Learning in the Garden

It was snowing as I went into the forest garden to continue tidying it up. Fern and Ollie, children from the area, were there with Fern’s mum Bekah and two other adults, Elizabeth and Chloe. They were all crouched down around the small pond touching the ice to see how thick it was. “We’re looking for signs of winter,” Elizbeth told me. So I joined in, pushing the thin sludgy layer of snow across the ice with my fingers.

Yes! A magic moment, having these young ones in the garden, exploring the world around them. It was just great. And it continued, they were walking around the garden exploring the paths and the dried up forms of plants. All of a sudden the new micro greywater system sprang into life. Water was spurting through the holes in the grey pipe and into a gravel filled mini-pond or cell.

I called the children over. “Look, come and see this!” And they came with their full curiosity to where the water system is. Together we watched as water spurted out of the holes and into the gravel beds.

“Where’s it coming from?” Ollie asked. I showed them how the water was coming from a neighbour’s washing machine in a nearby building and described how it traveled in a pipe underground and then flowed through the three gravel treatment cells. It was so great to share a moment when the system was in action with them, they are so delighted by learning new things.

As the system is recently installed it’s easy to see the infrastructure and how all the bits are connected. At some point in the future, it will be hidden by the plants in the system when they’ve grown to their full size. The microbes on the roots of the plants will naturally do their thing which helps to clean the greywater to a point where it can be used to water the fruit trees and bushes in the garden.

When I’d finished briefly showing them where the water flowed, one of the adults asked the children, “And what’s it for?” And they responded, “To clean the water.” At four years old, they know more many adults would know. Setting up a greywater filtration system should become part of every school curriculum, as foundational as reading and writing.

Already I can see the value in the garden and the water system as outdoor learning places. The children had two unusual experiences of water, one frozen; hard and cold and the other moving; spurting, trickling and “a bit smelly”.

Conscious Learning to Ease Leadership

To create lives and leadership that will truly contribute to our thriving planetary future we are all going to have to embrace change. Change in the way we think and act to meet our needs, as well as our pleasures. The truth is that we live in a context of constant change. It seems to be a human tendency however not to like change, especially when we can’t see clearly how it will bring immediate benefits.

Lots of research has been done on why we resist change. Today I’m going to talk about a personal experience that points to some of why we resist change.

I’m going through a change that makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable. I’m having to learn to drive again. The short story is that having moved from the US to Scotland I have to resit the theory and practical driving tests to get a licence to drive here.

The practical aspects of why I’m experiencing discomfort are because, although I drove in the US, it was in automatic cars, on the other side of the road. And living in New York City, I drove infrequently, preferring to use my bicycle or public transport.

According to the four Conscious Skill or Competence stages, evolved by a number of people and organizations in the learning and training world, I’m at the level of being consciously unskilled or consciously incompetent. Consciously incompetent. Ouch!

To be aware of how not-good I am at doing something, is excruciatingly unpleasant. What makes it even worse is that it used to be something I was already skilled at.

The first stage of learning is unconsciously unskilled or incompetent. This is where I’m blithely going through life not knowing I need the skill or that my life would be even better if I knew how to do it. In the case of my driving experience I know that driving is useful as and when I need it.

Consciously unskilled or incompetent is the second stage. This is the stage I’m at now. I get in the car and have to think about everything in detail. Mainly because I need to unlearn habits I’ve picked up over years of driving. It’s commonly asserted that most people who’ve been driving for years would fail the test if they took it again due to developing sloppy practices.

Anyway here am I going through the painful process of cleaning up my driving act with the help of my instructor, who patiently reminds me which mirror to look in first, or that I forgot to look over my shoulder at the right time in the moving off sequence.

Consciously skilled or competent is the third stage. When I get here I imagine I will experience some relief. I won’t have to think about every single detail and will be able to confidently move through the manoeuvres and sequences in the order that is designed to make me a driver who communicates well with my fellow road users.

Of course the stage I’m looking forward to experiencing is the fourth stage. This is where I become unconsciously skilled or competent. At this stage I could easily chat with a passenger while driving.

People who’ve worked with this model of learning stages have found that there’s a fifth stage. It seems that our competence can go a few ways once we get here. We can either be in a place of being able to see the whole of the learning process we went through, and with that be able to help others who are just starting out. Or we can slip into a state of complacency.

My story here is about re-learning to drive a car. I share this story, because I have a sense that each of us will have to go through these learning stages with a range of things we already do or don’t yet know we need to do. If we want to make a contribution to our thriving future, the way we are accustomed to doing things will have to change.

The challenge we face, is ourselves.

Unless there’s an external force that requires us to make changes, most of us are not going to willingly choose to put ourselves in a situation where we feel anxiety, stress and incompetent. I mean, would you?

I wonder if this awkward feeling we get when growing our edges, and the anguish the consciously incompetent stage can bring up, is why most of us settle for a life that is a chasm apart from our dreams. Getting there is just too uncomfortable.

Could this also be part of the reason why we aren’t responding to the emergency situation we are currently living in? To actually start to unpack our lives, and put them back together in a way that will truly contribute to a thriving future on this planet, is a choice that has too many moments of conscious incompetence in it, and along with them the stress and anxiety of not knowing how to do something, or be good enough at it.

This, however is where we need to go, now. To the place of collective, conscious incompetence. We need to go to the place of being conscious of our lack of skill or competence.

If you’re an early adopter and have already started your journey of unlearning and learning skills, or if you get that this is what you need to start doing, I’d like to offer six actions you can implement that will provide you with the support and context that will make embracing your incompetence or lack of skill a more enjoyable experience.

  1. Begin by seeing everything you do in life as an iterative experiment or exploration. We don’t have to get it right the first time, we can try it out and see where we need to make changes for the next time.

  1. Ask your co-workers, family and friends to join with you in creating relationships where it’s okay to experiment and make mistakes. Make sure you all agree to the range of mistake-making everyone involved can tolerate, based on the aims you seek to accomplish together.

  1. Look at areas in your life where you are operating from unconscious competence and see how you can design interventions into your system to keep you from drifting to a state of complacency.

  1. Embrace your learning with passion. The energy that comes from being fully engaged and passionate will carry you a long way through the difficult parts of learning the new skill.

  1. Consciously choose to limit the number of growing edges you go on to two or three at any time. There have been times in my life where I’ve been on numerous growing edges simultaneously, and it’s just been too much. If the situation you are in requires that you go on numerous growing edges, who’s in your support web?

  1. If the emotions you experience as a result of going through your learning process become too much, find a support person who can give you good attention, so you can express your emotions in a safe place. Emotions are only bad when they stay stuck and fester inside us.

Most of us have to go through the conscious incompetence stage. It’s not like with driving, where we can shift from third gear to first, by-passing second. We have to go through each stage. Apparently there are a few people, who can go from discovering a new skill to immediately being able to do it without thinking. I personally haven’t met one yet.

As always the conversation’s richer when you make your contributions. What areas of change in your leadership life are you avoiding, because you don’t want to go through the pain of being conscious of your incompetence or lack of skill? What support systems have you developed that make you continue learning new skills?

Feedback is Natural, Design it in

Enjoy a day of observing nature and you will see that it is full of feedback loops. If a system is whole, it naturally has feedback loops.

Some of these feedback loops happen immediately and others happen over hundreds or even thousands of years.

A fairly immediate feedback loop that occurs in nature in a temperate climate is when the outside temperature cools considerably and the deciduous trees respond by dropping their leaves.

A feedback loop that takes a little longer to become apparent is the daily mid-afternoon sweet snack that starts to show up around your midriff. Or inversely, the morning run that over time brings about a number of physical benefits including stamina and strength.

A butterfly pollinates an apple flower and with the input of nutrients from the soil, rain and heat and light from the sun the flower transforms itself into an apple. When you’re munching on that delicious juicy apple, you are eating the feedback that the butterfly’s pollinating worked.

The melting of the Arctic ice is a human caused feedback loop that has developed over decades. This melting, along with other forms of feedback, has alerted us to the fact that the overall temperature on Earth has increased. This makes it much harder for humans and all other living species to exist on Earth in the way we’ve been used to.

We tend to shy away from feedback, yet it is a powerful way to grow our leadership and make sure we are truly coming from a place of service to our community, rather than our own agendas.

Yes, feedback can be hard to hear at times. However, as leaders we put ourselves in a place of receiving feedback whether we want it or not. Why not design it in? We are part of nature, it’s natural to include feedback as part of what we do and who we are. And we can practice being open and staying curious, no matter what comes at us.

There are many ways you can introduce feedback into your leadership learning to make sure you’re serving your community. I offer six suggestions:

  1. Decide what leadership capacity you want to grow and become more confident in. Take action in those areas, and generate a few feedback questions you can ask people on their experience of you developing that capacity. The questions can be as simple as “What did I do well? What could I do differently next time?”

  2. After completing a presentation, use five minutes at the very end of the presentation and ask for three people in the audience to give you feedback, right there in front of everyone else. I attended an event where the presenter did this. I thought he was courageous. He received three highly useful pieces of feedback that he could immediately implement to improve his presentation and make sure he was reaching people with his message.

  3. In a collaborative project design feedback into your system. For example, I recently co-lead an afternoon event with a new co-lead. We did a great job, and twenty minutes of debrief a few days later gave me insights on what worked for her and what I could do differently next time. I can then choose to absorb this feedback to make the way I collaborate even better.

  4. Design your feedback by asking a few simple questions. I’m currently part of a team that’s engaged in introducing a new form of governance and decision-making into an organization. We asked the people who participated in consultations that introduced them to these governance tools to give us written feedback to four simple questions. For some of our respondees it was easy. For others the questions elicited long responses. Add a word count so people know what you’re looking for. Written feedback creates work. How much extra work do you want to create for yourself and others?

  5. If you feel moved to give someone feedback who hasn’t asked for it, check in with them first to see if it would be useful. Recently I was asked if I wanted feedback on something and I was able to say “not right now”. I chose to do that, because at the stage I was at in the project the feedback wouldn’t have served me. I know I can and will go back to this person at some point in the future, when I’m ready for their contribution.

  6. Don’t take it personally. Ask for the feedback and listen to what the person is telling you. Feedback is just someone else’s opinion, and that opinion could be showing you something that’s in your leadership blind spot. The feedback may not be about your leadership, it may be about the thing you’re passionate about. Still, don’t take it personally,

We are nature. Feedback is a natural part of our system that helps us grow our leadership, especially when we realize we don’t need to take it personally. It’s just information that we can use to correct our course and make richer connections.

Do you shy away from feedback? Have you designed it into your ‘system’? How have you benefitted by being open to receive feedback?

Create a feedback loop. Leave a comment below and join the conversation.

Five Effective Leadership Practices

Relationships are central to leadership. If we want our leadership to contribute to our thriving future, sooner or later we will find ourselves collaborating with other people.

Local community-based leadership involves among other things, partnering, working with volunteers and responding to emerging events.

It’s easy for groups to get stuck overdoing meetings and not getting to action. Other groups dwindle to a few members because of unresolved conflict, and others operate at the hands of leaders who think that everyone’s there to do their bidding.

Over the long term however, these situations point to the group’s potential demise. It’s not sustainable for any group to be stuck in meetings, or to dwindle in numbers because members withdraw due to conflict, or because there isn’t space for people to contribute their ideas or perspectives.

While these scenarios are common in community-based projects, they exist in the workplace too. Perhaps you recognize them.

There are many approaches, methods and systems we can put in place that will assist us in leading a successful and fully engaged group. Here are five interlinked actions you can take now that work together to make your leadership more effective.

1. If you are leading a formalized community organization you will probably be working with a vision, mission and aim. Even if you aren’t, a VMA as I like to call it, gives you and everyone you’re working with a compass point around which all decisions are made. If you don’t have one, make this a priority for your next meeting.

2. At every meeting make sure your agreed vision, mission and aims are visible for everyone. We’re all doing so much in life, it can be easy to forget the specifics of a group’s purpose and drift off course.

3. When proposals are made at meetings, whether that proposal is adopted or not, they need to be based on the aims of the group. Does the proposal move the group closer towards realizing its aims?

4. Adopt a practice of listening to feedback from the people you are working with. When someone makes an objection to a proposal, it may be because they can see something that you or the proposal maker is not aware of, it’s sitting in your blind spot. Part of the new story we’re co-creating is to see an objection as a gift.

5. Include a term limit on any proposal. This will make it easier for people to agree to it, because they know the proposal will be reviewed within a particular time.

Have you put these practices into place in your leadership or are you adrift and getting stuck? Leave a comment below. The richest part of this conversation is when you join in.

Sustainable or Regenerative?

Just as we’re getting to grips with the need to be sustainable and what it means in relation to the lifestyle choices we make to ‘save the planet’, here I am introducing another way of being, one that is regenerative.

I’m not alone in this shift. There is a growing body of people becoming aware that being regenerative in how we live and set up our systems for meeting our needs is the direction we need to move in.

The distinction between these two ways of being and why we need to move from being sustainable to being regenerative is a complex topic.

In this article I’ll give you the gist of the difference, and through other articles I will further articulate what being regenerative is about.

I’m going to start with a sensory exploration, a knowing you feel in your body, followed by an example of how nature clearly demonstrates being regenerative.

We’ll have some mind food by looking at the dictionary definitions of the words sustain and regenerate. We’ll also look at the etymology, the root of the words. I love looking at the roots of words as they help me to get a fuller sense of the origin of their meaning.

Then we’ll take a look at the history of the use of the word sustainable in the context of our ability to continue living on Earth.

I will follow this with a proposal of why I believe we need to rapidly move our aim from being sustainable to being regenerative in the way we humans live on Earth.

So let’s first begin by exploring the difference through our body’s wisdom.

Let your awareness drop down into your body, you can do this by connecting with your breath and just noticing it. Do this for a few breaths.

Now, for a moment sense into the essence of ‘being sustainable’, notice the sensations in your body. Closing your eyes will help. Stop reading and try it now. That moment need only be about thirty seconds. After that open your eyes and read on.

Now sense into ‘being regenerative’ and notice what you sense. Close your eyes as you do this for about thirty seconds.

This is what I got.

When I sense into the essence of sustainable I have a feeling in my body of being rooted, grounded and somewhat firm in my stance. When I sense into regenerative there is a feeling of a flowing, energetic movement that moves out in spirals around me.

Of the two, while being sustainable feels like I could go on forever, enduring, being regenerative feels more alive and vibrant. I feel more excited with a sense of possibility by the quality of being regenerative.

Nature is naturally regenerative.

You can see this in many ways. I’ll give you one powerful example.

I have let some of the kale in my garden flower and turn into seed pods. These pods naturally dry on the plant. Then I harvested the seeds. A gentle shake of one small seed pod over my hand produced lots of tiny black seeds. Each of these seeds is capable of producing another kale plant with at least a hundred seed pods and thousands of seeds. Of course the plant produces many more seeds than it needs to ensure its ability to regenerate, as not all the seeds will fall on ground suitable for growing. This abundant supply of seed ensures many more kale plants for the next season. There is enough, and then some.

Now to our minds and the dictionary.

To sustain means to strengthen or support physically or mentally, cause to continue or be prolonged for an extended period or without interruption.

And to the root, in the case of sustain its roots are found in the late thirteenth century from Old French sustenir ‘hold up, endure’, from Latin sustinere ‘hold up, support, endure’ and from sub ‘up from below’ plus tenere ‘to hold’.

To regenerate means to bring into renewed existence, generate again, bring new and more vigorous life to (an area or institution).

The roots of regenerate come from Late Latin, re – ‘again’ plus generare ‘to produce’, to bring forth again, or be born again.

We can keep sustainability; it does have its place. We just need to get busy putting in place life practices that are regenerative, before we run out of what we’re trying to sustain.

Glimpsing into recent history we discover that in the 1960’s a growing number of people began to see that the material benefits enjoyed by humans were coming at the expense of the environment. The demands we were and are making on the natural environment meant that nature couldn’t keep up, it was unable to regenerate itself fast enough.

In response, the United States government passed the National Environmental Policy Act, which gave rise to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency.

A few years later at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, developed nations voiced concern about the detrimental impact increasing global development was having on the environment. The leaders of developing nations pointed out that they had a continuing need for development. Considering these two concerns the concept of ‘sustainable development’ emerged as a compromise between development needs and conservation demands.

In a way, this compromise is still with us. The term ‘sustainability’ is often used in terms of being economically sustainable.

Since that time the context in which we live has rapidly changed.  The global human population has grown exponentially. We have also consciously or unconsciously based our way of life on the assumption that we need to have economic and industrial growth to meet our basic needs and live well. We need to have jobs and earn money to then spend it to fulfill those basic and lifestyle needs.

This system however has put huge pressure on the natural ecosystems to the extent that we are running out of minerals, deforesting ancient forests at the rate of a football field sized area every three seconds and are having to find places to dump baseball stadium sized volumes of waste from our major cities, daily.

The collapse of the earth’s ecosystems is primarily due to the demands we make on them to fulfil our human needs and wants. These demands have resulted in an inability for the ecosystems to course correct by themselves. And our quick fix technology won’t help either.

If we want our life-support systems to continue functioning we need to make rapid personal and professional changes, so that while meeting our needs, we are simultaneously engaging in the regeneration of the ecosystems.

Our collective challenge is that we need a massive re-design. Right now, if I try to live in a way that meets my needs while allowing the ecosystems to regenerate, I fail every which way I turn. This is why we need to do this in community and in collaboration.

Take a moment to think about things you do on a day to day basis at home or at work. What is one activity you could redesign so you are making a regenerative contribution to our thriving planetary future? Share your answer in the comments below. If you can’t come up with one, share the obstacles that prevent you from making a change?

Leading by Being then Doing

It’s easy to get caught in a frenzy of over-activity, over-whelm and over-committing when we think and then try to do something about the challenges we currently face globally and in our communities.

A leadership that contributes to our thriving future will be a leadership that comes from a place of deep centered calm in response to these challenges. Yes, now is the time to lead. However, we need to practice leading from a place of inner connectedness, while having the awareness of what’s happening in the environment around us. That is being.

As we are leading, we are creating the future. We need to explore doing things differently. The way we do things now can’t come with us into the next now. Those ways have been part of what got us into this precarious and in some cases potentially catastrophic situation.

Recently I was invited to go for a jaunt in a small sailing boat. I’d like to share my experience by way of illustrating being, then doing.

The crew consisted of myself, a friend, who is a competent sailor, and his young son. It wasn’t the best of times in terms of external conditions. The water was calm and still, which also meant there was little or no wind. So what’s the problem with that really? It would just mean we wouldn’t get far or have that sensation of speed over the water. Added to this, the tide was moving out to sea. The water from a wide expansive bay is sucked out through a narrow estuary, creating a strong current.

So there I was in this sailing boat, a little lift of wind from the land pushed us out from the shore. Then I had a sensation that something wasn’t quite right. The boat was moving sideways quickly. I had an awareness that my senses were attempting to make sense of what I was experiencing.

Then I realized that we were being moved by the current, in a direction that we didn’t want to go and with little wind to move us.

From a place of being we got the oar out and began to paddle. We could gauge by looking at landmarks on the shore that we were at a complete standstill, neither going forward, nor backwards. Our efforts exactly met the force of the water’s pull, not for long though. It was almost imperceptible, yet I could see that  we were beginning to lose ground and slip away from the landmarks we had kept an eye on.

At some point we were being pushed sideways. I suggested to the gung-ho captain that we move towards the shore and get out of the current. Fortunately I have processed my various challenging and at times traumatic experiences with water and I was able to stay present to what was happening.

From a place of being, we turned the boat, worked with the sails and found a whisper of wind that gave us the power to take us out of the current. From there, closer to shore our rowing efforts had the impact we needed for a bit. Then at some point I was able to jump out of the boat and walk it to its mooring.

There are as many ways to unpack this experience as there are perspectives reading it.

The learning that stayed with me is relevant to a leadership that contributes to our thriving future. It’s the stages of the relationship with the current, its impact on us and how we responded. How we were able to stay in a state of being

We were pushed by the current, then we were in a holding pattern – meeting the current with the same strength, however it maintained its force as we tired. And finally by choosing a different tack, literally, we found a tiny bit of wind that moved us to a place where we could act more effectively.

To me that wind is the grace we need to be present to every moment in our leadership. You know that it comes in many guises. It’s the opening that seems to come from out of nowhere, that sense of expansion. It brings ease and relief. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel.

The thing about grace is that when you’re trying, pushing and forcing, it remains illusive. This is why developing a sense of comfort with being is an essential leadership skill.

We need all the assistance we can get and it will come through our being, and then doing from that place. If we do from a place of urgency, forcing or panic we will end up using more energy and will probably accomplish less.

What are your experiences of leading by being, then doing? Share your insights by leaving a comment below.

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Knowing Our Leader Strengths

I’ve been writing a post about how being aware of our leader skills and strengths and the strengths of others is an essential part of effective leadership. I was using a real life example, but found it hard to convey my point with clarity as there was too much story in it.

Instead I will use an experience I had in my leadership training to illustrate my point. This was a ten-month training during which twenty-three of us met four times. The training was full of group activities specifically designed to bring out the leaders in us and tap into our different strengths.

On the last day of the training we were given a whole group exercise, the grand finale. By this time we had all grown to know each other’s strengths and there was a good degree of trust.

We were standing in a field, in a large circle. At the centre laid on the ground were the props that we were to use for the activity. One of our group leaders told us the rules of the game and the outcome sought. We had to assemble the props and then move them a set distance from where they were. Before he was finished I had a sudden insight of how to put the props together in a way that would be quick and within the rules. I knew that I needed to get this information across before we blocked the flow of the group by going into figuring-it-out-mode. If we did we would be there for a good while, and it was a timed activity.

I listened carefully for the intonation in the leader’s words indicating that he was done and immediately, clearly and incisively I shared the insight I had intuited for the first steps of assembling the props. I was able to give information in such a way that no hesitations or voices of dissent were raised.

A good portion of the group set about doing what I had described without question. We succeeded in getting the props together quickly and were on the way towards completing the activity. At that point other people began to take leadership. At first I didn’t quite know what was happening, then I realised my bit was done and I stepped back. It was time for others with the appropriate skills and strengths to lead the next parts.

We finished the activity in record time, at least half an hour faster than any other group that had done the exercise before us. Our group trainers were amazed.

I share this example, because for me it was a clear and embodied experience of dynamic leadership. At any one moment one person had the skills, knowledge and strengths to move the organisation, group or team toward the desired outcome.

We need to know when to lead and when to step back and let others lead. We need to follow our intuitions and learn to deliver the information in a way that can be heard by the group. We can do this if we develop an awareness of our own strengths and the strengths of those we are working with.

Dynamic leadership will play a hugely important role in our emerging future as the context we are working and living in changes.

What leadership learning do you have about stepping back and making room for others? Leave a comment below.

If you like this post, sign up for my weekly newsletter, in which I share more insights and information for you to contribute to our thriving planetary future.

Intimacy with the Land

Drawing from your direct experience answer these questions. Resist the temptation to google the answers!

  • How many days until the moon is full?
  • What type of soil is there in your region?
  • What was the total rainfall in you area last July?
  • Name five native plants in your region.
  • From what direction do the windstorms come?
  • Where does your garbage go?
  • How long is the growing season where you live?
  • What day are the shadows the shortest?
  • Name five resident and five migratory birds in you area.
  • What species have become extinct in you area?
  • Point to the north from where you are sitting.
  • What spring flower is consistently the first to bloom where you live?
  • When was the last time there was a fire in the environment where you live?

[Read more…]


Right now, it’s our courage to pioneer our inner landscape that’s being called for.

Soil Fertility

Nurture your inner soil, and taste the fruits.