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Amy Barnes ConsultingJottings

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Amy Barnes ConsultingPast jottings

'God dwells whenever man lets him in.' (Buber)

February 2009

It has been a while since I last assimilated my thoughts into something coherent. I recently joined the Presencing Institute (PI) community and as part of my profile, I listed Gestalt and dialogue as having some connections with the PI work. I had some interesting contacts of which one was particularly influential- I was introduced to Martin Buber's work, The Way of Man, by Adam Yukelson, a member of the PI social network community. The book touched me in many ways and has provided enough inspiration for some of my thoughts to come together.

I found the phrase, 'God dwells whenever man lets him in' as particularly profound. My interpretation of this sentence is by letting God in, I am more able to bring heaven to where I am now and act with grace. I am not necessarily thinking of God as God, the biblical figure. I think of God as a moment of truth, a moment that has arrived by grace without will or force. In PI language, it is perhaps a moment in time where I am most present to the opportunity of profound learning and change. I also make a connection with the idea of 'cause and conditions' in Buddhism where all forces coalesce into a moment of unique and possibly heightened potentiality. Reflecting on the times when I have experienced this personally, I can point to the presence of pain, aware and connected with what is actually happening for me and to occupy whatever I am experiencing more fully, supported by another person, staying with my experience then experiencing something different and unexpected.

As I am writing this down, I wonder if spirituality or the chance to connect deeply with our potential has a place in the workplace. At PI, the quest for Otto, Senge and others is to explore how to bring about profound shifts in our way of working and in particular, how we go about looking at deep changes at root level to respond to our global crises. I am struggling to see how profoundness can be experienced in places of deadlines, targets and constant pressure to deliver results. Perhaps it is my own paradigm of workplaces that needs to be shifted- I am open to this possibility. I wonder if, when, who, what and how.


Reflections post Youth Leadership Retreat

August 2007


I was strongly reminded by the same person who reminded me a couple of months ago that I haven't been uploading any 'thoughts' on my website. Well, as per my last posting in April, I have had some thoughts- just not coherent enough for public consumption! On this occasion, I am inspired enough to put something down on paper.

I have just come back from co-facilitating a leadership retreat for youths in Toronto in collaboration with the Buddhist temple, Fo Guang Shan. I had the good fortune of sharing a platform with Billy Liu, a guy who works part time for the Canadian military as a medic and who funded himself to go to Sri Lanka days after the tsunami. Since the retreat was hosted by the temple, the event was also conducted in the presence of the Buddha and the Venerables. I couldn't help but feel very privileged to be in such inspirational company.

Prior to the event, I hadn't worked with Billy before. I didn't even know anything about him. However, I trusted the wisdom of those who approached us and trusted that all will be well on the day. Our partnership was one of the most amazing coming together of two people who couldn't be more different. Billy is all 'out there', physical, commanding, action-hero, tall and well-built. I am the opposite. Somehow, Ying and Yang clicked and I believe that the group benefited from our diversity. I hope that they gained something from seeing us embrace each other's differentness. Reflecting on our partnership, I believe that beneath the surface, we do have one thing in common, we give a damn.

One of the techniques introduced to me by John Harper and Sylvette Cormeraie about 7 years ago was the 'fish bowl'. After the first full day which involved a day of outdoor activities I felt that something was missing. Somehow, we needed to relate the activities with the theme of the retreat- 'Awakening the Inner Leader'. We had scheduled after dinner, a couple of slots for reflection and discussion however, during dinner, we still didn't know exactly what we would cover. It was then that the thought of using the 'fish bowl' emerged. I suggested we used it to see whether we could engage and dialogue on 'leadership'. I wanted to bring an aliveness to the group- an immediacy. At the same time, I felt it was important for us to offer an opportunity for disclosure and exploration.

I had no idea as to exactly what or how the session would pan out.

We had a couple of microphones. We had an inner circle of the planning team (leadership team) and a large outer circle of 'emerging leaders'. I asked a general question along the lines of 'what have your learnt from today?' The mic was passed round. About of the way round, someone said 'I have nothing to say.' 'I don't know what's going on- who is organising this camp?' I could feel a pulse of energy, a charge- the person touched on something that had some 'realness'. Someone else picked up on the point and also wanted to know who was the 'boss' of the camp. From that point onwards, the 'fish bowl' took on a different life. We had an amazing series of discussions around leadership, ownership, agendas, responsibilities. The participants had incredible insights as to what leadership meant. They covered about 15 years of management/ leadership literature. They cited examples of themselves, of bosses, of workplace experiences of school and college. At the end of the 'fish bowl', only a handful of people stayed on the outside and they were engaged in their own way.

This group of people reminded me of what's possible and how much we already know. So what happens when they join our workforce?

Post the event, I joined Billy at a small gathering hosted by Candy- the person who introduced us to the temple and without whom, the retreat would not have happened at all. Our conversation quickly turned to the retreat and in particular, Billy's assessment of her kids who were part of the leadership team. Later on, we were joined by another parent who is also a regular volunteer at the temple. She too was most keen to get our assessment of her daughter. In particular, what she needed to work on. It struck me how little these lovely parents really knew of the greatness that is their children.

Here's a thought. Despite the current believe in certain 'thought leaders' on the 'war on talent', the 'skills shortages' and lack of talent I would suggest that there is an abundance of talent. The issue is the lack of trust, belief and courage to allow this talent to come forward. We need to create supportive conditions for talent to growth and we need to get out of the way.

One of Billy's parting words to the group was 'my pension's in your hands'. You know what? If that is the case, we have nothing to worry about.

retreat-2 bubbles


May 2007

Someone said to me recently, 'you haven't had any thoughts since 2006.' The truth of the matter is, I've had a lot of thoughts and haven't been able to put something down until now. I had the good fortune of attending a leadership retreat last year at the Shambhala Institute for Authentic Leadership at Nova Scotia. A lot of dormant themes surfaced. The ones that resonnated with me were:

Between 1989 and 2004, the number of billionaires grew from 66 to 369; the number of people living in poverty grew by 10 million in the same period.

We chose to spent more money on pet foods to provide sanitation for everyone in the world.

Recently, the issue of happiness has been receiving some attention from the media. It is now on the politcal agenda is nothing short of a miracle. Even the Economist had 'happiness' on its front cover. During a seminar on 'the Business of Happiness' at the London Business Forum, the audience was reminded that more money does not necessarily bring greater happiness. In fact, beyond a certain amount- somewhere between $15,000 US and 30,000 depending on the study, we are not proportionately happier. To me, this reinforces some of the organisational studies made in the 50s and 60s, such as Herzberg's theory of motivation. Quite by coincidence, I have been asking delegates on some of the leadership programmes I was facilitating, what their motivators were. Majoity picked money- though not everyone. Many picked career development, security and making a difference.

So it seems that inspite of our growing prosperity, some of the prevailing themes have not changed very much at all in the last 50+ years. We still haven't cracked the poverty issue, we still haven't learnt to respect ourselves and our environment and we still haven't woken up to the fact that more is not necessarily better. What and who does it take for us to live wisely and artfully so that more of us are able to enjoy the abundance of life?


Leading in uncertain times

April 2006

I have been trying to develop a way of approaching leadership development that is in-keeping with our times for a number of years. In particular, to develop our capability of dealing with complexity, diversity and uncertainty that upholds the values of democracy. I cannot be precise about exactly when, why or how this itch developed but it that had to be scratched it was a question of when rather than if.

Quite by chance I stumbled across a series of articles sponsored by Ernst and Young published in during March 2006 (1). As I read the articles, I felt a mixture of feelings. On the one hand, I felt relieved that I was not the only person in the world to wonder about our ability to deal with uncertainty. I also felt that despite the well-reasoned the articles, I wasn't quite convinced that at a practical level they were particularly useful. In the comfort of our office chair, the definition of 'risk' and 'uncertainty' seems reasonable. Furthermore, it seems entirely logical that we use scenario planning and sophisticated modelling to try and understand the pattern or inherent structure in a chaotic system. The treatment of 'uncertainty' as something that is out there, something that can be observed, measured and understood is a fairly scientific way of objectively dealing with the unknown. I don't feel that this is the full story because this is not how I have experienced uncertainty on a personal level.

Whilst I too have a concern about oil prices, climate change and so on, I don't feel the full force of these global issues on me nor am I required to make decisions about these matters. Instead of uncertainties presented by macro challenges, I am confronted with the uncertainties of day to day living. If I ring client X, will they think I am too pushy? If I don't ring, will they forget who I am or think that I don't care? If I collaborate with Y, will they take advantage of my good will and steal my ideas? Will my new services be accepted, loved, hated or ignored by my clients? As a business owner, quite frankly, the uncertainty of business development has an immediacy and urgency that far outweighs bird flu or terrorism.

What implications does it have for leadership development?

From my experience of leaders in a range of organisations, functions and levels they too have moments of doubt and uncertainty when they go about their day to day business. Should I speak out or not? If I do, what will X think of me? We have been taken over, what is going to happen to me and to my team? Y hasn't been performing but I am not sure how Y will react if I tackled his/ her performance issue. The list is endless. In our day to day context, leading is about taking the courage to make a decision at a given moment in time so it is primarily a human activity. Since all decisions have an element of uncertainty, leading is not about knowing everything or pretending to know everything even if you don't. Leading is about having the courage to take action despite knowing that you don't have all the answers. In my mind, to be an effective leader by definition means that the person not only understands their own vulnerability, they are able to use it creatively as a source of energy. I have not come across many leadership development interventions that celebrate this aspect of leading. Yet, it is this aspect of leading that makes us authentic and inspirational.

Can we teach uncertainty? Yes and no. Yes in a sense that we can rationalise and intellectualise what uncertainty is/ is not, how it differs from risk and so on. We can also teach tools, techniques and models to calculate uncertainty thereby attempting to make what is unknown more known and so on. However, an overemphasis on irradicating uncertainty can deliver a kind of hubris whereby we are seduced by our own mastery. To an extent, traditional education and training methods are largely responsible. Learning existing theories, models and bodies of knowledge and applying them to similar situations helps learners understand how to apply the models rather than the nuances of each situation as they present themselves. Leaders are encourage to make decisions on an objective and removed basis rather than subjective and in-the-moment basis. However, if leaders become too detached they end up creating vision statements that are vacuous, make decisions which seem removed, unrealistic, even crazy. Leaders talk about leadership, values, culture, performance as if they are things outside of themselves instead of leading, performing and making as active participants. So in my view, there is a need to provide an opportunity for leaders to be more aware of how they respond to uncertainty and to be able to develop what Kelly (2) described in his article as 'essential capabilities to:

  • Stay relaxed in the face of overwhelming disorder, confusion and ambiguity
  • Seek out multiple and conflicting views, while being aware of one's biases and blind spots
  • Focus on the future, emergent as well as the planned
  • Embrace risk-taking
  • Learn rapidly from failure
  • Be open, flexible and even, on occasions, playful'

To help leaders develop capabilities that are fit for the future requires developers to lead by example. That means developers themselves need to deeply understand and embody all the things we have talked about so far. For some, this will be liberating. For some, this will be extremely threatening because this mode of development demands that both parties go on a journey together and both learn from experimentation and failure. i.e. Action Research (3).

If leading is in the moment then developmental conversations also happen in the moment as things happen which means that developers need to get mucky rather than the vanilla chalk and talk or just relying on off-line coaching. (Chalk and talk and off-line coaching have their place. They are not enough on their own.)

The itch has culminated in a new service offering and can be found in 'Growing future leaders' offered by ABC in conjunction with the World of Rhythm.

(1) Due to copyright rules at, access to the articles is best made from

(2) Article by Eammon Kelly featured in the Financial Times on 17th March 2006, page 4 and can be accessed via FT Intelligence.

(3) More information on Action Research sometimes called Action Learning, participatory action research and experiential learning


Why groups are important   [top]

Most organisations involve groups and teams working together to get things done. Groups and team are fascinating because people can behave so differently in the company of others than when they are alone. Not only do we influence the group we are at the same time influenced by others in the group.

In the book 'Tipping Point', there is a discussion on why groups are complex. In the discussion, the author used an example of a group of 5 people to illustrate the number of relationships that are present: In a group of 5 people, the first set of relationship each member needs to understand is the relationship they have with themselves. The second set of relationships the group presents is the relationship between every member of the group i.e. pairs. This provides 10 sets of relationships every member needs to understand in order to function effectively. In fact, we can take this further and would argue that in addition to pairs, we also have triads, foursomes as well as the group as a whole. If you add this up- and I have- it gives you a total of 20 interpersonal relationships and 5 intrapersonal relationships.

Now, reflecting on the number of individuals who work in an average team, how many relationships does a team leader need to be aware of? How equipped is an average team leader to facilitate and develop these relationships so that they are productive and effective?

  • Developing talented individuals is not enough

As part of a Talent Management strategy, organisations have developed frameworks for retaining and developing talent to increase their present and future capabilities. Within these frameworks, organisational coaching has become a key tool in developing leadership capabilities and learning. The emphasis on executive coaching, line management and peer coaching for improving performance has meant that individuals are receiving more focused attention on the differences that will make a difference. This is relevant and useful, but most individuals exist in the context of others, a narrow focus on the individual will lead organisations to miss the bigger picture.

  • The multiplier effect

We need to recognise that when individuals come together to work in groups, the collective whole is not just greater than but different from the sum of its parts. When individuals become members of a team or workgroup, there are additional dimensions at the interpersonal and group level that drive patterns of communication, problem-solving, decision-making and innovation. These often complex processes impact on each individual and the group as a whole, and are in turn impacted by the individual and the group in a continuous dynamic flow. This may help to explain why having a group of exceptional people together will not necessarily always deliver exceptional results.

  • Team effectiveness and leadership effectiveness

Leadership development is sometimes dealt with as an entity in its own right; but leaders exist in the context of followers, so leadership development outside its own environment means that some of the contextual wholeness is missed. More often than not, team development and leadership development go hand in hand. As the team develops different internal and external relationships,the demands placed on the team's leader will also shift. So team effectiveness and leadership effectiveness are two sides of the same coin.


The process of making a behavioural change   [top]

17th August 2005

While waiting for a meeting, I started to think about how to represent what happens when we have a pattern of behaviour that is no longer useful. In another words, when we are stuck. It also led me to think about what other pathways might be available. I started doodling and this was what I drew:

behaviour loops

The drawing is not so different from Schein's expanded Observation Reaction Judgement Intervention (ORJI) Cycle. Based on this representation of possible response processes when faced with a situation, someone has at least a couple of alternatives other than the tried and tested path. To adopt alternative routes involves being simultaneously aware that the situation is likely to cause an automatic and potentially ineffective reaction while searching for alternatives. Loop 2 suggests a pressured situation or one that causes anxiety to such an extent that the person defaults to loop 1. The diagram is another way of expressing Schon's 'reflection-in-action'. The feasibility of 'reflection-in-action' depends on a number of factors- awareness, perception based on what's actually happening as opposed to our projections, our readiness to experiment, our readiness to learn from mistakes and being totally in-tune with how our body is interacting with the environment and itself. Applying some 'reflection-on-action' on my own interactions, it is not always possible particularly when under pressure or when emotions are running high, to be able to realise in time that alternatives were available. Further, I wonder how useful 'reflection-on-action' is when what we want is 'reflection-in-action'. After all, the insights and learning we experience off-line will somehow need to be brought to bear on live issues as they arise. Perhaps this is where a facilitator or a coach could help by encouraging feedback, helping the 'reflection-on-action' process and acting as a prompt as things happen to help 'reflection-in-action'. What do you think?


Tribute to Les Simpson   [top]

11th August 2005

The recent passing away of Les Simpson, mentor and friend, had a profound effect on me. I met Les when I was working in the Midlands some years ago. I was working on a leadership development programme and wanted to set up an in-house mentoring scheme. I went to the web and found Les. When I met him, I was impressed by his unassuming manner and his depth of knowledge in the field of mentoring, coaching and HR. He was clearly an experienced practitioner and consultant and he was comfortable with sharing openly with me his successes and failures. I remember a slightly worried HR Director speaking to me after a mentoring workshop to say that she didn't feel he 'did himself any favours by talking about his mistakes in front of the CEO as part of his introduction.' For me, that was what differentiated Les from other consultants I had met. When I was thinking of setting up on my own, Les gave me some advice- 'give, give and give some more. If you get something back from someone, it's a bonus.' I have carried this mantra with me from that day onwards. So now, even though Les is no longer here, his gift lives on.

When I learnt that Les had passed away, I was left with a void I didn't expect I would have. I wandered onto his website and found his bloggs. I thought the piece below was particularly poignant.

How was he to know that by June of the same year he would be gone? In our corporate and personal lives, how often do we put things off until it's too late?

Thursday, January 27, 2005
On the shortness of life
"You are living as if destined to live for ever: your own fraility never occurs to you; you don't notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply - though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last. You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.. You hear many people saying 'When I am fifty I shall retire into leisure; when I am sixty I shall give up public duties' And what guarantees do you have of a longer life? Who will allow your course to proceed as you arrange it? Aren't you ashamed to keep for yourself just the remnants of your life, and to devote to wisdom only that time which can be spent on any business? How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth or sixtieth years, aiming to begin life at a point at which few have arrived" Seneca 5BC - 65AD
Posted by Les Simpson at 6.21 PM.
(Copied from


Rebuilding Aceh   [top]

27th July 2005

I was watching a BBC2 programme last night called 'This World' and it was about Lampuuk in Aceh after the tsunami. Despite the massive aid donated by organisations and individuals around the world, the community on the ground had not received the kind of aid they needed. It was a poignant moment when the Mujahadin leader said that they didn't have enough kids to enjoy all the sweets which they had received. They had been given scourers which they couldn't use because they were living in tents. They needed heavy lifting equipment to help remove the debris and to help rebuild houses and they needed materials to make concrete, neither of which they got. So, they had to use bare hands to continue clearing the debris and dead bodies. Against all odds, houses were being rebuilt: a plank of wood at a time. Meanwhile, the NGOs were 'collecting data' while the devastated community had endured an earthquake and the fierce West Winds.

To survive, the community had pulled together and everyone was looking out for everyone else. One of the emergent leaders of the community said 'before, I was drinking and hanging out with my friends. Now, I feel that I am a responsible part of this community. I hope my parents, if they were alive, would be proud of me. I dedicate my life to them.'

Reflecting on this programme and relating it to organisational life, I can't help but wonder, what does it take for people in organisations to pull together? What does it take for the leader in us to emerge and feel that we have a purpose? How often does it happen that people who are supposed to help do not connect with those who need help?

People are fantastically adaptable creatures. Our creativity and ability to innovate even in the most adverse conditions have been the basis of our survival. So what happens in organisations to cause large groups of people to apparently lose their survival instinct?


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