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The Art and Science of Leadership Development

Can We Become Indigenous?

I coach leaders for a living. Almost all of them have spent more time in school than me. As a proud college dropout I took my education into my own hands decades ago. I took ownership of the information that enters my mind and the values that I assign to it. This has made me a bit of a weirdo; a necessity when people come to you for a new perspective. 

I struggle in classrooms. I zone out. I read the texts before the class gets to them. I prefer to think orthogonally. I take carefully selected tangents and then trace them back as a source of illumination. I go down rabbit holes. I find the source material the authors studied and use it to dissect the thinking that the teacher is presenting. I learned to bite my tongue in classrooms. I learned to sleep. 

Being out of sync with the status quo can be a super power. I do most of my learning alone, with a stack of books, via Google, and then with hundreds of clients who help me test ideas in the real world. Every coaching session leads me down new avenues of exploration. What I learn I bring back to my clients to test in the real world. What is WISDOM, but knowledge applied?

Last week I was on Zoom with 20+ coaches and two outstanding teachers getting certified in The Leadership Circle Profile (LCP). For the past decade I have looked down my nose at assessments.  Most seem more capable of illuminating the past and reifying existing patterns than pointing out developmental paths tailored to the individual. This is the best tool I have seen. It is data driven, deeply rooted in developmental psychology, capable of illuminating shadow, and points towards nuanced growth areas as well as problem ones. The worldwide data base is rigorous and well tested. Most of all, it is deeply contextual. The test does not provide facts, but potential inquiries to be explored with a leader and their team. 

Because I am me, I did not learn most of how I will apply the LCP while in class. I spent a full day with one of the creators, Bob Anderson, a couple of months ago. In anticipation of that, I bought his book. Once I read that, I bought a half dozen books from the primary thinkers who inspired his model. Many of the others I knew fairly well. I then heard a second hour long presentation by Bob. All of that was a deep dive prior to the class. The real fun comes from the orthogonal exploration and the practical application. Let’s start orthogonally. 

The week of the program I was reading Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta. It’s amazing. Tyson “is an academic, an arts critic, and a researcher who belongs to the Apalech clan in far north Queensland, Australia.” This book is not a window into Aboriginal culture. It is a window into western culture through an Indigenous lens. His logic is not static, but deeply embedded in living systems. It warps and weaves and seems to get lost only to draw disparate elements back together into more integral wholes. It asks great questions that undermine our assumptions. It refuses to dislocate data from story. He speaks about sustainability and groups and culture and health. The following passage gives a taste of indigenous knowledge. 

In the land of Yunkaporta “When the wattle tree flowers, the wild honey is ready to harvest as medicine—a native honey I know as may at, which can kill bacteria like streptococcus on contact. It boosts the immune system and gives you boundless energy. River fish are fat at that time as are the birds who dive for those fish and show us where to find them. The fruit bats are at peak fat in that season too, and the fat is good medicine for respiratory conditions that might be triggered by the wattle flowers. The leaves of the wattle can be burnt for ash to mix with the leaves of the native tobacco that grows nearby, releasing more of the alkaloids and saponins in the tobacco when chewed. Those compounds are more concentrated at that time than in any other season, making for a wonderful non addictive stimulant that enhances concentration and an alertness.”

This is, as David Whyte says, “The conversational nature of reality.” Meaning emerges through relationship. Functional effectiveness is equally relational. Ignore the facts and focus on the relationships, the embeddedness. In my house honey feels vaguely medicinal, but mostly like yet another source of sugar to be wary of. Even our attempts at integrated and holistic medicine tend to simply extract what is convenient from another culture and use it out of genetic, regional, seasonal and bacterial context.

This attempt to tame what is wild, to domesticate, or bring indoors that which we find in nature, has a parallel in the way that we educate our children, and therefore our leaders. The results of this show up in the LCP when it highlights the ways that leaders fail. 

Yunkaporta contemplates the Western invention of adolescence, “a method of slowing the transition from childhood to adulthood, so that it would take years rather than, for example, the months it takes in Indigenous rites of passage.” 

This lights a fire in me. I suffered immensely as a young man attempting to navigate my place in the world. I nearly killed myself multiple times before I dropped out of college while attempting to individuate and explore the limits of my power. One of my clients, a brilliant executive, has been consumed recently by his 13 year old sons rocky transition into adulthood. Our conversations explore the parallels between son and father; the demons he faced, those he turned away from, and the lack of rights of passage in our culture. We don’t just talk business, but culture, philosophy, spirituality, and the impacts of the way that we raise and educate our children. We help them to become productive, but what of the development of their souls? What happens to their creativity? Are they in sync with their environment? If so, why so much destruction of self and other? Who does it all serve?

Yunkaporta contemplates the Prussian creation of adolescence later adopted by Americans, “This delayed transition, intended to create a permanent state of childlike compliance in adults, was developed from farming techniques used to break horses and to domesticate animals. Bear in mind that the original domestication of animals involved the mutation of wild species into an infantilized form with a smaller brain and an inability to adapt or solve problems. To domesticate an animal in this way you must:

1. Separate the young from their parents in the daylight hours.

2. Confine them in an enclosed space with limited stimulation or access to natural habitat.

3. Use rewards and punishments to force them to comply with purposeless tasks.”

I have a flashback to sitting in a tiny deskchair, taking a multiple choice test, hoping to get a gold star. 

My kids are being educated outdoors this year; a silver covid lining. But will we send them back to public school next year with a heavy heart? And how will all of this show up coaching leaders?

One big challenge in leadership development, one which the LCP highlights brilliantly, is moving people from socialized mind, also referred to as reactive mind, where more than 80% of the population tends to lead, to self-authoring mind or creative mind, where less than 15% of the population operates. This is a developmental leap akin to the one we are attempting to make around puberty, in adolescence. As a child we attempt to individuate from, and see beyond, our family so we can find our place in society. As adults we attempt to step outside of the rules that society has handed us, to individuate from culture, so we can co-create the adaptations needed to keep society and culture in sync with the planet. 

The difference between the two stages is, statistically (across 200,000+ leaders scores), the difference between effective leadership and ineffective leadership (R = .93). Reactive solutions attempt to reinforce the system they are being handed. They might be expert problem solvers, but they need problems to give them purpose and their best efforts to solve them result in a return to stasis. In a VUCA environment, in a time of exponential growth, they flounder when it comes to helping their teams innovate. As a coach I notice that this type of leader also tends to be less fulfilled personally. They succeed, but are often addicted to work and lack hobbies, creativity, spirituality, and time spent with loved ones. They struggle to love themselves and therefore to relax. They get sick more often as well. 

Creative leaders, on the other hand, nurture the evolution and transformation of the system, or business, they are operating. They do this by nurturing their own development as well. They don’t motivate people to solve problems. They inspire people to create based on a vision of what is possible. It is not coincidence to me that creative leaders also tend to lead more balanced lives. Visionary thinking does not emerge from busy work, but from the confluence of many disparate elements. Meditation, movement, cooking, sex, art, and music are cross training for the best business minds. 

My favorite book from the deep dive was Neurosis and Human Growth by Karen Horney; a contemporary of Freud’s. The bottom half of the LCP, the Reactive half, is deeply rooted in her theories of personality development. Getting stuck in reactive mind is intimately entwined with wounds developed in childhood. We all build a persona, a way of impressing and pleasing others that masks our spontaneity and stifles our creativity. Our personality forms based on coping strategies developed to feel lovable in an environment that rejects our natural impulses. We reject what we want and cultivate a lot of should’s to win love, respect and feel safe.

I am the coach leaders come to when they have climbed the highest mountain only to realize that they prefer the beach, or that doing so came at too high of a cost. I will never forget a client telling me that the year his net worth reached 9 figures was the worst year of his life. He came to me to shut down one career and begin another. His new business is aligned with both the planet and his pain. Overcoming the drives that created his wounds allowed him to see a vision of what was possible and create an amazing business to capitalize upon it. You love his products because of his self proclaimed crazy, fanatical obsession with their quality. His net worth tripled. 

How much shame is created at home due to our parents fear that our behaviors will not be accepted by society? How much brilliance is diminished in schools that turn childhood exuberance into attention deficit disorders and the creative impulse into an optional art class for the few who are unlikely to find success in the “real” world. Show me the child who learns best sitting in neat rows indoors and taking standardized tests. I haven’t met her yet.

How badly does our world need leaders who are focused on their inner work? Leaders committed to healing the wounds that knocked their natural curiosity and spontaneity off course? Leaders capable of becoming exquisitely embedded in and in tune with the world around them? This is one definition of indigenous, occurring naturally in a particular place. We deny our nature at great peril.

Coaching leaders who have found success, but struggle to find fulfillment, almost always involves helping them reclaim the parts of themselves that they have compartmentalized, judged, and shamed out of existence. It almost always looks like finding the place where their deepest want meets the worlds deepest need. Can we really be happy without being creative? Be healthy, without being integrated into our environment? Experience joy, without being silly, and unpredictable? Don’t leaders hire me because I refused to become domestic in the classroom? Don’t I need them because they did? Together we find balance.

Devin Martin

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