First time, last time - A practical way to get out of a rut

After meditating for a few years, I realised I had fallen in a rut. I was running on a (peaceful) autopilot. I don’t remember how I hit on this practice, but it rejuvenated my meditation and I started using it for other times when I felt like I was in routine or bored and it really helped. It harnesses the benefits of being ‘mindful’ but gives me a route in, rather than connecting to an abstract or mind-y concept.

The Practice

First Time/Last Time is so simple I can’t even believe I’m describing it. It can be applied when you’re going to a situation where you think you know what to expect, or something routine like getting on the bus, having a meeting, making dinner, hanging out with your significant person.

Here’s how I do it.

First time

Imagine this is the first time you’re doing this activity.

What would you notice if this were the first time?

What would you be feeling if this were the first time? (I’m an inveterate starter, so the first time doing something is exciting to me!)

What leeway would you give yourself in terms of expectations if this were your first time?

Last time

Now imagine this is the last time you’ll ever do this.

What care would you give this activity if this were the last time?

What would you feel if this were the last time? (I often feel a kind of fond nostalgia…)

How much effort would you put in if you know you’d never do this again?

First time/last time

Can you allow both of these possibilities at once? What if this were the first and the last time you ever did this? What if it were the only time?

What would you notice if it were the first and last time?

What would feel if this were the first and last time?

What freedom is there in letting this be the first and last time you do this?


The thing is, there is more than an element of fundamental truth about all three steps. It is the first time you’ve done this activity, today, in this way. It is the last time you’ll do it right now, in this way. And one day, it really will be the last time! Either because you stop doing it, or because you’re not doing anything anymore.

At different times, this practice can freshen my approach, supply me with more energy, reconnect me with my body and allow an escape from sleepiness.

Where in your life are you doing things on autopilot?

This practice was just published in an edited form in Street Smart Awareness, a really accessible book on really grounded practices for developing wisdom in the moment.


The leaders we need

As leaders and organisers we want to be doing the wise thing at the right time.

In order to do that, we need to grow our capacity and capability:

  • To think in terms of multiple timelines. We need to be able to be in the moment right now, to think about next week and next month, as well as thinking ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred years ahead.

  • To look this messy, broken, beautiful world in the eye. By the way, this includes your messy, broken, beautiful organisation! There’s something profound and necessary about not turning away from complexity, from non-binary spectrums, from uncertainty, paradox and mess. Sometimes we want things neat and they’re just NOT. In fact, if you can be somewhat at peace with the chaotic truth of the world, you can still do stuff, you can still take wise and timely action, instead of freezing or getting overwhelmed.

  • To spot systemic patterns and flows of history. The ability to go ‘This is (partially) an example of this...’, or ‘This is a bit like this and this…’ or ‘Something like this has happened before…’  means you can discover links that allow deeper change to happen.

  • To embrace your own humanity and the humanity of others. The ability to include more and more people’s perspectives, in deeper and deeper ways, is a hallmark of someone who can find plans and solutions that are sustainable and supported, robust and inclusive.

  • To be aware of your awareness. Thinkers like MIT’s Otto Scharmer have a hunch: the element that determines the effectiveness of a system intervention is the quality of awareness of the intervenor. What you’re aware of and how warm, how open, how gently focused, how wide, how still you are when thinking, listening, speaking, doing, is key key key to how deep your influence can be.

We need to aim towards these capabilities because the challenges we face as individuals, groups, organisations, humans and as a planet require them. Siloed thinking that operates from simple causality is what got us into this mess.

The planet

We are already on the cusp of irreversible environmental disaster and although some of the actions required are clear, how to make them happen, particularly at scale, demands all the subtlety of thinking outlined above if we have any chance of keeping a planet that is capable of sustaining human life.

Social justice for everyone

We live in a world that harbours a huge one-way imbalance of power. People of Colour, queer people, trans and non-binary people, women, disabled people, poor people (and people who live at the intersections of more than one of the above identities) are constantly harmed just for existing in the world.

If we are to create a world that is supportive for ALL people, then leaders and organisers have to do in-depth, often tumultuous, transformational work. We have to learn to nurture the parts of us that have been programmed to feel less-than and melt the parts of us that have been programmed to feel better-than.

We also need to dismantle the oppressive systems around us that are rooted in racism, slavery, genocide and colonialism, and grow new ones that are collective and radically inclusive, so there is true equity in who makes decisions and who holds power and resources. This goes so far beyond laughably simplistic ‘diversity’ thinking.

We also have to face the fact that our ways of living are already forcing millions of people to live in horrific conditions. Reconsidering the way we live as individuals, organisations and countries is vital if we are to look after all of humanity, not just a wealthy, lucky few.


The world is only becoming more complex and volatile. Organisations that cling to outdated models of hierarchy and siloed outcomes will only fall behind, if they survive at all. Nimble, self-organising, responsive organisations with inclusion, sustainability and equity at their heart are the ones that will survive and thrive. We need leaders who can plant the seeds and nurture the spaces for these organisations to grow, and that is a complex, challenging path-that-isn’t-yet-a-path.


Humans, particularly western humans, don’t know how to meet in groups. Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless identified the Big Five ways that we tend to meet - presentation, open discussion, managed discussion, brainstorm and status update - as holding inequality at their core. We need to find ways to meet which include as many voices as possible, which use participatory ways of making decisions, which deal productively with the natural conflict and deadlock that happen even in healthy groups. Neither bombastic, black-and-white thinkers nor I’ll-find-the-answer-for-you lead-from-the-front leaders are going to do a tenth as well as people who genuinely know we each hold only a piece of the truth.


Most of how we interact with other people is through one-on-one conversations. Knowing how to actually listen, how to not shy away from awkward conversations and stay present (even in the midst of conflict and strong emotions) are tough skills to develop and maintain. They need flexible thought, responsibility and boundaries that move beyond rigid certainty. They also require a knowledge of power differences and an awareness of intention and impact as societal inequalities play out even in our close relationships.


You’re good at getting stuff done in the world, you’re smart, you know how to influence, you hit your numbers, but when you look up at the world, you see how much is still broken. You care sometimes so much that it’s hard to switch off. You see that you can’t do it all, but don’t see much alternative. You struggle with the seeming intractability of the people around you, of the frustrating rollercoaster of translating your vision into real reality.

These pressures, these tensions don’t have to stall you. They can transform you, if we hold them in the right way. Mainly we evolve when life forces us to. Knowing how to be healthily at the edge of our current capacity is how we grow in functional (as opposed to dysfunctional!) ways. There’s wisdom to be found when we’re in over our heads...

Only by working on all of these things can you become the leader you long to be and, frankly, a leader the world needs.

Becoming a wiser leader

There's a framework I've been working with the past couple of years which looks at how we develop our capacity to take wiser and more timely action.

I recorded a couple of videos to introduce you to the concepts.

Brief intro to Action Logics

Here's a six minute down-and-dirty intro to the concepts...

Captions are available on the video. Click here for a full transcript.

If you're more of an audio person, here's the mp3. Click the download link on the right if you'd like to have a copy on your device.

How to evolve into a wiser leader

If the short video made you hungry for more, here's a more in-depth peek into the leadership action logics.

Captions available. (Also, sorry for the coughing fit at the end - lesson learned about having a glass of water near me...) Transcript is here.

Voila the mp3, with download link.

Are you opening or closing?

I seemed to come to a new understanding of an old question today.

Listening to Pema Chödrön, the Buddhist nun, on an audiobook this morning and she was suggesting (I paraphrase) you pay attention to the question: ‘Are you opening or closing?’

Those of you who’ve hung out near me will know over the years I’ve talked a lot about clenching and unclenching.

Today, I notice that I close a lot. Especially in response to overwhelm at others’ sadness.

I close to my best friend having a terrible time.

I close to people in a FB group I’m in who are putting out requests for money and support.

I closed the other day when reading about the Great Barrier Reef bleaching white and basically dying. I often close to the facts of global warming and imminent/growing climate crisis.

I close to reports of the reality in Syria, Yemen, Burma…

I close to Trump, to Brexit, to possible nuclear war.

I close to Z when he is having a less than positive moment.

I close when wandering through the Christmas shopping mayhem thinking about people in the future asking why we didn’t stop buying stuff.

I close when I think that children have mined the ingredients of my Mac, my phone.

I close when I read about my friends having a hard time, struggling in the world the way it’s currently set up.

What I’ve realised today is that when I notice the closing and don’t turn away (either from the trigger or from the act of closing) I can take more action.

I can contact my best friend rather than letting another day go by without properly saying anything to her.

I can donate *some* money to *some* people in the group, rather than turning away in guilt and not supporting anyone.

I can continue to read books that offer clear-eyed ways forward to the climate crisis (like Doughnut Economics that looks at both social justice and the earth).

When I stay open to the closing (and maybe sometimes open more), I can take more action.

So, that’s my focus right now. Asking ‘Am I closing or am I opening?’ and noticing what happens when I, well, notice.

If it's broke, did you break it? (a Twitter parable)

On Friday, a simple coaching question filled a hole in my life.

I've loved Twitter for years - like YEARS and years. I love that you can connect with someone and there's no pressure on you to spend a lot of energy maintaining that connection (loose ties, innit?) and there's no pressure on their side to reciprocate.

I've kind of fallen out of love with Twitter in the past year, but, boy, we had it good for a long while.

I had a ragtag community of weirdos who would support each other when things were tough. I made some real friends, a couple of which I would think of as some of my closest friends, even though we might have only met or Skyped once or twice.

Twitter friendship is hard to explain.

We laughed, we cried, we hashtagged. Some people hired me. People (including, like, real editors) proofread things. Experts gave me informed advice. Conferences offered me speaking gigs. Personally, professionally, it was great. 

But more than anything, Twitter was like the best coffeeshop/breakroom you could imagine, filled with cool people WHO GOT YOUR JOKES. It was like living in the writers' room of the first four seasons of the Gilmore Girls.

Like any relationship, things changed.

And then I saw my friend Sas post on Facebook that she had deleted her Twitter account, because it wasn't like it used to be.

So, I went to Twitter and asked the question:

"Is it me or is Twitter broken? Is it time to leave?"

And for the next two days I had the best, warmest interaction I'd had online for maybe two or three years. We tweeted like it was 2012.

Some people shared my concern.

Some people said they still liked Twitter for certain things, but it was a harder place.

Some only used it for links and super-breaking news.

But others said they still loved Twitter, that it was a source of support and love and interest even now.

One of the common threads amongst these crazy idealists was that they did a fair bit of curation - lists, blocking, liberal (small 'l') unfollowing.

And it made me remember that I had a private list (called 'Checky') that I hadn't been to in maybe four years.

A list is a place you can visit where you say "When I'm here, I only want to see tweets from these specific people."

I clicked on that list and of course, all the old people were still there - I'd just been missing their tweets in amongst all the rest of the people I'd followed.

And I remembered: that's how I used to manage Twitter - I used to visit Checky more than my main timeline.

Then I thought some more.

I'd just regained some amazing interaction - like, stunning, heartwarming, the-old-band-is-getting-back-together interaction - and why?

Well, I'd asked an honest question. I'd then responded to the responses. LIKE I USED TO ALL THE TIME.

I'd been treating Twitter like a chore. Or worse: like (don't say it) INSTAGRAM. I'd been posting a photo once a day with a tiny message.

Pecking Twitter on the cheek.

Instead, I showed up. And my people showed up.

I realised: if Twitter was broken, it was because I broke it.

So, if you've got a situation that isn't like the old days... are you doing the things you used to do in the old days?

I mean, sure, things change. In the past two years I've had many more local friends here in Birmingham than I ever had in the Caravan Office years when we lived with my Mum-in-law or even when I was in Singapore. Twitter used to serve a really important emotional role back then.

So, yes, your environment might have changed.

And, yes, sometimes things are broken.

But before you totally throw in the towel ask yourself:

Did I break this? Can I fix it? What did I used to do? Can I just start doing that again?

You never know. Maybe it's not as broke as you thought.

Two questions that might grow your leadership agility

I was in Boston a couple of weeks ago on a training course, learning how to use a tool that helps assess leadership agility. (I'm going to be using it with coaching clients as an initial assessment plus maybe a progress check once or twice a year. I normally shy away from tools and profiles, but this one is based on the heroic/post-heroic leadership model I mentioned earlier, so it has a lot of depth.)

As we were examining the transition from less agile to more agile levels of leadership, one of the several capacities that jumps out is the ability to step back from a situation and see it in its bigger context.

In short, the wider and broader and more inclusive a perspective a leader is able to take, the more agile the leader.

Working with this stage development model, I've realised that a lot of what I ask leaders and teams to do may well be beyond what they are currently capable of.

For example, one of the things that I recommend in How to improve other people's terrible meetings is to notice what's happening and label it. If three people are talking at once, or certain people are doing all the talking or you have five items in a 45-minute meeting and you're 30 minutes in and still on the first item... say exactly that. Not in an accusing way - just in a way that allows everyone to get conscious of what's happening.

Thing is: noticing what's happening in the moment, let alone how it fits into a pattern, is not necessarily a capacity everyone has developed.

Equals: sometimes I might be setting people up for failure.

Same when you're doing anti-oppression work - you have to gain the capacity to be able to see who's talking and who's not talking. Who's interrupting and who is allowed to finish a thought. Who's in the room in the first place.

For example, white people are trained not to notice when we're in an all-white room. We're all conditioned to shut up when a white man speaks. White men are conditioned to interrupt pretty much anyone who isn't a white man.

Consciousness of that takes practice.

Most meetings rattle along in a particular groove - even if there's a plan. People don't always know if they're in a consultation meeting or if they're actually making a decision or is it just updates?

Teams seem like they're having the same meeting again and again because it's hard to spot patterns.

Our brain spots physical patterns very easily. Too easily in fact. We think cars have faces.

But spotting patterns in situations that are separated in time - that's hard.

Historians are yelling at us that what is happening politically is a repeat of a pattern that has happened before.

I noticed that when I was re-establishing habits this week I almost sabotaged myself.

I'm trying to do some things daily (language learning, fitness and so on) and the pattern I fall into is going, "That's not enough! If you do the maths, by the end of the year you won't have done much at ALL. LET'S DO MORE!"

Then I, well, do more for about two-and-a-half weeks, then something changes in my routine and I fall out of the habit, feel bad, start forgetting and two months later, it's all over. At the end of the year, I have done much less than I would have done if I'd done a tiny amount.

Having been through this pattern enough in the past FORTY-ONE YEARS, I was able to spot it.

So I asked myself, "What's the SMALLEST amount I could do every day?" So instead of doing FIVE lessons on Duolingo on BOTH Spanish and German, how about I do one of each?

If you've ever taught something more than a couple of times, or worked on a helpdesk, you know that the person's questions that seem so specific and original to them, are one of the same five that everyone has. You have a broader context that just their phone call, so you can easily help them.

Leaders who are able to place their organisation's work in global, historical, societal contexts are more likely to support truly innovative, timely interventions.

So: spotting patterns? Important.

Repetition may well help you see patterns, but only when the thing happens again and again and AGAIN.

I wonder if we could speed this process along by asking two questions:

1. What is happening right now?
2. What is this an example of?

In meetings, in your organisation, in politics, in your relationships, in the privacy of your own head.

Spotting what is happening is a skill, then seeing the pattern is another one.

And if it leads to us being more agile, making better decisions, stopping history repeating itself, that may well be a very good thing.


Our fear of public speaking is not simple.

Our fear of public speaking is not simple.

I mean, part of it comes from mechanical things - not knowing how to plan, how to make slides, how to tell stories, how to deal with Q&A, even how to "deal" with top-layer "nerves" - but for a while I've been sensing something deeper.

I think there's two things - one sharper, one more insidious.

First, there's past experiences. Did you have a bad experience at school which made you scared to stand up in front of a group? How did your parents do? Did they encourage you to speak up? Was your voice nurtured?

Those things cut deep. You don't get over them without some significant effort.

Secondly, even if you left school unscathed and your parents did a good job... there's society.

Being a person who has any kind of empathy or feeling or vulnerability in a society that values logic and rationality above all else does not set you up to easily speak out.

Dysfunctional corporate culture does not support you sticking your neck out.

Being a Person of Colour in a white supremacist society systematically undermines any deep safety you have about speaking out, that your words and thoughts are valued.

Being a woman or femme in a patriarchal society undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Being trans in a deeply transphobic society does not lead to safety in speaking out.

Being any flavour of queer in a heterocentric society undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Having a disability in an ableist society undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Being non-gender-conforming in a society that polices gender roles as tightly as ours does undermines your sense of safety in speaking out.

Being working class in a society run by and for the rich undermines your feeling that your words are valued.

Living in the intersection of any of those identities insidiously compounds and compounds that lack of safety.

And yet, presentations and speaking out in meetings, speaking "publicly", is a part of most of our lives.

So what am I saying?

Yes, learn the "mechanical" aspects, the skills of doing a presentation. Hell, I wrote a whole, very detailed book on how to do just that.

Yes, even learn the (somewhat) mechanical skills of lowering adrenaline and dealing with nerves.

And and and...have compassion for yourself. If you are, at times, scared of speaking up, speaking out, just know that the very fabric of our society supports only a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of people to feel safe and valued in being visible.

So, speak out, but be gentle on yourself when you do.

More post-heroic leadership, please

This year: I'm looking into how I can support more people to evolve into post-heroic leaders.

At the Gandalfesque instigation of the wise Indy Johar, I've spent the past few months reading, thinking about and being trained in a framework of human development which makes a lot of intuitive as well as science-y sense. It's weirdly little-known, despite having more than four decades of research behind it.

As we make sense of increasing uncertainty and complexity, we evolve through clear stages. This framework tracks these stages and, in the part I've been looking at, applies them to leadership.

Most management/leadership education is based on moving people from an expert orientation to what we would think of as a fully-fledged manager.

People whose current centre of gravity sits in the expert stage have strong problem-solving skills within their clearly-defined domain but manage each member of their team individually (more like a supervisor).

Fully-fledged managers are focused on outcomes and results, think strategically, are good at getting buy-in, manage teams as teams with regular meetings, give regular good-quality developmental feedback... the whole shebang.

Where I'm particularly interested is in the crossover to later, and much rarer, stages of development.

If you were to think of the above two stages as conventional development, the next phase is a move into post-conventional stages.

In the first of several post-conventional stages, a leader begins to turn outwards, seeing all the members of their team as leaders, and holds a space for new solutions and initiatives to develop from a deep sense of the intrinsic value of collaboration. They draw a much more porous boundary around the concept of stakeholders, and they are able to see the lenses they look through as just that - lenses.

Rather more evocatively, two writers in this field label this transition as moving from heroic leadership to post-heroic leadership.

Heroic leaders, no matter how inclusive and strategic they are, still have themselves at the centre of the process. Even though not necessarily single-handedly, they are still the one making the change happen, judging the correct course, the "hero" who is saving the day.

Post-heroic leaders, however, whilst still potentially driving the momentum of an initiative, see that they hold just one part of the truth. They see that involving people doesn't just build buy-in, but actually means a significantly better end result. They lead leaders.

Particularly in our increasingly volatile, wickedly complex world of slow-building danger, we need more leaders who can hold a space for inclusive change to grow.

Charismatic leaders are dangerous. Being able to allow timely movements to crystalise may just be a key to, I don't know, stopping this clusterhell we're in.

So, in 2017, I'm going to see how I can support more post-heroic leadership.


The transformational power of being aware of your awareness

A couple of weeks ago, I was sat in the park with a coaching client (What? They needed to get out!) and they said their organisation was using a leadership model. Inside, I did an eye-roll - in fact, it might have spilled over into an outside one. I find typologies and questionnaires and Models (tm) tiresome and limiting. People fall in love with them too entirely as the saviour and the way (and, hey, I've been there) but we shrugged and said, well, if it's useful and gives you insight, and it's held loosely, then it can be worthwhile.

As I looked more at the model they are using, I got more interested. Then I ordered the guy's book and got more interested. Then I ordered books by the author's intellectual siblings and, I don't know, it's got me. The broader concept at least, if not only the expression by this author.

There are two main ideas that William Torbert puts forward in his book Action Inquiry. The second, and most... graspable one is that there are stages of human development that leaders (in whatever way we're describing that) can move through. Four of these 'action-logics' happen pretty naturally for lots of people (referred to as 'conventional') and three of them are less common and perhaps need more cultivation (the 'post-conventional' stages). This concept of ego development has been looked at quite a lot by a bunch of scholar-practitioners and seems to have some academic and practical legs.

You get assessed by completing 36 (I think) sentences stems such as "A good leader..." or "When an employee steps out of line..." and a trained assessor gives you the results. So far, so unsurprising.

I like the idea, however, that these stages are mutable and an evolution of consciousness of the one before, and therefore not largely fixed like personality typologies such as Myers-Briggs'"16 personality types".

It's also clear that one doesn't move lightly from one stage to the next, but that that evolution happens over months and years. It's not necessarily without turbulence as it requires letting go of parts of your worldview and increasingly expanding what you pay attention to and how.

The evidence suggests (as far as I understand - this is new to me so I haven't really had the chance to look at the studies) that organisational transformation only happens when the leader of an organisation - and potentially their team - operate from post-conventional 'action-logics'.

The part of this that currently has me really interested is that as you progress, particularly to post-conventional action-logics, it depends on shifts in the quality of your moment-to-moment awareness.

Which is where Action Inquiry comes in, the first part of the book. Action Inquiry is the ability to be taking action and be aware of the action you're taking at the sametime and therefore able to pivot to take the right action in that moment.

Kind of.

It's posited that there are four time horizons:

- moment-to-moment emergencies and opportunities
- day-to-day routine - maybe with a three month awareness
- goal-based awareness stretching to, say, three years
- vision-style thought that thinks maybe 20 years ahead.

These map to four aspects of experience:

- the external world
- your actions
- your thoughts, feelings, goals, action-logics
- vision and the quality of your awareness

and also to four aspects of communication.

The point that speaks to me at the moment is that if you can hold awareness ALL THE TIME of

- the present moment/external world AND
- your actions and routine AND
- your thoughts/feelings/goals AND
- vision/awareness

that that will transform aspects of your consciousness.

And I keep coming back to a particular phrase, that you hold this quality of awareness and allow each aspect to be vulnerable to transformation.

Can we stay conscious and hold our actions to be vulnerable to transformation?

Can we also allow our goals and thinking to be vulnerable to transformation?

Can we also allow our vision and awareness, our sense of purpose to be vulnerable to transformation?

I think there's something in that, you know.

So my current focus is two-fold:

Can I do all of that?
Can I help you to do all of that?

It happens that I'm sitting in the Quaker centre just opposite Euston station in London as I'm typing this. The Quakers are very focused on what happens when you sit in silence together and keep your awareness of what that together-silence is like.

The Quakers are one set of people with one way of evolving your awareness. There are many others. As a long-term meditator, I work daily on the quality of awareness in my meditation AND remembering to be aware during the rest of the day (which is really bloody hard/impossible, just to be clear).

Seems to me that, whatever stage you are of leading whatever it is you want to lead, that moving towards this quadruple-level of awareness can only be...good. Useful. Potentially transformational.

I'm gonna experiment. You?