Leadership Lessons from the Clothesline

May 5, 2017 by Barbara Phillips | Posted in thoughts and tips | Leave a Comment

Ah, Spring! Wintry weather can keep it hidden no more. It’s May already! And . . . getting warm.

Spring brings me out of doors with broom, rake, and clean clothes and bedding awaiting their delicious time in the sun. Yes, I have a clothesline.

Quilts, blankets, pillows, sheets, pillow slips – all swaying in the gentle breezes, full of promise like newborns in the cradle. What rich aromas, what rich stories they will bring to the beds tonight!

Next, the clothes come out of the closet and join the ritual: sunlight in a closet? Why not? A freshening that nothing else can deliver. Many years ago I was involved in lengthy negotiations as a practicing lawyer. Meetings were most often in smoke-filled rooms. Hanging my clothes out in the breeze was all that kept my closet from smelling like a smoke shop.

What about smelly plastic containers in the kitchen, acridly sharing the aroma of pizza sauce or soup or veggies long since gone? Out in the sun they go, to return by evening smelling fresh and clean.

What the clothesline teaches me is the potential for brilliance in overlooked resources: something so close, given freely, that can enrich and enhance the quality of life. In the modern pursuit of more, we often forget our most precious resources: the healthy lessons you learned as a child– about your resilience, your qualities and abilities and about how life is about a lot more than you – things that can inform your life now if you just reclaim them.

I’m hungry for that fresh perspective and real thinking that Spring brings into my life along with the energy to move in life more deliciously – coddled in sun-drenched linens and clothes.

Holding Space

April 24, 2015 by Barbara Phillips | Posted in thoughts and tips | Leave a Comment

Heather and Her Mom

Heather and Mom


One of the most remarkable abilities we humans have is to hold space for one another. This has rarely been so well-explained as in this blog post, What it means to “hold space” for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well by on March 11, 2015.
There is deep respect implicit in holding space for another, whether in a group or meeting or in a family setting. It’s something we can do for each other, every day. Try it and share what happens.  Read and enjoy.


Are You Being Heard?

January 29, 2014 by Barbara Phillips | Posted in thoughts and tips | Leave a Comment

If you feel you are not fully and actually being heard, the remedy isn’t to talk louder. Have you had others do this to you? There are times when you are distracted or maybe not processing what they are saying. So they just speak louder and less respectfully, making you feel like they think you are stupid. Is this something you do to others? It’s not a characteristic of a leader, and it’s not uncommon among those in authority.

It’s no surprise then that one remedy to not being heard – is to speak softer. This can work if you have or have claim on the other person’s attention. When you speak softer to make your point, you naturally give your full attention to the other person – as if willing them to hear you. This alone can contribute to your being heard and understood.

For most leaders, the best remedy to not being heard is to recognize their own contribution to not being heard. This is both immediate and direct – a game-changer.

1. Are you making a speech instead of engaging in a conversation? Is the conversation lopsided, so that the other person isn’t invited to engage? It can get boring to listen to someone go on and on, so the mind wanders.

2. Are you so frustrated at not being heard that you become more disrespectful to them than you feel they are being with you? For example, did you fail to establish that now is a good time to talk about what you are speaking about? What may be a good time for you may be a terrible time for them. Seeking agreement on time and place to talk about something is one way of improving your odds of being heard, assuming of course that you don’t hang on to that agreement like a bulldog should the circumstances change and the agreed-upon time – is no longer a good time. Respectful persistence goes a long way toward making yourself heard.

3. Are you doing things that effectively make you “not hearable?” For example, are you giving advice that has not sincerely been asked for? How many times have others – perhaps even your parents – downloaded a bunch of unwanted advice on you? You know what that feels like. And what did you do? You tuned it out. Most people have almost no awareness of how much advice they actually dish out day after day. In our programs, that’s the first pattern to go – you won’t leave the program without knowing exactly how much advice you give nor without the ability to converse on a whole different level.

Even when advice is sought, a true mentor, a true elder, often will not give you a direct answer. Rather, they ask questions that help you discover that you actually know the answer yourself. Or they might show you that you’re not asking a useful question and with a little tweaking, you could. Or they may engage you in an exploration, not simply download information. Information downloading may be fascinating in the short term, but a pain when in excess. Those with comprehensive knowledge about something often like to show it off even at the wrong time and place, leading them to be dissed.

The foundation of being heard is to engage in deep listening yourself and to use more questions than statements. You would be surprised at how quickly you can learn to recognize your own contribution to not being heard – and change the game. If being heard is an issue for you, you might want to check us out.

Do you have Power – or just Authority?

June 6, 2013 by Barbara Phillips | Posted in thoughts and tips | Leave a Comment

This world runs on delusions of power. But real power is very different from this delusional power. Many think that power is the ability to get other people to do what you want, and to control resources. This is a very limited view. Mere authority can get people to do such things. And perhaps for a while you can control essential resources – water, for example – and people will jump to do what is necessary to obtain this critical resource – until they reconnect with their own real power.

Real power is different and aligns with the power that runs the universe. Consider that there are different kinds of power.

The first is power over your self. If you are ruled by your passions and predilections, you have no power, even though you may have mammoth dump trucks full of authority over others. The reason you have no power is that you are still are under the control of your cultural and familial patterning. If on the other hand you are able to choose how you respond in every situation and your default worldview has switched from “about me” to “about us”, you’ve gained a certain mastery over your self. Power over the child that is your little self frees you in your interaction with others. It also frees your creativity and your real intelligence so that your decisions and responses are wise and appropriate.

The second power is power in relationship to those who have charge of you – your bosses, managers, executives, or even your spouse, famously referred to in the TV Series Rumpole of the Bailey as “she who must be obeyed”. Your power here is measured by the quality of your interaction: not subservient, not fawning, not resistant, not judgmental, but honest and clear of divisive strategies.

Often people project their fears and patterned thinking onto those above them and then play out their role in the fantasy they have created. Others aren’t privy to your private world, so do not “play their part” even if they could. You making things up from your “about me” perspective is dishonest and you know it even though you try to pretend you do not. Honesty is your answer. Here honesty means not taking things personally even when the pointy finger is waggled in your direction. It means leaving the problem where it lies, not taking it on and making it your own. At the core, it means not giving another person the power to determine your attitude.

The third power is power in peer, customer, client and colleague relationships. It is much the same as power in relationship to those who have authority over you.

The fourth power is power over those for whom you are responsible. And the same rules apply.
And these are only people-related aspects of power. Real power aligns with universal power, bringing about good for all and everything.

Everyone has authority – even if it is limited to authority over your dog or cat, your child, your subscriptions, your diet, etc. But few have power. What real power is, is something that you stand in – not something that you wield. We’re used to thinking about power as holding the gun, the deadly weapon. But having a deadly weapon only confers authority. Power isn’t that.

Real power is what engages the whole of you and the whole of others in something that is good for everyone and everything involved. This kind of power aligns with everyone else’s real power. So aligned, it draws out creativity, imagination, energies and commitment that those limited to authority can’t even dream of. You grow a context of mutual respect and appreciation. Power struggles are history and a remarkable collaboration begins. Let’s drink to that.

Reinventing Meetings: Explore Agenda-free

September 1, 2012 by Barbara Phillips | Posted in thoughts and tips | Leave a Comment

Everyone is so task-oriented these days it sounds like heresy to speak warmly about holding a meeting with no agenda. Yet many find it a refreshing, creative experience that invites breakthroughs. Protests will be instant: “it’s bad enough ‘taking time out from work’ for meetings with an agenda without being required to attend a meeting without one.” This response is revealing: do your managers and directors, or members of your team, feel they are in a time famine, always working desperately against the clock? What does that tell you?

The value of meeting with no agenda is that people with important things to develop ideas and approaches to, get to relax enough to have the conversations that perhaps should have been had days, weeks or even months earlier. There you are, in the same room and the same time, distractions parked. You’ve committed that hour – or even two hours – to the conversation. Quality time. Serious commitment to quality time.

Do you think you’ll have nothing to talk about? What about exploring things done and things yet to be done from a much larger context? What is the trajectory of actions and movements presently underway and imminent? Is it leading the organization where it should go? How good is day to day communication? Are people defended when difficulties are raised that concern them? Or are they welcoming of the feedback, eager to grow into greater levels of leadership and responsibility? Are they looking for someone or something to blame, or digging into the situation to extract the learning and significance of it? What is the direction of the current in the organization, affecting everything on the surface like the current of a river, yet itself hidden?

It can powerfully assist in agenda-less meetings to have a coach-facilitator asking questions to draw out those conversations. The coach-facilitator is taking the pulse of participants and the organization at all such meetings. I’m speaking here of a kind of coach that has expertise in asking powerful questions to which the coach does not know the answer. This is different from mentor coaching. With the coach’s process skills and the participants’ substantive expertise, results can flow quickly and surely.

The larger the context the coach-facilitator brings to the discussion, the more participants are invited into their own larger context. Such coaches may be holding quietly within themselves this question: “What wants to happen here?” as discussions ensue. When the coach then asks questions from that place of inquiry so well described by Otto Scharmer in Theory U – Leading from the Future As It Emerges – something new can happen. Perhaps it’s that what-everyone-knows-but-no-one-is-discussing at last shows up through gentle, non-judgmental inquiry. And all of a sudden, something real and important can be seen in the light of day, recognized and acknowledged. No longer is its influence hidden. Now a strategy can be developed to deal with it.

Think about it. These agenda-less meetings have great impact at the highest levels of the organization, because here is where the largest context is life’s blood. But even at the line level, agenda-less meetings can be both highly productive and creative. You and your team get to interact about business in a non-task-oriented way, and everyone learns more about the art of speaking effectively and receiving feedback. In other words, such meetings serve to grow the leadership capacities of participants who through the coaching-facilitation process, learn better how to safely share what they know and help others to do so.

How often should such meetings be held? Ideally about 10 to 15 times a year. That’s often enough to keep the larger context in view so that the smaller contexts function more optimally toward the greater good.

And what kind of coach-facilitator do you want? Using a coach-facilitator – even a triple-qualifier that includes mediation experience – who is not embedded in the organization invites the asking of questions an acculturated person knows not to ask. All cultures have compartments for “don’t asks.” And what’s in those compartments is often the very thing that desperately needs to be asked for the well-being of the organization and those within it. Your non-acculturated coach is a prime resource for you in inviting real breakthrough.

Opportunities Come in Small Packages

June 6, 2012 by Barbara Phillips | Posted in thoughts and tips | Leave a Comment

The greatest opportunities for leadership are those that are almost imperceptible. They seem so small and inconsequential, you could easily pass them by. No one watching is likely to chalk up marks for your leadership abilities. When your moves become more noticeable, you may be judged and criticized. Either way, when you take these tiny opportunities, you will actually be making a difference.

For example, you might greet someone you see every day and take an extra moment to tune into that person, to appreciate them within yourself, to be present with them. You may notice something in doing this – seeing them as people rather than as their role – that you hadn’t before. You may inquire – or not. Leaders aren’t assessed by how many “hi, how are you?s” they say each day, but on whether others experience them as present and most specifically, whether they felt really seen.

Or again, you may realize in a negotiating situation that you have much more power than the other person or organization. The power to stop something temporarily isn’t the power to move forward. So what if you were to take that person or organization and their needs into full account? What if instead of looking for a victory over them you began to look for something that could serve the larger whole, including them? It’s easy to get polarized in our own perspective and in this way to miss huge opportunities.

Many years ago the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) began operating in the San Francisco Bay Area after many years of effort. Against the weight of opinion and advice, it’s cars offered luxurious interiors, the seats covered in fabric, not plastic, summoning drivers out of their cars, inviting riders to be more comfortable and inspiring them to be more respectful. It worked. The whole story of tenacious leadership is found here. The story supports the view that what goes around, comes around. What you put out, you get back. It just may be coming from a different direction and in a different form. Isn’t it a part of the resourcefulness of the servant leader – to be uncommonly contextual?

Or perhaps again, it is common in your industry to take advantage of staff – or contractors. “That’s business,” everyone says. Well, for you, maybe not. For you, it might become unacceptable to have policies and practices that are hurtful to others – for example, that have men working long hours day after day and then giving them only a few days off to see their families and keep up with their real lives. It might become particularly unacceptable when you are located in a remote area and the men are left to drive hundreds of miles on a Highway of Death to get back to their communities in all too short a time. In a culture of exploitation, does the leader of a community-conscious organization just go along with what is common? Or does that leader inspire the organization to find new ground – setting new standards that include the well-being of those that are part of the whole enterprise?

What is leadership really about? What I know is this: real leaders don’t stop with the easy answers. And when they have answers, they hold them lightly so that new information and perspectives can be taken into account. They don’t take onboard consensus reality, but rather ask “why?” and “how better?”

The Identity Trap – Part 2

April 27, 2012 by Barbara Phillips | Posted in thoughts and tips | Leave a Comment

In Part 1 of The Identity Trap, we talked about the hazards of taking our role—and the quality of our performance in that role—as part of our identity. We saw how when something becomes part of our identity, it’s non-negotiable for us. Anyone who crosses our cherished perceptions is pretty much on our “black list.”

This month we’re looking at an even more destructive extension of that: identifying with our opinions.  If I am my opinions, you can’t even safely have a discussion with me. Any conversation quickly polarizes.

The signs that this is happening with someone are not subtle. For example, you perceive an area of disagreement. You ask questions to explore the basis for what the other person is thinking, and gradually you find they are following your thinking on the matter or you’ve found a ground you believe you could both agree on. Just as you ask the question that reveals that is the result, they snap back into the earlier position – unwilling to change in any way, despite agreeing with your analysis all along, little step by little step. That’s a sign of an identity trap.

The person is identified with that opinion and no thoughtful process will penetrate because what we identify with is above and beyond all reason. It is un-reason. Very likely at some time in your life, this has characterized you. As children we explore what “I” am – what “I” means. We begin building a sense of identity. Sometimes the most rigid parts of that, built by mimicking those role models around us, become encrusted in us to the point that we are as impervious as a steel ball. This need not continue.

To recognize what things you have taken into your own identity—and this often is very surprising—look for the things others say that really, really hurt. Instead of identifying with the pain of the hurt, look and see how you relate to what it is that was wounded in the interchange. For example, if someone says, “you’re just emotional.” You may react with, “I am not!” – which just proves the point. Or you may take advantage of the opportunity. What’s happened is that your identity likely includes the view that you are reasonable and when someone says you are emotional, that’s an attack. You could instead pause, collect yourself and say, “there’s some truth in that. Thanks for the heads up. Let’s continue.”

What you’ve just done is to pull the plug on a potentially ugly confrontation and actually made yourself look really cool. You have risen above it, and you’ve used skill in expressing yourself. And because you’re a leader, you acknowledged the other’s point without any “buts.” You found a bit of truth in what was said and basically communicated to the other person, “you’re right.” There are few more satisfying words in our culture.

We all long to be seen as being right and often cringe when we are seen as being wrong. This acknowledgement didn’t cost you anything. It’s terribly hard to do before you do it and drop-dead easy after you have done it. In prospect it’s a terrible admission. In hindsight, it’s nothing at all. You could have gone on the defensive. But you didn’t. You didn’t flinch, inside or out.

Learning Step: To integrate the learning here, look for opportunities to move past your most sensitive spots. When you feel the hurt and start to close up, instead of relating to the discomfort, let yourself be aware of the larger context—you, the other person, eternity, nature, the earth, maybe even what my really appreciate about that other person. Learning how to make the shift is hard at first, easier with practice and soon you can be looking forward to having more opportunities to shed these old constraints.

The Identity Trap – food for thought

March 18, 2012 by Barbara Phillips | Posted in thoughts and tips | Leave a Comment

What is the role of your identity in your work and in your life? If this was the last day of your life and you knew it, what is it – in how you think about yourself – that you defend – if not outwardly, then inwardly, if someone suggested otherwise to you or about you?

There are two main areas of identity that get us into trouble. One is role. I know that for myself years ago I identified myself as a lawyer. I honestly thought that is what I was. Looking back, it’s hilarious: “lawyer” is an archetype – a form – that a person can inhabit. But there is and was a lot more to me than “lawyer.” True it was my profession and at the time it had something to do with status and recognition, but what made it toxic was that I took it as my identity. I had given myself a two-dimensional identity.

What roles define your identity to you? Husband? Wife? Mother? Father? Manager? CA? CM? MD? CFO? CEO? COO? When you consider it, does this still make sense to you, or is it a hold-over from a previous time in your life? There are likely some roles that still define you in some way in your life. Are they useful now? Or are they something you can happily let slide into your history? As identities, roles are inherently constricting, no matter how important they are, because they are always partial. There is always so much more to you than your role. Even in your role as parent, there is always more to you.

More important than roles perhaps, are qualities. We tend to define ourselves in terms of specific qualities – being effective, efficient, thorough, thoughtful, expressing of feelings or suppressing them, having a sense of humour – or not, being shy or outgoing, being open-minded – or not, being generous, kind, compassionate – or not. For me, the identity wasn’t just being a lawyer. It was being a “good lawyer.” Anyone that challenged my honesty, integrity or skills was in some way attacking me, because I was identified in myself, with this role and quality.

The result of having role and qualities identities is that we get pissed off when someone says or does something that challenges that. Generally this boils down to someone treading on our self-identity. A leader cannot afford to do that, because she or he is then taking things personally. Things taken personally are defined by our history and our conditioning and give life to the past, not the present. Leaders must live in the present.

The easy way out of this box is to enlarge our identities to include others. Early identities are about me, as different or distinct from and perhaps opposed to, Mom or Dad. We assert our independence through this differentiation. If co-dependency is an issue for us, we struggle fiercely for independence. But there is something greater than that: inter-dependence. The greater identity required of leaders is closer to Bishop Tutu’s famous phrase, ‘I am because you are.” There’s a sense of we-ness that permeates real leaders’ thoughts, feelings and personal identity and how them see themselves in relation to others. If we are just as important as me, then others are really on the team. They belong and I belong. We belong.

And if qualities are something you strive for rather than something you claim as part of our identity, then you welcome the observations of others that show you how you are seen what you would like to be. Leaders seek out comment and observation rather than shun them. Instead of clenching internally in reaction to something spoken critically, they look for the kernel of truth in it, take it in, and chalk up the rest to imperfect expression – something we all share. If leaders see that something concerning them has caused difficulties, they address those promptly in ways that are respectful of others. There is little that is more freeing than conceding to someone else, “you were right. I was mistaken about that.” This lifts the entire matter out of identity and places it in the realm of behaviour. A mistake, once acknowledged, lets you move on while taking something as a hit to your identity keeps a knife twisting in your insides.

By relinquishing old identity beliefs, leaders cultivate real team in the organization, family or group. Real team is a place where it is safe to speak your mind and no need to hide mistakes. We all know, at some level, how we are being received. It may not be conscious, but our physiology always gets it. If you speak your mind to someone and they clench internally, it registers with you. If they are important to your life or career you will often begin to trim your sails with them – to withhold certain observations and be timid in presenting others.

Receiving criticism with no internal clenching – without taking offense – puts you and your organization far above the rest. When you feel negativity toward someone else for what they say about you or how they characterize you, you are making it less safe for people to tell you how it really is from their perspective. Leaders welcome and seek out others’ perspectives as well as insights into their own errors and their organizations are healthier for it.

Arigato – Gratitude from Japan

February 10, 2012 by Barbara Phillips | Posted in thoughts and tips | Leave a Comment

Gratitude is one of the signal distinctions of the evolved human being and the evolved organization. Enjoy this beautiful expression of the courageous, warm heart of the Japanese people. If you haven’t thanked someone in a heartfelt way today, your gratitude account may be running dangerously low. If for quite a while now, you haven’t felt the pleasure of giving your whole heart to something for the sheer goodness of it, you may have to scratch around and try to find the number of your gratitude account: it’s been so long since you have used it, you’ve no doubt forgotten it.

This clip really inspired me. It renewed my commitment to making each day one of gratitude. Along that line, thank you for checking out our blog.

Leadership and Coaching Tip: Is Your Message Received or Garbled?

February 6, 2012 by Barbara Phillips | Posted in thoughts and tips | Leave a Comment

Do you get frustrated when people don’t seem to be able to get what you’ve said? You know yourself that when your mind is on something else, or you have made some assumptions about what another person is meaning, it is easy to misunderstand what they’ve said. Here are some common examples of situations leading to such mis-understanding, and constructive ways of assuring your message is on point, heard and understood.

Example 1: Another asks you a question.
You answer. What else could you do? It is often wise to check with the person asking the question to see whether they felt your answer was responsive to their question. Many filters and expectations get in the way of something being correctly understood as well getting in the way of the most effective response to the question. So it touches both sides. It is fine to ask,
“Did this answer your question?” or “Did our conversation address your concern?”
This kind of follow-up question shows interest and attentiveness.

Example 2: You provide directions.
When you ask, “could you tell me what you heard me say” you may feel a little silly, but you might also be surprised by the response you get. It is not uncommon to be completely misunderstood, Enjoy the mutual laughter and try again.

Example 3: You provide guidance
Once again, check in to be sure that the meaning of what you said was the meaning the other person, received. This is a particularly valuable relationship-building move: Was our discussion helpful? How was it helpful? This helps the person become clearer about the benefit of the conversation. Perhaps this is why restaurant wait staff always ask about your level of satisfaction, as you dig in to your food.

Example 4: Do you have the other person’s attention?
How can you know that you have the other person’s attention and that they are really listening?
“I’d like to share something with you. Is this a good time to talk?” or
“I need a minute of your time to go over something. Is this a good time?”

This initial check-in shows respect and extends courtesy. If a person’s attention is on something else, your message is highly unlikely to be received as you intended it. The initial check-in sets the tone for a cordial exchange provided you are willing to hear a “no, not now” and then set a time for the conversation.

Learning Step: To integrate asking, start right away to practice it. In 3 days you won’t have to struggle to remember to do it. In 7 days, it will be becoming automatic. Explore ways of making it fun and creative and having it support relationship-building in your organization and amongst your family and friends.

So – was this Tip helpful? Register your views via email reply to programs@co-creating.ca.