Coherence – The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership

This book, published at the end of 2013, was written by Dr Alan Watkins, CEO of international management consultancy Complete Coherence Limited, and previously a medical doctor for over ten years.

I’d like to begin this post with an excerpt from the book’s conclusion:

“Most business leaders are under enormous pressure and are therefore fully immersed in their industry and rarely have time to reach out beyond it or read books on subjects that are not directly and obviously relevant to their industry or their results. There is however a vast treasure trove of science and research-based knowledge that could radically alter the performance of their organizations, if only it were known and applied. The critical problem is that most of this knowledge is not “commercial knowledge”, neatly packaged and applied to organizations via business or leadership books, an MBA course or a management journal. It is knowledge of the human system, biology, brain function, adult development, behaviour or human relationships, and it’s usually delivered in a range of dry, dull academic or scientific papers contained in obscure journals that are almost incomprehensible to anyone who is not also an academic, scientist or medical professional. This book is therefore the presentation of some of the key secrets that can, if properly applied, consistently elevate performance and results, leading to nothing short of a complete transformation of the lives of leaders, their organizations and the wider world. Coherence and Enlightened Leadership is an invitation to re-imagine a new future. A future that is not just measured by materialistic rewards but one that redefines the very purpose of business itself so as to support humankind and human evolution. We need a new way of keeping score in business, a new bottom line that accounts for the return on financial capital and also the return on natural, social and human capital. Only then can we really know the true value of a business.”

Watkins begins by explaining the key linkages in an integrated performance model, delving below the surface of behaviour and results to the thinking, feeling, emotion (e-motion or energy in motion), and physiology driving those surface factors – one critical example of which is heart rate variability (HRV).

“The real secret to performance is not relaxation; it is not even motivation. It is the ability to get over to the left-hand side of the performance grid and stay there. (The left-hand side of the grid represents a positive state where our emotions are underpinned by a range of “anabolic hormones”, particularly DHEA – the “performance” or “vitality” hormone). Living on the left-hand side requires us to develop a new way of being, a state of “coherence”. Coherence is, in essence, the biological underpinning of what elite performers call “the flow state” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002): a state of maximum efficiency and super effectiveness, where body and mind are one. In flow truly remarkable things are possible. Like the stonemasons of old, coherence is the “keystone” that locks all the pieces of Enlightened Leadership together to create an Enlightened Leader. It allows us to be at our brilliant best every single day and this book is dedicated to coherence and how to achieve it.”

The book outlines the evolution of enlightened leadership, through the three stages of emergence, differentiation and integration, highlighting its importance if we are to thrive in a volatile, uncertain, complex/chaotic and ambiguous (“VUCA”) world. Watkins and his team have adapted Ken Wilber’s AQAL (all quadrants all levels) integral framework to a business setting to produce and road test with around two thousand leaders globally the “Enlightened Leadership model”, taking in personal performance (I), people leadership (WE), commercial performance (IT – near-term organizational view), and market leadership (IT – longer-term, bigger picture organizational and market view).

The author makes the distinction between horizontal learning (acquiring knowledge, skills and experience), and vertical development which is more about growing our wisdom and the maturity of our perspective, and expanding our capacity to hold multiple viewpoints and better address complex challenges and opportunities.

I like the way that Watkins takes us through multiple levels of development across eight key lines of development, five internal and three external – namely, physiology, emotions, cognitive, maturity, values, behaviour, networks and impact. He also nicely weaves in ten levels of consciousness, eight levels of spiral dynamics, seven stages of team development, and the incorporation of holacratic processes as a comprehensive and dynamic practice for structuring, governing and running an organization. Highly recommended.

The Three Levels of Leadership

I came across James Scouller’s book “The Three Levels of LeadershipHow to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Knowhow and Skill” via an Amazon review of a different leadership book. I’m very glad I did. Here’s why…

James is superbly (and unusually) qualified to write this book – he has been a CEO for many years in his corporate career; he was a client of executive coaching during that time; he gained advanced coaching qualifications and accreditation, and started his own executive coaching business in 2004; and he underwent in-depth applied psychology training at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London.

The book presents a holistic and integrated approach to leadership, is laid out in a comprehensive yet uncluttered manner with “The Key Points” listed at the end of each chapter, and provides an extensive notes section at the end of the book to ensure there is a good flow to the main body. Also there is a supporting website,, with excellent free resources to complement the book.

The three levels are: Personal, Private (1:1 context) and Public Leadership. James sets out Four Dimensions – Motivating Purpose; Task Progress & Results; Upholding Group Unity; Attention to Individuals. The book outlines 14 key private leadership behaviours and 34 for the public leadership domain. It also talks about the difference between Presence and Charisma, as well as underlining the difference between an End Goal and a Performance Goal (I really liked the “ASPECT” Performance Goal-Setting model on page 99).

Crucially, James devotes most time to the personal domain, where he covers The Three Elements of Personal Leadership:

  • Technical – knowing your technical weaknesses and continually updating your knowledge and skills
  • Attitude toward others – believing other people to be as important as you – or learning to believe it
  • Self-mastery – committing to self-awareness, self-integration, growth and flexible command of your psyche

The self-mastery element comprises “A Leader’s Map of the Psyche” which presents complex subject matter in a highly accessible manner, including exercises to aid self-reflection, discovery, and action. This map includes Four Levels of Mind (Higher, Lower, Emotional, Physical), The Self (Self-awareness, Will, Imagination), False Self (essentially, a container for one’s limiting beliefs), Conscious Mind, Collective Unconscious, and Fountainhead (the source of your life force).

I certainly agree with the author that undertaking the (lifelong) commitment to self-mastery is at the core of how a leader (and indeed, anyone for that matter) can truly become the best they can be, and by extension best serve those they lead. Buy this book and it will be a trusted companion on that deeply enriching voyage of discovery, and to making your highest contribution to self and others.

Self-Leadership and How You Measure Your Life

To me, there has never been a more important time than right now for us to authentically take charge of our lives if we are to truly realise the phenomenal potential that exists in each and all of us. This is a lifelong process. Two books that I believe provide an excellent grounding are:

“Self-Leadership: How to Become a More Successful, Efficient, and Effective Leader from the Inside Out” by Andrew Bryant and Ana Kazan, Ph.D. (a link to the book is at the end of this post), and:

“How Will You Measure Your Life? – Finding Fulfilment Using Lessons from Some of the World’s Greatest Businesses” by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth & Karen Dillon (book link at the end).

A definition of self-leadership that the authors Bryant and Kazan have often used is:

“Self-leadership is having a developed sense of who you are, what you can do, and where you are going coupled with the ability to influence your communication, emotions, and behaviour on the way to getting there.”  

I believe that by developing our self-leadership skills and habits we will not only bring our best selves to the world, we’ll also be far more effective in working and collaborating with others, as well as cultivating better personal and social relationships and living a full, enriching and satisfying life where you truly feel whole.

The Self-Leadership book is set out in twelve logical and easy-to-read chapters with a brief summary at the end of each. Although it wouldn’t be possible to do full justice to either of these books in one blog post, I’d like to present some excerpts that I hope you’ll find useful, and would encourage you to explore further, seeing as when we do good work on ourselves we’ll do good work out in the world, and the more of us that do this the better world we’ll all experience…

Bryant and Kazan begin with a chess analogy – likening people who practice self-leadership with the only piece on the chessboard that can move in any direction: the highly flexible and adaptable queen. They continue by listing some of the personal and organizational benefits of self-leadership:

Personal Benefits   of Self-Leadership Organizational   Benefits of Self-Leadership
Self-awareness Engaged and empowered workforce
Self-confidence Improved goal setting and results
Finding meaning and purpose Faster and better decision making
Decreased stress More creativity and innovation
Increased happiness Reduced conflicts
Better relationships Collaborative team efforts

For the sake of space, I’ll quote just one more excerpt – from the end of the Self-Leadership book:

Your Toolbox

“As you start your own self-leadership journey, keep in mind some of the major points about this liberating practice, so that your route can be easier:

  1. Observe yourself. It’s your life, not someone else’s. Focus first on what you need to do to improve yourself, and work from this perspective forward. Do whatever it takes to get to know this wonderful person that you are, with all the perfections and imperfections that make you human, and work with this canvas to accept it, improve it, complement it, and grant it a good ride this life.
  2. Consider and reconsider the beliefs that are running you. It could be that you are holding onto beliefs about yourself and the world that are no longer true. Make sure that you will recheck for validity all those automatic thoughts that guide your actions and behaviours, and commit to change them if you realize that they are not applicable anymore to the person you are now or want to be.
  3. Practice imagination. Place yourself where you want to be, rehearse desirable behaviours, practice self-talk, and encourage yourself as you would with any best friend. Practice in yourself the courage and initiative you always try to instil in your friends. Be bold about your own destiny.
  4. Correct and reward yourself. As you would with a child or a good friend, celebrate reaching your benchmarks, correct your route when you feel you strayed, and be the master of your life. The power is with you, not with anyone else.
  5. Surround yourself with your likes. If you want to be an eagle, don’t fly around with crows. If you want to improve your life, make sure that you surround yourself with all the elements that will conduct you to your goal. If you want to study and learn new skills, you will need discipline, so hanging around with late-nighters won’t help. Everything that happens to you from this point on is your responsibility, your merit, and your fault. You cannot blame anyone else. It’s all up to you now.
  6. Be prepared to make this decision – of being responsible for your life – every day. Every day will bring a different challenge, a different request from life, and you can always choose to either let go of your own control or do the best you can to face it and handle it with the responsibility it needs. The authors guarantee you that the effort is all worthwhile!”

“How Will You Measure Your Life?” is the second book I’d like to mention in this post because I believe it shares a strong affinity with the practice of Self-Leadership. Book and blog excerpts follow:

In 2010 Harvard Professor and bestselling author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, Clayton M. Christensen, delivered a powerful speech to the Harvard Business School’s graduating class. Drawing upon his business research (Christensen also had business consulting and entrepreneurial careers before moving in to academia), he offered a series of guidelines for finding meaning and happiness in life. He used examples from his own experiences to explain how high achievers can all too often fall into traps that lead to unhappiness.

In his 2012 book, co-authored with James Allworth & Karen Dillon, “Christensen puts forth a series of questions: How can I be sure that I’ll find satisfaction in my career? How can I be sure that my personal relationships become enduring sources of happiness? How can I avoid compromising my integrity – and stay out of jail?”

Christensen is far more eloquent that I, so let me quote directly from his HBR blog:

“As the students discuss the answers to these questions, I open my own life to them as a case study of sorts, to illustrate how they can use the theories from our course to guide their life decisions.

One of the theories that gives great insight on the first question—how to be sure we find happiness in our careers—is from Frederick Herzberg, who asserts that the powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money; it’s the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements. I tell the students about a vision of sorts I had while I was running the company I founded before becoming an academic. In my mind’s eye I saw one of my managers leave for work one morning with a relatively strong level of self-esteem. Then I pictured her driving home to her family 10 hours later, feeling unappreciated, frustrated, underutilized, and demeaned. I imagined how profoundly her lowered self-esteem affected the way she interacted with her children. The vision in my mind then fast-forwarded to another day, when she drove home with greater self-esteem—feeling that she had learned a lot, been recognized for achieving valuable things, and played a significant role in the success of some important initiatives. I then imagined how positively that affected her as a spouse and a parent. My conclusion: Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team. More and more MBA students come to school thinking that a career in business means buying, selling, and investing in companies. That’s unfortunate. Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people.

Doing deals doesn’t yield the deep rewards that come from building up people.

I want students to leave my classroom knowing that.

Create a Strategy for Your Life

A theory that is helpful in answering the second question—How can I ensure that my relationship with my family proves to be an enduring source of happiness?—concerns how strategy is defined and implemented. Its primary insight is that a company’s strategy is determined by the types of initiatives that management invests in. If a company’s resource allocation process is not managed masterfully, what emerges from it can be very different from what management intended. Because companies’ decision-making systems are designed to steer investments to initiatives that offer the most tangible and immediate returns, companies shortchange investments in initiatives that are crucial to their long-term strategies.

Over the years I’ve watched the fates of my HBS classmates from 1979 unfold; I’ve seen more and more of them come to reunions unhappy, divorced, and alienated from their children. I can guarantee you that not a single one of them graduated with the deliberate strategy of getting divorced and raising children who would become estranged from them. And yet a shocking number of them implemented that strategy. The reason? They didn’t keep the purpose of their lives front and center as they decided how to spend their time, talents, and energy.

It’s quite startling that a significant fraction of the 900 students that HBS draws each year from the world’s best have given little thought to the purpose of their lives. I tell the students that HBS might be one of their last chances to reflect deeply on that question. If they think that they’ll have more time and energy to reflect later, they’re nuts, because life only gets more demanding: You take on a mortgage; you’re working 70 hours a week; you have a spouse and children.

For me, having a clear purpose in my life has been essential. But it was something I had to think long and hard about before I understood it. When I was a Rhodes scholar, I was in a very demanding academic program, trying to cram an extra year’s worth of work into my time at Oxford. I decided to spend an hour every night reading, thinking, and praying about why God put me on this earth. That was a very challenging commitment to keep, because every hour I spent doing that, I wasn’t studying applied econometrics. I was conflicted about whether I could really afford to take that time away from my studies, but I stuck with it—and ultimately figured out the purpose of my life.

Had I instead spent that hour each day learning the latest techniques for mastering the problems of autocorrelation in regression analysis, I would have badly misspent my life. I apply the tools of econometrics a few times a year, but I apply my knowledge of the purpose of my life every day. It’s the single most useful thing I’ve ever learned. I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life purpose, they’ll look back on it as the most important thing they discovered at HBS. If they don’t figure it out, they will just sail off without a rudder and get buffeted in the very rough seas of life. Clarity about their purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, and the five forces.

My purpose grew out of my religious faith, but faith isn’t the only thing that gives people direction. For example, one of my former students decided that his purpose was to bring honesty and economic prosperity to his country and to raise children who were as capably committed to this cause, and to each other, as he was. His purpose is focused on family and others—as mine is.

The choice and successful pursuit of a profession is but one tool for achieving your purpose. But without a purpose, life can become hollow.

Allocate Your Resources

Your decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy.

I have a bunch of “businesses” that compete for these resources: I’m trying to have a rewarding relationship with my wife, raise great kids, contribute to my community, succeed in my career, contribute to my church, and so on. And I have exactly the same problem that a corporation does. I have a limited amount of time and energy and talent. How much do I devote to each of these pursuits?

Allocation choices can make your life turn out to be very different from what you intended. Sometimes that’s good: Opportunities that you never planned for emerge. But if you misinvest your resources, the outcome can be bad. As I think about my former classmates who inadvertently invested for lives of hollow unhappiness, I can’t help believing that their troubles relate right back to a short-term perspective.

When people who have a high need for achievement—and that includes all Harvard Business School graduates—have an extra half hour of time or an extra ounce of energy, they’ll unconsciously allocate it to activities that yield the most tangible accomplishments. And our careers provide the most concrete evidence that we’re moving forward. You ship a product, finish a design, complete a presentation, close a sale, teach a class, publish a paper, get paid, get promoted. In contrast, investing time and energy in your relationship with your spouse and children typically doesn’t offer that same immediate sense of achievement. Kids misbehave every day. It’s really not until 20 years down the road that you can put your hands on your hips and say, “I raised a good son or a good daughter.” You can neglect your relationship with your spouse, and on a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t seem as if things are deteriorating. People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to underinvest in their families and overinvest in their careers—even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.

If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification. If you look at personal lives through that lens, you’ll see the same stunning and sobering pattern: people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most.

Create a Culture

There’s an important model in our class called the Tools of Cooperation, which basically says that being a visionary manager isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s one thing to see into the foggy future with acuity and chart the course corrections that the company must make. But it’s quite another to persuade employees who might not see the changes ahead to line up and work cooperatively to take the company in that new direction. Knowing what tools to wield to elicit the needed cooperation is a critical managerial skill.

The theory arrays these tools along two dimensions—the extent to which members of the organization agree on what they want from their participation in the enterprise, and the extent to which they agree on what actions will produce the desired results. When there is little agreement on both axes, you have to use “power tools”—coercion, threats, punishment, and so on—to secure cooperation. Many companies start in this quadrant, which is why the founding executive team must play such an assertive role in defining what must be done and how. If employees’ ways of working together to address those tasks succeed over and over, consensus begins to form. MIT’s Edgar Schein has described this process as the mechanism by which a culture is built. Ultimately, people don’t even think about whether their way of doing things yields success. They embrace priorities and follow procedures by instinct and assumption rather than by explicit decision—which means that they’ve created a culture. Culture, in compelling but unspoken ways, dictates the proven, acceptable methods by which members of the group address recurrent problems. And culture defines the priority given to different types of problems. It can be a powerful management tool.

In using this model to address the question, How can I be sure that my family becomes an enduring source of happiness?, my students quickly see that the simplest tools that parents can wield to elicit cooperation from children are power tools. But there comes a point during the teen years when power tools no longer work. At that point parents start wishing that they had begun working with their children at a very young age to build a culture at home in which children instinctively behave respectfully toward one another, obey their parents, and choose the right thing to do. Families have cultures, just as companies do. Those cultures can be built consciously or evolve inadvertently.

If you want your kids to have strong self-esteem and confidence that they can solve hard problems, those qualities won’t magically materialize in high school. You have to design them into your family’s culture—and you have to think about this very early on. Like employees, children build self-esteem by doing things that are hard and learning what works.

Avoid the “Marginal Costs” Mistake

We’re taught in finance and economics that in evaluating alternative investments, we should ignore sunk and fixed costs, and instead base decisions on the marginal costs and marginal revenues that each alternative entails. We learn in our course that this doctrine biases companies to leverage what they have put in place to succeed in the past, instead of guiding them to create the capabilities they’ll need in the future. If we knew the future would be exactly the same as the past, that approach would be fine. But if the future’s different—and it almost always is—then it’s the wrong thing to do.

This theory addresses the third question I discuss with my students—how to live a life of integrity (stay out of jail).
Unconsciously, we often employ the marginal cost doctrine in our personal lives when we choose between right and wrong. A voice in our head says, “Look, I know that as a general rule, most people shouldn’t do this. But in this particular extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s OK.” The marginal cost of doing something wrong “just this once” always seems alluringly low. It suckers you in, and you don’t ever look at where that path ultimately is headed and at the full costs that the choice entails. Justification for infidelity and dishonesty in all their manifestations lies in the marginal cost economics of “just this once.”

I’d like to share a story about how I came to understand the potential damage of “just this once” in my own life. I played on the Oxford University varsity basketball team. We worked our tails off and finished the season undefeated. The guys on the team were the best friends I’ve ever had in my life. We got to the British equivalent of the NCAA tournament—and made it to the final four. It turned out the championship game was scheduled to be played on a Sunday. I had made a personal commitment to God at age 16 that I would never play ball on Sunday. So I went to the coach and explained my problem. He was incredulous. My teammates were, too, because I was the starting center. Every one of the guys on the team came to me and said, “You’ve got to play. Can’t you break the rule just this one time?”

I’m a deeply religious man, so I went away and prayed about what I should do. I got a very clear feeling that I shouldn’t break my commitment—so I didn’t play in the championship game.

In many ways that was a small decision—involving one of several thousand Sundays in my life. In theory, surely I could have crossed over the line just that one time and then not done it again. But looking back on it, resisting the temptation whose logic was “In this extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s OK” has proven to be one of the most important decisions of my life. Why? My life has been one unending stream of extenuating circumstances. Had I crossed the line that one time, I would have done it over and over in the years that followed.

The lesson I learned from this is that it’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal cost analysis, as some of my former classmates have done, you’ll regret where you end up. You’ve got to define for yourself what you stand for and draw the line in a safe place.

Remember the Importance of Humility

I got this insight when I was asked to teach a class on humility at Harvard College. I asked all the students to describe the most humble person they knew. One characteristic of these humble people stood out: They had a high level of self-esteem. They knew who they were, and they felt good about who they were. We also decided that humility was defined not by self-deprecating behavior or attitudes but by the esteem with which you regard others. Good behavior flows naturally from that kind of humility. For example, you would never steal from someone, because you respect that person too much. You’d never lie to someone, either.

It’s crucial to take a sense of humility into the world. By the time you make it to a top graduate school, almost all your learning has come from people who are smarter and more experienced than you: parents, teachers, bosses. But once you’ve finished at Harvard Business School or any other top academic institution, the vast majority of people you’ll interact with on a day-to-day basis may not be smarter than you. And if your attitude is that only smarter people have something to teach you, your learning opportunities will be very limited. But if you have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody, your learning opportunities will be unlimited. Generally, you can be humble only if you feel really good about yourself—and you want to help those around you feel really good about themselves, too. When we see people acting in an abusive, arrogant, or demeaning manner toward others, their behavior almost always is a symptom of their lack of self-esteem. They need to put someone else down to feel good about themselves.

Choose the Right Yardstick

This past year I was diagnosed with cancer and faced the possibility that my life would end sooner than I’d planned. Thankfully, it now looks as if I’ll be spared. But the experience has given me important insight into my life.

I have a pretty clear idea of how my ideas have generated enormous revenue for companies that have used my research; I know I’ve had a substantial impact. But as I’ve confronted this disease, it’s been interesting to see how unimportant that impact is to me now. I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched.

I think that’s the way it will work for us all. Don’t worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; worry about the individuals you have helped become better people. This is my final recommendation: Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”

If you’d like to delve deeper and invest more time in yourself, the book links are below:

Meaningful work, experiencing flow, and living your best life

Wow! That’s a pretty big subject for one blog post, but I’d like to share a few thoughts that I hope you might find interesting and potentially useful too…

To me, engaging in ethical meaningful work, being able to regularly experience “flow”, and create value for others, are all crucial aspects of living your best life.

Hungarian-born US-based psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Flow” first appeared in the United States in 1990. In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” (source: Wikipedia)

Csikszentmihalyi writes “Everything we experience – joy or pain, interest or boredom – is represented in the mind as information. If we are able to control this information, we can decide what our lives will be like. The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy – or attention – is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. The pursuit of a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else. These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives. A person who has achieved control over psychic energy and has invested it in consciously chosen goals cannot help but grow into a more complex being. By stretching skills, by reaching toward higher challenges, such a person becomes an increasingly extraordinary individual.”

The diagram below gives an indication of the types of feelings that respondents typically reported during experience sampling studies designed to gauge the level of skill and challenge experienced during activities at various points of the day compared to one’s “mean level” (roughly, where the lines intersect).

For example, “Arousal” is the area where we are stimulated out of our comfort zone to increase our level of skill to move into flow to meet the higher level of challenge. When feeling in “Control” we tend to seek higher challenge in order to use more of our skills to stretch ourselves into the zone of experience represented as “Flow”.

 File:Challenge vs skill.svg
Diagram source: Wikipedia

During a TED talk filmed in February 2004, Csikszentmihalyi included a slide summarising seven conditions that appeared to be the most prevalent from feedback of over 8,000 interviews across a wide spectrum of activities in answer to the question “How does it feel to be in flow?”

  1. Completely involved in what we are doing – focused, concentrated.
  2. A sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality.
  3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing.
  4. Knowing that the activity is doable (though still might be difficult) – and that our skills are adequate to the task.
  5. A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego (forgetting oneself, feeling part of something larger than self).
  6. Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.
  7. Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.

Csikszentmihalyi  was one of three eminent psychologists who developed initial plans for a collaborative project that became known as The GoodWork™ Project. This is a large scale effort to identify individuals and institutions that exemplify good work – work that is excellent in quality, socially responsible, and meaningful to its practitioners – and to determine how best to increase the incidence of good work in our society.

I highly recommend exploring their website and giving some thought to whether the conditions under which you experience your life are as conducive to doing “Good Work” as you’d like them to be – I’m sure you’ll find others who would be happy to share their thoughts with you and perhaps collaboratively develop some plans of your own to create even more good work and win-win outcomes…

Social Systems Design – A Thought-Provoking Introduction…

Through an interest in systems thinking and what I believe to be its potential for creating more enduring win-win outcomes for all participants in any given “system” (eg. social, economic, political, legal, ecological etc), I came across this thought-provoking short introduction to “Social Systems Design” from the International Systems Institute:

The intentional and participative design of human systems is a theme that runs through most of ISI’s work. Although the roots of systems design stretch back through conversations about systems dynamics, systems thinking, viable systems design, soft systems methodology, and others, the principle interest of ISI is in social systems design. The foundational text for this approach is Dr. Bela H. Banathy’s “Designing Social Systems in a Changing World” (published in 1996).

Social systems design is briefly described below. This description is drawn from Dr. Banathy’s book as well as from the experience of design conversations both in the ISI context and in community contexts. Keep in mind that this is only a partial representation of the ideas and principles of design, which is an on-going and diverse domain of inquiry.

Design, in the context of social systems, can be formally defined as a disciplined, creative, decision-oriented inquiry by which means the stakeholders of a system (everyone who serves, is served by, and is affected by the system) create that system which exhibits “goodness of fit” with their aspirations and the needs of the environment in which it is embedded.

More informally, design as it is referred to in the ISI context means an act of continuous creation which is based on the reaching for ideals, in which the designers are the stakeholders, and where we begin by painting the largest possible picture on the largest possible canvas.

This design view maintains that the human activity systems of our society – be they our systems of education, our systems of governance, our systems of justice, or any other – can only be designed by the users of those systems. Experts can assist lay persons in reaching for their ideals, but they cannot do the designing for them. However, before stakeholders will engage in the critical examination and design or redesign of their social systems, they must have a sense of responsibility to and with each other, and to future generations. Thus there is an ethics of involvement that is a prerequisite for design.

Design has three key stages: transcend, envision, and transform. Transcending, which is the most difficult part of design, involves letting go of a current “image” or set of assumptions, values, and ideas. To envision is to imagine an ideal situation and to articulate a set of core values and core ideas that embody that ideal. It also involves developing creative solutions that represent a reaching for those core values and core ideas. To transform means to change a system from its current form to the idealizing form.

Design proceeds in a spiral that takes us from the general to the specific and in which we revisit our idealized image, our resources, and our solutions to ensure consistency and a truly creative and powerful process. However, even when a system has been designed or re-designed, the process is never “finished”. A system that has been created through idealized design becomes an idealizing system. Since ideals may shift, conditions may change, new ideas may be generated, new opportunities may arise, and new stakeholders may appear, design must become a way of life for a community that takes it on.

Design is seen as a critical capacity for today’s world because the advancement of our collective wisdom, or socio-cultural intelligence, has not kept pace with our technological intelligence. While there has been much liberation in our lives through technology and industrialization, a severe toll has been taken on our communities and families, on our sense of connection and meaning, and on the health of our planet. More than 100 million people died in wars in the 20th century, we continue to face major inequities in society, and the environment that we depend upon has been damaged. When we learn to design the social systems that make up the fabric of our lives together, we will help empower ourselves for the sake of our own lives and those of future generations.

“You see things and you say, Why? But I dream things that never were; and I say, Why Not?”

– George Bernard Shaw

There are many groups and organizations around the world making use of systems thinking in a variety of contexts. An interesting example in the UK is The Schumacher Institute who, as part of their work, run a part-time programme called “Sustainability Toolkit”. The programme addresses five questions:

a. Who am I?

b. What is systems thinking?

c. What tools are useful?   

d. How do I apply this knowledge in the context of a project?

e. How do I apply this knowledge to find meaningful work?

Thought-provoking indeed…

The Five Major Pieces to the Life Puzzle

Jim Rohn (1930-2009) was a significant figure in the personal development industry, and an early mentor to Tony Robbins amongst many others. His book “The Five Major Pieces to the Life Puzzle – A Guide to Personal Success” published in 1991 was, in my humble opinion, a masterpiece in elegant simplicity by providing a five-piece framework for getting to the core of what really matters for success in our lives.

The Five Major Pieces are: Philosophy (how you think), Attitude (how you feel), Activity (what you do), Results (regularly measure and adapt where necessary), and Lifestyle (the fuller, better life you can make from the first four pieces…).

I urge investing in yourself by reading this short book and acting upon its timeless wisdom. Here is an excerpt that I hope you’ll find meaningful and useful:

We Attract What We Have By The Person We Have Become

Our ultimate life objective should be to create as much as our talent and ability and desire will permit. To settle for doing less than we could do is to fail in this worthiest of undertakings.

Results are the best measurement of human progress. Not conversation. Not explanation. Not justification. Results! And if our results are less than our potential suggests that they should be, then we must strive to become more today than we were the day before. The greatest rewards are always reserved for those who bring great value to themselves and the world around them as a result of who and what they have become.

Life Is Not A Practice Session

The time for practice is over. Practice time was while we were growing up. Practice time was while we were in school.

We are now full participants in the game of life and our opponent is human mediocrity. In the absence of intense and intelligent human activity, the weeds of failure will move in to destroy the small amount of progress that our efforts have created. We cannot afford to wait for the “two-minute warning.” We cannot afford to wait until the last few minutes to discover that our game plan wasn’t working. And we cannot afford to wait until the last few ticks of the clock to become intense about life’s opportunities.

We must challenge ourselves right now with a new level of thinking, and drive ourselves toward a new level of achievement. We must impose upon ourselves a new discipline and develop a new attitude about life that motivates us and inspires others.

We cannot keep waiting for a foolproof opportunity to come by before we force ourselves to get serious. We must identify our current opportunity and embrace it. We must breathe our talent and our vigor and our new sense of urgency into its existence and discover all that we can do.

We cannot allow ourselves to dwell upon the risks in every opportunity. Instead, we must seize the opportunity that is inherent in every risk, knowing that we must sometimes run the risk of going too far in order to discover how far we really can go.

You can do it! You can change your life, and you can start right now simply by developing a new sense of urgency. Remember, the clock is ticking. You have the ability to achieve whatever you want if you will just begin the process now.

It is easy to achieve success and happiness. And it is easy not to achieve them.

The final result of your life will be determined by whether you made too many errors in judgment, repeated every day or whether you dedicated your life to a few simple disciplines, practiced every day:

  • The discipline of strengthening and broadening your philosophy.
  • The discipline of developing a better attitude.     
  • The discipline of engaging in more intense and consistent activity that will lead to the achievement of greater results.     
  • The discipline of studying your results in order to anticipate the future more objectively.
  • The discipline of living life more fully and investing all of your experiences in your better future.

These are the challenges to which you must apply your talent and your intensity with a sense of urgency and unshakeable resolve.

May the pieces to your life puzzle come together smoothly, and may you enjoy the picture of that finished masterpiece as a result of our unwavering commitment to mastering the basics. Let your efforts and results give cause to those who will one day gather to pass judgment on your existence to speak only the simple phrase…

Well done, good and faithful servant.

A link to the kindle version is here:

The Transformative Power of Synergy

The 3rd Alternative” is the last published book by Stephen R. Covey, author of the international best seller “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, before his death earlier this month aged 79.

I can see why marketing guru, author and entrepreneur Seth Godin called it “Stephen Covey’s most important book” because I believe that unless many more of us develop and live the habit of 3rd Alternative Thinking, we won’t co-create the very best solutions (with the greatest synergy) that we are truly capable of, in any context, whether our problems and opportunities are large or small, global or local. To me, this approach, which is in fact an ancient concept as the author acknowledges, elegantly combines systems thinking, creativity, innovation and high emotional intelligence for the enduring benefit of all.

Covey himself said “I’ve longed to write this book”. I highly recommend buying the book, and in the meantime I’ll attempt to provide some excerpts that I hope will be useful…

“Most conflicts are two-sided. The 1st Alternative is my way, the 2nd Alternative is your way. By synergizing, we can go on to a 3rd Alternative – our way, a higher and better way to resolve the conflict.”

See-Do-Get. Our paradigms govern our behaviour, which in turn governs the consequences of our actions. We GET results based on what we DO, and what we DO depends on how we SEE the world around us.”   

Synergy. The natural principle that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Rather than going my way or your way, we take the path of synergy to higher and more productive results. You and I together are far greater than we are alone.”

3rd Alternative Thinking. To arrive at a 3rd Alternative, I must first practice self-awareness and value the different viewpoint that you represent. Then I must seek to understand that viewpoint thoroughly. Only then can we move up to synergy.”

The four paradigms of 3rd Alternative Thinking:

I See Myself. I see myself as a creative, self-aware human being who is more than the “side” I favor in a conflict. I might share certain beliefs or belong to certain groups, but these do not define me. I choose my own “story”.

I See You. I see a whole human being unlike any other, a person of innate worth, endowed with talents, passions, and strengths that are irreplaceable. You are more than your “side” in a conflict. You deserve dignity and my respect.”

I Seek You Out. Instead of seeing your different viewpoint as a threat, I avidly seek to learn from you. If a person of your character and intelligence differs from me, I need to listen to you. I listen empathically until I genuinely understand you.

I Synergize With You. Once we understand each other fully, we are in a position to go for synergy, to find a solution that is better than anything we’ve come up with individually. Synergy is rapid, creative, collaborative problem solving.”

The 4 Steps to Synergy

“This process helps you put the synergy principle to work. (1) Show willingness to find a 3rd Alternative. (ie answer yes to the 3rd Alternative Question “Are you willing to go for a solution that is better than any of us have come up with yet?”). (2) Define what success looks like to everyone. (3) Experiment with solutions until you (4) arrive at synergy. Listen empathically to others throughout the process.”

Covey and his co-author Breck England then go on to provide examples of 3rd Alternative Thinking in action in various contexts – at Work, at Home, at School, the Law, in Society, in the World, and “A 3rd Alternative Life”, before concluding with the following:

“Your success as a 3rd Alternative thinker will come from the inside out. I recommend twenty things that I’ve found to be very helpful in developing the inner strength and security to create 3rd Alternative solutions:

  1. Beware of pride. Let go of needing always to be “right”. Your grasp on reality is always partial anyway. Allow yourself to achieve the important breakthroughs in relationships and creative solutions that will never likely be realized if you stubbornly hold on to being “right”.
  2. Learn to say “I’m sorry”. Do it quickly once you realize you’ve fallen short or hurt someone. Be sincere and don’t hold back. And don’t go just half way. Apologize fully, take responsibility, and express your desire to understand.
  3. Be quick to forgive perceived slights. Remember, you choose whether or not to be offended. If you feel offended, let it go.
  4. Make and keep very small promises to yourself and others. Take baby steps. As you create a pattern of doing so, make and keep bigger promises. Your own integrity will become your greatest source of security and strength.
  5. Spend time in nature. Go on long walks. Create space in your life every day for reflection on the synergies of the world around you.
  6. Read widely – it’s one of the best ways to make mental connections and get insights that can lead to 3rd Alternatives.
  7. Exercise often, each day if possible; and eat healthy food, with balance and moderation. The body is the instrument of the mind and spirit.
  8. Get enough sleep, at least 7 to 8 hours daily. Science tells us that the brain grows new connections during sleep, which is why we often awake with sparkling new ideas. And you’ll find yourself so much more able to give the emotional, mental, and spiritual energy needed to create 3rd Alternatives.
  9. Study inspiring or sacred literature. Ponder, meditate, or pray. Insights will come.
  10. Make quiet time for yourself to think through creative 3rd Alternative solutions to your challenges.
  11. Express love and appreciation to those with whom you associate. Listen empathically to them. Devote time to learning about them, what is important to them, what is their story.
  12. You have two ears and one mouth: use them proportionally.
  13. Practice being generous with others – with your time, your heart, your forgiveness, and your affirmation. Be wise and generous in sharing your resources with those in need. Be generous with and forgive yourself. We all have weakness. We all have strength. Look to the future and move on. All these things will cultivate within you a spirit of abundance.
  14. Avoid comparing yourself to others. Just don’t. You are unique. You are of infinite worth and have great potential. Define your own exceptional mission in life. Just be true to it, be yourself, and serve others and the world simply and magnificently!
  15. Be grateful. Express it.
  16. Learn to become enthusiastically relentless about discovering how to create great wins for others – wins that increase their peace, their happiness, and their prosperity. It will become infectious, and you may often find others seeking the same for you. This is the key to producing remarkable synergies.
  17. When things aren’t going well, take a break, take a walk around the block, get a good night’s sleep, and come back at it with the freshness and perspective of a new day.
  18. If you truly can’t reach win-win, remember that “no deal” in some cases is the best alternative.
  19. When it comes to other people, their reactions, their weaknesses, and peculiarities, just smile a lot. And when it comes to your teenagers, remind yourself, “This, too, shall pass.”
  20. Never stop believing in the possibility of the 3rd Alternative.

By winning these Private Victories, you will find that your Public Victories will follow.

In closing, I express to you my love, my belief in you and in your potential, and my confidence that as you choose to walk the path of a 3rd Alternative life, you will bring about great good in the world. You’re so needed. God bless you.

–          Stephen R. Covey  

More information can be found at

If you would like to buy the book please feel free to click here:

Developing a Theory of Change

I came across the work of Keystone Accountability ( by reference from a paper called “Theory of change: the beginning of making a difference” from New Philanthropy Capital (

Keystone Accountability is a civil society organisation that seeks to maximise the developmental impact of social purpose organisations. They created an Impact Planning, Assessment and Learning (IPAL) method that includes:

Developing a theory of change – a guide to developing a theory of change as a framework for inclusive dialogue, learning and accountability for social impact. The guide is structured into three parts: Develop a vision of success; Mapping the preconditions of success; System mapping.

Learning with constituents – a guide to identifying, documenting and analyzing evidence of impact (planned or unplanned), and learning from this in dialogue with constituents. This guide is structured in four parts: Whose voices matter?; Gathering and documenting evidence of impact – journals of change; Gathering and documenting evidence of impact – formal dialogue processes; Gathering and documenting evidence of impact – Feedback surveys.

Keystone also created an accompanying Theory of Change Template, and worked with iScale ( to produce “Feedback surveys for transnational social change networks: A step-by-step guide“.

For me, Keystone Accountability and New Philanthropy Capital are excellent examples of a growing number of organisations, both large and small, doing extremely important work to facilitate measurably better outcomes using a systems-thinking approach that involves all key constituents (direct affect to/from) and other stakeholders (indirect affect to/from) to ensure all perspectives are considered, fresh thinking is stimulated, a laser-focus on effective activities, smart collaborative action, creating more synergy, shared learning, and achieving greater buy-in through deeper understanding of the motivations of all those involved. This type of approach is needed more than ever in our highly inter-dependent world if we are to sustainably address challenges (and ethically exploit opportunities) that extend across all sectors.

How to Change the World

The title of this blog post is taken from a short book published this year by Pan Macmillan as part of a series of books written by various authors on behalf of The School of Life (

I think the author, John-Paul Flintoff (, manages successfully to give the reader plenty to think about in a concise little book, by taking a pragmatic approach to structuring the content, which nicely captures the essence of such a big topic.

For me, it reinforced some key messages around the fact that many small actions can add up to having a big impact; understanding what truly motivates us to consistently take action; focusing on process to avoid feeling too overwhelmed by larger goals; really engaging with others on the journey, for greater synergy – especially those you are able to have more regular face-to-face contact with; and don’t forget the have some fun along the way even if the stakes are high for your particular goals.

Related to this topic, my next blog post will be about “developing a theory of change”…

Releasing Our Strengths

In 2010 CEDEFOP, the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (, produced a report called “The Skill Matching Challenge: Analysing Skill Mismatch & Policy Implications”.

The report aims to structure currently scattered evidence on skill mismatch, providing a broad overview of skill mismatch and the factors that contribute to it, analysing its economic and social costs, and argues why skill mismatch should be a concern for national and European policy-makers. It provides a “Comprehensive Schemata for Skill Mismatch Questions in Surveys” as a basis for moving forward to ensure consistent collection and joined-up analysis of data to better inform decision and policy-making.

On 24 May 2012, Ciett, the International Confederation of Private Employment Agencies (, announced its ambition to build better functioning labour markets around the world. The commitment (“The Way To Work: a job for every person, a person for every job”), revealed at Ciett’s annual World Employment Conference in London, will be driven forward through a series of pledges on behalf of the industry. At the global level, over the next 5 years, Ciett members have committed to:

  • Support 280 million people in their job life
  • Help 75 million young people enter the labour market
  • Up-skill 65 million people, giving them more work choices
  • Create 18 million more jobs
  • Serve 13 million companies with the right talents to succeed

If the work of CEDEFOP, Ciett, their members and partners were part of an overarching global programme aimed at ensuring not just “a job for every person, a person for every job” (a huge and worthy challenge in itself) but that every person became engaged in activities that were aligned with their values and interests (ideally their passions) that fully released their strengths…imagine what a difference that would make to the ways in which we co-operate and collaborate towards a better world…