Helena Clayton | Designing for love
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Designing for love

06 May 2020, Posted by Helena Clayton in Work as Love in Action

What if we designed for love?

A word I’ve been using to describe how I’m feeling these days is suspension. I’m in a holding pattern. And I am mostly dealing with the day to day to day building blocks of exercising, making soup, working and cleaning our cupboards. I’m learning to let go of plans and expectations and also learning to accept and surrender to what’s out of my control. Very much wait-and-see.

And yet I’m not only doing that. At the same time that I’m standing still another part of me is looking ahead. I have one eye on the horizon. In part with curiosity simply to see what will emerge. But there’s also a part of me that is ready to start taking the first steps towards imagining something new. Not building at this stage. Not (re)construction. But imagining.

Cathedral Thinkers

In all of my cancelled work one piece remains. It’s for a client who has cancelled all leadership apart from this project because they see it as being so important it supercedes everything else. This global food brand is building an ambitious change programme to put planet before profit and create a sustainable leadership culture rooted in deep ecology. Ambitious, and vital. This CEO, with his clear vision, is something of a ‘cathedral thinker’ someone who begins construction not knowing what the end result will look like – and also knowing that they will never see the work completed in their lifetime. Someone whose ‘acorn idea’ benefits all of humanity.

Maybe you have a formal leadership mandate and run an organisation or look after a team, or you are well outside of organisations but identify as a leader in your community or your field … as a leader, you have a responsibility to look ahead and imagine what might be possible or different. In part, this is what leaderships is. People will look to you to be thinking about what comes next.

A new story?

On the one hand, say Ed Gillepsie and Dougald Hine, in a fascinating new podcast The Great Humbling, it’s way too early to start to try to tell a new story. It’s too soon to try and rebuild anything. But equally, they says, by the time it feels like the right time it will be already too late.

A regular theme at the moment is what opportunities are or could be present in this chaos and tumult. What might be possible now? What dos this give us the chance to do? In fact, what seeds might already exist …what poppies might be already seeded in the soil that’s been turned over and fed with bone and blood?

This period of life feels like an elimination diet where you strip your intake back to boiled rice before introducing other foods to see which ones your body will accept and which you have an allergy to. And maybe the analogy works, because it seems that the world we have constructed through our choices so far might not have been so good for us. What we designed for ourselves might not have been nourishing and fertile soil for our souls to flourish.

And so it’s a leadership role to not only respond to these ‘sudden lurches’ in a form of crisis management but also, intentionally and by design, to start to imagine what we want to reconstruct from the rubble. What will we choose to leave behind and pick up? How might we upcycle. And upcycle for what?

But how is this connected with love?

Saying No to …

First, this is an opportunity to say a strong and clear No to what no longer works for you and for the people or systems you lead.

You may well have heard me speak about anger being a form of love. My research showed that as well as love = compassion, love is also about holding firm boundaries and saying no. It includes protecting ourselves and others from harm, setting clear boundaries for ourselves and other. It means enacting a clear and strong No when that boundary is crossed. It can mean fighting on behalf of others. This is love not as unbounded rage and violence but as fierce and clear protection of self and others. Taking a stand, if you like.

Anger is also a way that we know that an injustice has been done, that something has been taken away from us or that someone has deprived us of something that matters. And so we may need to connect with our righteous anger – intentionally and with purpose – because it’s a powerful fuel for getting us to act.

And when we do that, we might discover that we no longer want an organisational world that’s built on fear and creates stress and anxiety. We no longer want to work in a culture of domination that’s characterised by punitive ranking and gross inequality. We might now think that a culture where we pretty much ignore our lowest paid workers is not what we want any longer.

• So, when you gradually come off this elimination diet, what are you unwilling to put back in your body?
• What policies and procedures and organisational ways of working can you already see are no longer acceptable – for you and for others?
• What ‘ways of being’ are no longer welcome in your team or organisation?

Saying Yes to …

But also, what might we decide we DO want?

Taking the same questions:
• When you come off this elimination diet, what will nourish you?
• How could your policies and procedures and organisational ways of working be redesigned so they are more human-centred, more loving?
• What ‘ways of being’ will you cultivate and welcome in your team or organisation?

Leadership as a field doesn’t have any core values that can in any way be agreed on. So instead we might look to the values of Organisational Development (OD) that have guided that field and discipline over the last 70 years.

Coming hard on the heels of the horrors of WW1 the field of OD was established on principles of fairness, democracy and inclusion. It set out a clear set of ethics that included holism and flourishing as central tenets. It asked how we could design and shape organisations that are for human flourishing as well as good business performance. And set out the belief that organisations existed to remake the world – and to remake it better than we find it. And slowly, slowly (painfully slowly) we have started to see those qualities inform how we run some of our organisations.

But times of chaos and crisis are when things speed up. And maybe, thankfully. Because radical times are when marginal ideas can be allowed space because ‘when things fall apart the hopelessly radical becomes common sense’.

Personally, I find that to be so. Some years ago when I first started talking about love, it didn’t land well. It was an uncomfortable conversation for many people. But I’ve noticed that changing over the last 2 years and significantly so in these last few months.

So let’s take the opportunity that this current rupture brings to ask: that cathedral I have always wanted to help build? What if I wanted to build it based on love? What if we decided that love should be guiding principles beneath the leadership cultures from here on in? What might be possible with more love at the heart of our work?

Doesn’t so sound weird, in these current times, does it, given the outpourings of love we have seen and maybe experienced over the last few weeks and months.

And this is what my Leading from Love research participants could see clearly. In the 2018 research, they said that with more love:
• I’d shine more brightly’ and ‘have personal joy and satisfaction’
• ‘be able to push myself more’ and ‘make braver decisions’
• ‘less competitiveness with each other’ and ‘more trust, more sharing, more giving’
• ‘Unusual responses to pervasive and complex challenges would emerge’

I have pages and pages of notes like this. And for this post, it’s this last theme that interests me. Respondents went on to say that with more love, we’d be more creative and innovative. That we’d make braver decisions and we’d create more sustainable change towards people and the environment and be able to move away from our current over-mechanistic thinking. After all, they said, the challenges we face as a human race require a connection to something deeper and real and in our hearts for new responses to emerge.

Vision and hope

These respondents were visionary. They could see through the ways we do things now to the ways we could possibly do things.
But we are all visionary. We all have an innate idealism and a part of us that’s like a small candle (or sometimes a raging furnace …) that hopes and dreams for things to be different and better. We all know ‘the more beautiful world that our hearts know is possible’.

Our capacity to dream and imagine has never really been given free rein. From school days, we are held between the lines encouraged to be creative as long as it looks a certain way. And in adult life, Bob Marshak explores how ‘aspirations’ is one of those things that has gone underground in organisations, implying there may be some shame attached to dreams and hopes. Society sees hope as naïve and innocent, accusing hope of allowing us to bypass the pain of the moment, of not recognising the reality of things as they really are.

It’s a radical act to try and imagine what we don’t know how to achieve. We risk shame and ridicule and scorn in these practical times of ‘mmm, but how would you bring that about?’

Build on what’s already here

It’s why Appreciative Inquiry, a frame from the field of OD, still feels like such a radical and countercultural approach to use when creating change in an organisation. The idea that we should look for what already works well and build on that without starting with what’s wrong … it’s something that many people really struggle with.

And we have, right now, an opportunity to take an appreciative approach in designing a world that we want. I happen to believe that it’ not only that what the world needs right now is more love (which I do believe) but more that what the world is showing us right now is that love is already here, right beneath the surface, if we are only able to let go of what’s been hiding it. We’ve seen it day after day in all the many examples of mutual aid, and the myriad ways people are demonstrating kindness and care, compassion and love.  All the deeply ‘human impulses in the shards of the broken structures‘.

And if, as many people would argue, we are hard-wired for love and connection then our love can’t be that far underground. Our collective love is reachable if we are willing to recognise that it’s already here.

No rush to start building

And as I said, I’m not suggesting we start building right now. Maybe it’s really too early for that. But I am suggesting that we start to imagine what we would like to build.

Although that’s not always easy.

This question of ‘what do we want’. It’s tougher question than you might think. When I ask this question in coaching, say, the answer is so often ‘I don’t know’. Or people do know but before it’s out of their mouths they tell me all the reasons why it can’t happen. We squash ourselves before we give ourselves a chance, fearful of expressing what we want or long for because the pain of not getting it feels too painful.

But if we are to build for love, we need to start to imagine:

• What do you long for? And in your working life – what do you long to create?
• What would be a vision for your own leadership – that’s bold and expansive and radical, even in small ways – that had love at its core?
• Now (and be honest) how does it feel to think that way? And how would it feel if you expressed that vision publicly?

Think big but start small

Here’s the thing. With what we know about emergence and chaos theory and the butterfly effect and how things have an intelligence of their own and that black swans exist … it probably makes no sense to start with a plan of a cathedral. By the time it’s built it’s highly likely that the world will no longer need cathedrals.

Instead, following the principles of Human System Dynamics, try taking ‘the first wise step’.

What might that be? I don’t imagine that a cathedral thinker starts with the first brick. Or even the architectural design. I imagine it starts with something way back and something much smaller. For me, I imagine it’s the moment that they say ‘I can see a cathedral in my mind’. Or the time they say to one other person ‘have you ever imagined a cathedral over there…?’

So, see if you can hold the belief that the small things matter – every small thing matters. Can you have confidence in the significance of all that we do? That every single thing you do makes a difference to someone, or something?

Start with what’s right in front of you. Could you make a start with your own team, with the people who you work with daily? You don’t have to boil the ocean, change the culture of your entire global organisation. You only have to start with the people who are immediately around you – your family, your immediate team, your community … even ‘only’ starting with yourself.

And so to close:

• Do you see yourself as a cathedral thinker? Could you be? If not, why not?
• What do you want to help create? What will you allow yourself to dream could happen?
• How might that look and feel if you had a design principle of love? In what direction might that cathedral emerge, if you made a conscious decision to build from love?
• What small things could you do now – what small acts of love – could to do now that would be acorns or seeds for what you want to happen in the future?

(I have often wondered if I have a book in me.  And I feel like telling you here that my small step is to have just started to read a book about how to write a book 😊)

As ever, you can find me on Twitter @HelenaClayton or on LinkedIn or sign up for my Newsletter if you’re not already.

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