Roots of Aliveness: Leading as a Living Process

by Michael Jones, 2007

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whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
dangle

And the dirt

Just to make clear
Where they come from

—Charles Olsen, “These Days”

It has often been said that our span of awareness is a mile wide and an inch deep. The quality of our inner life is frequently overlooked in our efforts to cope with the daily demands and expectations of our outer life. One enabling metaphor that helps us look at this is the ecology of a tree. The outer life is symbolized by the leaves and branches; they correspond to a life of reactivity and busyness—of action plans, performance goals, desired outcomes and results. Sometimes we direct our attention down a little, to the trunk and lower limbs. Here we look at structures, strategies and processes. Where we spend the least of our time is the ground underneath. Yet it is the roots and the soil that give the tree resilience and the strength to grow and weather sudden changes year after year.

The shift from focusing on the trunk and the branches to the ground beneath corresponds to a shift of awareness from a factory-production mindset to a more adaptive-artful one. Giving our attention to the ground beneath an organization or a community involves an artful process of creating form out of ambiguous and variable circumstances. This includes the very precise and complex interaction among many subtle variables including energy and space, tone and atmosphere, rhythm and time. Our language shifts from action and meaning to story, metaphor, felt experience and the underlying stillness that holds it all.

Root systems, like artists, learn to create in the moment, to search for the soil conditions that feel most fertile and alive, to inquire, to sense and absorb, to follow their attractions, to invent and change course in the moment and to feel their way. In other words, in their search for connective and fertile ground, roots travel a road less traveled, just as we do as we seek to find our way.

Yet we are still influenced by an industrial-age mindset that impedes our ability to adapt creatively in a time of complexity and sudden change. We still tend to rely not on our own deep intuition but on external authority, preconceived actions and mechanisms for scheduling and control. Management theorists Henry Mintzberg and Alexandra McHugh write:

Strategies (and this may apply for life as well as leadership and organizational strategies) grow like weeds in a garden; they are not cultivated like tomatoes in a hothouse… Sometimes it is more important to let patterns emerge than to foresee an artificial consistency… Sometimes an individual actor … creates his or her own pattern. …Other times, the external environment imposes a pattern. In some cases many different actors converge around a theme, perhaps gradually, perhaps spontaneously. …To manage in this context is to create a climate within which a wide variety of strategies can grow.

What can we do to create the ground for roots systems that are resilient and life affirming?

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