authored by Jerry Nagel
“The success of the intervention is dependent upon the inner condition of the intervener.” William O’Brien (deceased), former CEO of Hanover Insurance
Questions. Questions. It seems that when one adopts inquiry as a core part of a way of being in the world there are always questions. Some are simple: “How are you today?” Some are reflective: “Why did I say that? How can I help in this situation?” Some challenge us to explore areas of interest more deeply: “What is the theory behind…? How can we be intentional about collective transformation?” Some are at the core of our worldviews: “What is really real? Who am I? Why am I here?” And sometimes a question can change our lives by creating the conditions to alter our worldview. The asking of a simple question can be a transformative experience.
July 3rd, 2003 I experienced the transformative question that started me on a journey that would shift my worldview, although I didn’t know it at the time. I was part of a small group of people working on agriculture and rural policy issues in the United States that had traveled to Europe to examine how environmental and social values were impacting European agriculture practices. During dinner one evening a powerful question emerged within the group that influenced our conversations for the rest of the trip. The question was “Have we been asking the same questions [about rural development policies] over and over for so long that we don’t even know what the right question is anymore?”
This transformative moment started me on a journey of exploration, learning and self-reflexivity that has led to a shift in my worldview, a change in professional focus and a reconnecting with a curiosity about human behavior that I had explored in my early teens. It also reconnected me to a strongly held belief in human possibility that developed in my late teens and twenties and a deeper awareness of our connections to something greater that, for me, is sensed most during my times in nature.
As I explored ideas, methods and programs to find the right questions for addressing the current rural policy issues in my work back home in Minnesota in a change lab initiative called the Meadowlark Project and through my participation in the Donella Meadows Leadership Program, I couldn’t escape a similar question that was simmering within me, “What was my own personal ‘right’ question?” Having spent my professional and intellectual life working as a research economist on rural development with a worldview that assumed that if we created investments in the material well-being of people and communities (jobs, buildings, roads, etc.) then rural communities would thrive, it surprised me to discover that when I challenged my professional worldview I was also challenging my own personal worldviews and related sense of self or identity as an economist.
There were two big learnings from my work with the Meadowlark Project Change Lab. First was a recognition that while we all wanted to have the difficult conversations about the challenging and complex issues the Change Lab was working to address, we didn’t have the skills to have them. Second was a realization that while addressing the material well-being of a community was important and necessary, it was not sufficient to build a wholly healthy community. To do so both the material and human side of a community’s life needs to be addressed.
I found myself drawn more and more to actions that connected the work of rural development with one’s own or a community’s set of values and beliefs, which also connected with the work of my own personal explorations.
“The essence of our leadership journey is about growing into our true identity as a leader and, by doing so, accessing an intelligence that is greater than ourselves and encompasses the whole.” – Petra Kuenkel, Mind and Heart, 2008
As someone trained in economics, my worldview was deeply embedded in the notion of ‘man’ as an independent actor making rational choices of pure self-interest. I found myself challenged by the paradox that we humans experience ourselves as separate, unique and free individuals, and the social constructionist perspective, which I was learning about and coming to accept while writing my doctoral thesis on worldview and Art of Hosting, that everything that we are and all that matters actually comes from our relational experiences as humans and that this begins the moment we are born (and possibly before).
These paradoxes troubled me for some time, as I also sensed that exploring them was part of the journey to connecting with my life journey. So, while keeping one foot solidly planted in the work of answering the emergent questions about rural development policy I also committed to an even more intentional self leadership exploration of the deeper questions of “Who am I? What is my nature?”
The challenge it seemed to me in this exploration was to let go of attachments to specific images of myself that would prevent me from not only participating in whatever evolutionary changes this journey might offer, but also prevent me from seeing the whole and my relatedness to it. I was beginning to understand that my journey was becoming an exploration of the ‘range’ of me rather than the ‘one’ of me.
The work my colleagues and I have taken on through the Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter invites us into a wholeness – a way to connect how we are in the world with practices that support our actions. It also invites us to continually be aware of our worldview(s) and the impact on our hosting. For me, as an AoH practitioner and host, this is an essential element in the exploration of growing hosting artistry.