A company is a living being.
— Arie de Geus
Harvey* paused over his cup of coffee while we discussed some of the challenges happening within his company in the wake of a merger. ‘I’m going to take a risk here,’ he said. ‘It’s not the mechanics of this company that interest me. I could care less about the bottom line or all the strategies and equations; those will take care of themselves. What interests me is grace.’ What he meant was that meaning was more important to him than metrics. I smiled to myself knowing this is an organization and its leader on the brink of possible awakening.
What does an ‘awakened’ organization mean exactly? To define this, I must first refer to Arie de Geus’ quote at the top of this page (not to be confused with the sadly manipulative phrase, ‘companies are people’). De Geus, a Dutch business executive and former head of Shell Oil Company’s Strategic Planning Group, began looking at the longevity of companies. Surprised by their high mortality rate (a company’s average life span is around 40 – 50 years), he inquired into the reasons. He discerned that what lead to their demise was the idea that companies were things, instead of living entities, and treating them like things made them treat their people like things, and this lead to downfall for all concerned. What if, he questioned, companies were not machines built to serve economic interests, but were communities of human beings, and as such, were alive? And if we worked with them as living beings, would this not positively change how people were treated working inside them? And would this in turn positively change how companies wield influence over the world for the better?
We all know that an organism, such as a fish, is alive. As is the coral it lives amongst and the billions of tinier organisms that thrive around the school of fish amongst the coral. Would we not say, then, that the entire ecosystem is alive? Like this, a company is made of many people making a veritable ecosystem of creativity, possibility and learning. Even organizational lexicon points to a deeper meaning behind corporate life. The word ‘company’ comes from the word ‘companio’ who is someone you break bread with. The roots are the Latin words cum – ‘with’ and panis – ‘bread’. The words ‘incorporate’ and ‘corporation’ both come from the Latin root corpore – ‘body’. Hence the roots of these words imply living, thriving things — community, body and nourishment.
Continuing on this line of thought, individuals have great capacities for learning, growth, transformation and ultimately awakening. And when a person learns, grows, and even eventually awakens, his awakening serves a greater whole. He may become more joyful, centered, wise, compassionate or thoughtful. It would stand to reason that a company has the same potential — to grow, learn, transform and ultimately awaken. Safety, care, thriving, joy and serving the common good are all possibilities of such a company.
But awakening organizations need awakened leaders who first and foremost see their company as a living being, and as such participate in its transformation with skill, finesse and a good dose of courage. What are some of the qualities of awakened leadership? Working with horses for decades and spending time in their herds has revealed the necessity of unmistakable qualities of leadership that not only support the herd as a living system, but ensure its safety and its joy. These qualities are congruence, presence, clarity and justness.
Congruence — ‘Be who you are’ is the invitation here. Our culture teaches us to mask our inner reality with an outer façade making us chronically incongruent. But more importantly, it teaches us to separate from our true sense of things from moment to moment. Being congruent does not mean wearing your heart on your sleeve, or letting wild emotions explode onto others. What it means is cultivating an inner spaciousness and mercy that allows for all internal things to be as they are. If you are anxious, for example, instead of tightening up around the anxiety in an attempt to change it or ‘relax’ it, try just allowing it to be there, completely. Allow its presence within you just as you would any other weather pattern that moves across the sky. Some moments the ‘weather pattern’ is anxiety, other moments it is curiosity, or happiness, or sorrow. It is only our mind that labels them ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Try this experiment: the next time an uncomfortable feeling arises, just open yourself for a few moments to feel it fully. At first your mind may be very active around this unpleasant feeling — strategizing how to change it or fix it, or fix the situation that caused it. But stick with it, just softening your body around the feeling, and letting the feeling be there. Notice how, over time, your mind becomes quieter, and the feeling becomes simply a sensation. It may not be comfortable, but it is, after all, only a sensation. It has no more significance than that. When our inner reality is met with equanimity in this way, then our outer presence feels safer and more trustworthy to others, even if they have no idea why.
Horses (and, yes, people) read incongruence as a threat. Think of someone who tells you one thing, but does another, or someone who is really hurt at a meeting, but keeps denying their feelings. These moments don’t inspire trust. For horses, predators present as incongruent—pretending to be invisible while stalking. Congruence, though seemingly a very subtle quality, has enormous impact on those around you. As a leader, knowing the power of these invisibles is your greatest strength.
Presence — We’ve heard it a hundred times, ‘be here now’. But what does that actually mean? Being congruent is the first step. You can’t be fully present if you are at odds with your experience in any given moment. Then allow your mind, your actions, and your sense of being to arrive fully in the moment. Notice how you want to check your texts, or think about the next meeting, or ruminate over what happened this morning at home, and gently bring yourself back to now.
Being present also means to know that your presence, and the presence of others, count. During our Institute gatherings, we insist, if people must leave a meeting early, they not sneak out (for fear of interrupting the process), but instead make their departure known to everyone in the group. This acknowledges that each person in a circle matters, and so when one person leaves, it changes things. You matter, your presence matters, and when your body is in the chair, but your mind is elsewhere, it makes a difference.
Another ‘invisible’ tool, our presence transmits so much non-verbal information to others. I have learned this with the horses over and over again. If, for example, I am making a request to my horse, but I lack a certain confidence in myself, she will not respond. Or if I have some judgement of her, she will not respond. Our presence sends out a telegram to the world about who we are and what we stand for.
Clarity — Our requests to others and towards ourselves must be unambiguous. Taking the time to think carefully through our intention before important phone calls and meetings ensures our clarity translates into desired actions and outcomes. In this way we are fully aware of where our time is going, and we shepherd our conversations towards meeting those intentions. If we are not clear, then it is up to us to notice it — sometimes by how it is reflected in others around us (the outcomes of a meeting weren’t quite what you were looking for) — and then take responsibility for it. Congruence and presence help support us to gain more clarity, which in turn hone our intentions and translate into better outcomes.
Justness — Justness is defined as being honorable and fair in one’s dealings and actions. People often mistake kindness or niceness for justness, and deny their organization the strong backbone that justness implies. Being just can mean applying a very firm and uncompromising hand when it is needed. What informs justness is that sense that one’s organization is a living system, and as such one’s actions must serve the common good of all involved. This may not necessarily be experienced as ‘nice’ by one of your direct reports. Justness requires too that consequences are delivered in an unemotional, non-judgemental way (see more information about this in an earlier blog, The Four Phases of a Request).
Horses disrespect both niceness and unfairness. If I am nice to my horse when he steps rudely into my space he learns he can’t trust me because he disrespects my lack of authority. Likewise, if I unfairly deliver a request without sensitivity to where he is, he can’t trust me because he disrespects my aggression. Learning what justness is and how it is applied is a life long practice and varies situation to situation and person to person.
Cultivating the four qualities of congruence, presence, clarity and justness as a leader allows you to support and lift up new potentials in your organization so that it can transform into a force for positive change, both in the lives of everyone within it, and in its influence externally. Learning non-predatory approaches to leadership, thought the gentle guidance of horse-informed facilitation helps leaders learn in their bodies how to navigate towards these qualities.
*the name has been changed in this article.