a web of simple thanks: part 4

Ian John – the unacclaimed teacher

I was sitting in a large room with maybe 100 other students. I’d never heard the word before, but I knew it was a powerful concept by the way Ian explained it. He talked about the scientific process and as an undergraduate science student I listened; Ian’s credentials included a PhD in Chemistry. But he talked about more than the process of research, thesis, and peer review. He talked about publication and communication in popular media and high school text books. The point was not just relating to the gap between original research and simplistic high school diagrams but of the seemingly impossible task of getting a dissenting voice any airtime in the popular system. Once something is presented as indisputable fact, many steps removed from peer review science, the competition for truth is reduced to what is palatable in the 7:30 time slot.

Plumb bob suspended from plumb line

To explain the phenomena Ian used the word a number of times. Because I’d never heard it before I could only guess how it was spelled. I wrote enthusiastically in my notes ‘paradime’. It was 1983. I had a hunch the word, which I later learned was coined (or at least first used in this way) by Thomas Kuhn and was correctly spelled paradigm, would be a useful one for me. It was.

I didn’t appreciate however that the bloke who had introduced me to the word would be an extraordinary teacher and friend over the next couple of decades. I have often read and heard about the romanticism associated with smoke filled Parisian coffee shops as students and sophisticates opined and philosophised about life and meaning. For Ian and I, the scene was much less glamorous – we tended to meet in the early mornings at fluorescent light lit near-empty soul-less food courts where some little café was catering for the early morning commuters.

But Ian’s thinking was peerless. We were grappling with the demise of modernity and in particular the associated evolution of Christian spirituality in the West. We read the latest and best books. We debated and critiqued. Ian’s thinking was usually on par or ahead of most things we digested. His consideration and rigour spurred me beyond my intuition. Ian’s responses were often unconsciously referenced as the plumb line among the people I knew.

Renowned theologian Eugene Peterson wrote a curiously titled book called Under the Unpredictable Plant. In it Peterson describes the vocation associated with serving locally without glamour, compared with ‘rock star’ Christianity. Ian typifies what Peterson argues for. He has not (to my knowledge) published anything substantial nor promoted his remarkable thinking and capacities beyond his immediate community. In this, Ian has modelled not only outstanding thinking but exemplary living.

I should add that my point is not to be critical of high profile thinking. Indeed, we need the figurative megaphone to be in the most accomplished hands, and at times I have lamented how little recognition Ian has received when lesser thinking is publically acclaimed. My point is simply to highlight the blend of humility and excellence that is rare, and I’ve seen in Ian over the years.

Ian, I cannot imagine the path my thinking and life might have taken without your companionship and teaching. I thank you deeply.

a web of simple thanks: part 3

Donald McGilchrist –the gracious leader

Every now and again People Magazine publishes an edition featuring the world’s most beautiful people. No prizes for guessing the profile of those who dominate. However on my list of beautiful people is a very different character.

I first heard of Donald McGilchrist when I listened to a cassette tape of talk he gave on global trends in the mid 80s. I was immediately captivated by the quality of his thinking. It was the first time I had been exposed to a theme that would be a formative thread through my life over the next decades. Donald’s ability to identify events from the past that help define the trajectory of society continues to inspire me.





I could not have imagined when I first listened to that cassette tape how much I would learn from Donald about how to work well and how to live well. Of the people I thank in this little series of posts, I have had the least amount of face to face time with Donald; he is a Brit who has lived long term in Colorado Springs. Although I have had numerous trips to that part of the world and Donald has been DownUnder once or twice over the last 25 years, the depth of Donald’s input into my life defies the ad hoc nature of our relationship.

Donald is many things. He is the only person I’ve every known who has described himself as an Archivist. He is an Historian who simply lights up at the prospect of understanding the events and meanings of the past. Although thoroughly an Englishman, he has become one of the premier authorities on the history of Colorado Springs, his adopted home. He is currently writing a history of The Navigators, the organisation through which we met. From him I have learned the value of place and the way events form a narrative of meaning.

Donald’s use of English vocabulary stands out in my experience. Occasionally he uses a word in correspondence that I’ve never heard before and I delight in discovering some new meaning. But Donald’s common prose is poetic, not pretentiously so, but because his thinking about, and expression of life has natural beauty. I wish I had learned to chose my words as thoughtfully.

One of the practical things I learned very early on from Donald was to subscribe to journals. I recall marvelling out loud with him one day about how well read he appeared to be. While he suggested modestly that he didn’t read many books, he confessed to having subscriptions to a wide range of periodicals. (I recall the number being 60, but that might be subject to an exaggerated memory!). The idea was that when authors are forced to write their thesis in the form of a journal article, they tend to say the important stuff in a tenth of the space they take in a book, which is often padded out with many irrelevancies. I do recall that when I asked him what his top 5 were, he included the Economist, which I’d never read until then and have done so ever since. I wish I could retain and process information into wisdom like Donald is able to.

Donald’s physique, he won’t mind me saying, means he is a long shot to make the cover of People Magazine. But a beautiful human being he is. Of all the things I have learned from Donald, the most significant is grace.

I have learned from Donald how to be a global citizen, a key characteristic of which in my view is graciousness. His role, for as long as I’ve known him has been an international one. The forums in which we have interacted have often been international gatherings. I have seen and admired the way Donald is able to immerse himself in the positive aspects of a culture and relentlessly pursue the perspective of ‘the other’. He is able to suspend his own judgements and biases to tease out the insights of others. He allows other people to be themselves without judgement: grace.

There are other things I love about Donald. Jeanie’s health has been poor in recent years as she lives with advanced stages of diabetes and their children and grandchildren have not had an easy road. Donald and Jeanie’s poise as they live through suffering has been a beacon.

In a funny way I love the left handed scrawl that Donald prefers to execute with a blue felt tip pen. I’d probably love it more if I could read it.

Donald, if there were more people who shared your poise and grace the world would be a very different and better place to live. I thank you deeply for offering me friendship and companionship on the journey to appreciate beauty, truth and goodness.

a web of simple thanks: part 2

Brett Inder: the intelligent radical

It was when I was learning Japanese script in the early 80s that I understood the concept of a radical for the first time. I had previously misunderstood the idea of radical as being ‘progressive’ or ‘different’. Not so, in fact the contrary. Chinese characters, which form part of the Japanese script, can be organised into groups based on their foundations. These foundational or source elements I learned were called radicals. And so I understood that radical has to do with the ‘fundamental nature of something’. (go look it up and you’ll see)

The common usage of the word has apparently come about due to the tendency of people to lose sight of original intents and purposes; the radical is therefore someone who reminds people of the fundamentals. Those familiar with the Judeo-Christian story will recognise the prophetic tradition here.

interviewing women in Willowvale, Eastern Cape









Brett is a striking model of a true radical. I got to know him when I moved to Melbourne in the mid 80s when we shared a house along with our mate Jim. Brett was always full of mental energy and I found myself drawn into meaningful discussions about how to live with integrity in a whole new way. He was renowned among those who knew him for his machine-like approach to life – which was an attempt I think to capture his no-nonsense, consistency, coupled with extraordinary intelligence and productivity.

In simplistic terms, if we were going to map people on a style – substance continuum, Brett would be off the scale up the substance end. Which is not to comment particularly about his ‘style’, although family and friends love to jibe about the jumpers he wears for seemingly decades and I do recall a pair of runners that he kept together with tape for a comical period of time. Which would not be so startling if his vocational home was in a grass roots community organisation. But he is Professor Brett Inder, Head of Econometrics at one of Australia’s leading universities. For Brett, his expertise in economics is a means to making the world a more just place. (talking about equal opportunity and diversity at Uni)

While many people discuss fantasies of communal living, Brett and Jenny just did it. They purchased a house across the road from the Uni and over time managed to secure the use of 2 or 3 more around them. Their home is always open and when you drop around to visit there are always other people around, including (foster) children in addition to their own. When Brett got interested in Fair Trade and joined the People for Fair Trade Collective, their garage became a warehouse for tea and coffee, purchased directly from farmers for distribution to people in Melbourne committed to helping to offer a better deal for coffee growers.

Brett has always shunned a public profile. However on October 21st 2002 he found himself in the media spotlight when he helped to restrain a student who had taken a gun into class, opened fire killing two and injuring seven others. The bravery and courage expressed through that act is entirely consistent with Brett’s way of life.

Mate, you have been a profound inspiration for me. Your ability to see and hear the essence of what matters through the noise of the crowd is a rare thing. There are any number of people whose identity is wrapped up in radicalism. But you are a model of someone who seems to grasp the substance of the issue irrespective of whether there is a community of support around it. My life is always richer having ‘chewed the fat with you’. Your generosity and friendship have been a treasure through time.


now we cross to …

My first memory of self-mocking Australian TV comedy was a 70s show called The Naked Vicar Show. I don’t remember a lot but there are a few sketches seared in my memory. One used footage from Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. As he descended the ladder and spoke those famous words, “One small step for man …” the coverage was abruptly interrupted by a voice that drawled, “Now we cross to racing at Moonee Valley.”

The Friday evening before last I was settled in front of Channel 7. Along with 50 billion others I watched the Prince walk up the red carpet with all the pompous surroundings and the world waited for Kate to arrive. And then the coverage was interrupted by a smiling suit that informed us, “Viewers in the southern states will now cross to the football for the match between Carlton and the Sydney Swans.” Indeed we will.

Strategy is about stuff that matters in the long run. Leaders who are strategic suspend the noise and apparent urgency of immediate operational needs and prepare the organisation for the future. During the half-time happenings at Docklands yesterday my brother-in-law Gregg and I were talking about how in junior sport everyone follows the ball around, and I was reminded of Wayne Gretzky’s famous commentary on what made him such a dominant (ice hockey) player. “I skate to where the puck is going to be.”

It takes great courage in an organisation to be strategic, especially when most people are interested in looking somewhere else, typically the urgent needs of this week. This week is important too, but someone in the organisation must have the courage to ‘cross to thinking about the future’.

Take a step back. What is consuming leadership energy in your organisation? Is it time for someone to interrupt the telecast?

from forum to dialogue

We have a ten year old car that we love and our mechanic hates. We love it because it has been reliable, it drives well and is comfortable. Steve, our mechanic of over 15 years is an old school workshop man. The mass of cables, hoses and the electronics make things hard to get to and sometimes hard to diagnose. If someone asked Steve what he thought about early model Holden Vectras, he’d say, ‘don’t touch them with a barge pole.’ If someone asked me, I’d say, ‘best small car we’ve ever owned’. Same car; different experiences.

The point is that the opinions and beliefs we hold are rarely arrived at through objective thinking. We ‘experience’ our way to a belief, rather than thinking our way there. I was pondering this while preparing for a forum I facilitated over the weekend that brought together more than a hundred people by video link in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney. The forum addressed a controversial (but medically conventional) treatment for a chronic disease that has medical professionals with differing perspectives and patients with emotionally charged views on what needs to be done to make the treatment available.

It was always going to be engaging because of how close people are to the issue. My concern was that we move beyond a “Q and A’ style of forum to a genuine dialogue. One of the reasons Q and A is such great television is Tony Jones’ mastery at fishing for controversy while maintaining decorum, at least on camera. But a forum, as valuable as the medium is, is essentially a competition of ideas. The key skill of a Q and A participant is being able to articulate their views with succinct and compelling clarity.

The key skill in a ‘dialogue’ is listening. The primary commitment to listen presupposes that we don’t get it, rather than assuming our perspective is more correct, even if not absolutely so.

If we accept my proposition that we ‘experience’ our way to a position, then the adage that we can’t argue someone out of a position they never ‘thought’ themselves into in the first place is a corollary. If we want a coming together of different perspectives to lead to collective progress in our understanding of an issue, then our primary concern will be to ask question that help us understand ‘why’ people hold particular views, not from a rational apologetic perspective but from an experiential one. Seeing the world through the eyes of someone with whom we disagree, is the first step to a fuller understanding of the issue.

So, let’s not be content with forums, lets promote more genuine dialogue. If you are really keen on this, I’ve found William Isaac’s book from the late 90s on the topic to be as good as they come.

nomads, chameleons and pilgrims

I recently wrote an application to attend the Do Lectures in Wales. True to the character of the event, the application required handwritten responses to a set of questions, the first of which was, ‘Who are you?’ in 50 words or less. I described myself as a nomad.

Maria and I have lived in our house in East Brunswick, an inner northern suburb of  Melbourne for nearly 20 years so the classic meaning can hardly be true. However, we own a caravan in which we live for as many months of the year as business and family commitments allow. We call our caravan our ‘yurt’ borrowing from the name of the tent-like dwelling used by the nomadic people of central Asia. These days, many people in so-called developed societies are living in yurts for a season to experiment with what they can live without. This is what our ‘yurting’ is about for us: experimenting with simple living; being outdoors more than indoors, thinking about food from day to day, living without TV and generally detoxing from our inner urban professional habits. As the Beach Boys sang, ‘we’ll get there fast then we’ll take it slow.’ (from Kokomo)

But for me being a nomad has a professional meaning too. As a consultant I do my work in other organisations. The approach we take to our work means we make considerable effort to immerse ourselves in the life of the organisations we serve. We live in their environment. When it’s time to move one, we pack up our stuff and move on, hopefully leaving the environment in better shape than we found it.

Being a nomad has a certain romantic appeal. The idea of being at home wherever we lay our hat is kind of cool. And there is a good deal of truth to the perspective that being a consultant is a privileged existence in that every new project ushers new knowledge about an industry and the particular culture of the organisation.

* * *

I was born on September 11th, the same year JFK was assassinated. There was nothing special about my birthdate until the turn of the millennium. On September 11th 2000 the World Economic Forum came to Melbourne at the height of the anti-globalisation sentiment. The day became known as S11. The community with which I identified was associated with an event on the day beforehand which was designed to be a celebration of the elements and initiatives in society which enhanced social justice. This was our attempt to be positive rather than protestant. The day was dubbed S10, and it was a fantastic day of community spirit, held in Treasury Gardens adjacent to the Government Offices. However, it would be my experiences on S11 that would be a parable for one of the significant transitions in my life.

During the morning I participated in the street festival that formed part of the protest outside the blockade of Crown Casino where the 200 Forum delegates were meeting. Occasion appropriately I wore jeans, Blundstone boots and a suitably scruffy top.

At the time I was in transition between my work in the community sector and consulting in the business world. By the afternoon I was in a cotton short sitting in a corporate Board Room. The point here is that I’ve always managed to feel at home in disparate social environments. In fact I enjoy the variety. I’ve not felt a contradiction within, but sometimes I’ve wondered about the authenticity of it. Where do I belong? In the street, or in the office?

The skill of the chameleon is to adapt to their environment. But the motive is invisibility. I wonder whether I am confident enough in my identity and contribution to be strongly who I am. Do I just conform to whatever environment I am in?  Perhaps I am a chameleon?

* * *

And then I read this from Mark Nepo:

To journey without being changed is to be a nomad.

To change without journeying is to be a chameleon.

To journey and be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.

I am acutely conscious of how my experiences along the way have shaped me. Perhaps I should more aptly describe myself as a pilgrim.

Everything is connected. At a micro level we experience this within our bodies; when one part is in pain our whole self suffers. We understand that our physical, mental and emotional states are related in curious ways. Within our families and friendship groups, among those we love, we feel collective joy and anxiety and the gamut of emotions. Any decision made by, or event experienced by one member can have significant influence on the lives of others.

As we keep extrapolating out we realise we are connected with all humanity, and ultimately with all living things. Ideas like this, ideas that used to be considered the domain of odd people on the margins of mainstream society are now increasingly appreciated as foundational principles of cultivating sustainable societies.

So our journey through life is not as an independent being, a parasite on the earth or a maverick in the jungle of urban living; rather we are pilgrims, shaped by our engagements with each other and the challenges and opportunities life offers us.

Pilgrims do not wander aimlessly. They are called by a deep, identity shaping belonging. Sometimes it has an outer world expression, but mostly, pilgrimage is an inner journey towards love, peace, justice and joy.

Rarely do pilgrims journey alone. Pilgrimage is normally a community affair so our natural instinct is to find those who we can travel alongside. In this digital age, the connections we cultivate with fellow pilgrims are not limited to face to face relationships. This has always been the case to some extent. Before the internet I considered some authors as mentors and fellow travellers and I would do my best to meet them when the opportunity arose. These days those opportunities are multiplied as we find kindred spirits through various social networking technologies.

And so I will think twice before describing myself as a nomad, even though the characterisation of a nomad as travelling but not being changed is often true of me.

In my struggle to be comfortable with who I am and how I conduct myself in the world, it is also true that I sometimes behave like a chameleon.

But I will strive to be less like a nomad and less like a chameleon. I will seek to be a pilgrim. Funky? No. Generative? I think so.


Some people have a way with words. My long time friend Rob Conkie is currently directing a performance of Shakespear’s Henry IV (part 1) as part of Latrobe Uni’s Moat Festival, so last night Maria and I went along to take it in. Listening to the English master is humbling. Even though English might be my first language, I feel a bit like a toddler holding a cricket bat compared with a Sachin Tendulka. (BTW, the performances and direction are A class; well worth the effort.) It reminded me of some of the thoughts related to last weeks post on finding our sweet spot.

A related conversation, is about finding people who are at the top of their game and bask in their competence. Whether that be concreting (last week’s post) or language. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy authors who write like poets. Mark Nepo is one. This morning I read this little phrase from him;

“When overcome with urgency we tend to strike at life blindly.”

Indeed. A discipline that goes a long way to prevent serial urgency is quarantining regular time for reflection. The stage of life in which we find ourselves, and related routines, will impact how we are able to build it in, but where there is a will there is a way to steal an old cliché. I remember when our kids were young it meant getting up early before there was any noise in the house. These days with more flexibility it tends to be more civilised, often in quiet cafes or leisurely walks. (although Maria says I don’t walk I dawdle.)

Anyway, Mark’s little proverb reminded me again of the paradox. Some weeks are so busy its impossible to get through them well without taking time for reflection. I hope you manage to find a way to avoid ‘striking at life blindly’ this week.

nice work

Sam and his team did some demolition and laid some new concrete for us on the weekend. Towards the end of the day I had two separate interactions that went very similarly;

“Do you like your driveway?”

“Yeah”, I say “It looks good”.

“It’s what we do (smiling with pride).”

You could tell they loved doing a good job. I stood on the road at one point with my neighbour Paul and we joked about how these blokes were the real deal … one of them had the trademark blue singlet and fag hanging out of his mouth. Lovely to watch.

Derek and I have agreed that this year, 2011, we will put some energy and resources into developing our strengths. In part that means sharpening the focus of what we offer to the market. Another dimension is fuelling the brain juices with the stuff that motivates us in that direction.

The first expression of that is a new offering we launched in January: the IT Team Health Check. The second, starts today, participating with a bunch of other likeminded people, in the Reos Partners Learning Festival. Adam Kahane’s work has been formative for us in the social innovation and facilitation work we do at Ergo so it will be good to see him and his associates host some discussion here in our home town.

There is something that moves deep inside when I come to the end of a complex or challenging facilitation assignment and have delivered over and above. I love the look in people’s eyes when they reflect back on what we have accomplished. Inside I say to myself, “It’s what I do.”

This year, even this week, I hope you find yourself doing lots of the stuff that, for you, is in the sweet spot. May there be plenty of opportunities to step back and say, “It’s what I do.”

quiet bravery

While I concocted some lunch food (fig and goats cheese, and gnocchi and roasted vegie salads; burghul with currents, lemon and pistachios) Maria and her friends sat on the deck and talked until the afternoon became the evening. This is an amazing bunch of women.

The stories they tell, one after another, would not even be construed by commercial TV current affairs producers. We laugh embarrassed laughs at the near comical scenarios, I wouldn’t believe them possible if I’d heard them second-hand. The people they work with are amongst the most broken in the community and they regularly fall (or jump) through the cracks in the system inadequately designed to support them.

We sit there on our ponsy deck eating bobo food. Polite society carries on while people improvise on the margins. This group of friends have their own incredible journeys … and yet they find the strength to give of themselves everyday with no recognition.

I’ve worked briefly with Simon McKeon. He is an extraordinary person who deserves being named Australian of the Year for 2011. But with no disrespect for Simon, women like these are equally deserving. They work with some of the most difficult people. The conditions they work under would not be tolerated by large numbers of us. They are creative, even eccentric in the way they turn up every day and seek to make life better for others. What they do demands skill, grace and perseverance … everyday. And it is mostly invisible.

They are a testament to the beauty of humanity.

It makes me think about the way the tertiary educated community serves others. We think our way to service. We have theories, frameworks and ideologies that fortify us. And I smile when I hear these women talk about how useless many formally trained social workers are.

Perhaps it is in part because we are uncomfortable, in formal work and educational environments, talking about the one thing that makes the biggest difference. The thing that we all acknowledge is the most important thing in life, yet the thing that we talk about least in our professions. Love.


It has been over a year since I picked up a copy of AFR Boss. It hasn’t lost its edge. There are certainly more provocative publications on the shelves, but the thing that sets Boss apart is the audience; The Financial Review readership. Most radical mags preach to the converted.

This month’s Boss contains articles on:

  • Flood clean-up volunteers in QLD
  • Tips to eliminate weasel words (a regular column maybe)
  • Facebook and social media
  • Refugee employment programs
  • ‘crowd-funding’; how social media is changing fund-raising,
  • as well as an add for a AFR Boss sponsored conference on connecting the heart and mind in leadership.

The point is not to do a little promo for Boss, but rather to think about how advocacy works in the business world. The whole mag is framed around leadership: an issue front of mind for business leaders. The media is at home; that is the style and layout sit easily in a boardroom – the media doesn’t get in the way of the message. And the figurative microphone is given to peers, business people speaking to business people.

One of the reasons I’m thinking about this is the experience I had last week, working with a group of people who were fully engaged in the developing conversation being played out in the media relating to Australia’s commitment to foreign aid. The ability to speak and be heard is built on a foundation of relationship built up over many years.

Sometimes, those of us who are committed to playing a part in building a better world think that we can lever influence by the right-ness of our message. I have seen people develop anger and even bitterness when their message doesn’t get traction. But my observations from last week and my weekend reading of Boss remind me that the hard yards are in building relationships of trust; looking for common ground, the things that connect rather than divide. It is on this foundation that we can speak out for change.

But what about Egypt? Sometimes large scale change can only be achieved by revolution. However, we should be thoughtful about the difference between a forum for the competition of ideas and the abuse of power. In most cases, our primary opportunity to work for change will be to speak into forums built on relationships of trust.

What do I stand for? What are my causes? (or what am I currently complaining about? Do I care enough about it to do something?) With whom do I need to build bridges in order to engage the conversation? By all means we can build communities around the cause by long discussions with like-minded people, but lets not confuse that with advocating for change. Throwing stones from a distance is easy.