2016

Fancy three days of fun, engaging learning on a theme of leading creative teams?

Johnnie and I are bringing our Creative Leadership workshop to Melbourne, February 7th to 9th.

Here’s some reflections from those who came to this workshop in Cambridge earlier this year.

Lots more info and bookings here

Engaging the Resistance

July 19th, 2016

EngagingTheResistanceI’m riffing some ideas here based on the four themes we’ve been exploring for Creative Leadership:

Having bolder conversations
Connecting more deeply
Engaging the resistance
Staying alive


Whoa! This one is hard! I’m not so sure about our “most difficult challenges” – there’s also “everyday challenges” – the things we, I, resist all the time. I have a mantra that helps me with this: Show Up, Let Go, Jump In. I’ve written about this before. Also, begin before you are ready. Both of these help me to bypass my natural reticence. Johnnie and I really like this quote by Hugh Laurie:

“It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready… There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.”  

Resistance seems to become bigger, and harder to shift, once it gets a foothold. Beginning before you are ready seems a good idea to me. I often work with groups who have not done some of the activities that we like to use in workshops. As well having a reputation for finishing on time (a good thing), I also seem to be attracting a reputation for not answering questions (not always seen as a good thing). I have a reason for not taking questions before an activity. I try and give clear instructions, well, clear enough to start. The key is to start – to start before you are ready – and to gather more information when you need it. Asking questions, thinking about what hypothetically ‘might’ happen takes us into our heads. Sure it’s a way of mitigating risk. It’s also a way of not starting until you are ready – and who knows when you will be ready?

If you’re intrigued by our leadership workshop in Cambridge, August 31 – Sept 2, but not sure what to expect, why not engage your resistance, and take a leap into the (relative) unknown? We’d love for you to come and explore these ideas with us.

Connecting More Deeply

July 19th, 2016

ConnectingMoreDeeplyI’m riffing some ideas here based on the four themes we’ve been exploring for Creative Leadership:

Having bolder conversations
Connecting more deeply
Engaging the resistance
Staying alive

This is one of those things that’s easy to say, hard to do. We all like to think we’re okay with change, yet when it comes to the crunch, we all struggle in our own ways. I do, that’s for sure. I love travelling. Yet, on nearly every single trip – no matter where, no matter how good, or how exciting –  at some stage I wish I was home. I yearn for the familiar.

I guess the familiar equals safety. I can’t imagine what it was like for my ancestors to be bundled onto boats and shipped across the planet to an unknown, unfamiliar country. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people to do that today.

Connecting more deeply works for me at a number of levels, not just personal. It’s also about connecting to myself, being aware of my own needs, and also connecting to place – finding something in an unfamiliar place or even, emotional territory, that I can connect to.

This August, I’m lucky to be able to reconnect with some dear and loved friends from around the world. Just being with them will remind me what it’s like to open myself to change. Maybe that’s what we all need – to spend more time with people. One of my favourite ways of connecting is through play. As adults, we often don’t have the time, or the people, to play. Sometimes we think we don’t have permission to play. There will be plenty of play at our leadership workshop in Cambridge, August 31 – Sept 2. You betcha.

Bolder Conversations

July 19th, 2016

BolderConversationsI’m riffing some ideas here based on the four themes we’ve been exploring for Creative Leadership:

Having bolder conversations
Connecting more deeply
Engaging the resistance
Staying alive


None of us like to feel uncomfortable when talking with others. Sometimes it’s easiest to stay silent. Yet staying silent, especially on important topics, can have ramifications worse than speaking out. Silence can be seen as a default for agreement. With so much unrest, shifting political landscapes, and the access to so much information about just about anything, having conversations about the things that matter is important, I think.

I personally struggle with this a lot. I have strong views on lots of things, and find it difficult when confronted with mis-information, myths, and the latest form of -ism going around (racism, sexism, etc). I try to be curious, to find out where other people get their information, how they formed their views, but it can be hard, especially if it’s something I am particularly passionate about. Becoming more comfortable on unknown ground – having bolder conversations – is about practice. Even the skill of having a conversation can be easily lost.

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately by Richard Fidler. He asks great questions, he knows how to have a great conversation. One day, when I have nothing better to do, I’m going to go through a whole stack of his interviews and try and figure out how he does it, analyse his questions. In the meantime, I’m trying to learn by listening, and by osmosis – maybe I’ll soak up some of his approaches!

I also went to an improv class with Gary Schwartz. Apart from all of his other brilliance, he’s a great improv coach. My key message from his workshop was about slowing down. I think this works with having bolder conversations too. If we rush, we miss too much. Slowing down enables us to connect more deeply.

One of the joys of travel and reconnecting with friends is that I can indulge in lots of conversations. Johnnie and I will also be sharing some of our techniques for having bolder conversations at our leadership workshop in Cambridge, August 31 – Sept 2.

Staying Alive

July 19th, 2016

StayingAliveI’m riffing some ideas here based on the four themes we’ve been exploring for Creative Leadership:

Having bolder conversations
Connecting more deeply
Engaging the resistance
Staying alive

To continue doing what you have always done is the easy part, it’s when you want to try something new, something fresh, maybe even unproven, that we enter tricky territory. This is really important for me when I’m facilitating. I have many approaches that work, and I’m not about to throw them out. But sometimes it’s good to try something new, to refresh. The only way I’ve found to discover if something works is to try it. And here’s the rub. Not everything works. Not the first time, not every time.

Trying new things, even when I don’t know how to do them, is how I learn new things, and discover stuff about myself. It helps keep my work fresh and interesting, for me, and for others.

Taming the voice in your own head telling you not to try something new or different is hard enough, imagine what it’s like to try and encourage others? It can be a real nightmare, knowing how far to push – too little and there’s not enough challenge or encouragement; too much and people are frightened off.

I’m looking forward to discovering new ways of staying alive when I’m in UK this August, especially at our leadership workshop in Cambridge, August 31 – Sept 2.

A morning with David Whyte

May 1st, 2016

Rock balancing MongoliaFirst, two confessions. I’d never read, or listened to any of David Whyte’s work. And I didn’t know what genius loci meant. Nor did I know to what extent both might influence me.

After yesterday morning, neither is no longer true.

I was impressed with the rhythm of David’s performance, the strength, and loudness, of the silences, and the way he would regale his audience with story, to slip seamlessly into poetry, and whammo – reveal a line that connects the story and asks a question that “is an invitation to the imagination that the strategic mind doesn’t know what to do with.”

Repetition. Repetition, I now know, is not a part of his written work, but is certainly a huge part of his performance. And it’s very effective.

Gesture. David Whyte gestures a lot. He points and waves and pokes and prods and underlines his words with gestures.

Silence. The silences would begin as short, two-beat silences, and gradually increase to ten times as long. Powerful. And loud!

And then there’s his use of language. Not surprisingly, I’ve been a fan, a student, a user, and sometimes, an abuser, of language. Not surprisingly, a poet uses language well. The work that Johnnie and I are immersed in right now is also imbued with language – trying to find just the right word, getting rid of jargon and meaningless adjectives – trying to use language to explain the unexplainable.

Here’s some of the memorable lines from my morning with David Whyte:

“The ground makes no sense without an horizon. An horizon may also be internal.”

“Poetry is language against which you have no defences.”

“Be impatient with easy explanations.”

“When you show up you can be seen, you can be found, you can be touched. And when you can be seen, you can be hurt. So we create abstractions to avoid being seen.”

“I don’t have to have all the conversation at once. Just begin.”

“The person you are just about to become is a stranger to you.” I’ve just finished reading Cathy Salit’s book Performance Breakthrough. She writes about her experiences of using performance and skills from theatre directing to help people discover parts of themselves they never knew could, or would, ever exist. “The person you are about to become is a stranger to you.”

“Stay in this place until the current of the story is strong enough to float you out.” Johnnie hosts Unhurried Conversations, an approach that explores a different way of being in conversation with others. “Stay in this place until the current of the story is strong enough to float you out.” 

“What would it be like to be the ancestor of our own future happiness?” Indeed.

And genius loci? Genius loci is the spirit of a place – the type of conversation held there is shaped by place. I’ve always known this. Even before I knew it.

A deepening understanding of status

October 20th, 2013

It was the end of a five-day workshop. What had been going well, suddenly wasn’t. I had to step in front of a group that felt there was still too much unfinished business, and time had run out. My thoughts were racing, jumping from conciliatory to rebellious. “Let’s not cave in,” said my co-facilitator. “We need to hold our line.” So I stood on the edges, and unseen by anyone, I changed my status from defeated (low) to confident (high). I raised my arms, turned my palms upwards, lowered my arms and stepped in front of the group. (It turned out well in the end, and that’s a story for another day).

Status has lots of meanings. Status updates are pervasive on social media. Status is often considered the same as our position in society.

At this year’s Applied Improvisation Network Conference in Berlin, Simo Routarinne and Barb Tint, shared their deepening understanding of status. I first learnt about status from an improv perspective from Simo and other improvisers. Keith Johnstone wrote extensively about status in his book Impro. He called it submission and dominance, and suggested we were too polite to refer to it that way.

In particular, status is how you behave towards others. Tim Minchin, in his recent speech at the University of Western Australia, said he will judge you by how you treat the wait staff in a restaurant. Fair enough too.

So what is status? It’s dynamic, constantly changing depending on our circumstances, and it’s relational – depends on who you are with. It’s how you behave towards others, and it’s always your choice. You can choose to be higher or lower status, or try and match the status of the person you’re with.

Higher status is characterised by bigger gestures, standing tall, taking up more space, making eye contact and deliberate movement. Lower status is characterised by trying to take up less space, avoiding eye contact, or looking away quickly, fidgeting and hesitant movements. There are innumerable choices to make in status, shifting a little or a lot, changing your own status in relation to others, or raising or lowering the status of others by your actions. Mostly it’s unconscious. There is much value in understanding status and knowing when and how to shift it to enhance relationships. It’s also useful to understand status and know when someone is trying to manipulate you!

My example at the beginning of this post was about me raising my own status by changing my body posture. By doing this I could step into a potentially hostile environment in a high status manner, and to boldly acknowledge the uncertainties in the group without being overwhelmed by them. This gave them, and me, confidence to move on.

Back to Simo and Barb’s work. They have identified other aspects of our relationship to others and our situation that is relevant to status.

Rank is our position in a hierarchy, it’s your designated role and describes what you are e.g. CEO (high rank), intern (low rank).

Power is something you have. It can be cultural. Power can be money, knowledge, influence, connections, fluency in a language…

Esteem is what you feel. It’s an external experience and can be changed by social feedback.

Status is what you do, how you behave. It’s relational, and it’s the easiest to change.

You can see this played out in any arrivals hall in any international airport. The immigration officer’s rank might be relevant within the organisation they work for, but for the everyday traveller, what’s important is that they hold all the power. Doesn’t matter who you are, what connections you have, they are in charge. You can’t use your rank, and any power you have is meaningless. What you can do though is use your status – something you can change and have control over – to  make the exchange as amiable and quick as possible.

What’s really interesting is the intersection between rank, power, status and esteem. And well worth further exploration in all human interactions.



July 22nd, 2012

What an exhausting and exhilarating couple of weeks it’s been. Improvention in Canberra with lots of really talented improv folk, then hosting AIN Downunder: Thriving In Uncertainty Conference. More on that later. And now I’m at Mt Hotham for a week’s skiing.

I love skiing. I love being in the mountains. Today was a glorious day, one of those days you dream of – a bit of new snow overnight, a clear, bright, sunny day, only a little wind, not many people on the mountain.

So I’ve been thinking about edges a lot. Of course, I’ve been rediscovering the edges of my skis. And Johnnie and I have had many long, rambling conversations about Edges of Work. My business is called Beyond the Edge, and today I skied past this run. Not sure I wanted to be Off the Edge so I skied right on by.

This relates to a theme that Johnnie and I were exploring that we named “I’ve Got Your Back”. As I was skiing alone today – my partner was back in the lodge with a nasty dose of flu – I was thinking about the role of a skiing buddy who’s ‘got your back’. Someone who’s ‘got your back’ is there to support and encourage, as well as poke and prod. Ski instructors often play this role – taking their students into terrain they wouldn’t (and maybe even shouldn’t) ski alone.

Whether it’s skiing, improvising, trying something new at work or in life, experiencing change and uncertainty, leading a group or organisation, or even making difficult decisions, knowing that someone’s ‘got your back’ can be the difference between playing safe and taking a risk. And most importantly, feeling safe to proceed in the face of uncertainty. There’s a lot written about leadership and what it takes to be a good, great, better, the best leader. Maybe it’s the people who support leaders who make the biggest difference, that enable leaders to go to their learning edge and make new and interesting discoveries for themselves and their organisations?

Thoughts on leadership

April 10th, 2012

Everybody has a view on leadership. I’m wary of anyone who says they have figured out the 5 things that great leaders do or the 7 things that great leaders never do etc. The internet is full of these sorts of posts. It seems no matter what else we say, we humans like lists, and we like them even more when someone else does the work for us. I could easily spin off on a post about lists – maybe another day.

What I really want to share are a few great insights from Phelim McDermott’s talk On Death and Doing Nothing. You should read the whole thing. It’s about his thoughts on leadership from the perspective of an artistic director. Here’s what stood out.

“Keith Johnstone has a game where people say “let’s …” then everyone says “Yes Let’s” and everyone does it.

A: Let’s.. All jump on the spot”

Everyone: “Yes let’s..” and everyone does it.

People think it’s a game about agreeing and saying yes to everything with a cheery grin.

But it’s actually much more subtle than that. What you are supposed to do in the game is notice whether you really are saying yes congruently. If you can’t really say yes then you sit down and drop out. So you are noticing whether you can say yes to the suggestions. It’s as much about finding out what people can say yes to easily, as about mindlessly agreeing. If you continue playing this game what you discover are there are some things which make lots of people sit down fast. Some things that are suggested are really easy to gleefully agree to… other things…

Over time, what you discover is that those things that are satisfyingly easy to accept are sort of already happening within the group. They are latent as ideas… “Emergent.”

“Good ideas” that people have or “wacky” suggestions are not so easy to say yes to partly because you find yourself asking…

“Is that a good idea?” by then it’s too late and your out of the moment… Sit down.

This is a touchstone for good group creativity.. The ideas have emerged from a group mind or process. Someone naming this before your conscious mind is even aware of it is as satisfying as laying an egg. As enjoyable as a great film ending that feels right because a bit of you knew it all along.. but didn’t know it knew it yet.”

I love the way Phelim unpacks this seemingly simple game and what it can reveal if you stick with it long enough. This is something that Johnnie and I have been exploring too. The capacity to know when to stick with something or when to abandon it seems to me to be fundamental to leadership. Yet impossible to learn in any traditional sense – it’s a way of knowing that is emergent rather than predictable.

Phelim has more to say about the illusion of control too:

“We love the security of the illusion that someone is in control. Even more than the discomfort of a potentially more creative process. That’s how we want our leaders: ”Reassuringly blameable.”

Now that’s a different spin on leadership – ‘reassuringly blameable’ – and oh, so common. We seem to be riddled with the need to have someone to blame when things go wrong, or not as we expected more likely. I’ve been in this position a few times when facilitating groups where the need to be comfortable over-rides any need for emergence or discovery, and the absence of comfort is blamed on the facilitator, and not necessarily the topic being explored – which may be inherently uncomfortable and messy. Hence my reluctance to buy into the oft-quoted facilitator mantra of creating a ‘safe’ space for uncomfortable topics. Uncomfrtable is uncomfortable. Messy is messy. Unknown is unknown. No amount of massaging from me, or anyone else, including leaders, will change that.

“If your job as a leader is not to tell people what to do. What is it?

Well I think I would say it’s to model being comfortable with being uncomfortable. To be comfortable not knowing.

To model holding a space where we recognise how the world really is. Which is that it is all self organising and none of us is in control.

However we can notice what is happening, what season our creativity, or organisation, or our self is in and not fight it but wake up to the reality of it and ride it, be totally present to this life process so it can unfold.

To become what Harrison Owen calls a “wave rider”.

To recognise that none of us is in control.

As leaders we can create inviting environments in which people can connect to and be aware of their own impulses.. Awake enough to follow them. To notice that the leadership role could actually belong to anyone in the room at any time.”

Amen to that.

Hi. Why do you do what you do?

April 7th, 2012

Imagine if this is what we said to each other when we met for the first time? Imagine if we were able to answer the why, instead of defaulting to what?

My friend Andrew Suttar has been exploring this and sharing it around The Hub in Melbourne. I’m thankful to him for challenging my thinking. And to John Baxter too, for catching and sharing some of these thoughts.

There’s also a TED Talk by Simon Sinek about how great leaders inspire action. Typically, we all talk about what we do and how we do it. Guilty. Rarely do we even get to why we do what we do.

Simon Sinek suggests we turn that around – and this is what inspiring leaders do, they talk about the why first, then the how, and finally the what.

I wanted to explore this for myself. And it’s harder than it seems. So I went searching for more of Simon Sinek’s work and found this video about the value of human experiences to build trust. Yes, I recognise the irony of posting this on-line.

I completely agree with his conclusion that we need more human interaction and more conversations.