“Don’t grow if it will make you sick.”

This is what the “mother” had told them.

My client was a small, dynamic company that produced kombucha, a natural fermented drink believed to have significant health benefits. The group had asked me to help them figure out how to respond to a huge upsurge in demand without losing the soul of their beautiful little company.

What I loved about these people was their embodied connection with life and living systems principles. After all, kombucha is a living product, made from a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast that forms a gelatinous substance known as a “mother.” Great personal and ongoing care goes into tending to the mother, since it (she?) is what actually does the work of producing the kombucha.

As the group explored various ways forward, one of the questions I invited them to reflect on was, “What would the mother advise?” And the answer that emerged from their reflection, as if in a clear and gentle voice, was: “Don’t grow if it will make you sick.”

Was that even an option?

It was a shocking, unsettling message. And yet its wisdom was undeniable.

As the group wrestled with this advice, their exploration led them to the compelling option of propagatingrather than growing. They excitedly imagined cultivating a network of local partners: small brewpubs housed in hubs of entrepreneurship, creativity and conversation, in which kombucha infuses the space — and the community — with health and inspiration. What if, instead of gathering around alcohol, people could gather around a healthful drink? What if kombucha’s unusual collaboration between bacteria and yeast – hostile to each other in other circumstances and conditions – could be offered as an inspiring metaphor for our own potential to collaborate across difference? Instead of the soulless, over-prescribed franchise model, what if their network of partners could be locally responsive and self-organizing, like kombucha itself? Instead of simply growing their own production capacity and wealth, what if the group could grow the generative capacity of their company – its ability to generate new possibilities, new offshoots, new life? And rather than making them sick, what if such a move actually had a regenerative effect, making them and the community more healthy and whole?

None of this vision could have come into view without first expanding the group’s understanding of what it means to be a company. Rather than something fundamentally separate from the people within it – simply a production and output machine that must be grown at all costs – they came to see their company as something personal, alive and embedded in a living world.

Their experience begs the question: what other possibilities lie beyond the limits of our existing assumptions about growth?

And in fact, the region of Flanders in Belgium is engaged in just such an inquiry. My friend Anna Pollockhas been working with VisitFlanderson what she calls “regenerative tourism.” As part of the project, CEO Peter De Wilde recently narrated this breathtaking video about their project, Travel to Tomorrow. Growth in tourism, he says, “means lots of money, true, and… is that always a good thing? Perhaps the cost is higher than we might expect.”

“Could tourism possibly create more value with fewer tourists. Giving them the space to discover the things we want to share. The things that make us unique.”

“Who are we, the people who live and work here? Generous givers, who really want to enrich one another? Or do we just want to make ourselves rich?”

Just a few years ago, those questions would have been unthinkable.

Unlike the kombucha company, the team at VisitFlanders doesn’t have answers yet. Their destination remains undefined. But importantly, they’ve launched an ambitious campaign to engage people across Flanders in meaningful conversation to imagine together what more is possible, beyond assumptions of growth at all costs.

Here in Quebec, we can see growth for its own sake in the plague of blue-green algae we’ve experienced in our lakes in recent summers. Over-fertilized by human activity, the algae takes up all the oxygen, preventing other species from thriving. The water becomes toxic to all forms of life, including humans. This is where we find ourselves with today’s monopolies, mega-banks and ubiquitous franchise chains. At some point, scale and efficiency become degenerative rather than regenerative, actively working against life’s ability to thrive.

If we don’t pause to shake loose the assumptions that guide our actions, then we won’t see the many unimagined options available to us. We’ll continue to operate within the same ruts that are leading us steadily toward destruction, despair and ecosystem collapse. In place of growth as our goal, why not aim for more learning, more creativity, more love? Why not set our sights on thrivability, actively cultivating life’s ability to thrive wherever we find it?

It doesn’t seem to come naturally for people to take the time to connect deeply with WHY. Despite Simon Sinek‘s best efforts, there’s still a strong urge to jump to WHAT. But there’s so much reward (clarity, engagement, energy, moral authority, creativity…) to be found in the WHY.

“How can you know the ‘why’ if you don’t know the ‘what’?” asked one client recently. Sometimes it helps to think of “why” as “context,” I responded. What’s going on in the world (your world) that calls to you? What is your unique place within this situation? What is the unique place of your place? Rooting your work in context shifts it from being a program or a project to a mission or a quest. There is infinitely more moral authority and inspiration in such grounding. When we skip straight to the “what,” we get objectives like, “Be #1 in our industry.” What else could there be? And that’s a fine goal, but not in itself. Without rootedness in service to some underlying context, it remains a self-centered, empty ego-driven goal. When we start with “why,” however, we get objectives like, “Change the relationship people have with nature.” We get other-centered, service-oriented, deeply meaningful goals that serve as useful guides to subsequent action.

I’m also noticing that the aversion to spending time on “why” is often related to the need to shift from “hero” to “host.” The leader so often believes that he (yes, it’s usually a he in these cases) has to be the hero with all the answers – the “what.” And it becomes self-fulfilling; when the leader always comes with all the answers, everyone else gets disengaged, and so the leader is then truly the only one who’s fully committed, who can ever get to the “what.” But when there’s a shift from hero to host, the leader can create the conditions for people to swim in the “why” for a time and for the “what” to emerge naturally from their collective sensing and wisdom.

In my experience, most people don’t naturally fathom the “why.” It’s not their habit. It doesn’t come naturally to them. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not interested in it. They need a guide – a host – to help them discover it. My sense is that it’s a cultural thing rather than a question of human wiring. Our culture hasn’t valued the “why” for centuries – only the “what.” And that’s led to us to the brink of extinction. So our goal (yours and mine!) is to shift the culture, including working one organization at a time.

Thank you again to Neil Davidson for invaluable additions to the model above.

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I was in a discussion recently about how to craft the invitation to an upcoming conference. Up to now, much of the vision for the event has centered on the need for a systemic approach – for helping the complex web of stakeholders to see themselves as a single ecosystem so that they can then act together to effect systemic change. But in this recent discussion, there was concern that such a big vision wouldn’t appeal to some potential participants. To get those people to come, it was suggested, a more tactical, single-issue approach would be more effective. “How to solve specific problem x.”

This is a familiar conversation for me. As I help organizations surface and articulate what they truly stand for, there comes a realization that they may have to leave some customers or community members behind. This brings up fear. It conflicts with the desire to please all people, all the time – going against the noble values of inclusion. It challenges the belief that more and bigger is always better. Read more

“To understand the root causes of the pathologies we see today, which impact all of us but affect Brown, Black and Poor people more intensely, we have to examine the foundations of this society which began with COLONIZATION…. Colonization was the way the extractive economic system of Capitalism came to this land, supported by systems of supremacy and domination which are a necessary part to keep wealth and power accumulated in the hands of the colonizers and ultimately their financiers.” — Dr. Rupa Marya

That powerful message appeared in my Facebook feed today, along with this fascinating breakdown: Read more

How many conferences have you been to that were loaded with dynamic speakers expounding on their latest success stories? This is what sells tickets. And so it should — we all love an inspiring story. More than that, we want to learn from other people’s experience. We want to know what works.

The problem arises when all we take away is a simple story of a heroic individual who takes a single action that changes everything for the better, as if all we have to do is copy and paste this isolated “best practice” into our own contexts and we’ll have similar results.

As appealing as this is, we know it’s never really that simple. Read more

Living Systems, Jung’s Archetypes, and the Fullness of What’s Needed to Cultivate Regenerative Community

I recently participated in a nourishing 3½-day gathering of people dedicated to regenerative, life-aligned ways of living. Presentations and conversations swirled through topics like intentional communities, new land ownership models, evolution in consciousness, arts-based neighborhood activism, and more. At a few points, however, a quiet, courageous voice was raised to note that patterns of patriarchy and domination are still occasionally present, even within this well-intentioned, peace-loving movement. Mine was one of those voices raised. And it took a dedicated conversation — and the marriage of two frameworks — to tease out when and how those patterns appear, why it matters and what might be a fruitful way forward.

Importantly, what we discovered is a sometimes subtle but always limiting tendency and pattern that is common across many of the most heralded approaches to social and organizational change. Our sense was that addressing it may be key to effecting positive and lasting change — and, indeed, to surviving the most challenging problems we face as a species.

For context, I’ll share the most public example of what drew me into this inquiry at the gathering:

Two of the most enthusiastically-received presentations were highly analytical, rapid-fire rundowns of the historical and intrinsic problems in an unruly society. The presentations had a heavy focus on flaws that, according to the presenters, we’ve always had as a species. For example, futurist Daniel Schmachtenberger described in great detail how humanity’s path has been one of rivalry, competition and murder, and this characteristic way of operating is leading us inexorably to collective self-termination, with technology speeding us ever faster to that outcome. The solutions offered in response seemed to be predicated on an intellect-driven engineering/design mindset, with the need for rapid scaling and personal discipline. In particular, Schmachtenberger advocated a shift from rivalrous to “anti-rivalrous” social structures.

Though it is clear that we are on a self-created path toward catastrophe, what seems to be missing from this analysis of humanity’s track record is the historical existence — amid all the rivalry and murder — of collaboration and co-creation. Of love and care. Of beauty and potential. The story being told seemed to be the view from the patriarchy, as if that were the only real and valid narrative all of humanity has ever lived. But we have not been a species only of warriors. And focusing exclusively on that aspect of humanity’s journey risks overlooking other foundational capacities that we can — and must — draw on as we move forward.

I also couldn’t help feeling that there was something ironic — and even potentially counterproductive — in rejecting a dominating, patriarchal, technology-fueled culture, but presenting this assessment and related solutions in what, to me, was a dominating, analytical, technological manner.It felt like a warrior’s answer to the challenges created by warrior mentality.

A handful of us gathered to untangle our shared but vague sense that patriarchal patterns of domination persisted within the community. And perhaps predictably, we started with the need to balance the masculine and feminine. But that seemed to trip us up. We craved terminology that was both more neutral — less tied to actual genders — and more descriptive. We were also unsatisfied with the zero-sum compromise of balance; we wanted to integrate the best of what everyone had to offer.

Moving from Problem-Solving to Potential

The first breakthrough in our thinking was inspired by a framework Bill Reed of Regenesis had shared, called The Law of Three. Instead of approaching a situation as a problem to be solved through compromise between two opposing forces, The Law of Three is an invitation to seek the highest potential present in a situation by harmonizing those forces. Only in seeking the potential inherent in “what is” can we move effectively beyond compromise to discover new possibilities of “what could be.”

The Law of Three

Image credit: Regenesis

Moving Beyond Gender to Archetypes

The second breakthrough came when — in place of the terms “masculine and feminine” — we played with the language of archetypes that I had offered in my own keynote presentation. My starting point had been the list of four fertile conditions present in all thriving living systems (including organizations and communities):

(1) diverse, divergent parts,

(2) consistent yet responsive patterns of relationship,

(3) convergent, emergent wholeness,

(4) self-integrating, self-organizing life.

From there, I pointed to how these mapped on to Jung’s classic archetypes, describing, in a way, how we experience those four living-systems conditions together in our collective human endeavors.

The first archetype is the Warrior. It is the push for distinct, individual expression — for bringing forth our unique gifts, talents and inner truth. Decisive and action-oriented, it is the source of our fierceness, conviction and loyalty. It represents rationality and discipline and is the realm of skill and technology.

The second archetype is the Weaver (also called the Magician). As the energy of relationship, pattern and process, this is where we find an advisor’s ability to interpret complex situations, making them appear simple. We see the Weaver in skilful meeting facilitation or in one who connects ideas and people in the interest of insight, learning and innovation. It is present in the design of new organizing structures. And it is the realm of rites of passage and other meaningful patterns of life.

Our small group found these to be more useful ways of expressing what we had been calling the masculine and feminine: Warrior as the universal energy of drive and diversity; Weaver as the complementary force that contains and connects.

We also noticed that, without a clear and powerful invitation into wholeness and higher purpose, we are left with “balance” and “compromise” between those two forces. We struggle to get to full generativity, to creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts and to discovering our latent collective potential, as Bill Reed might say.

This brought us to the third archetype, the Sovereign (sometimes called the King), representing wholeness, order, coherence, shared vision and purpose. This is not about any one person being the sovereign. It is about the urge to gather around a compelling cause — to be part of an unfolding heroic narrative. This archetype calls for invitation, rather than persuasion or coercion, and for discernment — “we are this, together, and not that.” It inspires a culture of generosity and recognition of gifts, a vital component of generativity. In these ways, Sovereign energy is associated with healing through making whole, as well as with creativity, fertility and leaving a lasting legacy. If you find yourself asking how your organization is walking its talk or imagining a bold vision of what is possible, you are expressing Sovereign energy.

And though a Sovereign shared purpose may enable the emergence of potential, will is needed to manifest that potential. We might think of this will as the urge and call of life — what Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran calls, “life’s longing for itself.” After all, it is the animating spark of aliveness that enables a system to integrate parts into relationship and resultant wholeness. Only something that is alive can heal itself, innovate, adapt and sustain itself. In these ways, we can acknowledge that life is the driving force behind regenerativity (or what I would call “thrivability).

The fourth and final archetype, then, is the Enchanter (sometimes called the Lover), bringing in the animating and self-integrating spark of life through the energy of renewal, festival and transformative celebration. The root of the word “enchanter” means to sing into being. This energy is accessed through beauty, art, music, nature, play, movement and inspiration — the dominion of the Muses. Embodying the realm of emotion and sensuality, the presence of this energy makes us feel fully alive and filled with passion. In these ways, the Enchanter connects us to the transcendent.

The Law of Regenerativity

With this, we reimagined the Law of Three diagram as something that might be called The Law of Regenerativity. Warrior and Weaver energy are brought together in shared service to a Sovereign purpose, enabling the realization of emergent potential. This process is enlivened and made regenerative by the will and Enchantment of life itself.

This set of patterns helped us recognize the need to be very thoughtful about where we direct our attention. For example, is the point of our efforts to be anti-rivalrous? If that is our goal, then our focus will be on the Weaving. And truly, this is important work. But isn’t the larger goal to enable life to thrive in our own unique, collective way, with the understanding that this will require us to design generative structures and systems of (anti-rivalrous) interaction, along with other requirements? Focusing on “preventing rivalry” as our goal risks quashing the diversity of individual expression that is also needed for life to thrive. It doesn’t raise our sights to why we might come together and what potential we might manifest. And it likely blocks us from the inspiration and celebration that a focus on thriving can bring.

This same caution might be offered for methods like blockchain technology, Lean, Holacracy, and “Teal paradigm” structures and systems (Warrior-driven approaches to Weaving, if ever there were any). Each is useful, but incomplete in important ways.

We also noticed that Warrior and Weaver archetypes are both instrumental, lending themselves to easy validity. But to get to harmonization and integration — and to full regenerativity and thriving — we also need the other two archetypes. And though Sovereign and Enchanter archetypes have less direct connection to the action, they tend to bring transformative, rather than instrumental, impact.

Regenerativity in Action

Fortunately, our 3½-day gathering featured a beautiful example of all four elements being brought together in over 700 projects, with powerful and lasting impact. Mark Lakeman of The City Repair Project in Portland, Oregon, did his own version of the rapid-fire intellectual overview of the history of humanity. He explained how — with its origins in ancient Greece’s warring, colonizing campaigns — the now-ubiquitous urban grid structure is intended to isolate, homogenize and control. “Don’t leave without understanding that we live in a coercive landscape,” Lakeman implored. Within this structure, public space has become dead, unable to accommodate connection, conversation and co-creation.

In response, City Repair works to “bring back the village,” full of potential and vibrant, organic aliveness. Their focus is street intersections, where Weaving might naturally take place with a bit of thoughtful cultivation. The process he described involves a series of convivial, multigenerational neighborhood potlucks, in which people sense their shared story and identity. “Who are we? What do we care about right now? What kind of world do we want to live in together, starting right here in our neighborhood?” At some point, a sub-group takes on the task of sketching out how these sentiments might be expressed in a painting that spans the entire surface of a local intersection. The image is refined with feedback from the community, and then it is brought to life in a burst of collective creation and celebration. This Sovereign process is intentionally enlivened by the creative energy of the multi-family potluck, along with art, beauty and play. “When men are with their kids,” Lakeman explained, “they go back into villager mode and it’s easier to get to shared decisions.” Children are natural Enchanters.

Read more

I recently had my first encounter with an honest-to-goodness “blockchain bro” — a young white man enamored of blockchain and cryptocurrencies and eager to evangelize their potential to transform society. This was my chance to get a personalized tutorial in the much-hyped technologies.

When I fought my way through the jargon and paraphrased back to my new acquaintance what I had heard from him — translating it into the core patterns of thriving living systems — he got very excited. In fact, he asked if I would share some of my writings with him to help shape his upcoming keynote presentation. I’ve shared my take with others since then, with similar positive reactions. Read more

Recently, I had the privilege of participating in the first Annual General Meeting of Regeneration Canada, an organization dedicated to growing the regenerative agriculture movement. It was a joy to be with such warm, passionate people and to learn about this practical and profound way of relating to the life of the land. Not surprisingly, the more I understand this movement, the more I see deep parallels with my own work inviting people to steward their organizations and communities as living ecosystems. Read more

It may feel that we are being divided and conquered — men against women, black against white, rich against poor, Muslim against Christian, and on and on. And that is certainly the intention of some in positions of power.

But as we witness each other’s woundedness with compassion, as we affirm the inherent worth in each other’s precious aliveness, and as we commit to moving forward together in more caring ways, we are doing the final, necessary work of the outgoing era, with its worldview of separation and divergence. With this work, we are not dividing — we are integrating, creating a new, emergent, species-level wholeness that is capable of honoring and holding our distinctions. This is the work that is needed if we are to step into an Age of Thrivability, in which we participate explicitly and intentionally in life’s creative adventure, with reverence and responsibility. Read more

What a rich and beautiful evening! Last night, Stephane Leblanc and Jeanne Rahilly of the International Centre for Conscious Leadership gathered a wonderful mix of generous, thoughtful people to explore the role of fear in leadership, no matter what the context. The group itself might have been gift enough. But we were also held and inspired by guest speaker Bhaskar Goswami, who runs a community-sourced wellness company called daana, as well as teaching yoga and mindfulness. I left the gathering with a head full of insights, a heart full of gratitude and a body filled with that rare, precious mix of deep peace and bubbling joy.

These are a few of the insights that stand out for me. Read more