Artful Leadership: Awakening the Commons of the Imagination by Michael Jones is a most unusual leadership book. Michael Jones is a leadership educator, composer, and improvising pianist. He brings a unique and most profound sensibility to the art of leading in the now. We are all leaders and followers at the same time. This is such an excellent book that I’ve decided to provide an extensive summary together with some conclusions.
We need to play together and to learn to speak and listen to one another.1
The book has the form of a dialogue between Michael Jones and John Huss, a senior leader in a large corporation. The dialogue unfolded over a two-year period. Jones and Huss soon found themselves engaged in a search for different dimensions of leadership and the possibility for creating living organizations.2 I’m particularly interested in the latter. Their dialogue is most unusual in that they discuss the invisible structures that lie in the spaces between our thoughts and concepts. One might say that they bring their focus upstream to where the intellect and the heart may work together. It’s about tuning in to our senses so that we can receive what is coming in. More is given to us, than is created by us, in the abundance of imagination.3 Michael Jones dreams of a place of emergent creation which he calls the commons.4
Conversation is a practice field for finding our voice.5
Leading in turbulent times requires extraordinary presence and adaptability. Only in being alert may we find natural, unique, and unrepeatable ways of dealing with our challenges. The unpredictability of what is emerging suggests a third way of knowing – what David Bohm describes as a subtle intelligence – that reaches out and seeks the wholeness behind all things.6 By developing this ability, we reawaken our imagination, intuition, and inspiration. Together these serve as a counterpoint to the mechanistic view of the world. Technical knowledge is important, but it is only a part of the story. Listening, getting a feeling for things, engaging with others is the larger part of it.7
So much of the leader’s work is not about playing the notes,
but listening for what’s emerging in the space between.8
Connecting leadership to community and the common good puts unique demands on leaders.9 Michael Jones introduces a language for exploring this kind of organic leadership. he uses the following notions throughout the book:10
- Gifts, which corresponds with qualities of identity, integrity, and being true to one’s self.
- Beauty, which corresponds to perception and the ability to quickly make finely tuned adjustments.
- Grace, which is related to the emergence of shared meaning.
Technically based leadership is built around realizing goals. Artful leadership, on the other hand, focuses on the flow of experience that leads towards a sense of wholeness and a less divided life. To find these moments we need to step out of our own habits.11
Acting organically is about being with the other,
sensing into what there is.12
Inquiring into the moment invites responses that are more reciprocal than those that occur when we simply try to impose our will.13 Planning, control, measurement are skills well suited to stable and predictable situations. These skills, however, keep us from being fully present to the space between.14 This space cannot be planned in advance. It only exists in the moment.15
Too often, we get busier instead of slowing down to reflect and gain a perspective from our own direct experience.16 Curiosity is naturally responsive to what spontaneously arises in the flow of our direct experience.17 By sensing and finding our way together, we deepen our collective awareness of meaning and connection. These, in turn, enable being and acting at the same time.18
We find a more engaging and creative way of conducting business if we can trust the power in the moment. However, this is more challenging since we cannot control the outcome.19 Feeling what is alive now, bringing it into words, makes a crucial difference. Our past experience benefits from a fresh reading of what is emerging in the moment.20 Until we speak, we often don’t know what those words will be.21 Everyone has something we love to do and in which we can be generative.22 When we shift our attention from trying to manage to learning, from coordinating action to sensing what is already forming, we open the way for deeper coherence.23
The basic principle is that creation creates itself.24
As problems and solutions grow in complexity, so does the subtle intelligence need to expand. We need to access the uniquely human ability to find meaning in experiences at the threshold of thought. This happens between when there is space for reflection and deep listening. It’s a movement toward seeing organizations as living communities.25
From the moment we stepped onto the school ground as children, we have unwittingly entered into a mechanistic cage. Many of us have been so long in this cage that we have forgotten that we are in it.26 We have come to believe that this is the true world and that there is no other. These are more than surface beliefs. They make up the deep structures in which we live.27
Michael Jones has identified four central myths that erode our trust in life:28
- Ultimate Truth, believing there’s a single right answer, giving up our own voice to experts, allowing others to define us.
- Separation, seeing the world, not as an extension of our living, but as a resource for our consumption.
- Efficiency, believing that everything will spin out of control unless we use planning and force.
- Scarcity, believing that for one person to win another must lose.
It’s the question that frees us, not the answer.29 We forget that there is something deeper that represents our real source of aliveness. We can only live half a life if we leave ourselves behind.30 Being with the question, discovering where it takes us, is what gives us life.31
When we live our gift, the world is fundamentally changed.32
Personal truth is rooted in a coherent presence that actively flows through us.33 The gift is never solitary. It needs to circulate in order to continue to flourish and grow. Creating a circle of those through whom the gift might be shared protects us from abusing the gift.34 Our true gifts are broader and more comprehensive than skills or abilities.35
Just as a healthy organism has a billion different cells, a wise organization knows that its vitality depends upon growing differentiated centers that are autonomous and interconnected.36 While organizations may claim to want innovation and creativity, its leadership and administrative structures often prove contrary. In organizations, we are often expected to dismiss our own inborn sense of what is right in order to fulfill someone else’s mission.37
If we use the garden and soil as metaphors for the soul of an organization, then we can see that what makes the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy organization occurs underground. The equivalence of the soil’s health is the tone, mode, and deeper identity of the organization.38 Being curious and reflective builds the soil. It gives the foundation to express beauty in its many forms. Beauty helps us to live more fully in the world.39 Beauty is transitory and dwells in relationships, in-between meeting places.40
Bringing a sense of aliveness begins with perception,
but it is more than simple observation.41
The root of respect means ‘to look again.’ Our journey into beauty begins with the realization that we must look again at the world. To look again is to value existence on its own terms rather than just on ours. We can’t look again if we don’t value existence and life. It’s hard, if not impossible, to create work environments where people can feel connected and alive without respect.42
Most of us have been educated for a world of separation. We live in an over-or-under world, where everyone is judged according to how superior or inferior they are in relation to others. We all share the responsibility for building our common life-giving soil. In holding the other as part of ourselves we learn respect and compassion for others. This teaches us how to enter into relationships with others without trying to change them. Being with is fundamental to the process of organic change.43 It’s about being with another while keeping ties to one’s own inner humanity.44
An organization’s routine way of doing things is at risk when it begins to embrace life. The real power in the world is beauty and creativity. When we serve beauty we get more beauty. When we judge, we inhibit the possibility for the world to transform itself through us. When we are vulnerable, we are willing to be touched deeply by what we see, feel and hear.45
With vulnerability comes compassion for suffering, and
out of engagement with suffering comes perspective.46
Beauty serves as a guide for living a more real life. It helps us to navigate toward creating a more humane and balanced world. Beauty represents a transcendent value that acts in concert with goodness and truth. If beauty is narrowed by the efficiency of the intellect, without the mediating influence of the heart, its distortion do great damage. Work need to be honest, just, and ethical to carry out its greater purposes.47
Nature is not a resource to be exploited, but a living process from which we can be nourished and enriched.48 Our greatest work is not to separate ourselves from nature or subdue it, but to engage with it in a way that opens a space between us and the other that is emergent and continuously unfolding. This space cannot be clearly defined, nor is it quantifiable, but it’s where beauty happens.49
A dead environment dulls our perceptions and shuts down our senses.
At best we feel bored. At worst we become depressed.50
Feeling bored or depressed is a natural human response for living and working in an environment that feels lifeless and inhuman. This act of separating ourselves from the world leads to a kind of psychic death.51 And we usually don’t know it until it is too late. It is literally the inevitable consequence to seeing value only in the context of economic objectives. It is a kind of denial of our existence.52
In music – and in leadership – you don’t impose a rhythm or order. You feel it coming from within and that, in turn, opens for other things. You stay with it, following that rhythm, and it leads you forward. It doesn’t repeat the past, but expresses its own authentic nature as it evolves and changes over time.53 It is a living structure that needs to feel right, natural, and in harmony with itself. You can’t work it all out in advance. It arises during the act of creation itself. We need to discover how to sense what is unfolding, rather than simply trying to execute a plan.54
Ultimately, it’s beauty that will change our world, not power. Power is fine if you know where you are going. But if you don’t, then it’s beauty that teaches you how to receive accurate feedback and to make the subtle adaptations required as we guide ourselves forward. When we plan, we try to fix things ahead of time. And when the unexpected happens, we just power our way through.55. The more natural living process is allowed to unfold, the more freely beauty flows into the world.56 The search for beauty causes us to see the life behind life, which we have not noticed before.57
The beauty we search for is the beauty of our own song.58
Grace is not in us, but between us.59. We need to listen deeply to each other, not only for the notes, but also for what it evokes in ourselves. By being alive to the situation at hand, we invent and reinvent as we play. It’s a reflecting in action, of being interconnected in ways we may not fully appreciate or understand. Each responds to the other with something that is not rehearsed or prepared beforehand.60 Anything can engage us in this process of constructing and reconstructing what we are doing as we are doing it. The key factor is that we have no other choice than to receive, reflect, and adapt at the same time.61
We depend on each other. As we acknowledge our interconnectedness, we become tuned to those around us in such a way that we can sense and anticipate each other’s movements. As we try to navigate the unknown, this connection becomes even more necessary.62 Musicians, for example, are joined by a common interest, following the leadings of the moment. This skill isn’t intellectual, but it does involve being able to listen for what is moving in the relationship, and building on that.63 This isn’t so much acquired as remembered.64
By putting so much emphasis on efficiency, we have separated ourselves from a more natural way of knowing. We believe that everything is up to us, and that it is necessary use effort and force or everything will spin out of control.65 Maybe we live in a perpetual state of grace despite of ourselves, trying to establish and keep control even as we are surrounded by a perfect order. The paradox is that our most frenzied efforts do not speed up the processes of re-creation but rather slow them down. Almost whatever we do in the name of efficiency interferes with or delays the forces of wholeness working on our behalf.66
Life chooses the timing of our actions.67
Rather than attempting to hold the world together, our most useful work is to hold a space in which creation may enter and fulfill its purposes through us. Many have been educated to value conformity and achievement as the keys to recognition and success. In this rational world the mystery of wildness, play, femininity, flow, and ease are set aside as irrelevant or childish.68
Our inspiration forms the core out of which all movement springs. This feeling-based capacity is not based on mastery over nature, but in attunement with it. This attunement cannot be matched only by the reasoning mind. Reason constructs knowledge through argument. That means it’s likely to diminish any kind of feeling-based relationship it encounters.69 To follow what you feel calls for simplicity and ease of mind and heart. When a plan does not work because the structures that support it aren’t stable, then leaders need to follow what they feel.70
We need metaphors that not only speak of doing but also of being,
of not forcing change but being the change you want to see.71
The idea of being the change you want to see makes room for the unexpected.72 The role is one of following, not imposing. It involves choices that must be made with little opportunity for analysis. It takes attention to follow an impulse without imposing one’s own will upon it.73 In a world where the future can be imagined but not foreseen, the only constant is our responsiveness to all that is changing. Our job is to maintain an attention so we can move in alignment with what is unfolding. We need to be careful to distinguish that which is occurring naturally from what we believe ought to be happening.74
To improvise authentically is a living process where we follow the aliveness that arises from the core of our own being in relation to the necessity of the moment in time.75 That which is most tender and forming in us needs to find its own inner resilience so that it can be soft and strong at the same time. This means staying in contact with the I don’t know.76 We need to learn to serve by yielding.77
Musicians know what potential is lost when one player dominates.
Musicians also know what is possible when they collaborate.78
The question we need be asking is not how to make a system do something that it will naturally resist doing, but how to work together in alignment with what is already emerging. When we align with what is already happening, rather than what we believe ought to happen, our most subtle actions can have significant results.79 So much of what is really important is done for its own sake and for no reward at all.80
The life in language is always between two people.81. Speaking from the space between is infinitely more challenging than speaking from a prepared text. It is to make wholeness visible. Everything of what the speaker is will be revealed in the voice.82 Authentic speech is to engage in the struggle of finding language equal to the meaning we wish to convey. True thinking is often incomplete, and so feels inadequate. In the most important matters, we are speaking of things where words cannot go. This requires the ability to access felt-understanding.83
We have been educated to convert our experience into abstractions, or fixed thoughts.84 Speaking about is objective and habitual. Speaking from is alive and fresh.85 To find an original thought involves being present to that no one expects. We don’t know that it is in us until it appears. It is the distinction between speaking about and from that represents the shift from second- to first-order experience. It is the shift from what I should think, feel and see, to what I am thinking, feeling, and seeing. We cannot speak from first-order experience unless we are in a place in which it feels safe to speak.86
To be present means to be with whatever we are experiencing in the moment. While our mind may fix itself on certain concepts, our inner reality is in a constant flow of experience.87 There will always be something that draws our attention. This something is something we are sensing into. By feeling our way into our inner experience we also acknowledge the body’s knowing. In this way we may discover a new perspective. By not trying to force our experience into existing constructs, we become alive to playfulness and the unfolding of new meanings.88
In a habitual world, we tend to work with finished and repetitive ideas.
In a living world, our experiences are free-forming and fluid.89
By trying to fit people into our organizational structures we have taken flexible human beings, and changed them into something fixed. We have changed ourselves into people engaging in highly repetitive activities with habitual patterns of thought and behavior. All that so we can perform tasks with consistency and reliability. One of the consequences of this is that it has disconnected us from our primary experience.90 Few of us feel safe enough to be generous with our ideas outside of well-defined contexts. As our language becomes dull our world is deadened as well. Given this feeling of absence, we move against the other to ensure our survival. This effect, as pervasive as subtle, creates our daily reality.91
Our living language gets buried in codes and rules that don’t enliven us. We find these codes around us in the form of prescriptive mandates and how to do it guidelines. They tend to suck the energy out of us and yet we overlook how deadening this can be. The question how to takes us out of the experience of the present moment.92 External knowledge may actually limit our perception and ability to see the whole.93
While we have freedom on the outside,
our inner life may be confined.94
We try to make up for having seen nothing with something. To be separated from imagination is like having a hunger that cannot be filled.95 The tendency to separate the whole into parts means that the world gets seen through eyes that focus on self-interest, defense of territory, and command and control structures.96 The mantra that what cannot be measured cannot be managed has led to the erosion of subjective qualities like courage, compassion, spontaneity, and self-expression. These qualities bring a sense of coherence and possibility to human experience.97 Unfortunately, they have been lost largely because they cannot be seen or quantified.98
Restoring environments in which we can listen for what is unfolding organically becomes more and more vital.99 The absence of such environments has been a source of indefinable but palpable unrest. It is like a hunger for which we can find no cause or cure.100 A story by its very nature is always forming and becoming. A spirit of commons offers a free and open environment where we may come together to speak of who and where we are in a manner that gives meaning to our life and work.101
Musicians listen to one another, and to themselves, sensing where the music is going, adjusting their playing as they go. As musicians feel the music, they make new meanings. And just as they capture it, the music changes. This way of playing, following the leadings of the moment, is a kind of commons space in itself. It’s an organic and feeling-based way of being with oneself and others.102
What needs to be heard now is too large to be heard only by individuals.103
What needs to be heard cannot be heard well until we restore the collective space for deep listening, where we can be fully present to its effects. What distinguishes the commons from the current status quo is immediacy. Most of our ways of coming together today are to fulfill a predetermined purpose or goal. But the commons is an open stage where life happens, for no other purpose than for the expression of itself in the now. Suspended agendas offer a safe vessel for engaged listening and unguarded presence.104
We always become part of what we see. The world does not so much belong to us, as we belong to it, and through it, to one another. This reciprocity is central to any living process. We are so used to taking so that which is received is seldom reciprocated. Our participation includes being attuned to being, including the many ways insight may come to us.105 It gives us the opportunity of bringing new insights into awareness, in real-time.106
As we engage, we also participate in the larger ordering of things.
Dialogue, stories, journaling, reflection, music, questions, being in nature
– all of these tap into collective wisdom.107
We have been programmed to demand clear outcomes that justify our commitments in time and energy. The primary metaphor in an industrial economy is the machine. And, still, the innate gift of presence should be valued more than purely financial concerns. Connectedness, uniqueness, originality, beauty – all need to be kept in balance to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the community. Most of us just consider this to be naïve and soft-minded.108. But if we only are focused on what we are trying to achieve in terms of economic gain and self-interest, then social cohesion is disrupted.109
Some knowledge, particularly slow knowledge, is knowledge of absorption. It is knowledge absorbed merely by being in another’s company. The way absorption works, and why it is so important, is that it contributes to whole-body learning, an intuitive sense which enables us to be presence. When we do that, learning follows naturally.
Even if we begin with an initial structure, it unfolds within the context of the situation itself. This is why spaces that are already owned or programmed for certain outcomes are not very alive. It is the presence of wholeness that makes the difference in how alive we feel.110 And because wholeness is invisible, we know it primarily through its effects. For example, we may know that we are in the presence of wholeness when we feel ourselves to be deeply heard. This makes room for us to find our own thinking, and to follow our own feeling in a way that is free from any need for defensiveness or self-deception. This in turn makes the fuller experience of wholeness possible.112
Wholeness cannot ever be replicated. It comes to us
in a moment that is unique and unrepeatable.113
The focus is more on allowing each moment to complete itself than on trying to set an agenda. It is this spontaneity of speaking that reawakens our deep sense of wonder.114 The intent is to free us from prescribed action in order to connect with an organic impulse that can lead to more cohesive acting. It means going slowly enough so that we are guided by what feels natural and true. Replacing present-moment awareness with expectations of the future often impedes forward movement.115
It is a subtle but important shift to explore how to be in the moment instead of trying to figure out what to do. This is why it is crucial to notice what latent capacities are emerging rather than being certain of the way forward and convincing others to follow. To be open and accepting of whatever comes is to trust life’s natural forward movement. The reward is that by being open to the changing form of things, we become more and more like ourselves, as living examples of change itself. The primary influences do not come from the outside in, but rather from the inside out. A generative space is not designed to be or do anything outside of what unfolds within the structure itself.116
When we feel at ease, we are likely to sense and follow the seeds of possibility. It is hard for anyone to sense what is needed if the atmosphere is tense and critical.117 Sometimes we may prefer to push forward by ourselves, but we cannot do this independently. The complexity we are engaged in needs others. Whatever we bring into awareness is easily complicated if interventions are introduced that communicate tension or force. Complications also arise when we get ahead of the living process itself. All our engagements in generative processes are fragile. This is partly why we need to bring a more subtle intelligence to the processes we are involved with.118 While nothing may appear to be happening at one level, everything may be happening at another.119
It’s in the space between seeing and
being seen where wholeness lives.120
Wherever wholeness already exists, people will naturally go. The best development is to build on or intensify what is already working.121 We can discern what is trying to happen naturally by removing unnecessary clutter.122 Vulnerability brings us into true fellowship with one another. This means that we listen to the unfolding of the whole without trying to make things personal. By keeping our attention focused on the flow of our inquiry, we create a collective presence that may yield perceptions without precedent.123
The moment in time is enriched when our full attention is given to it. Disinterest is not lack of interest, but the suspension of self-interest, including the promotion of a dominant point of view, in order to create anew.124 Letting something unfold naturally can only occur when there is a shared investment in which no one person holds the sole influence in the possible outcome or end state. While self-interest is aligned with predetermined goals and outcomes, disinterest is more likely to arise in situations where the solutions are vague or unknown, and the appropriate responses seemingly untrainable.125
Set free from previous conditioning, we can create
our own space of presence and belonging.126
We have forgotten how to live in a world in which we do not control as much as we co-participate with the larger dimensions of life. It is based on listening and attuning ourselves to the presence of the larger world in which we are participating.127 There is something much more to learn here – also in our organizations – about the world as a vital force, unpredictable, powerful, wild and loving. To experience its presence is to restore our relationship with wholeness.128
Managing and leading are two different things. Many of us have been educated for a world of struggle and competition. We have been taught that the world is our adversary. And so, the idea of restoring a sense of uniqueness, beauty, and grace is a foreign work, but one worth doing. This is not the time to step back from the world, but to go more deeply into it.129 The greatest challenge is trust – the ability to engage in a process, the outcome of which cannot be predicted or seen in advance.130
This is an absolutely wonderful book! What I particularly like is that Michael Jones reminds us that beyond all techniques, leading ultimately is about being fully human. It’s about recognizing and nurturing what is most personal, while at the same time cultivating our awareness and sense of connection with each other, our work, and our world.
The leader’s work is, as we’ve seen, grounded in presence, deep listening, gifts, beauty, grace, and finding our own voice.131 It’s about becoming present to the ever-present organic flow of learning and change.132 The personal leadership journey is also a preparation for transforming our work environments, and communities.133
It’s worth emphasizing that the search for aliveness is the one thing that may draw us away from the dominance of a mechanistic world view. The search for aliveness can help us to find a more life-affirming way of being and leading.134 Beauty is inherent everywhere. We don’t need to introduce it. We just need to learn how to clear away the obstacles.135
1 Michael Jones, Artful Leadership: Awakening the Commons of the Imagination (Pianoscapes, 2006), p.ix.
2 Ibid., p.x.
3 Ibid., p.xi.
4 Ibid., p.xii.
5 Ibid., p.xv.
6 Ibid., p.3.
7 Ibid., p.4.
9 Ibid., p.6.
10 Ibid., p.7.
11 Ibid., p.8.
12 Ibid., p.9.
14 Ibid., p.10.
15 Ibid., p.11.
16 Ibid., p.12.
17 Ibid., p.14.
18 Ibid., p.21.
19 Ibid., p.31.
20 Ibid., p.32.
21 Ibid., p.33.
22 Ibid., p.35.
23 Ibid., p.36.
25 Ibid., p.37.
26 Ibid., p.39.
27 Ibid., p.40.
28 Ibid., pp.40–43.
29 Ibid., p.43.
30 Ibid., p.53.
31 Ibid., p.57.
32 Ibid., p.59.
33 Ibid., p.62.
34 Ibid., p.69.
35 Ibid., p.70.
36 Ibid., p.71.
37 Ibid., p.78.
38 Ibid., p.89.
39 Ibid., p.90.
40 Ibid., p.93.
41 Ibid., p.91.
42 Ibid., p.92.
43 Ibid., p.96.
44 Ibid., p.97.
45 Ibid., p.99.
46 Ibid., p.100.
47 Ibid., p.101.
49 Ibid., p.102.
52 Ibid., p.103.
53 Ibid., p.104.
54 Ibid., p.105.
57 Ibid., p.106.
58 Ibid., p.107.
59 Ibid., p.112
60 Ibid., p.113.
61 Ibid., p.114.
63 Ibid., p.115.
64 Ibid., p.116.
66 Ibid., p.117.
68 Ibid., p.118.
69 Ibid., p.120.
70 Ibid., p.122.
71 Ibid., p.123.
73 Ibid., p.125.
74 Ibid., p.126.
75 Ibid., p.127.
76 Ibid., p.128.
77 Ibid., p.129.
80 Ibid., p.137.
81 Ibid., p.139
82 Ibid., p.140.
83 Ibid., p.141.
84 Ibid., p.146.
85 Ibid., p.147.
86 Ibid., p.148.
87 Ibid., p.149.
89 Ibid., p.150.
90 Ibid., p.151.
91 Ibid., p.152.
92 Ibid., p.158.
93 Ibid., p.159.
94 Ibid., p.162.
95 Ibid., p.164.
96 Ibid., p.170.
97 Ibid., pp.170–171.
98 Ibid., p.171.
100 Ibid., p.172.
101 Ibid., p.173.
103 Ibid., p.175.
105 Ibid., p.176.
107 Ibid., p.179.
106 Ibid., p.177.
108 Ibid., p.179
109 Ibid., p.180.
110 Ibid., p.183.
112 Ibid., p.185.
114 Ibid., p.186.
115 Ibid., p.187.
116 Ibid., p.188.
117 Ibid., p.189.
118 Ibid., p.190.
119 Ibid., p.191.
120 Ibid., p.192.
121 Ibid., p.193.
122 Ibid., p.194.
123 Ibid., p.196.
124 Ibid., p.198.
125 Ibid., p.199.
127 Ibid., p.200.
128 Ibid., p.201.
129 Ibid., p.202.
130 Ibid., p.214.
131 Ibid., p.169.
132 Ibid., p.46.
133 Ibid., p.170.
134 Ibid., p.175.
135 Ibid., p.104.