Conversation 2014

Right Being, Wise Action, In Community

April 2-4, 2014

Gathered around a large circular table for four days were 15 senior leaders from communities and organizations in the US and Canada. Together, we created an open space for exploring a topic that--at least initially to some--was a bit vague and confusing. Having taken the time to build trust and community around the table, we found the topic rich and rewarding. A synthesis of our Conversation follows, along with the individual essays and stories submitted in advance of Conversation 2014. We hope these are catalysts to your work and thinking about concerted action.

Conversation 2014 Leaders

Group shot

Bottom row (left to right):

  • Craig McGarry
  • Gary Withers
  • John Swanholm
  • Ken Hubbell

Top row (left to right):

  • Gary Hubbell
  • Kevin Matheny
  • Pat Bower
  • Rick Herman
  • Kim Scott
  • Sandy Wilson
  • Natalia Lynn
  • Stan Sawicki
  • Angela Boss
  • Karen McLeod

Right Being, Wise Action in Community

Hilton Head Island, S.C. - April 2 - 5, 2014

Our exploration of right being and wise action in community blends individual and organizational perspectives on leadership and responsibility. The framework for this discussion is around concerted action toward addressing "wicked problems"-those social or cultural problems that seem intractable.

Individually, our reflections are often wrapped around some common questions: How will I be? What is my work? What will adaptive leadership look like? Why act in concerted action anyway? We trust and honor that the work is bigger than what the language of collective impact conjures in our minds. We believe right being and wise action in community has a lot to do with our relationship to the issue and our relationship to our stated intention.


As in years past, each participant was asked to write and submit a thoughtful essay on this year's topic. In addition to the compiled essays, participants were asked to read some relevant pieces prior to arrival. They are:

  1. Wicked Problems - This short piece defines and describes what some call "wicked problems" (poverty, injustice, hunger, etc.) and does a great job of framing the conversation about how to dive into the issue of "wise action in community."
  2. The Social Sector and Philanthropy in 2030 - a distillation of a much longer and detailed product of Conversation 2012, helped frame our discussion about imagining, and preparing for, possible futures.
  3. A two page summary of Otto Scharmer's pivotal book, Theory U: Leading From the Future As It Emerges, which helped us explore the path toward real concerted action.
  4. Finally, Dean Robb's Building Resilient Organizations - Our dedicated time for reflective individual work used some of Robb's framework.


To Kevin Cashman's definition of leadership1: "authentic self-expression that adds value," we believe it's appropriate to add "in community." In our view, leadership is the authentic and collective work to close the gap between our vision and today's reality. Social change and philanthropy's possibilities is less about tools and techniques and more about leaders' curiosity, authenticity, courage, and alignment.

Leadership-and life-takes personal mastery, courage, practice, humility, and a supportive, reciprocal relationship with our environment to make the profound changes in our world about which we care most deeply.
In the leadership journey, we are:

  • Learning how to "be" and become our greatest selves so we can make a useful and lasting contribution to the community.
  • Learning the right action for every challenge so we unleash the greatest potential for good.
  • Learning how to see and to think with others so we can get done more of what matters most.
  • Learning how to take full responsibility for our dreams and everyday choices so we can first add value and work in relationship, which fosters trust, the accomplishment of big things, and a life worth living.

Who will lead? What are we willing to do differently together? The individual response requires a different type of leadership. The question comes down to whether each of us takes personal responsibility to lead - recognizing that the best solution may not involve me. We conclude that the only toehold forward is through our own personal posture of what we'll stand up for wherever we are. Each of us has the daily choice of being an agent of change from within. Am I willing to act courageously enough to align with what I say is my highest and best self? Am I strong enough to take the high road?


Leading scholars of profound change affirm that the authentic adaptive leadership challenge is both an individual and a collective (or organizational) one.2

Who leads in the pursuit of solutions to 'wicked problems' and what do our defaults and organizational behavior tell us and others about our leadership challenges?  By becoming more adaptive, organizations have the best chance of catalyzing lasting impact on tough social and community issues. The adaptive leadership challenge is framed by the intersection of two variables, each on a continuum, and both of which reflect dominant organizational points of view and, often, unvoiced assumptions that reflect organizational culture. The first is our organizational view of, or strategic approach to, impact. The second variable is the locus of the change/source of control and, therefore, the posture toward collaboration. Each variable exists on a continuum.

Image1 summary

We observe that many organizations who claim to aspire to collaboration in pursuit of wicked problems fail to realize that they are operating from a narrower, technical, piecemeal pattern (lower left, orange quadrant). Navigating the path to wise action in community inevitably lifts up a common tension. Often our mental individual and shared organizational models are largely unconscious and often in the way of innovation. These mental models and our resulting behaviors are deeply ingrained, often setting us up unconsciously to tackle problems out of old default positions-where we can control the direction, pace, and scope of change.

How can we expect to engage others in pursuing a big and lasting impact if we are unaware or divided in our understanding of the prevailing assumptions we're making and the mental model in place? We believe that mental models are very important to any discussion of right being, wise action in community.


So what's keeping us from the "zone of collective impact"-that expanded range of opportunity to successfully address wicked problems? By default, change-making can too easily conform to the structures already in place-both within our individual organizations and within our communities. In Ron Heifitz's Leadership With No Easy Answers, he notes that the default is to the known and the comfortable inside our own frames; to our own problem solving delivery mechanisms. In so doing, we remain locked into the lower left quadrant (the narrow, tactical, siloed approach) of the adaptive leadership challenge chart above.

The way we go about lasting impact has to change to something new, some mixture of the technical/known and the adaptive/visionary. To break free of our defaults, we must reach for the "zone of "collective impact," which involves engaging across multiple sectors with an approach that is more systemic than programmatic and project oriented. Working organizationally toward disturbing the system toward a shared focus on addressing big social problems is likely to push all of us beyond our comfort zones. Dean Robb reminds us "The ability to live in a state of ongoing innovation and change requires that the system be able to 'dance at the edge of chaos'-a kind of intentional flirtation with dis-equilibrium that allows new life to emerge and take root. This requires the ability to manage anxiety and potential (or actual) loss."3 Resilience, he suggests, is based on adaptation, which we believe is essential for any organization trying to pursue a path of concerted action on wicked problems.

While the adaptive leadership challenge chart is just a frame and not a solution, it does help us locate and visualize where we might be in our own adaptive learning journey. It is difficult in most organizations to hold open the space to stay at this intentional level without defaulting into our known, familiar, controlled nitty-gritty.

Authentic leadership (aka, right being) is key. We believe real traction and success lies in the ego-less pursuit and wide invitation of many others to lean into the change. What do we have in common that can become the simple, fundamental, shared basis of our concerted action? What shared hopes do we think we all deserve? Isn't one's clarity about our own world view at the core of how we present ourselves to lean into wicked problems through concerted action? If we can put these pieces together clearly and authentically we can make more progress around tough problems.

At Conversation, we espouse the view that we are acting on our values, regardless of whether it's measurable and reportable, because it's the right thing. It is an expression of right being. In big organizations articulating intention is easy; operationalizing intention is tough. That's up to us, isn't it?  Wicked problems are too big to tackle as a single institution. We are better suited to illuminating our blind spots if we pause to ask ourselves whether we are clear how other stakeholders view the same barrier that we're pushing against. In so doing, we may find that some stakeholders may not see or describe the issues as dependent upon our proposed solutions. Unless we do, we may be unintentionally reinforcing our own blind spots.

Get your principles and values clear, then organize from the values, outward. Structure follows values. Ken Hubbell reminds us that leadership and collective action are really the collective work of people who care, standing on the values they share, and closing the gap between today and where they want to go. He says,

"Wise action in community is both values based and collective. The authentic work of community change often revolves around shared leadership, community engagement, and reciprocity. Involving low income people in an equitable way is a necessary element of sharing the leadership circle. This is hard work that exposes friction around assumptions and beliefs. That's why it's so important to get the principles and values clear first. This is elusive and tough to operationalize because everybody's at risk-especially those accustomed to leading and deciding."


Plausible narratives about the future help direct people's action and thinking toward the possibilities. Using tools like scenario thinking helps liberate us from the tunnel thinking of today and forces us to think much more broadly about possibilities in the future. This, then, makes all the more likely the realization and desire for acting in concerted action to pursue the best path forward for the most people.

Therefore, we see value in using the earlier Scenarios 2030, developed at GHC Conversation 2012,4 as a tool to free us from our feeling stuck in this moment. Participants were asked to address two questions: 1) What prevailing mental models would have had to have been in place for this scenario to occur? and 2) What are the wicked problems in this scenario? Please download the full monograph to see the summarized responses.

In an attempt to build our leadership awareness, agility, and resilience, we ask whether there are common leadership postures regardless of the emerging scenario dynamics. What would people of good heart and real intention lean into with purpose and concerted action to produce greater good for more people in these futures? Ultimately, we asked ourselves: What is the leadership agenda toward concerted action for the common good?

  1. Keep alive the flame of passion for change and growth to avoid slipping into complacency.
  2. Articulate the mindset we're trying to inculcate in ourselves, our organizations, and our families.
  3. Practice inclusion in shared leadership as a positive driver for real change in any scenario.
  4. Balance pragmatism and idealism.

Image2 Summary

The adaptive challenge is recognizing that this may be a new moment where nobody knows the rules and we've never done this before yet there are parts of the emerging that feels right. In such moments we have to figure it out with others rather than adopting the default position of going back to something that is known. The adaptive challenge means we have to give the work (the problem) back to the people who own the problem. This means community. Everyone has to work and be valued in new ways. This is a perfect leadership opportunity for people with courage. Be alert for your defaults. Don't rush to technical solutions. Learn fast and experiment quickly.5

Referring to insights from The Ingenuity Gap,6 Ken notes a common tendency to default to an unconscious belief that the systems we've built in our society all work along some logic which is known by some smart people and these systems are kept within certain bounds-like the frequently experienced "we'll get to it later when we have more data;" or "we'll elect a new president who will appoint a Secretary of Complexity" who will solve it, etc.. When certain things "go wrong," we assume they know why this has happened. Sadly, this is a widely shared mental model! Big, current, complex issues-like whether large scale health care reform will make us healthier-complicate this shared assumption. We seem tacitly to be waiting for somebody somewhere to do something about the things we see happening and help us understand what to do about it.

This is the leadership opening. When we finally realize that nobody's got it completely figured out and that we're going to have to figure these tough things out together we will be exhibiting adaptive leadership. In actuality, we all have to work together in new ways to solve the wicked problems we face until something emerges that feels like a major shift. Waiting around for an expert is not wise action.

Each of us must ask ourselves: How do I fine tune myself to this moment? How do I harness my position, ideas, capacity, power, access, and my view in order to "get in" and "stay in" the wise action required to address these wicked problems? The Hopi elders would remind us that "we are the ones we've been waiting for."


What is our work, especially against the seemingly immovable objects we've called wicked problems? If difference making is our work, how do we discern where to apply our energy and for how long? In Peter Senge's introduction to David Boehm's book Synchronicity, he says the aperture (opening) in the social realm is framed by the initial spirit of that intention. We're talking about how to protect an opening for change. Senge tells us we have to make sure that the spirit of that intention is right and good. Hold to the spirit of your original intention rather than being distracted by your own marketing, promotion, and organizational profit needs. The gestalt of something is shaped by its beginning. If you start out of balance, it's unlikely to get the initiative back in balance. For things that are highly interdependent the fractal or the gestalt that is formed at the beginning will be amplified thereafter. If the spirit of our intention is right and good, we'll see that amplified in the work; if it's diffused or distracted, we'll see the work dissipate into disjointedness.

The challenge in most social sector organizations (especially the big nonprofit organizations) is that the culture is one of a profit making business. There is an energy unto itself around perpetuating the institution. Therefore, you have to be watchful, serious, and attentive to the spirit of what you're trying to do. This makes the spirit real and elastic.

The values that produce the original intention are important and worth clarifying. Repeatedly in your organizational work you may have to ask, "What was the spirit of our intention as we prepared for this opening?" The challenge is to hold the aperture open and to bring a different perspective within your culture. Often decisions get made out of fear of loss. If the values aren't widely shared, the work outcomes won't reflect the values. Many organizations lack sufficient shared perspective around those values. Understanding how those values are transmitted and reinforced is a telling signal of the true core of the organization.


We conclude that by living and behaving differently we can demonstrate a better way and, through the model of our own behavior, we make a difference. In most organizations of our collective experience, there's not much time devoted to discussions fidelity to mission, discussions of authenticity, extending goodness. Instead, much of the focus is on operational excellence and trying to apply the ideas from business and other sectors. There's not much space in executive circles for conversations about authenticity and right being. We're not celebrating the purpose, the intention behind everything we do.

How will we introduce ideas to widen the frame? We must acknowledge our organization's habits of mind that often get created narrowly around efficiency and productivity. The way to transformation is awareness, recognizing that we're trapped by our own distinctions-it's either this or that; the heart or the delivery; the transaction or the transformation. We get stopped by the fact that it's neither this nor that. It's recognizing the power of both/and. Why is the aperture not open at all times? How do you restore the aperture you desire when the first frame is more limiting? Each of us has to ask ourselves how we will create a frame for our organization to have a different conversation. How does one take the spirit of this frame with you wherever you go? These are the questions that will take you deeper in your work. Don't underestimate the difficulty of getting this frame open with some people. You can't dictate the pace of one's opening and you can't hurry clarity about direction and transformation.

People who want to do good have a higher capacity to create energy and openings that are attractive and have an ability to absorb other's energy in a good multiplying way. Right being is moving from an abstract concept to a lived experience. We recognize that the types of breakthroughs we most desire actually take intentional work. Equity actually takes practice and work. We seek to foster this conversation in authentic ways with skillful leaders with similar intention.

This, and every Conversation, attempts to help one clarify the question: What change do I want to make, where, and for what reasons? Through our continuing annual gatherings, we are trying to enrich and enlarge the circles of positive change that we're all trying to make. We constantly work to consider how we could harness this thinking in order to move generosity toward a more purposeful home, away from the too typical posture borne of having money to spend on big ideas because we're caring but privileged people acting under the rubric of philanthropy. Why do we have enough forethought, courage, and money to hold open these spaces one time per year but not continue this opening in many places, through many people?

If we see Conversation not as a "conference" but as a catalyst for individual commitment and action, then each of us must ask, "What am I prepared to do?" What is different about what I'm going to do? Because of what things? What's my leadership agenda and frame? For me, what is right being, wise action in community?


1 Cashman, K. (2008). Leadership From the Inside Out: Becoming a Leader for Life, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.: San Francisco, p. 24.

2 Senge, P., Scharmer. C.  O., Jaworski, J., and Flowers, B. S., (2004). Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society. Currency Doubleday, New York, (p. 3.)

3 Robb, D. (2000). Building Resilient Organizations, OD Practitioner, Vo. 32, No. 3, p. 30.

4 Gary Hubbell Consulting, The Social Sector and Philanthropy in 2030: Four Scenarios, available for download at:

5 For more on these themes, See Ron Heifetz' two books: Leadership Without Easy Answers and Leadership on the Line.

6 Thomas Homer-Dixon, 2002, The Ingenuity Gap: Facing the Economic, Environmental, and Other Challenges of an Increasingly Complex and Unpredictable Future.

Conversation 2014 essays

Right Being
Wise Action
In Community