This article was first published in the July 2021 edition of Coaching Perspectives
Times they are a’changin. Even the nature of change itself seems to be changing – ceaseless churning change of the catalytic variety concocts this pregnant moment of seismic breakdown and breakthrough. I foresee the next couple of years as simultaneously challenging, transformative and full of potential.
Those of us engaged with transformational leadership work will know that periods of dysfunction and crisis often precede a step-change in evolutionary advancement. Therefore, these are fertile times for an evolutionary shift in leadership consciousness. Let this epochal hour of breakdown-breakthrough not go to waste, but rather spawn a necessary [r]evolution in consciousness. The future of life on Earth depends on it. The future-fitness of our clients’ organisations depends on it. So too does the mental health and wellbeing of our client’s families and personal lives.
This article seeks to explain: firstly, why a ‘threshold-crossing’ is an essential part of the evolutionary advancement of our coaching clients; secondly, what the nature of this ‘threshold crossing’ is; and thirdly, how coaching-based immersions in nature provide a powerful way of holding-space for this threshold crossing.
Crossing the Threshold: To die before you die
The phrase ‘to cross the threshold’ means to undergo a metamorphic process of ‘dying and being reborn’- to endure a shift in ‘inner’ self-orientation and ‘outer’ worldview. It’s a deep psychological renewal that transforms how we relate to our inner-selves and our outer-world, enabling us to become more in harmony with inner and outer nature. The ancient Greeks used the term ‘metanoia’ to describe such a shift, ‘meta’ like in metamorphosis is to ‘shape-shift’ or ‘move beyond’ and ‘noia’ relates to ‘true understanding’: to transform the understanding of our sense of self and how we relate with the world.
Over many year of coaching senior leaders, experience has shown me that for a leader – or for that matter any adult – to undergo a step-change in psychological evolution, one needs to hold-space for both the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ dimensions of this threshold-crossing: the worldview shift and the inner access to one’s deeper truer nature. All advanced adult developmental models, ancient wisdom traditions, and depth psychology approaches such as Carl Jung’s Individuation Journey and Parker J Palmer’s Journey Towards Wholeness, speak to this inner reorientation to ‘Know Thy Self’. And systemic change specialists, such as Donella Meadows and Peter Senge, know that shifting the worldview of the outer system is a primary leverage point for systemic transformation.
Shifting from What to What?
In my latest book Regenerative Leadership, co-authored with Laura Storm, we explore the worldview shift unfolding during this time of breakdown-breakthrough, and how it applies to leadership and organisational development. We explore the dominant yet dying Age of Separation and an emerging Age of Regeneration – where humanity remembers its deep connection with self-other-world. You may have started to sense the word ‘regenerative’ entering the emerging zeitgeist. It’s a word that can be applied to all aspects of life, from regenerative agriculture through to regenerative leadership consciousness, and involves an opening up to life’s evolutionary dynamics of relationality, receptivity, responsiveness, rhythm and renewal.
Regenerative Leadership Consciousness, as defined in our book, correlates with developmental psychologist Clare Graves’ work on Tier 2 Consciousness (i.e. Yellow, Turquoise and Coral in Spiral Dynamics) where an embodied cognition of living-systems is activated in our psyche. It also relates to what organisation specialist Frederic Laloux and integral theorist Ken Wilber refer to as Teal-Evolutionary. It is an ecosystemic awareness that draws upon the Logic of Life, an embodied living-systems way of leading and living that seeks harmony with the way life works. This is not new, it’s timeless. For instance, over 2,500 years ago Lao Tzu noted, ‘Those who flow as life flows know they need no other force’ and Confucius noted, ‘Those in harmony with nature hit the mark without effort and apprehend the truth without thinking.’ Yet this is also cutting-edge contemporary thinking confirmed by scientific findings that show how being in nature, and opening up to nature’s wisdom, helps us become more compassionate, creative and connected. The explosion of interest in everything from forest bathing to wild swimming speaks to this rising interest in reconnecting to the rapture of real life.
Today our dominant leadership awareness is largely mechanistic and reductive, tuning-out the rhythmic and relational dynamics of how life works. The result being: linear chains of production that create ‘outer’ toxicity and silo’ed hierarchies of management that create ‘inner’ toxicity. The vast majority of people today work in organisational cultures that sap people’s creativity, purposefulness, ingenuity, resilience and empathy. Whilst many organisations pride themselves on being efficient and effective the cold reality is that many of our human interactions, decision-making protocols and meeting conventions are woefully inefficient and ineffective. The root problem here is mechanistic leadership logic. Change the underlying consciousness, and the logic shifts. Shift the logic and the culture can transform in inner and outer ways.
To shift from a worldview of separateness and its mechanistic logic into a worldview of interconnectedness and its Logic of Life, requires a threshold crossing. This allows leaders to sense the organisation as a complex adaptive emergent system rather than seeing it as a top-down hierarchic machine. Our understanding of change, systemic interventions and transformation deepens in recognition of how life works. It also helps us perceive the ecosystemic nature of our own presence as a leader, and the presence of the organisation immersed in a sea of stakeholder relations including the wider social and ecological systems which are all interdependent and interwoven in measurable and immeasurable ways. The other side of all this complexity is a beautiful simplicity, found by crossing the threshold.
In terms of the ‘inner’ dimension, regeneration is a return to our true nature through a journey towards wholeness. This journey is as fresh as it is ancient, and it opens us up to living with more presence and purposefulness; exactly what these times invite of us. Through my coaching working in nature, I blend the shamanic and spiritual with the scientific and sensorial so all of our natural intelligences (rational, emotional, intuitive, and somatic) are enlivened. Then we unlock human potential, touch our true nature, and connect more deeply with the world around us. As Ghandi noted, ‘as one changes their own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards them.’
Why Nature Immersions?
There is now a wealth of scientific evidence showing how being in nature significantly improves our empathy, our ability to reason, to deal with change, cope with stress and listen more effectively to others. These are all basic qualities for 21st century leadership. Yet there is much that science is still only scratching the surface of when it comes to the transformative effects of being in nature.
I have taken hundreds of leaders through nature immersions. Immersions can range from half a day in the woods through to multi-day sessions that include overnight solos or even structured vision quests (you can find out more about the practicalities and science of these leadership immersions here).
Many of the senior executives I coach can have strong aversions to anything that might seem hippy-dippy or woo-woo at first glance. Some fear it might involve tree-hugging or Kum Ba Yah moments. Hence, I have learnt to interweave time in nature with science-based insights about how nature works so the intuitive, emotional, somatic and rational aspects of our knowing are engaged adequately, usually starting with the rational as that is the most dominant in many leaders today. For instance, I might explore the interconnected systemic nature of life through microscopes whilst out in the woods, and by describing how trees communicate through the soil and the air, or how bacteria display highly sophisticated communication and adaptation methods. Or I might draw upon how organisational cultures can learn from nature’s 3.8bn years’ worth of tried and tested R&D by explaining about biomimicry, bio-design thinking, chaordic cultures and regenerative leadership. Or I unpack how ecosystems work by visually explain the shift from mechanistic thinking to ecosystemic awareness in a way that satisfies the rational intellect while providing an embodied experience that the coachee can fondly recall many moons after.
Within an hour or two any hesitation or resistance a client might have to an immersion in nature usually evaporates to reveal receptivity for inner and outer developmental work. Then, around the camp-fire a deep dialogic space for generative listening is held, as ego-masks and psychological armour melt for true nature to be touched. The client does not easily forget these moments of deep presence and purposefulness, and can call upon them when back in the busy work environment. Thus, both horizontal and vertical development takes place in these immersions, as clients gain a wider capacity for everyday resilience (horizontal) and an invitation into up-stretching their inner and outer orientation (vertical).
What happens in just a handful of hours in nature is – in my experience – of an order of magnitude deeper than a coaching session held either in a comfortable armchair or over zoom. And socially distancing in fresh forest-bathing air proven to strengthen the immune system is a COVID-mitigated way to do deep work. Now more than ever people crave time in nature, time that is held in a way that gives them permission to be vulnerable, open-up and let-go of masks, while sensing into blind spots, projections and developmental learnings.
Giles Hutchins runs on-line executive coaching, bespoke on-line coaching on Regenerative Leadership, in-person nature-based leadership immersions for leaders, and facilitates deep-space for coaches and their clients, provides training for coaches, and personal adult development amid 60 acres of ancient woodland in an area of outstanding natural beauty with easy connections to London and airports, visit Leadership Immersions. He is also Chair of The Future Fit Leadership Academy. His latest co-authored book is Regenerative Leadership, other books are Future Fit, The Illusion of Separation and The Nature of Business. He blogs at www.thenatureofbusiness.org His personal website is www.gileshutchins.com