This is the first post in a two part blog on "going mainstream". This one is an overview of some of thoughts and the next blog has some specific learnings that have turned up so far. Part two will be published July 2nd, Wednesday next week.
Back in the day
Back in the day, when I looked like this (that's me on the left with the magnificent side burns), Art of Hosting and Participatory Leadership was a fringe effort. In 1999 Toke, Monica and Jan had done their first Hosting training in the USA with Pioneers of Change and then I met them at Castle Borl in Slovenia in 2000, where this picture is taken. It was a massive period of awakening for me. I discovered a whole suite of theory and methodology that aligned with my innate understanding of how humans could organize together to achieve their potential. The World Cafe, Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, Future Search, Chaordic design and so much more poured into my life and invigorated me into all kinds of action, including the founding of Engage! InterAct in the Netherlands.
It felt radical, counter cultural, edgy and most of all, needed. In the last 15 years Art of Hosting has grown into a world wide community of practitioners and along with many other trail blazing folks has helped build a broad culture across many sectors of reaching solutions though conversation - figuring it out, rather than fighting it out.
Now days you can't swing a cat without someone talking about meaningful conversations, participatory democracy, employee engagement, collaborative leadership, communities of practice, relationships being essential to our capacity to achieve results etc. It's out there. People are making big bucks touring the speaking circuit talking about it. The Harvard Business Review writes about it, there's books galore! You get my point.
My direct experience is that my work is more and more invited into mainstream society - public consultation, organizational change management, community lead responses to economic downturn, government responses to the incredible stress of delivering public service in rapidly changing circumstance, to name a few …
The work is going mainstream. It is just a question of whether we are ready to go with it, whether I am ready to go with it.
Getting beyond right and wrong
This isn't just a trend that is inexorably taking me along, though. I want to be part of something that influences society, that has an impact on the mainstream way of working and living. I don't think we can do that as a fringe experiment in making participatory change happen. It is not enough for me to stand on the sidelines and pass judgement on society, political leaders and corporate giants. It is not enough for me to just take the exciting pieces of work that build the new. I want to roll up my sleeves and get into some of the toughest, darkest, most confusing places and apply participatory methodologies and world view there.
It is in those places that I find I learn the most about who I am and what I do. In my own personal journey it has been entering the parts of me that I am most afraid and ashamed of - the dark, long avoided parts of myself - that has helped me discover the crystal clear kernel of clarity at my centre. It is the same in my work. So many of the people, organisations, ways of working that I villified as a young man have now become my most interesting and powerful practice grounds. I am shedding all my ideas and concepts of right and wrong and working with the reality of people who are trying to figure out how to live a meaningful and productive life.
“Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make sense any more.” - Rumi
I want to engage the dominant system because it is inviting it. That means I have to change some things about myself though. If I want to work with CEOs, I have to find the CEO in me, to meet them where they are at. If I want to engage power, I have to find the power inside myself and trust I will not be corrupted by it. I have re-branded, bought some nice ties (I now love ties - see the pic!), taken some jobs with corporations I would not have taken 5 years ago, listened to advice about my business from corporate clients and friends … I am in training about how to lead change in the mainstream. This is my work now and I am loving it because I am learning so much.
I am letting go of the high expectations of my earlier ideology and meeting reality where it is at. It feels great.
The magic in the mainstream
So here's my rant …
I think it is time to get out of the fringes of community, organisations and society at large and bring the work of participatory leadership and art of hosting to the mainstream. We are not going to make change by using language that the majority of the world thinks is hokey. (Someone recently asked me why people talk about 'the work' like it is god!) All we end up doing is going round and round in re-enforcing circles of increasing irrelevance as the world moves on and co- opts something that so many of us have been a part of launching. If we want to steward and protect this work and its DNA we must find ways to follow it on its inevitable course into the heart of the very thing we are seeking to change. That means branding, sharpening language, having solid business models and making choices about what we stand for. It's not for everyone, I get that - but for me I no longer want to be embedded in something that is so diverse it is diluted and is articulated so vaguely is gains no traction in the systems it is seeking to transform.
So maybe it is now time to let go of the shore - the safe place of being the radicals leading change - and swim in the mainstream as leaders of transformation. It puts the 2001 Hopi message in a different light for me:
There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore.They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know that the river has its destination.
Let's do it!
I hope this has inspired, provoked or validated you in some way. Keep an eye out for part two coming next week with some specific learnings.
I would love to hear your thoughts and comments so we can continue to talk and evolve our work some more,
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