Leading Through Storms

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Leading Through Storms was born in 2019 in an ancient woodland site in Wiltshire called Hazel Hill. Picture: Hazel Hill.

Once glance at the headlines and you will see that planetary systems are in crisis. The Amazon is now emitting more CO2 than it absorbs, its full collapse probable. A heat dome above western Canada and the north-west United States is sending wildfires raging through formerly temperate forestry. Extreme temperatures are forecast to kill a further 5 million people – and billions of mammals and birds – a year in coming decades. The global pandemic, a result of human interference with nature, refuses to loosen its grip. The news could not be worse – and that is exactly where it is heading. 

This is an extraordinary era in human history yet those who understand this most deeply can feel immobilised. Between grief and desperate hope, the choice of how to best focus efforts in order to mitigate and prepare is a daily struggle. Into this tumultuous space steps Leading Through Storms, a dynamic group of practitioners and professionals, asking what it means to lead consciously during troubled times – in the belief that what the crisis calls for, first and foremost, is radical collaboration, an organic exchange between reflection and action and creative engagements with the world.

Leading Through Storms was born in 2019 in an ancient woodland site in Wiltshire called Hazel Hill, when the three co-founders met to discuss the concept of Deep Adaptation. Introduced by British professor of sustainability leadership Jem Bendell in 2018, Deep Adaptation posits the belief that humanity needs to prepare, with love, for societal and environmental collapse. Since then, psychologist Kirstin Irving, coach and sustainability professional James Barlow and organisational psychologist Jake Farr have worked to do just that.

“Leading Through Storms is for those who want to join a community of like-minded souls, to turn their feelings into activity and to build connections with deep, wide roots,” reflects James. “We developed the programme for those with curiosity about how to respond with our best in the face of the worst, as Jem put it recently – in terms of facing into the climate and ecological crisis and the real potential for societal collapse. It’s for anybody who has an interest in understanding how their inner and outer worlds come together and who can support one another in action alongside the ability to understand what may or may not be driving that action.”

So far, past participants have encompassed business leaders and activists, mothers and writers, scientists and those working in the charitable sector: “diverse people from diverse settings,” comments Kirstin. “But with a common ground around what I’d describe as ‘Blessed Unrest’, that kind of internal disturbance we often don’t know what to do with.” Different outlooks are key to the work, allowing participants to explore a variety of perspectives and responses to the emergency, in a safe, held space where they feel heard and supported.

Defining leadership

Those not counting themselves as ‘leaders’ in a traditional sense need to look again; in Leading Through Storms, the term is re-coined and repurposed for a time of new urgency, setting aside both ego and anxiety to embrace action. “We’re all interconnected, just like all parts of the ecology are interconnected,” reflects James. “Very few of us live in a vacuum. Leadership is acknowledging that whatever we do has an impact on the people around us, whether we realise it or not. So why not take ourselves as leaders – not in a hubristic way, but more in the acceptance that wherever I act, I am seen?”

Here, again, Bendell offers inspiration. “Jem is a radical leader in terms of speaking a truth into a community where that truth wasn’t being spoken, and he’s done that in a really vulnerable and public way,” says Kirstin. “That’s powerful and has opened up something for others. He’s facing honestly into the realities and moving through them in a way that, still, genuinely connects him with joy. That’s a big part of our work, reconciling these emotions and making sure that, instead of looking after only ourselves, we’re broadening and connecting with people in a way that opens up new possibilities of our place in the wider world.”

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Hazel Hill Wood: Representing earth and all life. Picture: Hazel Hill.

An immersive programme of four three-hour sessions and three shorter ‘betwixt’ sessions take place across a period of four months, online at the moment but within the nurturing boundaries of Hazel Hill Wood when restrictions lift. Sessions encourage participants to engage, even reconcile, with the emergency; to explore and make progress with personal and professional dilemmas; to grow resilience; to identify and commit to adaptive moves that respond to the context – and to contemplate relinquishment as a positive, liberating activity. A key phrase from the programme: “This is an emergency. We must slow down.”

“One thing participants talk about consistently is this idea of slowing down,” James nods. “And we need to slow down occasionally. We need to stop, look out the window, see the colours of a foxglove in the rain.” When sessions take place at Hazel Hill, the wood itself offers that respite; on zoom calls, an image of its fluttering trees sits quietly on the screen next to participants. “The wood is there because it’s our home in nature for when we do in-person retreats,” says Jake. “It also represents earth and all life. That’s why we always have it there – as a representative and reminder of the more-than-human.”

Each session is an intuitive blend of review and reflection, provocative themed input, inquiry and exploration, action formulation and testing; a gentle flow of energy and respite. “So many ways of knowing are intellectual – and we’re seeing how much trouble that has got us into,” offers Kirstin. “When we design a session, we’re trying to construct something that achieves a lot in a short space of time, helping participants find their edges but also feel nourished, secure and free. Music and poetry, for example, can help us connect with the mystery of what we’re dealing with and create, necessarily, a more expansive process.”

Building community

“Each of us have different ways of making sense of the world,” adds James. “And Kirstin, Jake and I were clear we needed to honour the diversity of that, as well as the diversity of those who were so generous to work with us. It was important we made every attempt to connect into the hearts, souls, guts and minds of participants. And there was a real determination to trust those multiple ways of knowing – that if we had a good balance in every workshop and across the arc of the workshops, there would be something that would allow an experience, whether cognitive, somatic, emotional, spiritual, definitely relational.”

“The sessions give participants the opportunity to practice the skills and qualities essential to leading creatively through volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity,” continues James. “And, in these safe rehearsal spaces, we can grow confidence in new ways of being, both individually and together.” Leading Through Storms becomes “a pocket of the future present now,” he continues. “We are living, breathing, modelling new ways of being, right here, right now.”

This had practical implications for participant Tom Butterworth, deputy Head of Ecology of the ecological engineering consultancy WSP. Working in the calm considered way of Leading Through Storms reminded Tom “to bring that same level of attention and awareness to my work – and to bring it from a place of steadiness and stillness. That’s important in its own right because it informs the relationship I have with the team. During lockdown, it was very easy to be on a work call and not give full attention to what we were doing. And that results in not really respecting those you’re talking to.” 

The practice has also encouraged Tom to relook at the importance of allowing multiple voices. “It isn’t necessary for me to have a view on everything or make every decision. Opening up the space for others to step into that is vital. We have a team of 160 people. They’re brilliant. And it’s their brilliance that I want to shine. That’s an important part of leadership for me,” he says. On a personal front, slowing down has also allowed Tom to take the time to re-examine the steps he wants to take, both in his present role and into the future. 

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Left to right: Kirstin Irving, James Barlow and Jake Farr. Picture: Leading Through Storms.

“[Leading Through Storms] allowed me to look at my strengths and weaknesses more honestly and maybe to say ‘that doesn’t play to my strengths, I’d be much better doing this other thing’.” The programme’s delivery was key to modelling this transition. “Jake, Kirstin and James were clear, responsive, fully engaged, fully invested – and incredibly good at holding the space. At every stage, it felt like they were walking that journey with us – while leading with what looked like ease but I know took a ton of thought. That was a really valuable lesson to learn.”

New ways of being

For co-participant, marketing and communications specialist Immi Gaunt, “three hours on zoom would fly by but we never felt rushed. There was always time to deep dive into things – and also to move on.” The facilitators work to actively respond to whatever comes up, rather than simply ticking the boxes of a pre-designed syllabus. “And that flexibility was key,” says Immi. “You’d never know where you were going to end up. That sense of free flow was brilliant.” 

Former CEO of Merseyside Probation Trust Annette Hennessy joined the workshop because “I wanted to do more thinking about the climate and ecological emergency and my part in it. I knew the course would be challenging because it’s about making yourself open and vulnerable but I also know there’s no development without risk,” she says. “It was a profound experience: a sense of inquiry with each other, making sense of what was coming up but also having time to practice in between.” Post-programme ripples continue: “I think about the people and the conversations we had all the time. What struck me was the internal work we did, facing up to our fears and vulnerabilities, but also the concept of slowing down in an emergency; that less is more, that busyness isn’t always the answer.” 

“It was such a special time; such a diverse community, but so warm, full of humour and kindness,” says Immi. The programme may have brought the planetary emergency front and centre into her life but it also enabled her to see that any role she plays – and anyone she can influence in her community – will make a difference. “Leading Through Storms made me feel energised and positive. I really felt that people grew as time went on. I definitely did.” 

“We spend a lot of time in this programme doing inner work,” reflects Kirstin. “There’s something important about people feeling as if they’ve come back to themselves. If we can get rid of anxieties or projections or beliefs, that, in itself, is of massive service. It creates a strong base from which to foray into new ways, spark new ideas and relationships, new ways of thinking. If I have a wish over time for this community, it’s that we do more of this. I love the diversity and the skill set we all need to develop because it’s about how we work with those differences in a really creative way, not just in a ‘getting over difficulties’ way.” 

“We’re very specific about that: we want to help build community,” adds James. “Those relationships deepen and build the resilience of our society. He cites the viral graphic, by Graeme MacKay, showing a trio of successively bigger tsunamis heading towards a city, labelled, in ascending order, Covid 19, recession and climate change. “What is causing those tsunamis? My hunch is that it’s our way of thinking about the world, which leads to our way of being in the world. It all comes back to our relationship with ourselves and our relationship with the Other, be it human or more than human. And the more we spend time relating to the Other and finding out that the Other is actually us, well, that’s a big change.” 

For more information, visit Leading Through Storms.

The next 4-month online community of practice starts November 9th.

Find out more here

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