Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Life after Life

In both the sustainability field and the leadership field, we often hear people speak of “transition.” At the personal and collective levels we need to leave behind certain assumptions, patterns, and misplaced hopes, to be able to live well in a constantly evolving situation. With our strap line at the Institute, “leading transitions,” we imply both these personal and collective dimensions. It is a view that regards the sustainability and leadership agendas as essentially about a different way of being in the world. It’s not about adding things to our confidently successful selves, but being prepared to grieve for what has been lost, and discover the greater life arising after the passing, or death, of certain things. Whether it is the death of huge rainforests and their wildlife, or the death of our sense of personal status, it’s often through loss that we discover what is wonderful to cherish and explore. The immediate tragedies of environmental destruction and social disruption are not phenomena the sustainability movement can ignore with the fixed-grin optimism we’ve been told is the responsible thing to do to win clients, friends, or votes. Instead, we can incorporate that into our evolution. 

This summer we host our first major international conference that will celebrate this idea of a deeper joy in transitioning to a new way of being together in the world. It is also the philosophy of the Certificate of Achievement in Sustainable Leadership that precedes the festival. I asked three recently enrolled participants in that course and festival to explain why they are coming. Each are experienced at forefront of their fields, one in sustainability, the others in leadership, and so they embody the two dimensions we bring together in our work. 

Cam Webb

“Over the past twenty-five years, I have worked as a forest botanist, evolutionary biologist, educator, and small-NGO-affiliated conservation activist, based mainly around a biologically important and beautiful national park in West Kalimantan, Indonesia” explains Dr Cam Webb.   “During this time I have seen the forests surrounding the park disappear and be replaced by oil palm plantations, seen local wealth and health standards rise, and become increasingly aware of the massive, impending social and environmental crises bearing down on all of us, and on this precious patch of rain forest.  I am now winding up various research projects, and want to spend time during the next year trying to better understand which approaches to tropical nature conservation can really work, how to provide business decision makers with profound, direct experiences of biodiversity, and how to help students face the seriousness of our global future in a way that honours their grief and horror, but also protects them from falling helplessly into the natural traps of disempowerment and despair.  While I would never have thought to attend a course and conference on ‘leadership, sustainability and wellbeing,’ as I looked more into the events, after an unlikely meeting with Jem Bendell in Bali, I sense that many of the issues I am struggling to understand in Borneo will be explicitly addressed here.  The presence of Bendell, John Foster, and Charles Eisenstein indicates that the conference will be underpinned with an awareness of the seriousness of the mess we are in, and yet the container, an explicitly joy-filled, outdoor, community event promises to help me understand better the connections between grief and hope, and mind and heart.  As for the certificate course, I am most excited to engage in deep, guided conversation with the lecturers and other participants, many of whom I expect will also be grappling with the very meaning of any action in the face of what is to come.  Coming as I do from an academic and NGO background, I am also hopeful that this course and conference will challenge my own prejudices against business, green-washing, self-declared ‘leadership,’ and organizations in general, and expect to be deeply inspired by recognizing ‘strangers’ working tirelessly for goals I share in ways I would never have thought of. And last, but definitely not least, spending a couple weeks in the Lake District in July, rain and shine, with music and poetry, sounds like serious ‘soul food,’ and I’m always hungry!”

We are honoured to have someone as committed, experienced and inquiring as Cam joining our course. I also asked Sue Adams to explain why she is looking forward to July in the Lake District. She explains:

“Meeting Cam and hearing him speak with such grief about the brutal destruction of a part of the planet he clearly loves and has devoted his life to loving moved me to tears. Coming to the course and the Leading Wellbeing festival all the way from Singapore is a way for me to be in a community who feel as I do and may be holding different parts of the puzzle of how we address what is happening: this work is sacred to me and I want to learn from the best in order to better play my part back in my community in Asia.”

Sue Adams

Sue works in management development. She explains that “as a leadership coach and facilitator of leadership development programmes for the private and public sector based in Singapore, I mostly work with high-level leaders across Asia.” Her clients have included top tier investment banks and leading high tech companies and professional service firms. Prior to starting this practice she was herself the regional business head for 9 years of the world’s largest producer of TV shows. “My route to where I am now has been a winding one,” she explains. “The first 20 years of my career I spent in jobs where 'making your numbers' was the goal - first the hard-nosed fundraising end of the charity sector, then as a lawyer and finally as a business leader. But when I became a parent in 2006 an inner world of joy and love opened up that seemed to be given little space in that world of work. I started on an inquiry about what we really yearn for as human beings and how we can nourish that through our work and institutions rather than succumbing to myths of scarcity and economic needs which fail to satisfy us and have us inflict suffering on ourselves, others and the environment. This inquiry has led me to my current work: coaching and facilitating leaders to examine meaning, belonging and integrity - in themselves and their organisations.” 

Sue told me that hearing from Cam about how the vibrant life of rainforest has been replaced by the monotony of palm plantations, she immediately sensed how something similar was happening at the level of human diversity and creativity, as a monoculture of mainstream careers sweeps through modern life. “A type of deforestation of souls in the workplace seems to have been happening just as profoundly and with equally devastating effects on our ability to 'sustain life', if by 'life' we mean anything other than consumption,” she explains. Yet, like Cam, she is not deterred. “I work in the corporate world because I believe that through purposeful work engaged with others in a healthy way we can rediscover qualities of the human spirit that will not only create thriving organisations but will allow – or even compel us - to come together and change our collective path towards a world that is just, sustainable and flourishing.”

What I notice from both Cam and Sue is an honesty that invites us to leave aside our masks and explore everything anew. For me, that is the starting point of inquiry and learning. This message of freedom from delusion is one Jamie Catto shared for us at our launch event in 2013, and I explored in the context of our current economic system in my Inaugural lecture last year.    

Sue will be in good company, as we will be joined by the Director of Global Development at PwC, Catherine Rennolds, who designs, commissions and evaluates internal leadership development programmes. What is really positive for me is that insights into leadership development can be applied at all levels. For instance, another of our participants is Helen Carter, a youth development worker with Brathay Trust. “I work with young people and young adults to enable them to take action for positive change in their own lives, in the knowledge that positive individual action creates a ripple effect to influence, inform and inspire others. I cannot imagine a job that is more important or enjoyable,” she explains. Aitch, as she is known, told me “I have become concerned for their future: We are dogged by short-term political and economic decisions, by systems that are created to benefit the few and take little account of the needs of the many, the environment or the future. I am interested in studying with IFLAS not only to develop my own practice and knowledge, but to help equip the young adults – and young leaders – that I work with, to have the best chance of meeting the challenges of their generation head on, to share with them the knowledge, understanding and ability to create an environment that is sustainable for generations to come.” 

Helen Aitch Carter

As I’ve developed my practice of leadership development in the past few years, I’ve been attracted to the heart felt and open approach shown by our friends at Brathay and, further down the lake, at Impact International. One of our lecturers on the course is Richard Little, a senior consultant with Impact, who I’ve worked with to outline our approach to sustainability leadership in our first Occasional Paper. He draws upon the great minds that lived in and shaped the cultural landscape of the Lake District since the late 1700s, and that helps create a sense of time and perspective. It is either serendipitous, or simply natural, that our University has a tradition of interdisciplinary practice-focused education, that uses the outdoors and site visits, and fully integrates this into learning outcomes. Most other Universities I have experience of have academics that teach from within a discipline and then course convenors seek to spice things up with a few guest lectures and if you are lucky, a site visit. The result is often disjointed, because there is no rigour in either experiential learning or interdisciplinary education. 

Kalimantan Forests

In observing the way our region’s community of leadership developers work, I’ve begun to see that it is not the typical management development activities that are important, but the way groups are hosted to explore deeper questions about their lives and next steps. One outcome of last year’s course was that Zoe from Earthwatch decided that coaching is an important skill to add to one’s practice in leadership development. I share that realisation and so I’m looking forward to learning more about coaching from Sue and the other participants on our summer course. Yes, I am the tutor, but I feel there’s a great life after the death of the idea I should know more than you. The participants wouldn’t have it any other way. Sue told me “my experience of leading and working with leaders has me believe that communities of practice and support are vital in most change and development endeavours- but particularly in the face of the traps of disempowerment and despair that Cam describes when facing the scale of challenge the current generation of leaders faces. And festival, fellowship and fun seems to be a great way to seal the sort of learning and development I'm looking forward to from the course!”

If this community of explorers seems an ideal learning environment for you, I hope we receive your application and see you this summer for either the one week, or the full Post Graduate Certificate of Sustainable Leadership. Participants can then progress on to our forthcoming MA in Sustainable Leadership Development. If you can’t do the course, then do consider joining our research festival, from July 16-18


Professor Jem Bendell 

Founder of IFLAS and the PGC in Sustainable Leadership

Academic Chair of the Leading Wellbeing Research Festival. 


Some quotes from our last cohort, which included participants from Forum for the Future, Impact International, and Earthwatch:

"This course was profound and life-changing. It has informed my practice, relationships – even my way of being." 

"This was the most in-depth, conscious, and profound course I have ever participated in. I was both surprised and delighted at the transformation of my own consciousness that was achieved. I was defining myself as someone out of the box. This course made me realise that there is always a further critical step still." 

"This first module has been the most powerful formal education experience of my life. The range of experts, both internal and external, brought a truly inter-disciplinary approach to exploring the challenges of leadership and sustainability. We have been challenged to take action, through imaginative practical assignments that go beyond the usual reading, analysis and regurgitation of academic texts." 

"This course has facilitated a great personal transformation in me. Thank you!" 

"Exceptional opportunity to engage with and question the debate around leadership and sustainability as instruments for and concepts affecting social change. Prepare to question and be questioned using a wide range of learning methods and environments. Excellent balance of attention to content with process." 

"An existential provocation, demanding full emotional engagement within a democratic and nurturing community." 

"Be warned: you will leave this course on a path to becoming a different person and hopefully a sustainable leader" 

"Challenging, fascinating course that will shake your perspective of sustainability and your role as a leader."

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