Learning mind – Rivers of Tea and Psychic Denial

A Zen master was sitting down to tea and quiet reflection as the sun started its decent over the horizon, when a stranger arrived.
“Excuse me” the stranger asked with polite urgency, “I have been told that a Zen master of the highest order lives on this slope”. The master looked at the stranger with kind eyes which the stranger took as a cue to continue; “I am from the new philosophy department at the university”, he stood a little straighter, catching his breath, “and I am here to see what you can teach me”.
The master unfurled aged fingers to indicate a place on the other side of the small, low table “Would you like some tea?”cupsmall
The stranger nodded and continued “I have studied with masters of more than a dozen philosophical and religious disciplines and have written many books on Buddhism”. The master, having poured his own tea, turned his attention to the stranger’s cup whilst continuing to give audience. “And I have heard that you are one of the wisest men in these parts and so have come to hear what you have to …” the stranger leapt up narrowly avoiding a small river of boiling liquid cascading over his already full cup, the master kept pouring with a slight sigh. “My cup is already full!” the stranger spat his words as though they still contained his unfinished sentence.
The master stopped pouring and spoke with the gentle smile he had never lost; “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Whilst this story has many versions, one of which was a Brice Lee favourite (no doubt he encountered many of his own cup-full students) it exemplifies something that I am coming across more and more in the modern age.

I have, for most of my professional life, been a trainer. Sometimes management training, sometimes personal effectiveness, sometimes team and culture change programmes, and whether explicitly or implicitly the only thing I have ever asked for, and required to be successful, is empty cups. Or at least half-empty. Don’t get me wrong this isn’t about not being able to convince, I have also made successes of sessions where people have turned up arms folded with a firm belief that they have more knowledge than anyone in the room. But in an ideal world you don’t want a battle of knowledge and will and it is the capacity to accept incoming information without a significant ‘filter’ (so less gets through) that I value the most. Once you have ‘received’ the information you can do what you like with it.

So a subtler, and perhaps more pervasive version of ‘full cups’ is ‘Already always listening’ (AAL) derived from the ideas of Werner Erhard and the EST programme. AAL is the sum total of all of your experiences and the things you ‘know’ to be ‘true’ – which my experience are a heuristics your brain uses for things you ‘think’ are ‘likely’ as they may rarely stand up to even self-originated scrutiny.

Whilst your particular filter is unique to you it is sometimes selective in its application for example:
“What can someone younger than me teach me”
“This person always talks non-sense”
“Urgh its one of those feminists/macho men”
“I’m too busy and this isn’t worthy of my time”

As judgemental as the above might sound they may well be running all the time. That’s why I call them subtle. They may well be things you don’t wish to admit to, but they may well kick in before you have time to really observe them. Another argument for mindful listening, which goes far beyond the ‘active listening’ training that featured heavily in my early training career.

We shouldn’t be too tough on our AALs though. They protect us from ‘wasted’ time, ‘toxic’ experiences and situations that could deplete our daily decision making capacity. However, like all habits they need reviewing on a regular basis to determine their usefulness. This is easier said than done since they may not always be entirely compatible with our self-image.

One of my least palatable AALs, as someone who prides themselves on being an ‘open-minded critic’, relates to my mum. She is an advocate of spiritual healing and all things psychic, concepts which I am open to. But on the basis of current scientific enquiry I have formed the belief that there is a lot more opportunity for exploitation than there is for life enhancing experiences (for which there are plenty of non-psychic interventions). The initial feeling is laudable – I want to protect my family. Out outcome is less so – a sort of internal call screening which says ‘Press 1 for psychic evangelism’ and promptly cuts the caller off. I’m winning the war against this defence mechanism, but not all the battles …

What are your AALs? When do they serve you and when do they remove an opportunity to be pleasantly surprised?


Decluttering – Evil and Pickles

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” – William Morris, The Beauty of Life, 1880

Decluttering is a genuinely terrific process. Getting rid of what is needed and ordering what’s left, clears space and frees the mind. 

But for me decluttering has both physical and mental aspects. Physically it is about ensuring that what you use frequently is most accessible and nothing is truly ‘hidden’. We don’t work well with ‘hidden’ even if we think of it and ‘stored away safely’. That’s why there is a pasta maker in your kitchen cupboard you’ve never used. An object can be ‘buried’ or ‘filed’ and the difference is a system. The former is just about finding a place for something, the latter is about creating a connection; perhaps logical, perhaps utilitarian, to day-to-day existence. This is true in any aspect of your life. 

Mentally, many people think of meditation as the primary way of decluttering. Clearing the mind of thoughts, albeit for a short time, is for many people an essential part of their mental housekeeping. This is something I can admire greatly and adhere to infrequently. I only notice the deterioration in my mental state after weeks of neglect. But I certainly appreciate the value and science backs this up in a big way. 

I want to briefly talk about a sort of decluttering that fits in the middle of ‘stuff’ and ‘mind’.  This is a decluttering of how you interact with the world. This is something that must be carefully balanced. To over-simplify the world, in the belief that is how it really is, will result in disappointment and confusion. This is racism, pointless (rose-tinted) nostalgia, this is inability to change or learn. Instead my brand of simplification doesn’t deny the complexity of the world. It just doesn’t try to deal with it. John Kegan in his seminal work ‘In Over Our Heads‘ confirms what we all feel, but often fail to acknowledge: it’s all a bit much. It is my view that we are all in a modern technology-driven, human ego- originated, emperor’s news clothes phase. Everyone is trying very hard to appear confident and competent and believes, even though they often don’t feel it, everyone else is doing just a bit better than they are. If we all acknowledged that it isn’t the case, and that we need to deal with a simpler version of reality, I think we’d be a lot happier. 

If we look to the world of business, many of the successful organisations are great at creating simple rules. They define how customers and in many cases employees can interact with them as an entity and the culture they are trying to create. Whether it is Google’s ‘Don’t be Evil’ or Bob Ferrel’s ‘Give ’em the Pickle’ it is about taking a large portion of the reality, which is impossible to hold in your head all the time, and creat a rule. The truth is that both of the above examples are open to interpretation. They have to be. We know the world isn’t that simple. But by creating the right rule, we can reduce trillions of choices down to millions. 

Now think about life. Its chaotic complexity. Relationships, career, house, car, everything really. Religion gave us rules. But most of them haven’t moved with the times and too many religious leaders are hung up on the dogma not the message. So here is the challenge. What happens if you sit, meditate for a while, and ask yourself/universe/divity for a few simple rules. What are they?

I guarantee you might just see ‘decluttering’ as more like ‘reinvention’. And if you are leader, you may have just found a way to start a revolution.

The Fine Art of Delegation

Delegation? Empowerment? Have look at the definitions of these in any book or online and it seems so straightforward. Delegation appears to be  just a formula to follow. I have a different take, and maybe we can work out why you are getting it wrong…

Delegation and empowerment are different. The way I define the difference is this:

Delegation is the act of passing a task/activity on to someone else whilst retaining the overall accountability for the task. The last bit is extremely important in any hierarchical organisation, without it the person you delegate to (the delegate) is exposed and, as I will go into below, you will not get many of the benefits of delegating.

Empowerment is the overall team or (leader-follower) dynamic that allows the autonomous activity. In order for delegation to be effective and efficient the team need to have an overall level of empowerment that is conducive to the types of tasks delegated. There is no point delegating an entire strategic project to someone with no delegated authority and who needs to check every decision with you. Indeed, even if you were to specify that this task is different (i.e. more empowered) the leap from lapdog to project manager would most probably be too much and greatly increase the chances of failure.

This distinction is important – it reminds us that there is ‘background’ work to be done on delegation and firmly places the bulk of responsibility for the success or failure of the delegation (i.e. not the task itself) with the delegator. Note: this is not the same as responsibility for the task – failure/mistakes are a natural part of doing something new.

OK. So that’s what delegation is – why an art? Because delegation definitely isn’t a science i.e. A+B = C (reliably) and I think that delegation is elusive for a number of reasons:

  • It can only really be learnt by doing
  • It has stigma prejudices attached to it
  • It potentially needs to be done differently for every person and every type of task

There are a huge number of reasons why delegating in the right way is beneficial desirable:

  • Builds relationships with your team
  • It can add to an overall feeling of empowerment
  • They may add ideas or create new ways of doing things
  • It is an opportunity for others to learn
  • Changes pace/approach/dynamics
  • Frees your time in the long-run
  • You can offload the tasks you are least effective at carrying out and don’t need to learn

Now the good news is that for most people in management/leadership position those benefits aren’t a surprise. That gives a very interesting questions to ask: why don’t we do it. Well for me this is where it gets interesting. Having asked this of hundreds of managers of varying levels of self-awareness I have come up with the following list:

  • It takes a little longer at first
  • It can make you feel out of control
  • You might feel threatened and your position encroached upon
  • They may not do it your way or as good as you as first (and you have unrealistic standards).
  • You blame the ‘culture’
  • You are scared that you might be seen as ‘not doing anything’
  • You might have to let go of the tasks you ‘like’
  • You are concerned that people will view you as passing on jobs you dislike
  • You are worried that they will fail and be de-motivated.
  • You afraid of stopping what you know you are good at to go into realms of the unknown

OK. So the control one is probably pretty obvious but the rest are quite subtle. What huge chunks of your role could you ditch but you like (for instance)? I have known this not only get in the way of delegating but even weaken the argument for increased resources because the manager isn’t willing to include the stuff they like in the business case (although they didn’t realise they were doing that).

The key to getting better at delegating now is:

1) Increase the level of empowerment (and responsibility) to the maximum tolerable level
2) Identify which of the above obstacles are your biggest challenge
3) Take actions designed to prove your preconceptions (in 2) wrong.

One Trait to Rule Them All

Can it be true that it the whirling vortex that is ‘leadership traits’ and ‘managerial competencies’ that there exists one trait to rule them all? Below is a basic introduction to adult developmental theory (also known as ego development) that might just claim such power.

Leadership is seen by most in the field of ‘Leadership’ as doing things different/right/clever etc. The focus is on action and behaviour. This in itself has been a significant move (that is yet to complete) from the idea that Leadership is ‘knowing things’. A traditional MBA would have hinged on knowing how a business worked. The reason was likely that not only have people overemphasised knowledge but the mechanisms for teaching anything other than knowledge didn’t exist. 

Besides, across enough business leaders of various skill levels, knowing more about the business and how it works would generally equate to some success in that environment. However, look a little closer and we can see that a number of people were not made more successful by knowing more and additionally a handful of people were already successful despite their lack of knowledge.
This was the contradiction from which sprang the new ‘science’ of behavioural leadership. The idea that leadership is about the right traits. But where training is still about knowledge then we still have the issue that staff (including managers) despite knowing the behaviour required still don’t demonstrate it.

The reason for all this discrepancy logically lies with the ability of the person, their ability to express and understand these new behaviours and their cognitive ability to succeed without them. These factors that contribute to personal success are lost in many organisations, where people in leadership positions may be there through processes outdated both in their approach and measurement. 

Otto Laske (2006) describes leadership as “the natural process of adult development over the lifespan, rather than monumentalizing, and thereby marginalizing, it as a privilege and as special” and as “the natural expression of what adults are rather than have, such as special traits, dispositions, or competences”. Interestingly, considering this definition, Laske also believes that leadership can be developed.

This approach draws on the work of Brian Leclerc (2006) who’s adapted diagram is shown below.  According to this, Laske’s approach is that Leadership originates on the left-hand side of this diagram, to be expressed on the right-hand side. In other words, being a leader is the only reliable way to ensure that leadership is expressed i.e. that the individual behaves like a leader. The Leclerc diagram draws on the ‘integral’ work of Ken Wilber (2000, 2005) and builds on his assertions that the most effective leader is an integral one, who can effectively manage themselves via all four quadrants.

“As can be seen, the leader’s [self] straddles left and right quadrants, and functions under the influence of both social-emotional and cognitive self (Cognitive Development + Emotional Development = UL (Upper Left quadrant)). On the behavioural side, the [self] manages … its “shoulds” and values – imposed on itself (UR/LL), and the … social environment which it constructs and in which it finds itself (UR/LR)” (Laske, 2006).

According to its supporters, of which there are many, this diagram remains true for everyone. How then does it give us access to Leadership? Laske, Wilbur and others argue that being able to integrate (and therefore be an ‘integral leader’) hinges on the developmental levels of the individual and their ability to ‘make sense’ and ‘make meaning’ (UL) of the environment, their values, their role as leader and the social context they find themselves in.

The work of Clare Graves, Rob Kegan, and others has already given us the means to understand this in more detail. They have created models for development that lead to the ability to integrate the needs, wants, aims and internal/external pressure into what they do by virtue of what they are (mirroring the language of Laske). These levels, also called Adult Developmental Levels,  follow an individual reaching the ‘formal reasoning stage’ (Piaget, 1952), typically in their teenage years. For this reason Kegan’s nomenclature for these levels begins with ‘Stage Two’.

Stage Two – The Individualist

  • Separate from others
  • Ultimate concern is that they will lose the help and support of other people
  • Guided by their own self-interest.
  • Know people in terms of how helpful they are
  • Have their own perspective
  • Play a win-lose game
  • Cannot empathise with other’s feelings about them
  • Subject to their own small ego

Stage Three – Community Member

  • Other peoples viewpoints are internalised
  • Defined by social expectations
  • Holds to community values
  • Feel obligations and have possible guilt feelings for not following them
  • Ultimate concern is that they will lose other people’s regard
  • Guided by self group interests
  • Their perspective is composed of internalised perspectives
  • Play a win-win game
  • Can easily imagine other people’s perspective and walk in other peoples shoes
  • Can take many different perspectives
  • Rely on best practice

Stage Four – Self Authoring

  • Defined by own values
  • Strive for integrity
  • Define their own path separate from other people
  • Ultimate concern is that they will lose their integrity
  • Guided by their values
  • They have their own perspective and take other people’s perspective into account
  • They make rigorous distinction between their own and others experience
  • Can be professional
  • Respect others and are reluctant to advise or interfere with them
  • Define the rules of the game for a win-win or no deal
  • Can easily imagine other peoples experience
  • Create best practice but may not follow it.

Stage Five – Self Aware

  • Aware of their own personal history and values its effect
  • Defined by relationships with others and with self
  • Values in flow
  • Risk themselves by opening themselves to relationships
  • No need for control
  • Not attached to any particular aspect of themselves
  • Take multiple perspectives on multiple perspectives
  • Play an infinite game the purpose of which it to continue to play.

No stage is wrong or inferior version of another and each can ‘work’ and seems to be a perfect fit for that person, in that situation, to that person. However the world does become a richer and more varied place with progressive developmental stages and creates more opportunities and decisions can be made with more ‘information’ (from more perspectives) to draw on. The below table summarises these levels.


Stage 2

Stage 3

Stage 4

Stage 5

View of Others Instruments of own need gratification Needed to contribute to own self image Collaborator, delegate, peer Contributors to own integrity and balance
Level of Self Insight Low Moderate High Very High
Values Law of Jungle Community Self-determined Humanity
Needs Overriding all others’ needs Subordinate to community, work group Flowing from striving for integrity Viewed in connection with own obligations and limitations
Need to Control Very High Moderate Low Very low
Communication Unilateral Exchange 1:1 Dialogue True Communication
Organisational Orientation Careerist Good Citizen Manager System’s Leader

The below study results are a simplification of results gathered by Susan Cook-Greuter with regard to the general population (US) and a management population (UK). The sample sizes were approximately 4000 and 500 respectively. For the purposes of this article, all of Loevinger’s ‘Post-Developmental’ stages have been combined to ‘Stage 5’.


UK Managers (%)

US Gen. Population (%)













It would be hard to find a ‘leadership trait’ that has a similar level of correlation with being in a position of responsibility (although general intelligence comes close). Two other important correlations have been identified. Firstly, as the stage of development increases the level within organisations tend to increase. Secondly, as age increases developmental level tends to increase. Neither of these are strong enough to be useful for predictive purposes but work is ongoing to predict leadership success using Loevinger’s sentence completion test, or similar, that measure developmental levels.

Increasing your developmental level is no doubt challenging, society is geared to get people from Stage Two to Stage Three (O’Connor & Lages, 2007) but there exists no societal or organisation system to move people further. Kegan offers us this insight: “People grow best when they continuously experience an ingenious blend of support and challenge; the rest is commentary” (Kegan, 1994).

References and Recommended further reading:

Kegan, R (1982) The Evolving Self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Kegan, R (1994). In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Laske, O (2006) On Leadership as Something We Are Rather than Something We Have: Introducing Instrumentation to Strengthen the Integral Approach for Use in Organizations. Interdevelopmental Institute Centre for Executive and Organisational Growth

Loevinger, J. (1976) Ego Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Loevinger, J. & Knoll, E. (1983) Personality: Stages, Traits and the Self. Annual Review of Psychology 1983, 34, 196-222

O’Connor, J. & Lages, A. (2007) How Coaching Works. A C & Black: London.

Wilber, K. (2000) A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality. Boston and London: Shambhala