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Leadership Strategies from Nature with Dr. Kathleen Allen

Episode 37

What can nature teach us about how to get the most from our organizations? In this episode, Marcus welcomes Dr. Kathleen Allen to discuss changing our perspectives of assigning roles within teams and organizations to what she calls leading a “living systems”. Dr. Allen is the president of her consulting firm, Allen and Associates, and has written many articles and contributed to a variety of books, including The Transforming Leader: New Approaches to Leadership for the Twenty-first Century and Innovation in Environmental Leadership: Critical Perspectives. Her most recent book, Leading from the Roots: Nature-Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World, is available now.


Show Notes

  • An alternative to reorganization (1:45)
  • “We are human beings living and working in an environment, and when you have a collection of human beings, then your organization probably isn’t an object, either. It’s just that we’re thinking that it’s an object.” Dr. Allen (2:50)
  • The “living systems” perspective (4:45)
  • “Living systems are interdependent. They’re not separate. And our job descriptions are designed and written to keep us separate from each other.” Dr. Allen (9:00)
  • Strategy comes from patterns rather than details. (13:00)
  • “So the old leadership question is, what do I need to control? And the new leadership question of a living system is, what do I need to unleash?” Dr. Allen (16:45)
  • Work with you as opposed to working for you (19:30)
  • Empowering employees with a common shared goal versus controlling employees through management tactics (28:00)
  • “Influence, not authority.” Marcus (33:00)
  • “It’s the illusion of control and power. And that’s what we’re selling is the illusion. But nature doesn’t have a CEO.” Dr. Allen (36:30)
  • Growing change versus making change (41:00)



Announcer: Welcome to the Programming Leadership Podcast, where we help great coders become skilled leaders and build happy high performing software teams.


Marcus: Welcome to the show. I am so happy to have Dr. Kathleen Allen with me today, and we are going to talk about all kinds of wonderful things. And this is a really important episode to me, because I get so many questions about the things we’re going to talk about, so I want you to really listen. But before we do, I want to just do a little housekeeping, and that is if you enjoy this podcast, would you go to wherever podcasts are listened to, wherever you’re finding it, and just give us a few stars? Leave us a review, tell us it’s working for you. That’s the way you can help us to know how to make it better and to know what topics and episodes you really enjoy.


Marcus: Okay. Without further ado, Dr. Kathleen Allen, thank you for being on the show.


Kathleen: Oh, it’s wonderful to be here, Marcus. Thanks for the invite.


Marcus: I have at least four clients right now that are going through a reorganization, and all of them are telling me it’s painful. Now, I’m not always hearing from the person at the top. Sometimes that is being inflicted on them… maybe, the reorganization. But yesterday when you and I spoke, you offered sort of a mind-expanding view of a different way to think about organizations and reorganization. Could we rewind to that idea of, what is an organization?


Kathleen: Well, our prevailing view is that an organization is an inert object; so, think coffee cup. All right? We all have one.


Marcus: I have one right here.


Kathleen: Solid. It’s an object. And who gets to move the coffee cup, and who does the coffee cup serve? So when we think of our organization as an object… let’s say the proverbial or metaphoric coffee cup… the person who owns the cup gets to move the cup to serve their needs, their individual needs. We don’t have to have a conversation with a coffee cup before you move it, right?


Marcus: This is a great analogy. No, I didn’t this morning. I just put the coffee in it, and then I’ve been I feel a little guilty now because I’ve been selfishly just drinking from the cup all morning.


Kathleen: Objects’ value are designed to be functional. They basically… as soon as they lose function, then they lose value. The problem is that our organizations are filled with human beings and we’re not coffee cups. We are human beings living and working in an environment, and when you have a collection of human beings, then your organization probably isn’t an object, either. It’s just that we’re thinking that it’s an object. And as soon as we think an organization is an object, and we’re the leader or the owner, then we say the organization is designed to meet my needs… not necessarily the mission, not necessarily the purpose of the organization. And so, the organization and the organization’s profits become something that is owned by the top leaders of an organization.


Kathleen: The problem is also extended when, if you think your organization is an object, then it’s a very easy step to objectify the people in the organization. And when people feel objectified and they… I believe we know when we’re being objectified… then there’s really no reason for us to show up and actively engage and help the organization. So, we will comply. We will do our work. We will hope for something better. We will sometimes create living pockets within this objectified organization. We call them high-performance teams.


Marcus: Yes!


Kathleen: Because people who are treated as human beings tend to perform much better than people who are treated as objects. So there’s this whole kind of cascade, a negative cascade, that happens when we think of our organizations and lead our organizations as if it’s an object. So, I’m now a big fan of living systems, and I think of our organizations as living interdependent human systems, and that’s why I like to go to nature to learn because it’s a living system.


Marcus: It seems so obvious when you say it. Your organization is made up of living people… that no one is an object. But clearly it’s easy to get fooled! And we don’t have to go into this unless you think it’s an interesting place that we go to, but it seems like historically, somehow, for a long time, we’ve kind of gotten in this mindset that the owner-controlled and the people complied, and you’re just a cog, you’re just a resource… is, of course, a word I think that maybe is a word that objectifies people. Is there kind of a source to all this that you see from the past?


Kathleen: Well, really our organizations didn’t really start until the early 1900s, and it just happened that it was at the same time that we were falling in love with the steam engine and-


Marcus: The Industrial Revolution.


Kathleen: The Industrial Revolution happened and then we created assembly lines. And so basically, we fell in love with machines as a way of kind of extending our life… transportation and other kinds of ways. And so when we were looking around for an organizational design, we didn’t look to nature. We looked to machines, and so our hierarchies, our functions, our job descriptions… everything is kind of part, part, part. Let’s boil this task on this assembly line down to this task, and instead of a task, [inaudible 00:06:25] part, and then the person who’s performing them becomes a cog, an object in a big machine. So, this machine mentality has been with us for a long time.


Marcus: Yeah, you hit on one of my personal frustrations, and that’s job descriptions which act like they’re a mathematical function of inputs and outputs and can just be done… or like a machine; you feed it gasoline, it moves it. I don’t know, it’s just… but yet, whenever I talk to somebody, and this was my experience in an organization if you were to say, “Well, are you doing what the job description says?” They’d say, “I don’t even know my job description. I’m doing whatever it takes.” The job is a Marcus-shaped “hole” in the organization that I have expanded, or maybe contracted to fill. And that’s what the whole organization has become.


Kathleen: And not only that but think about the craziness of this. So, the assumption is that actually, a human being will fill this box in this organizational chart and that human beings are actually geometrically shaped.


Marcus: I was just going to say, the word box stood out for me there!


Kathleen: But what if we are amoeba-shaped, which means that some of our talents will go outside of our box. It will even go into the box of a person next to us on the organizational chart. And so, the whole idea is absolutely crazy, and nature… one of the beautiful things about nature is it self-organizes all the time, and our job descriptions and our HR processes basically are designed to eliminate self-organization in our organization.


Marcus: Oh, yeah!


Kathleen: It’s just crazy. And here we are trying to… the whole engagement thing is really big, right?


Marcus: By engagement, you don’t mean marriage. You mean people who are participating more fully in their jobs.


Kathleen: Yes. So because we need… external environments changing all the time, we need more innovation. And people recognize at some odd level under the objectification that the people in our organization are our way through these challenges, but they don’t release all of the things that are holding the objectification in place. And in HR, if we were going to design job descriptions to unleash talent in our organization, then we would be not sitting down and listing all of the different parts of the job that they were responsible for, which gets them to focus on just their work and nobody else’s. Living systems are interdependent. They’re not separate. And our job descriptions are designed and written to keep us separate from each other.


Marcus: Isn’t it funny that one of the biggest things I hear is when somebody is frustrated that the person… that an employee is only working to the job description. That’s like almost an insult of like, “Oh, you only do the job description.” But companies don’t reflect that simply by creating that job description. they’ve gone a long way down the road in their mental models of how valuable people are and what people should do or not do. So, it almost feels like there’s kind of the overt rule and then the secret rule.


Marcus: The secret rule, is we don’t really want to ever hear, “No, that’s not in my job description,” but the overt rule is, “At evaluation time, we’re going to evaluate you.” I don’t know. Is this silly that we have two sets of rules, maybe?


Kathleen: It’s real that we have multiple competing sets of rules. The problem is that it’s not something that’s designed to make an effective organization. So if you’re a conscious leader, whether you’re leading a team in the middle of your organization or you’re leading the overall organization, it would be maybe beneficial for us to stop and ask the question, what assumptions are we using when we work with people? Are we thinking that they are waiting to be told, or they only ask what to do? Or are we seeing them as highly capable and it’s our job to unleash their talent and their energy and their humanness in service to a larger shared purpose?


Marcus: Well, let’s stop and… so you’ve mentioned a few of these assumptions. Let’s pretend that there’s someone listening because I think there will be, and that someone is contemplating an organizational change, and they are really impacted by what you’re saying, and they think, “I don’t want to make that mistake, but the only way I’ve heard about organizational change is to get the organizational chart, start moving around the boxes and arrows and maybe we’ll put together a vision statement of where we want to go. And then we’ll just sort of pull a big lever and change everybody’s title and reporting structure.”


Marcus: If that’s the only way they know-how, how do you think people should be approaching organizational change? How can we do it in a more organic society… I don’t know the right words, because this is all so wonderful… but what is a better way to go forward?


Kathleen: Well, my consulting work is in the intersection of leadership and change, large-scale change in organizations. So, one of the things that I’ve been experimenting with for about the last 20 years is starting with the assumption that the organization I’m working with is a living system instead of a dead machine. And then how does that then… that fundamentally changes a whole slew of things.


Kathleen: One is that living systems are interdependent and they’re connected, and they’re filled with relationships, and the speed of change is actually… change flows through relationships at the speed of trust. So if you want to change your organization, then if your relationships are a mess and people don’t trust each other, and you’re not authentic and you have basically a lot of drama and trauma in the workplace, I’d say the first place you would go would be to start creating better relationships, because that’s really where people will either resist, or they will actively support you, and you want them to actively support.


Kathleen: The second is that in living systems, especially in today’s organizations, we’re living in a fairly complex time. So things bump into other systems, bump into systems. And so it’s not simple work that you’re doing, and it’s not complicated work. It’s actually an open system, and open systems… your strategy comes from pattern rather than details.


Marcus: Give us an example of that. I’m super curious.


Kathleen: Okay. So if you think that your problem for reorganization is complicated… there’s lots of variables, but it’s knowable because you can create a controlled boundary, and therefore you can control anything inside that boundary of that organization as long as you know it enough. So what you do is you study and analyze all the parts and then you add… it’s like taking apart a car and then you reassemble it and then… with whatever tweaks.


Kathleen: But the problem with reorganization, if you start with a machine framework, is that the machine is bounded already by its structure, so you either have to cobble something on top of it, or redesign the machine entirely, or throw out a whole section and redesign it. But living systems, they scale naturally. They grow and evolve naturally. But living systems are complex, so you move from a closed system to an open system idea.


Kathleen: And so, if you think of your organization as a living system and living systems evolve with information. So if you wanted to create change, you would want to spread information. If you’re worried that your organization isn’t adaptive enough to what’s happening externally, then you would want to expose the threat and share as much information as possible, so that people would understand what they’re trying to reorganize to.


Kathleen: I grew up at a time when organizational change was kept close to the vest, and you didn’t talk about it, you announced it.


Marcus: Is that time actually passed?


Kathleen: Well, with all of the people I’m working with, it’s passed, because you know it’s basically dead in the water, because as soon as you announce it… humans are very creative at resisting things they don’t like.


Marcus: Yeah. We can undermine things very subtly, can’t we?


Kathleen: And we only really support the things that we help to create. That’s a living system principle. We only pay attention to things that matter to us here and now. That’s a living system principle. We are in movement all the time. So instead of trying to create change, we should be trying to transform the energy in the direction that we’re already flowing in.


Marcus: You used an interesting word, I want to rewind to it, and it just keeps bouncing around in my head like a tiny, tiny ball bearing in a very large room. The word is “unleashed,” because it reminds me that that infers that we are leashed, which is the way I keep my dog when I take her on a walk; I keep her leashed. But that very picture is terrible when I think about people… but we do use the word unleashing potential, unleashing engagement, unleashing performance. It’s sort of right there in the phrase… indicates we are doing something to leash it.


Kathleen: Yes. So the old leadership question is, what do I need to control? And the new leadership question of a living system is, what do I need to unleash? How do I create conditions conducive to people showing up in their most authentic skilled, gifted way? And it’s very different. It’s the way… but almost all of our HR policies and procedures are all about control.


Marcus: And protecting the company.


Kathleen: And that’s not even including supervision and expectations and stuff like that.


Marcus: I’m wondering… if somebody is listening, there might be somebody out there who thinks this sounds a little scary. I mean, they got to where they are being leashed, they rose up in the organization, all the rules worked for them. They learned this from childhood. They started in a classroom where a teacher was the expert in front and all of that. And so, do you find your clients feel a little bit of fear or anxiety about these ideas?


Kathleen: Actually, the folks that I work with… well, some of them have lived through toxic leaders who have been fired, and then I come in and they asked me to help them heal from that leadership, which is usually all about controlling fear. And the way through that is actually bringing them back into relationship to each other so that they can let go of their defaults of hurting each other and traumatizing each other, and choosing an alternative path and a different way of being in relationship. And mostly, when you give people an invitation like that, they love it. Not everybody loves it, but a lot of people do.


Kathleen: So I always think that they’re… in traditional management, they tend to be organizationally focused in terms of mission, but they also are very still control-framed. So, some people really like to have the manager be responsible for everything: communicating, motivating, changing, planning, deciding, because they know what their role is in relationship. Their job is to do what they’re told. But it’s a huge burden to the manager.


Marcus: Yeah. I mean, but if all you have is coffee cups, you’ve got a lot of work to do to move those cups, pour the cups, clean the cups.


Kathleen: No wonder we’re burned out.


Marcus: Right! No wonder we’re tired.


Kathleen: No wonder we’re tired. No wonder we’re burning the midnight oil. It’s because we’re moving all those coffee cups and cleaning out the break room.


Marcus: That’s right.


Kathleen: It’s crazy. And we don’t even think that there’d be people that could help, but if you invite them, you might be hugely surprised how many people will show up and work with you, as opposed to work for you. And I always think there’s… so some people will just go by the invitation. Let’s shift our model from top-down to actually active collaborative team and working together for this purpose.


Kathleen: Now some people will say, “Oh, that’s too scary for me. I want to stay here and be told what to do and wait to be told.” But that doesn’t get you to a high-performance team; that gets you to a split team, but it doesn’t get you to a high-performance team. And of course, what’s interesting is that the people in that old kind of management frame that look really good are the people who are going empowerment gone wild. There are folks who are skilled, but they’re also focused on their own self-interest or the interests of their team over the interests of the larger organization. And so, what you need to do is kind of align people around a shared purpose and then don’t give them any option other than showing up.


Marcus: Hmm.


Kathleen: Changing the way you’re in relationship with them.


Marcus: Yeah, well… okay, my mind is spinning. I have so many thoughts.


Marcus: But I’m curious, can you tell us a story that might illustrate what an invitation looks like, because I really like that word? Inviting people in… now you said not everyone will take it; some people might be nervous… but I’d love to hear a little bit more about what that sounds like.


Kathleen: It usually starts with an articulation of a higher shared purpose. Almost all of our organizations were designed to meet a deep need that exists in the community that we’ve forgotten. And so, helping people see the meaning and the importance behind our work is usually the first place I go. There’s that old story of three bricklayers, and you go to the first one and say, “What are you doing?” And the bricklayer says, “I’m laying brick.” And you go to the second one and it says, “What are you doing?” And he says, I’m building a wall. And you go to the third one and say, “What are you doing?” They say, “Oh, I’m building a cathedral.” That third one is… part of the invitation is helping to connect people’s day to day work with something that really matters.


Kathleen: And so, that’s the first invitation. The second part of the invitation is just to acknowledge that each individual that you’re talking to is a unique person who has a unique set of gifts and skills and contributions that they can make to this thing that we’re trying to do together. And sometimes, the invitation is something a little different.


Kathleen: I remember this person I had as an administrative assistant early on in my career, and we’ll just call her Sally for now. And Sally was really good at only doing exactly what I said and nothing more, which would drive me nuts.


Marcus: I bet.


Kathleen: Because I wanted her to… I was a bad speller and spell check has helped, but I wanted her to catch those things and tell me, but she would type up everything, bad spelling and all. And eventually, I just needed… I first of all thought, “Well, oh, maybe she just can’t go anywhere.”


Kathleen: And then she used to do this lunchtime bridge game, and they missed their fourth. And so they invited me in this time, and I realized that she was a card shark and she was… in other words, she had a lot to offer that she wasn’t showing at her work. And I realized afterward, once I understood her and got to know her, that her previous job had a boss… had basically pulled the rug out from under her so many times that she had learned that it was safest to just stay in her corner and do nothing more.


Kathleen: And so, my invitation for her was, I invited her in and I said, “The next time I make a mistake and you don’t correct me, you’re going to be in trouble.” So I basically reversed the-


Marcus: The power.


Kathleen: Yes. And so, she took that in and she started experimenting, and at the end of the time I was there… I was there for four years… and it took us about a year to change that whole default behavior, but she was running the place by the time I left.


Marcus: That’s a wonderful story. It reminds me that… of course, you use the word she “learned” from a previous boss how to act, and I think a lot of times we imagined… I don’t know why we think that. We think, “Well, that coffee cups only 12 ounces. It’s just a 12 ounce cup. It can’t hold more. That’s not the way it was designed.”


Kathleen: It’s not the way it was designed.


Marcus: We think about people like that, right? We say, “Well, they’re not capable. They don’t have that much capacity,” which I guess applies to coffee cups, too. But the other thing that strikes me is, people come to us and we’re not their first place they’ve ever worked, generally; they have a boss; they’ve been taught these things, and they do go to their place of safety. What’s most important for almost everyone is that they feel safe, especially in a role where they really need the job and I think that’s everyone listening.


Kathleen: It’s like a drug deal really.


Marcus: Ooh! Oh, okay. Please continue.


Kathleen: In the sense that I need my safety, and the manager needs to direct, or he needs me to do certain things, and as long as I do those things, I’ll still have a job next year and maybe I’ll have a raise. So one person does all the thinking, does all the deciding, and the other person basically complies and pleases the boss as best they can. But it doesn’t lead to innovation. It doesn’t lead to a very satisfying life for either the boss or the employee.


Kathleen: But that’s not what we see. We worry… we think that the employee needs our direction. If we’ve ever flirted with micromanagement if you’ve ever… I’ve worked in a couple of organizations where the expectation of controlling everybody under you in the organizational chart was very strong. So, you had to initially… if you were a young supervisor, you kind of complied, and then you realized how diminishing it was to you and to the people you were working with, and so you eventually learned to dance between… it’s kind of like having one foot on the boat and one foot on the dock, and trying not to get wet too often by dropping in between the space.


Kathleen: So you look like you’re controlling above, but you’re not controlling below, and you’re trying to protect that space to unleash power, give the humanness back into your team.


Marcus: Yeah, that really resonates with me. I can remember working in organizations where my boss would say, “How is it you don’t know what’s going on on your own team?” And that one phrase set in my mind that that was my primary job control, “lead,” “manage,” whatever it is, right… that I needed to be directing and ensuring that people were complying. And yet on my team, I… it’s almost like I wore two masks. To him, I would try and appear confident, and I would try and appear like everything’s under control, and it would take a lot of work to paint that mask every week for our one-on-ones. I would compile reports that would prove, look, I have everything under control. I can answer… and if I didn’t have the answer to a question, you can guarantee I would make one up on the spot, and I would keep the confident mask on.


Marcus: But when I go to my team, I didn’t want to be that kind of manager, and so I would be more of a relational manager with them. That was what I was trying to do. But after a while, I think I probably had to just decide, which way are you going to be? And I’m not sure I decided right. But maybe I can say there were a lot of forces at play… safety, organizational culture. And in the middle, I felt pulled between the dock and the boat.


Kathleen: Yeah. I think that people in the middle of the organization are always torn. They are the ones that are actually connected to the people at the bottom who feel vulnerable and invisible, and they’re also connected to the people at the top who sometimes are overburdened and kind of struggling to make things happen in the way they think it has to happen. And the people in the middle are often… they see themselves as torn between the tops and the bottoms. But I like to reframe the framework of the middle because I actually think nothing powerful happens unless it comes out of the middle.


Marcus: Okay, I can’t wait to hear this because I just got off a call with somebody who said, “I’m in the middle so I have no power and no voice.”


Kathleen: Well, we can shift the conversation to… birth comes out of the middle. It doesn’t come-


Marcus: Well, that is true!


Kathleen: But as a longtime VP, I knew that my constraints for what kind of change I could do in an organization had to be something that people would support, and the people that I needed the support from were the middle. So, their readiness or their lack of readiness actually always constrained my leadership action. But when we’re in the middle, because we’ve been taught that this is all about rank-ordering hierarchy, we say, “Oh, we’re in the middle. We’re not at the top. We can’t initiate change because we’re not at the top.” There are certain ideas that we have floating around in our heads that no longer serve us, and I think that’s one of them.


Kathleen: The other thing is that there’s this beautiful book, a small book, called Gentle Action. It’s by a guy named David Peat. And the reason I love the Gentle Action book is that it’s all about new rules for change that assume that we are connected to each other instead of separate from each other. So, when we think we’re separate in the organization, we always start with the assumption that everything then is rank-ordered, and you have to do change based on power and position. But when you assume that you are connected, then you have influencers that show up through the social network.


Kathleen: Well, as soon as we introduced technology into our organizations, we became a networked organization embedded in a hierarchical organization, and change flows and ideas flow along the lines of connection and relationship. So as soon as you have a network relationship, the rules of how to make change are really different.


Kathleen: So, now there’s this guy in Minneapolis who… I can’t remember his name, but he wrote an article for Fast Company, I think, called Key Hubs, and he was inviting HR professionals to do a social mapping of who are the influencers that are not in positions in organizations, and then use that information to invite them into conversations around strategy and organizational redesign and things like that, because if they understood it and helped to create it, then they would support it down along their lines of social networking in the organization.


Kathleen: So I would say for your person who said, “I’m just in the middle,” you’d say, “Oh, you’re just in the middle. Oh wow, what a powerful place to be.” And then you might say, “Who do you know and who you have influence with, not from a hierarchical framework, but from a relational framework?”


Marcus: Influence, not authority.


Kathleen: Not authority.


Marcus: And influence is more powerful.


Kathleen: Yeah, much more powerful. And the thing is, is that I realized that as I got promoted organizationally, that the things I was given to be responsible for, I had less and less authority over. So, this is one of those odd secrets about supervision and promotion, is you get up to a certain level in the organization and all of a sudden your whole portfolio is about stuff that you have no direct control over.


Marcus: Right.


Kathleen: Right?


Marcus: I suppose you could say a President might feel that way.


Kathleen: I’m sure.


Marcus: They, in theory, have a lot of… well, they’re supposed to be doing a lot of things, but what can they really change?


Kathleen: Right. They have no control over the things that they’re trying to change, but we think they do, and we give up all of our power in that kind of assumption. But what if we changed the way we thought and we said, “Oh, we could actually create the constraints or the boundaries of where we go and where we don’t go by how we show up, about the things we talk about to each other.”


Marcus: Yeah, I think that it… I’m imagining this person who had told me, “Well, I’m in the middle. My voice is small,” and I’m going to guess that if you got them and all the executives in a room, their voice is probably all about the same volume in decibels, right? So, smallness is an idea that they bring to it. And of course, then, that causes us… and I’ve done this… it causes us to act small and it causes us to think we don’t have much power or influence.


Marcus: But we’ve all been in organizations where at the bottom is where ideas start to take hold. Unfortunately, a lot of those ideas are… well, I think the best ideas start there, but sometimes… I’m trying to think about how to say this… sometimes the ideas also come from the bottom, like, “This isn’t a great place to work and nobody really cares about you.” I mean, there are those ideas that get spread, and those are powerful ideas that people at the top wish would stop spreading. So in some ways, they’re acknowledging the power of the ideas being spread.


Kathleen: Mm-hmm (affirmative). But if you’re working in a complex organization where there’s a lot of knowledge and expertise that’s necessary spread through the organization for it to get that stuff done… and there are a lot of organizations like that… then what this is kind of… it sounds a little conspiracy-ish, which I don’t really intend it to be, but it’s like we don’t fully, as talent within those kinds of organizations appreciate how important we are to the organization. So, we minimize our own value, when in fact, people higher up look at you and they say, “Oh, we definitely want to keep this person because of that knowledge and expertise and value.” So, we think of ourselves as vulnerable when in fact we are generally highly valued and necessary for the organization to do its work.


Marcus: Yeah. One of my favorite books is Humble Inquiry by Ed Schein, and he talks about the dependence that leaders have, but we don’t talk about it very much because I think it goes against the grain of what we’ve been… top-down, command and control.


Marcus: But if you have a team, you are entirely dependent on that team. You need them more than they need you, even though you’re the one who’s doling out the paychecks. But there seems to be something about, we have to pretend that’s not true in order to remain powerful.


Kathleen: Yeah. It’s the illusion of control and power. And that’s what we’re selling is the illusion. But nature doesn’t have a CEO.


Marcus: That’s going to be a quote for the show notes!


Kathleen: Sorry, there’s no CEO in nature. What there is is purpose, and there’s self-organization, and the purpose of nature is to create conditions conducive to the life of future generations. It’s regenerative at its core. Five mass extinctions and life regenerates on the planet.


Kathleen: But then everything else in nature… I wrote this piece for an HR blog and I started it out with, “What do ants and human beings have in common?” And the answer was that they both can self-organize. And then I asked, “Well, how are they different?” And I wrote, “Ants self-organize all the time, and human beings only do it selectively.”


Marcus: They’re better at it than we are, aren’t they?


Kathleen: Yeah, because it’s kind of… so everybody participates. If you’re not participating in nature, you’re basically dying.


Marcus: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Kathleen: Everything is in movement. The only time you’re not in movement is when you’re decomposing.


Marcus: I want to turn back to something you said that’s really sticking in my brain, and you made a comment that when you were a VP, you would look at your middle managers and you would ask yourself… you brought this idea out that you would say, “What is my constraint for change?” And you would say, “My middle managers are my constraint to change.” But I feel like, in some organizations, the change that gets planned isn’t thought of as having any constraints, because after all, we can just rearrange the boxes on the chart, just like creating and reassembling a machine, or redoing the gears. I mean, why would we need to even think about constraints to change? But, of course, I do get the sense they’re real. So how can a company… if somebody is listening… how can someone say, “How do I even go about knowing what are my constraints to change right now?”


Kathleen: That’s a great question. Our culture in the United States does not… we just don’t really like to examine limits, so when we bump up against a limit, we think of it as a challenge, and so we just kind of blow past.


Marcus: Ooh!


Kathleen: But nature would teach us that nature taps the power of limits, and within limits, life thrives. There is this beautiful book called A Beautiful Constraint, and it was talking really about how constraints actually drive innovation. The owner and founder of IKEA said, “well, anybody can design expensive furniture, but I’m interested in designing elegant, inexpensive, reasonably priced furniture.” And that was the constraint that he set in his company that drove the innovation around IKEA. But we… I’m a gardener, and so, I live in Minnesota, and there are a whole bunch of flowers and trees that I can’t grow here, but within the constraints of a zone three ecology, cold weather… only 4 percent of the world’s population lives in colder climates, so, cold… but I have a beautiful garden. Life thrives within limits.


Kathleen: So, the problem organizationally we have is that we are almost rewarded and taught not to look at constraints as an asset, and therefore. We don’t. We’d like to deny that the concerns are there. And it gets us into real problems. I mean, we make decisions around excess all the time. We waste money, we waste time, we waste talent because we’re just not sensitive enough to the limits of the system.


Marcus: The very phrase that comes to mind is breakthrough. I don’t know why, but we are not satisfied to stop at the wall.


Kathleen: It’s true!


Marcus: We must break through it, and we really hail that as, you’ve had a breakthrough, that’s wonderful! But my mind is… yeah. I remember one time my friend Jerry Weinberg told me that there’s this common problem amongst all kinds of people, but managers are especially afflicted by it, where they overreach their ambition. They want everything faster and more, and they just have insatiable appetites.


Kathleen: And what’s interesting is that the speed actually builds resistance. So living systems, again, and interdependent systems… time delays are ubiquitous.


Kathleen: So you asked a question earlier, how would you do change differently? I now think about growing change instead of making change.


Marcus: Ooh!


Kathleen: So you prepare the soil, right? So you identify what the seeds are that you want to plant, you put the seeds in, and then you wait, because they have to germinate and you can’t see them. And then after a time, there’s germination, and then the first little green shoot comes up and they say, “Oh, something germinated. That’s good,” and you wait for the rest. And then, you keep providing nutrients, and then the plants grow, and then the flower, and then they create fruit, and then you harvest. And we think drive, drive, drive, change down through, and we think that there’s a timeline that somebody artificially sets, and we don’t acknowledge that time delays actually are a way to build more active support for the kind of change we’re doing.


Kathleen: It takes time for people to adjust, to think of themselves in this new way, to think of the work in a different way. And when we keep forcing it, what we build is resistance. I think of it as wet sand. You walk down the shore on wet sand, it doesn’t accept your footprint, but if you stood and waited, it would open up; it’s just saline and salt.


Marcus: And a little pressure over time.


Kathleen: And it opens up. And if you’ve ever driven in traffic, and you have somebody ahead of you that’s kind of a start and stop kind of person, it just creates this whole kind of delay effect in a traffic line, as opposed to people who are just slowly moving at the pace of the traffic system… then it kind of moves much smoother.


Marcus: Slow and smooth, not being in a hurry. So, I feel like the lesson here about change is, instead of making, as you said, making change, which involves maybe building, assembling, creating, dictating, implementing… we’re going to grow change. It’s going to take longer. But frankly, as the people at the nursery where I buy my plants always remind me, the longer it takes… if you buy a very small plant or a seed, the roots… it’ll all be so much better. They say it’ll take longer. Yes. You won’t have apples next year, but when you do, they will be better, stronger. It’ll be really thriving in that environment.


Kathleen: It’s an investment. For the first time this past year, I’ve been working with an organization that has the vision that it wants to be thriving a hundred years from now.


Marcus: Wow.


Kathleen: Is that cool? It’s been fascinating to be a part of that organization over the last nine months and just watch how that vision changes so much.


Kathleen: So, one of the things is when they are in budget conversations, they’re not just asking about what we allocate to each and every person or program or division. They’re also asking the question, what should we be investing in? And they’re also asking the question, how do we not waste our resources so that the future generations of leaders that need resources to help this organization adapt will have those resources present? And they think as a leadership team, they think they’re part of a leadership relay race. So their job is to be stewards of the organization at this moment in time, and they’ve had the baton handed to them from the previous generation of leaders, and they want to hand the baton to the next generation of leaders in their team, in this organization’s team, in a really good… leaving the organization in really good shape.


Kathleen: So that extended time for horizon is something simple but extremely powerful. And so then, your nursery guy talking about your apple trees is basically saying, “Do you want a tree to grow long and sustain itself?” Because we would know in nature that a slow-growing tree grows longer and becomes part of the canopy much longer. They have a longer life than a fast-tracked tree, basically.


Marcus: Yeah. I think I’m planting trees that my grandson will pick apples from.


Kathleen: Yeah, there you go. And it’s a beautiful change in the way we think, and you work with a lot of technology folks. The thing is is that, at one level when they’re doing product development, they get this growing thing, because it’s complex, it’s organic. It is, in some ways, a living thing, even though it’s technology and we don’t think of technology as alive just yet.


Marcus: Not just yet.


Kathleen: Not just yet. But interdependence is deeply embedded in technology, and so, there’s some portion of us that understand the interdependence of our systems. We just have to kind of take that knowledge and apply it to our human organizations.


Marcus: What a wonderful conversation. Thank you so much for being on the show. Where can people find you online and engage with your work?


Kathleen: I do a blog, a weekly blog, and you can sign up or check those out at That’s my website,, and on LinkedIn, it’s Kathy Allen, and you can check things out there. I post a lot of different thought leader articles around, so that would be another place. And [inaudible 00:47:35] have a Twitter account, Doctor Kat Allen.


Marcus: Oh, okay, your Twitter account. We’ll put the links to all those in the show notes, but tell us the name of your book, as well.


Kathleen: So my book is called Leading From the Roots, and it’s nature-inspired leadership lessons for today’s world.


Marcus: Wonderful!


Kathleen: Nature has 3.8 billion years of research and development on how to sustain life. So, maybe it has something to tell us.


Marcus: It’s nice of it to share it with us, too.


Kathleen: Yeah, yeah.


Marcus: Thank you for being on the show.


Kathleen: You’re welcome. Thank you so much, Marcus.


Announcer: Thank you for listening to Programming Leadership. You can keep up with the latest on the podcast at, and on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever fine podcasts are distributed. Thanks again for listening, and we’ll see you next time.

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