By Nick Jankel

Professional Global Keynote Speaker, Transformation & Innovation Catalyst, Leadership Theorist & Practitioner, 6 x Dyslexic Author, 3 x TV Coach, Co-Creator of Bio-Transformation®

This article is part 8 of 9 in the series Regenerative Leadership & Regenerative Business

The Relational Causes Of Our Modern Multi-Crises

I work all day, every day, with senior leaders who deal with gnarly concrete realities: political, military, corporate, systemic, climate. Some of our work at Switch On is in leadership development (focused on ‘soft skills’);  some of it is working on strategic innovations to deliver ‘hard’, concrete, and scalable breakthroughs that solve gnarly human problems; some of it is working on full-scale whole systems change to resolve the various crises that are emerging as advanced modernity runs out of steam.

I deeply understand the call for leaders to pay attention to and try to solve the concrete and intense issues that they face: the lived reality of babies being born in shelters in Kyiv; extreme weather killing people and animals all over the globe, employees struggling with inflation, loss of dignity, mental health issues, and disengagement; organizations declining because they are being disrupted by emerging technologies and more creative and nimble competitors; and thousands of people still dying in Covid wards each day. Let alone the worry of a bird flu pandemic to come in the “near future.”

But, after over 25 years consulting—in tandem with my own developmental work as a leader and deep theorizing about transformation—I have come to see that most of the big issues we worry about are actually the symptoms of deeper ruptures, traumas, and disconnections in what we call, in our transformation methodology Bio-Transformation®, ‘Relational Fields.’ More about them later.

The multi-crises we face are as much about failures in our relational intelligence—taking care of nature, taking care of society, taking care of those we love, taking care of ourselves—as they are about the need for technical and technological solutions. Our failures in reciprocity, interdependency, and respect for how we live in balance with the natural and social worlds are leading us to the precipice.

Whilst we have to attend to the urgent issues we face with concrete and courageous interventions—whether in Ukraine or in Decarbonization—if we want to make lasting change happen, we also have to make time to resolve the schisms in our relationships. This means transforming the frustrations, distrust, disappointments, and pain we hold onto in our relationships with ourselves, our caregivers, with each other, and with nature… that result in ecological and social devastation.

I believe that it is actually disruptions, disorder(s), and disorganization in our intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships that are the underlying cause of so many of the problems that our rational, strategizing, and operational minds try to solve with so much hard work, analysis, and intellectual ingenuity.

It is unprocessed and unresolved pain from early and existing relationships—which show up in selfishness, greed, superiority, arrogance, alienation, disconnection, hierarchy, and power plays—that drive us to alleviate our discomfort and inconveniences with consumer capitalism, extract oil, power, and wealth and accumulate them, exploit those less fortunate or educated than ourselves, and idolize meritocracy, status, and laissez-faire economics over equity and inclusive growth.

In other words, the entire modern project—industrial, technical, scalable, abstracted, instrumentalizing, progressive in both its brilliance and dangers—can be seen, through one lens, as the replacement of relational connectivity and intersubjective health with convenient and comforting products that attempt to fill the holes in our wholeness.

As the saying goes, hurt people hurt people (and the planet). Thus, to avoid a category error, it is only through transforming these relationships over the long term that we can make a lasting, positive difference to the world and so fully resolve major crises rather than reduce their pain a little or reschedule them for a later date. We have to stand up against aggressors with strong boundaries, yes, while we seek to relieve the fear and rage that is at the source of all unwarranted aggression.

Relational Intelligence In Leadership, Sensemaking & Systemic Change

The corollary is that only by transforming the ruptures in our relationships with ourselves and in our organizations and systems over the long term can we make a lasting, positive difference to the world. Then, and only then, can we fully resolve the major crises and seize the massive opportunities for exponential leaps in human flourishing.

The challenge we all face is that the part of us that is brilliant at analysis, intellectual thought, making ambitious goals happen, achieving big wins, claiming space, piercing to the truth, Getting Stuff Done, relishing the freedom of individuality, valuing independence… finds it very hard to tend to our relationships, be humble and vulnerable, and be open to interdependence.

For the rational, the smart, and the successful, relationships are really difficult. They take up a lot of time. They require us to have integrity and own our own sh!t. Relationships require us to be open-hearted. Power, wealth, and status mean nothing in genuine relating, so we cannot rely on our established defensive patterns to get our needs met in intimate relationships. Instead we have to deconstruct them, dissolve the walls, for and with another.

As mums, stewards, and community managers the world over know, caring for each other, ourselves, and our planet is utterly uncomfortable and inconvenient. Rational, materialistic, capitalist modernity offers us a way out: modern comforts and conveniences that do the hard work of care. We don’t have to deal with tending and tilling the soil: from nannies to leaf-blowers to dating apps to PAs.

This is, I believe, the single deepest cause—among many—of our multi-crises: complex and intertwined crises in climate change, education, inequality, in-work poverty, identity and culture wars, the usefulness of nation-states, capitalist growth models, industrial business models, post-industrial illnesses, addiction, anxiety/depression and more.

Even much-discussed solutions to these crises, like metamodernism, regenerative design, Game B, transformation, wisdom, sense-making, and whole systems change, all remain extensions of the relationship-denying modern project unless embodied, heartfelt, caring relationality is at their core.

My experience of working in these spaces is that it is super easy to talk about, preach about, and teach about these solutions than it is to embody, enact, and embed them through tending to the relationships that must transform in order for the world to transform.

Reason is easy. Relationships are hard. What I mean by this is that most smart people can see and talk about the systemic issues we face. We have all been bred to be smart. We all read the books and understand how to analyze the facts. We can map and measure systems, analyze carbon released or sequestered, define carbon caps and pricing, detail safe or unsafe pollution levels and molecules, determine limits to growth and design donut economies, assess dopamine levels and addiction stats, identify Gini coefficients, and suggest an ideal UBI.

But to actually resolve these issues and implement the solutions at scale—in a system that prioritizes the rational over the relational, profit (extraction) over purpose (connection)—we need to shift how we relate to the Earth, each other, and our own minds and bodies. We need to push beyond being modern minds discussing regenerative ideas and become regenerative bodies, tuned into “right” relationships with all life.

Few things are harder for rational modern folk than pivoting to tend to our relationships, which can be cultivated but never controlled. Those in positions of power in the hierarchy—Silicon Valley, sustainability, or spirituality—can find it really hard to be open and stay open. To being discerning but not judgmental. To be open to losing livelihood and authority in order to gain regenerative results in how we live and work ourselves, first and foremost.

Modernity Priveliges the Rational and Diminishes The Relational

Our rational, protective, and controlling minds will often dismiss the caring, vulnerable heart as somehow less than. Relational intelligence and techniques are called ‘soft skills.’ Caring mothers, ‘housewives.’ Stay-at-home dads, ‘latte pappas.’ It’s why culture change work and coaching pay less than strategy consulting. It’s why senior HR bods paid less than senior marketing bods. It’s why facilitators are paid less than keynote speakers. It’s why our clients tend to want expert masterclasses rather than our peer-to-peer coaching toolkits or transformative circles. It’s why there is still a shocking gender pay gap.

What better way to avoid, distract, and dissociate from incoercible relational challenges than to diminish the relational as somehow not as hard, important, or “real” as the rational/productive/material?

Often, this mindset goes even further, to downgrade consciousness as illusory and privileges matter as the only thing that is ‘really real,’ something I go deep into in my book Spiritual Atheist: A Quest To Unite Science And Wisdom Into A Radical New Life Philosophy to Thrive In The Digital Age.

Our rational economic system does not count as productive (in GDP figures) the heart-breaking (emotional labor) and exhausting relational labor of caring for infants, disabled people, or dying people. Our rational education system provides hours of maths and English lessons each week but, if kids are lucky,  just one class on personal and emotional skills.

The unpaid care sector is the largest sector of the economy. This work consists of taking care of children and sick family members, facilitating life for elderly people or family members with a disability, managing the home (shopping, cleaning, cooking, washing clothes etc.) and providing long-term unpaid support to the community of friends, neighbours, (ex-)colleagues and other acquaintances. CIDSE

Let me remind us all: There ain’t nothing ‘soft’ about compassion, courage, caring, forgiveness, being vulnerable rather than powerful, collaborative rather than controlling, giving up comforts to be generous, giving up prestige and profit to be purposeful, and ultimately coming to terms with death. There is nothing easy about staying open when others turn against one. Developing these qualities is, without doubt, the hardest work of life for most of us moderns (although I recognize a gendered aspect to this that my collaborators and I would like to unpack).

Caring for others—rather than just coercing them into doing what we want—means endless emotional and practical labor: cooking (3 meals each night in our house); endless cycles of shopping, stocking, cleaning, recycling; constant sensemaking with and for our dependents; spending the time and energy to get into the hearts and minds of colleagues that we take care of and inventing new ways to reach them and inspire them; scheduling and having leadership chats, with enough time for listening; managing boundaries with compassion not angst; correcting people after connecting with them, which is inefficient but effective; and taking care to repair after a rupture when it feels like it is the very, very last thing we want to do.

The rational mind that values achievement, abstraction, and analysis—downloads, bank balances, what number employee you were at Google, your social media followership, etc.—has long triumphed over the relational heart. Rather than dancing with it, weaving with it in an interdependent and life-affirming flow of difference and unity, it makes the relational seem “less than.” I labored under this illusion for a long time, and it led me to breakdown and burnout.

As business psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic makes clear in his book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?, relationally dysfunctional and emotionally stunted people (mostly men) still rise up to the very top of the leadership ladder. This is because most companies and institutions are still part of an old-world order that rewards rational intelligence—power, smarts, confidence—over creativity, wisdom, humility, sacrifice, and connection, which are hallmarks of relational intelligence.

‘Toxic’ masculine values and habits are still dominant, whether in the ‘strong man’ culture of mainstream corporations and nations or in the ‘tech bro’ culture of Silicon Valley. There is a caste system at play, shaping everything in its past, whether in the old boys club of the UK ,or the VC > Founder > Technologist > Massage Therapist hierarchy of the land of the free, or the Thought Leader/Luminary > Acolyte castes of the sustainability and spirituality spheres.

Power-move mindsets and behaviors may be productive and profitable, but their reliance on power over people in a hierarchy—rather than power to enable and enlighten people to be creative in a network—massively reduces their capacity for transformation, innovation, and regeneration.

The Relational Revolution

To make it worse, the part of us that likes to win, to make a concrete impact, to figure it all out, to be seen as brilliant and clever, to post that ironic or sardonic witticism on social keeps co-opting relational wisdom and relational practices—including purpose, rewilding, mindfulness, wholeness, circles, empathy—to serve its (honorable but often misguided) aims of productivity, profit, and power.

We need to flip this around and have the naming, claiming, piercing, and penetrating powers of the rational serve the relational: living in right relations with each other and the natural world. This is the relational revolution.

This is a huge undertaking. But having studied systems thinking, scenario planning, and futuring for 27+ years, I can see it’s the only remaining answer that we haven’t tried. We have to focus all our energies on upgrading our relational intelligence and habits as we tend to our work “out there.”

The doozie is that, whereas we seem to be able to learn intellectual tricks and habits that make analytical and operational “knowledge” work easier and easier (and we can now get AIs to do much of it), as we develop strengths in relational intelligence, we get invited into wider and wider spheres of caring that demand deeper and broader relational leadership skills. There is no hack or algorithm for tending to messy human and planetary relationships.

Most of our school, education, and management system is focused on developing rational intelligence, or smarts. However, no amount of smarts can help us care for and so compassionately and empathically reimagine broken and fragmented human systems. For this, we need to develop relational intelligence.

As I write in Now Lead the Change: Repurpose Your Career, Future-Proof Your Organization, and Regenerate Our Crisis-Hit World by Mastering Transformational Leadership, “[R]esearch shows that whereas IQ—a proxy for rational intelligence or what we call Cognitive-Behavioral Complexity—is a good predictor for the overall pay grade one reaches in an organization (brown-, blue-, white-collar etc.), it is actually emotional intelligence that is a better predictor of the level reached once we achieve a leadership position.

In fact, the further up the organization we get, the more important emotional/interoceptive intelligence becomes. Over 50 years of research have shown that emotional intelligence is two hundred percent better at predicting leadership effectiveness than IQ.

This means that if we are looking at how people of any kind develop into wise leaders through maturity and personal growth, we must account for both gains in rational intelligence and expansions in relational intelligence. This insight led us to propose that there are two perpendicular axes of human development rather than just one.

Conjecture: The Two Axes Of Human Development

Research psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg (the six stages of his Theory of Moral Development), Carol Gilligan (Ethics of Care theory), Abraham Maslow (the Hierarchy of Needs), Clare Graves (Spiral Dynamics), Michael Lamport Commons (the Model of Hierarchical Complexity), and Erik Erikson (eight stages of psychosocial development) have all suggested that we progress through various identifiable and archetypal developmental stages to achieve higher levels of thinking capacity. Philosophers like Sri Aurobindo and Ken Wilbur have also contributed markedly to emergent adult development theories.

Most stage theories focus on what we might see as a vertical axis of human development: the expansion of what we call “Cognitive-Behavioral Complexity.” Cognitive-behavioral complexity is the capacity we have to generate solutions to ever-more-complex problems in our heads and then implement those solutions in ever-more-complex systems with our hands.

An amoeba has very low levels of Cognitive Complexity (last time I checked). This fits their very simple environment: move towards food. Move away from danger. That’s about it.

Most smart and successful leaders have very high levels of Cognitive Complexity: They can understand how a national economic system interacts with a global system of nations and worldviews and how to intervene in the various systems to realize their transformational vision.

But what they may not be great at is influencing, inspiring, persuading, building safety and trust, dealing with vested interests in ways that honor them, meeting people where they are at (without judgment or criticism), and taking them on a journey to somewhere new… all the things needed to go beyond the ideal plan/strategy and make lasting, positive change happen in the world without reactionary or recidivative push back.

Sign up to our regular newsletter

Insightful articles, practical wisdom, and nourishing content on how to transform yourself, your organizations, and our world.

Possibly because most developmental stage thinkers were, and are, people working in a rationalist paradigm within academia, the focus of most developmental models has been how we think and act rather than how we feel and sense in our hearts and bodies.

We believe it is crucial to include in any developmental model—and so the development of people, especially leaders and changemakers—the reality that we can and must consciously develop our emotional and interoceptive intelligence as we go through life. We want to become ever wiser, not just smarter. We call this wisdom “Interoceptive-Affective Complexity” or “embodied wisdom.” We think of this as the horizontal axis of conscious development.

Interoceptive- Affective Complexity is less showy than Cognitive-Behavioral Complexity. But, as I have suggested above, it is just as important. We have fallen behind as a society, so actually, we need to prioritize embodied wisdom over smarts.

Cognitive Complexity: Smarts & Action

Writing a book, building an app, developing a theory, fighting a battle… are all challenging. We call them ‘Technical Problems’. Technical Problems require high levels of expertise and knowledge to solve. We call this the domain of development of ‘Cognitive-Behavioral Complexity,’ which we shorten to Cognitive Complexity.

‘Cognitive Complexity’ helps us engage in and solve ever-more challenging problems with sound reason, intellect, and coherence. It helps us intervene in systems in useful and effective ways that are grounded in evidence and data. It helps us make sense of chaos and change when others are confused.

Cognitive Complexity helps us distance ourselves from messy human emotions so we can think clearly, critically, and objectively. It is great for solving Technical Problems. But this kind of consciousness struggles profoundly to solve tougher challenges, like how to transform a national or interpersonal conflict, disrupt a market for good, future-proof an august institution, or resolve a climate crisis.

We call these kinds of issues Transformational Challenges. They require us to transform as leaders, organizations, and societies before we can resolve them. Cognitive Complexity is necessary but not sufficient for solving them. To rise up to embrace and metabolize Transformational Challenges, we also need to influence, and transform hearts and mind; our own as much as others.

Therefore they require relational intelligence. We must develop ourselves within another domain of human development, which we call Embodied Wisdom.

Wisdom, Embodied In Our Everyday Relationships

Embodied wisdom contains, yet expands profoundly upon, traditional notions of emotional intelligence.

Embodied wisdom ensures our ideas and actions are grounded in caring, connection, and inter-subjective resonance. It enables us to prioritize the complex relationships that all social, political, economic, ecological, or business problems, in some way, start and end with.

Embodied wisdom helps us have a stable sense of self (while still allowing natural stages of development to unfold) which helps us avoid inner collapse under pressure; and helps us turn strong emotions and intense subjective experiences that arise in relationships into ‘objects’ within our ‘consciousness that we can observe, work with, and heal.

Ego development is unique among other constructs (“lines”) in developmental theory in that its progress depends on an ever deeper embodied understanding of the construct itself (the self). Tom Murray, The Oxford Handbook of Adult Development and Wisdom

Embodied Wisdom empowers us to discern where and with whom pain and conflicts lie (very important when dealing with liers, manipulatirs, gaslighters, and other people suffering from personality disorders). It ensures we can penetrate to hidden insights in our communities and customers that unlock transformation, innovation, and imagination in our systems. It empowers us to temper our smarts, and tamp down our reactivity, so we can solve complex problems with compassion and creativity as much as control and protection.

Embodied wisdom is the only quality that can constrain, temper, and tenderize our human genius for Cognitive Complexity—which often disconnects us from one another in its abstracting and achieving genius.

The capacity to be smart, rational, and powerful is brilliant, yes. But, untethered to healthy and reciprocal relationships, it tends to cause endless damage to real communities and ecosystems (as well as lead to our own diminishment, loneliness, and sorrow).

We can see this in Ukraine. We can see this in the endless talk about the climate crisis, which the IPCC made clear this month, is still getting worse and requires radical action (AKA transformation). We can see it in how many smart people talk about doing good, spreading love, and sharing wisdom but still cannot show up naked and raw in relationships with others who they think cannot “do” anything for them or are lower down in the social pecking order (an intern seeking a first job, a lowly entrepreneur seeking funding, or an artist seeking a book deal or first exhibit.

As Samuel Johnson quipped, “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”

To transform our self/org/world for good, Cognitive Complexity must be sourced in Embodied Wisdom, which can only arise when we learn how to take care of each other and the planet we rely on for all life.

Care is a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, ourselves, our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life sustaining web. Joan Tronto

Love is easy. Care is hard.

What I mean by this is that we can all profess to love the planet, to adore nature, to stand in solidarity with our siblings, to be one in the great chain of being… but having to actually give up our own comforts and conveniences to care—to volunteer on the streets with the unsheltered, to donate our holiday fund to a non-profit, to take care of someone else’s kids rather than have a chilled evening, to care for an elder rather than go to Burning Man, to eat plants rather than the meat we love, to share a car even if this means we don’t get to use it when we need it (and so miss out on parties or profits), to drive back home in bad traffic for our forever totes rather than use a plastic bag—this is hard!

Introducing Relational Fields

In our relational intelligence and collaborative leadership programs, we help leaders and changemakers build ’embodied wisdom’ in various, distinct, and vital “Relational Fields.”

To put it most simply, relational fields are the spaces between us and others within which relationships live. I use that word purposefully for relationships, if they are anything, are alive.

To help people understand their relational fields and the ruptures in them that impact their capacity to lead and land transformation, we discern 6 distinct fields that we can focus our attention on to repair and regenerate.

Disruptions, disorder(s), and disorganization in more ‘central’ Relational Fields tend to show up in different forms in more expansive Relational Fields.  If left unsurfaced, unexpressed, disowned, and un-wholed, they show up as the deepest causes of the societal, systemic, and institutional problems of modernity.

Pernicious and persistent “protective patterns” are essential survival mechanisms that we mimic or invent to cope with fractured relational fields between our caregivers (themselves fragmented by past traumas) and us. They are successful in defending us from what we don’t want, but they cannot bring us what we do want. They can protect us from being mocked, ignored, disrespected, bullied, impoverished, etc. But they cannot bring us intimacy, love/being loved, or purpose.

Fractures in our own relational fields necessarily lead to fragmentation, alienation, and suffering in our systems. Our system is simply the crystallization of all the Relational Fields we have (whether agreed to or not).

This is compounded by the reality that trauma, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), outdated moral and social conventions, and a failing education system all interrupt the progressive development of emotional and relational intelligence. This locks people in power in ever-decreasing circles of relational effectiveness. The modern education and management system creates interference patterns for what scientists like Michael Tomasello suggest are natural capacities humans have for wise collaboration.

Here are some of the ‘shadow‘ aspects—a term from Jungian psychology that denotes disowned and/or repressed pain, patterns, and potentiality in our unconscious —of the relational fields. See how many show up in your team, organization, local community, or family.

The frame of relational fields can also help us understand why some people can seem to be amazingly “spiritual” or “ecological”, in that they have health connectivity in relational fields 1 and/or 6: but show up as narcissistic malignancy (which is rife), sociopathy, spiritual bypassing, uncaring, manipulative, power-playing, lonely, ineffectual in every day relationships and communities. They may have seen “the light” but cannot stop themselves from abusing or neglecting the people under their care or people they do not have power over. As Tom Murray puts it: “The transient transcendent state of feeling selfless compassion is not wisdom unless it is reliably translated into caring action.”

Our linear modern minds often see adult development as a hierarchical unfolding towards greater heights of intelligence and complexity, albeit generative, not dominative hierarchies. But relational expansion, the development of embodied wisdom, is more like a circle than a line. In other words, our relational intelligence and embodied wisdom are rhythmical, seasonal, and cyclical.

When we reach the deepest inner layers within us, we often find we are at the furthest outer layers of the cosmos. Or, as T.S. Eliot put it: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

We can work on awakening and realizing more wholeness in any field at any time. Without doing this work, our capacity to lead the change we want to see will become stale, inert, and greatly diminished.

Repairing Ruptured Relational Fields

If we want to play our full part in co-creating what comes next, we need to pay as much attention to repairing our relational fields as we do formalizing and sharing our ideas. In fact, given how little time so many of us have spent on this repair, we probably need to spend a lot more time bringing wholeness into our part of the global rhizome than we do intellectualize. How else can we recalibrate?

No protective pattern, no matter how smart, powerful, or brilliant it makes us seem, can bring about a regenerative world. Words, ideas, and concepts are not sufficient to repair the ruptures, and so reorient and regenerate our social systems that drive inequality, poverty, anxiety, conflict, and climate change. Only love, care, and healing can do this.

For a long time, I felt profound pain in my relationships, which debilitated my role as a leader and change agent. I still had all the smarts—I actually used my smarts to compensate for the loss of connection, recognition, and attachment in my relationships—but I was losing transformative power. This was a breakdown/burnout style invitation to repair my relational fields.

As I began to heal my ruptured relationships, a process I am still fully engaged with twenty years later, I became more whole. This wholeness rippled through all my relational fields, particularly those with people I lead and influence, unlocking interdependence instead of co-dependence, compassion instead of coercion, and inspiration instead of aggression.

This was the true ground of my awakening. I ‘woke down’—discovering the genius within my body, understanding the depths of my trauma(s), experiencing the intensity of grieving, healing my endlessly frayed relationships—as well as woke up. This was an intimate, grounded, and fleshy experience of unified awareness.

For me, it was a least 15 years after my first access to the healing power of non-dual experience that it shifted from Field 1/6 and rippled out fully into the other fields. Our wounding happens in our relationships (attachment, abandonment, abuse, neglect etc). So too, therefore, must all our healing. We are fundamentally relational entities in an interdependent relationship (where we must be neither too independent or too co-dependent) with all systems and all life on this planet.

This process has continued at pace through almost 14 years of an astonished regenerative marriage, fully engaged and responsible parenting, and being a more committed son, brother, and friend. The work in relational repair and regeneration has brought me to my peak of power to inspire other powerful people to shift their relationships too—to creativity, to limitless growth, to exploitative capitalism, to money, to their teams, and more.

A Concrete Example Of Relational Regeneration

This process of relational wholing is still happening to me, as this relational field hypothesis would predict. A few days ago, I had a relational meltdown in Fields 4/5. Without going into the details, for they are not relevant, I felt a person I did not know well (other than through their work and LinkedIn)—but considered an ally after kind and openhearted messages sent to me—had spurned me.

I use this word specifically as it is close to the feeling that arose in my body. It may seem silly, but in that moment, I fell back under pressure and was a little edgy in a message to them. This did not cause a great relational meeting of hearts and minds. So, after some time to reflect, I apologized and sought to repair.

There is much more to this story of rupture and repair than this. The path of developing embodied is relentless because, once we have committed to it, every schism and every reaction becomes fuel to metabolize into value through the spectacular process of transformation.

This breakdown was a straw-camel moment. I had just spent weeks, nay months, emailing and messaging c.200 people with vanishingly few responding. In a recession/down-cycle, this is common, although no less challenging. In the same week, an investor/philanthropist who had once invited me to their home in Silicon Valley pre-pandemic was now “unavailable” to even meet for a brief coffee with no offer of further connection. A Bay Area “star” had walked away from a live and lively conversation at a dinner the night before. Behind all of this presenting stress is the daily agony and endless grief around my son not responding to me and cutting me off. I haven’t seen him for 18 months after being his primary caregiver for 10 years.

Feeling unseen, old wounding from my past as a bullied and ostracized child and teenager—abused and rejected by family, ‘friends,’ and even teachers at a posh private school—rose up. I felt destabilized in my hara. A little hurt in my heart. Righteous in my head. And so I reacted with my hands flying across the keyword.

In reflection, I can see I was also attempting to hold stronger boundaries with people. I have a long and storied history of allowing others to manipulate, coerce, bully, and abuse me through their skill at leveraging my trauma-induced neuroses. But I am not (yet) an expert at holding strong yet permeable boundaries, so rather than enquiring with curiosity and compassion—and elegantly suggesting or offering a reflection/observation—I reacted with certainty (about their actions and about me being snubbed).

After processing the trigger, repairing the rupture, and releasing the attending embarrassment/shame, I went deeper. For these tears in, the fabric of my relational rhizomes matter. I could sense shock, trauma, and shame still lingering within my body. We teach leaders to metabolize schisms of any size into transformative value. So even this seemingly little miscommunication with someone I barely knew could unlock more wholeness and aliveness in Field 4/5.

I happened to be sitting through a conference surrounded by people in Field 4: speakers, attendees, organizers. A perfect place to do the work of regenerating my relational field 4. After reflecting, releasing, and receiving (the three main phases of transformation in our method), I felt a marked shift in my embodied being. From more fullness and wholeness, aliveness in the form of relational energy, sparks, and connections began to flow.

At each coffee break, I turned to people next to me and opened my heart to them without fear of being spurned, without even a sense that spurning could exist. For I have in my body the truth: some people simply do not have the energy, availability, or interest in connecting. There is nothing wrong with me. There is nothing wrong with them.

I engaged with a person, a random, in a museum gift shop (across the road from the conference venue). I now have a collaboration call set up with them. I embodied a softer, more lighthearted generosity. I felt somehow more in everyone’s eyes yet somehow less too: less need to preen and puff to be seen and be loved. I wanted to call up everyone where my need to be “somebody” had got in the way of being connected with them.

For we cannot be right or raised above others and be in real relationship with them.

Synchronistically, I happened to sit through a talk by Alanis Morissette, who spoke about the power of vulnerability as a way to lance the egoic inflation of stardom. Vulnerability is to freely acknowledge and act from our inherent human fallibility. Our reasoning and rational minds, so often trying to control the world to protect us, might balk at this. But to be vulnerable, to own our sh!t, to apologize, to reflect on a discussion or debate and come back to repair any tears or dampen down friction, this is what allows relationships to flourish.

Those who cannot reflect, own, apologize, and repair (without entering a shame cycle, which is counter-productive) cannot ever be in authentic relationships And what I have found is that apologizing in Field 4 is the hardest field for me. It means being vulnerable with people who do not know me, potential avatars of those teachers and students at school who did not really know me but shamed, bullied, and abused me even so.

The connections I made after this ‘minor key’ transformation at the conference (we talk about minor and major key transformations) felt notably fresh and strong. Some may hold the seeds of delivering greater systemic impact with my work. Time will tell. What I do know, in my body and mind, is that without this transformation, I would not have as much power to empower people in Field 4. Field 4 is where I do almost all of my work as a keynote speaker and leadership/innovation advisor.

A further delicious irony of this breakdown is that the very same week, I found a hidden trove of c.200 LinkedIn messages that I had never seen dating back to 2009. They were in an “unfocused” mailbox I did not know existed. I had “spurned” all these folk, or so they might have assumed! So I diligently went back to each of them, with a humble apology, and explained my silence.

You can’t even make this stuff up. Yet such rhizomatic, interconnected, interdependent transformations regularly show up in learning “themes” across a week, month, or year if you stay open to them. I now have meetings set up to rekindle potential partnerships and collaborations with some of the 200. The regenerative really is relational.

“Thresholds” of Development For Transformational Leaders

As theorists like Ken Wilbur and Robert Kegan make clear, if we skip a stage of development—by not understanding it or embodying it fully (and perhaps instead rejecting or repressing it or being addicted to dysfunctions in the stage before)—we don’t develop fluidly and appropriately. The resulting fixations (that show up in addictions and allergies) limit our capacity to be transformational leaders.

But this is not the only blocker to truly expansive consciousness and capability. Our experience of working with perhaps 100,000 people suggested that there is a chasm between being a smart and systemic thinker and being a truly transformative and regenerative thinker. That is to say that, no matter how smart, systemic, and societally successful we are in the vertical axis, we can only evolve to our most transformational potential as leaders (and citizens) through developing embodied wisdom in the horizontal axis which enables us to cross that chasm.

If we do not develop significantly on the horizontal axis of embodied wisdom, we get stuck on the vertical axis at the level of systemic thinking: we can analyze and understand the dynamics of complex biological, physical, and social systems, but we cannot effectively intervene to shift and shape them because that relies on bringing other people with us, with all their messy, fragmented, and chaotic realities.

On the other hand, no matter how loving, spiritual, and compassionate we are, if we don’t have the cognitive capacity to understand complex (meta)modern systems—and master our capacity to generate concrete impact through analysis, sensemaking, discerning frames, business acumen, and consistent action—we get stuck on the horizontal axis too.

There is a chasm between being a loving person and, say, a great therapist or physician and a purpose-driven transformer of whole systems. If we are stuck at this threshold, we can feel and sense relationships and experience intense, non-ordinary states of consciousness, but we cannot truly care for complex systems because we don’t understand them.

Therefore, we cannot enter what some call ‘second tier’ or third tier’ stages of development—often called  “teal/turquoise/coral” stages of human development—until we have ‘caught up’ on either axis. At a certain point, a lack of capacity in one axis acts as a break to our development in the other.

Like a video game where you can only access a hidden area by painstakingly leveling up—developing skills and tactics as you go—we cannot access the most transformational and regenerative stages of development without leveling up both our cognitive-action and somatic-emotional ninjutsu.

Becoming Transformers: The Higher Stage of Leadership Development

Therefore, we cannot become truly transformational as leaders and changemakers if we don’t develop our felt senses and emotional layers so we can: feel stable and rooted no matter how much chaos and crisis there is; attend to problems with unalloyed compassion for those suffering in a system; feel and act with genuine interdependence, no matter how inconvenient this is; have the empathic connection to come up with innovation-forging insights and ideas that can alleviate the suffering of other people in a system; access our full palette of responses to intense challenges, rather react with predictable, persistent, and pernicious protective patterns (no mater how clever and attractive they appear); show up in everyday conversations and connective moments as authentic, vulnerable, and trustworthy; and have the inner resources to be able to expand our circles of love, care, and presence to move beyond our own needs (even if we look like we are with cool projects).

Without embodied wisdom, we get stuck in solving abstract systemic problems rather than holding space for others to arise and awake, contributing to, and stewarding regenerative solutions to profound meta/meaning crises, and midwifing ideas that are “seeking to emerge” from us in co-creative dialogue with people and planet (in collaboration not control).

Likewise, we cannot concretely care for people, the planet, and the cosmos—rather than just meditating on them and “sending love” to people in pain—without understanding and then changing the flows of capital, labor, regulations, and resources within today’s complex, adaptive socio-economic systems. Otherwise, we get stuck in solving individualized issues of wellbeing and mental health rather than inspiring and supporting action that resolves systemic racism, societal repression, interminable conflict, ecological devastation, and economic servitude.

Without breaking through the thresholds of either axis to reach what we call The Transformer stage of leadership development, we remain locked into very modern solutions to our shared problems. We will be stuck in angry activism, traumatized trolling, spiritual bypassing, entrepreneurial hustle, dreams of being technological saviors, and technocratic tinkering as our societies implode under the sheer weight of our shared inequality, ill-health, industrialization, and identity crises.

I have another speculation that our dual axis theory of adult/leadership development suggests: This is based on my own personal experience over the last 10 years seeking to become wiser and more relational as a father, husband, friend, leader, son, and entrepreneur. As I have consciously focused on tending to my relational fields, I have made this a life and leadership mission of equal importance to my work theorizing, analyzing, and communicating as a “thought leader.”

But I have noticed that as I have become more rational, my smarts (analysis, speed of reading, dot-connecting, fact recall) have softened somewhat. This could be age- and lifestyle-related cognitive decline. But what if it points to a startling revelation: in the zero-sum game of energy budgeting in the bodymind, if we focus on caring, do we have to lose a little sharpness? Do over-identified with and over-relied upon cognitive capacities return to a more balanced state if we choose to embrace relationality above rationality?

Is our hypermodern intelligence, trained by years of modern schooling, training, and incentivization—that costs so much in terms of burnout, breakdown, isolation, lack of belonging, absent parenting, alienation from nature, mood disorders, etc—a perversion of “natural” human development that seeks to develop across both axes at the same time? As we intentionally recalibrate our relational capacities to care more and be cared for by nature and others, do we return to a more sustainable state (in terms of relational, energetic, and ecological sustainability)?

Will We Be Forever Stuck In Abstracting, Extracting Modernity?

All of this is to say that I consider much contemporary activism, solutioneering, and intellectualism to be stuck in modernity (perhaps ‘post-postmodernism’) because they are consumed by ideas, talk, analysis, debate, protest, posting easy to ‘like’ memes, being brilliant, being smart, being witty, and winning the argument.

Even metamodernism, which in some variants speaks to the relational wisdom in Indigenous Knowledge, transpersonal psychologies, and animist metaphysics, shows up as abstracted from the everyday relationships with life, nature, land, and community that constitute our world. Anything that privileges theory over practice, words over senses, mind over body, remains, to my bodymind at least, some variant of modernity.

Complex thinkers and geniuses can be malicious, or oblivious to the needs of others. Complex laws, policies, and bureaucracies can be inefficient, oppressive, and exploitative. Complexity can lead to more complexity in a virtue-less cycle. A strong argument could be made that most human suffering is caused by mal-adaptive beliefs and habits, and that the task of repairing or releasing individual and collective shadow and decreasing its creation is more important than increasing the hierarchical complexity of the population—though surely there is a relationship between these two modalities. Tom Murray, The Oxford Handbook of Adult Development and Wisdom

Many of the proponents of “what comes next” memes are themselves stuck in the quintessentially Western/modern archetype of the individual rational thinker—sharing their intellectual wares in the Greek agora, aiming and gaming for likes and followers—rather than be part of a pulsing, interdependent, rhizome that actually seeks to phase transition our social, economic, and political systems to what must come next (if we want to make it).

This is not a criticism or judgment. It’s taken me about 30 years of committed personal development to fully embrace relationality, particularly in my work as an individual ‘thought leader’, solo ‘keynote speaker’, and unique ‘theorist’. This has required me to repair seemingly endless frayed and flayed relational fields.

But after millennia of failures caused by smart minds disconnected from full hearts, it is time to fully grok—in how we show up every time we are ‘working’ not just in our words or performative acts that virtue signal collaborative intelligence—that rationality without relationality is insufficient to resolve the multi-crises that disembodied and alienated thinking has created.

Einstein had something insightful to say about such follies.

Linear Modernity To Rhizomatic MettaModernity

This means, in a metaphor I have used before but am not fully sure works, that if we want to really take off from the runway of self-centered rational-privileging modernity—which postmodernity and post-postmodernity have failed to help us do—we must place at the core of all our embodied ways of being, from theorizing to practicing, the truth that we are an absolutely relational and rhizomatic species.

This is a dethronement of the modern Self on a par with the Copernican revolution that robbed us of our hitherto central role as the center of (God’s) solar system. Yet, as all regenerative and developmental masters know, as we relinquish, so we receive. For in the rhizome, we flourish when we find our way to be neither too dependent/codependent nor too independent, but interdependent. I become as you become.

We are no longer trapped in Indra’s net. We are both one jewel (an individual self) and the entire net itself (social and ecological system).

Sign up to our regular newsletter

Insightful articles, practical wisdom, and nourishing content on how to transform yourself, your organizations, and our world.

Analytical, rational, intellectual thinking may be neat—and I love the patterns we can find/create in theoretical work—but it is usually, and I sense biologically necessarily, disembodied, dislocated, and dissociated from the messy human hearts in tries to solve for. In other words, it is only by sourcing our ideas and actions in alive and fluid ‘relational fields’—that need constant tending to, in all their ecstatic and agonizing glory—that we make tangible transformation happen at any level.

Thankfully, the importance and development of relational intelligence and Embodied Wisdom are growing across the world. Whether in the form of ‘psychological safety’ in teamwork, mutual aid, the re-emergence of mutuals, friendly societies, and co-ops; conflict mediation, enactive approaches, collective intelligence, participatory democracy and citizens assemblies, restorative justice, limbic and empathic resonance; compassion projects and charters, ways to repair and strengthen Relational Fields are sprouting up all over.

Dialogue is key. When done slowly and with the utmost attention to our inner and embodied states, dialogue unblocks hearts as much as it unlocks minds. Dialogue in psychiatry, dialogue in couples therapy, dialogue in conflict transformation, dialogue as a collective communication tool, dialogue as strategy and innovation development, all open up the promise of the relational regeneration of our world.

Dialogue allows our felt sense awareness and underlying mood—our interoceptive and emotional intelligence—to catch up with our busy mind; and then transform it. Nerves rewire. Stress responses are dampened. Amgydalas shrink. Shock is released. Trauma is healed. This is the true nature and genius of the dialogical experience. And everyone is invited.

Yet, we must ensure that we don’t allow relational tools and techniques to be co-opted by capitalism and political domination. We must ensure we harness them to transform capitalism for good.

We must also never forget that Embodied Wisdom—as it shows up in caring and tenderness—is still mostly the preserve of mothers, grandmothers, a growing number of dads (“latte papas”), HR folk, and wise elders who are too busy caring for, tending to, and nurturing others to achieve world domination (or write articles, do TED talks, and gain social media followers). The forgotten, hidden, and faceless stewards deserve our endless gratitude, better pay, and profound respect (shared emphatically, on a daily basis).

Unlocking Systemic Transformation Through Relational Technologies

As we use relational tech to heal wounds and damages in our relational fields (see above for some pointers), we unleash stored-up caring and creative energy. The energy that was once stored up in defending, being right, being positional, is released and we can use it to imagine and invent.

This is at the core of our work in Systemic Transformation—you can read more here in this (super-summarized and incomplete) Systemic Transformation: Building Out A Field Guide for Forging a Regenerative Future”. It’s a little out of date as our practice evolves rapidly with every learning from every engagement, but it has some useful principles.

Once we can allow our relational fields to settle, relax, and be unperturbed, remarkable things begin to happen. The life force within us all, that some call “divine eros” or “enlivenment“, begins to quicken. We call this embodied, sensual, seductive, and quintessentially co-creative energy jouissance: power that comes from relational joy.

We have borrowed this powerful word for enjoyment and pleasure from various theorists, most notably the feminist writer Hélène Cixous. We see it as the elemental force of the feminine principle: “explosion, diffusion, effervescence, abundance…takes pleasure (jouit) in being limitless.”

Jouissance can only be released when we stop being smart, right, and positional and instead crack open our hearts in vulnerability so we are interpenetrated by relational fields. This quickening allows life-affirming and regenerative insights and ideas to flow in the space between us, wholing whatever around us needs more healing; and expanding out through our voices and actions into the systems we touch. It is a secular Brotherhood and spiritual Buddhahood combined.

Once we open heart and mind within the various relational fields, we feel jouissance flood through our bodyminds. Collectively, the jouissance brings us into embodied concord or resonance with others (and nature); and the resonance or concord allows the flow of jouissance.

By dissolving away interpersonal power struggles between opposing protective patterns, it is much easier to find consilience between different views, perspectives, and frames. This then allows us to find collective coherence with how the world is changing … which then opens up the possibility of shared breakthroughs and co-created paradigm shifts.

Divine Eros always brings insights and ideas that are appropriate to the moment, shaping reality to bring more wholeness and happiness—and to reduce suffering in individuals and in communities. It may be a caring reach-out; it may be by relinquishing being right so conflict can dissolve; it may be through giving up comfort and conveniences to be sustainable; it may be by relinquishing our profitable business model to explore and purposeful one. It speaks not in the words of logic and reason but in dreams, visions for a better world, and imagination.

A Regenerative Future Must Be Premised On Embodied Wisdom

If our smart Cognitive Complexity is sourced in and aims to serve Embodied Wisdom, then we take care of ourselves, each other, and the parts of the planet and society that we rely on for succor. With such wholing relational hearts, we generate limitless micro-moments of care, creativity, and compassion each day. Only then can we use our masculine energies of claiming, naming, piercing, analyzing, and protecting to serve our feminine powers to bring more wholeness, aliveness, fullness, and health to systems (rather than the other way around).

Such relational gestures and bonds can quell our cravings for comfort, convenience, power, and profit and allow us to solve problems that really matter in effective, collaborative, and peaceful ways. We will still be harsh and cold and too right and too smart, much of the time. But, over many dialogues, dinners, and curious and caring circles, we may be able to embrace each other in heart-centered solidarity. Boundaries (safe) yet porous (sensitive) semi-permeable membranes can exist between us in interdependent ways of relating and creating. Then, we can weave new forms of governance and business, collaborate in ways that honor everyone’s needs, recalibrate systems away from extraction and abstraction, and actually regenerate our crisis-hit world.

All my searching, yearning, and journeying has brought me to believe that we simply cannot get to a ‘metamodern’ or ‘regenerative’ system (or find our way to a Game B, C, or Z) if we do not place—at the absolute core of all our ideas, way of speaking, way of working, projects—relational care, open-hearted fellowship, and vulnerable and compassionate reciprocity. What we say and how we act become one. Walk and talk are reunified.

As above, so below. As within, so without.

From rich and expressive Embodied Wisdom, enacted by discerning and piercing Cognitive Complexity, will be born the kind of education, economic, social, and organizational systems that nourish human wellbeing and limit our planetary footprints. The kind of lived and embodied interdependence that allows organisms and their ecologies to live in balance, even harmony, cannot be achieved by us if we abstract and alienate ourselves through reason, rationality, and intellect.

We need such an expanded way of thinking and being—reaching a level of relational genius—to get out of the interminable cycles of modernity: intellectual enlightenment, progress, crisis, conflict, revolution, reaction, reform, polarization, revanchism, crisis, etc., etc., etc. We need such an expanded way of thinking and being to give up some of the comforts and conveniences of advanced capitalism in order to live within our planetary limits; and to reduce the inequalities that undermine our shared future.

Towards A Mettamodern Future

Many years of lived experience running frontline strategic innovation and systemic change projects has taught me that it is only by reweaving the world with each other through healthy and reciprocal relationships—that takes time, listening, and patience (when part of us wants to judge, get angry, go numb, withdraw, or act quickly to save the world)—that we can lead and land truly transformational change.

This is difficult, messy work, but it is what builds trust: the lubricant of all lasting change and transformation. Reports, spreadsheets, and plans that abstract real human beings into boxes may be neat… but they can only get us so far. This kind of abstraction and alienation is what Sartre said was true evil. It is the abstractive intelligence that the Nazis use to attempt to improve on modernity—industrialized killing, humans as mere numbers, human torture-trials—and landed themselves in the most extreme relational agony in history.

I believe that the expanded way of thinking and being we need is to sense-make, form-make, and decision-make in smart, scientific, and systemic ways guided by a sense of wholeness within us; and a sense of an interpenetrating mutuality with all life. This is a form of modernity that can finally go beyond reason, logic, productivity, commodification, and analysis—without losing the gains of science, democracy, justice, technology, and innovation—because it arises out of limitless compassion, love, kindness, and care: metta in Pali, the language of the historical Buddha.

This, then, is Mettamodernity: a tentative next stage of human and societal development that can break free of modernity endlessly criticizing and reforming itself in ideas and in words without breaking forth into embodied wisdom. We do not just deconstruct and cancel, theorize and thrust, talk, speak, write, and lecture in logophilic bliss: we actively and collaboratively regenerative how we show up in relationships so that we can effectively co-create regenerative technologies,  enterprises, and systems that are sourced in life-affirming connection, compassion, play, playfulness, patience, and reciprocity.

In Mettamodernity, we willingly relinquish (some of) modernity’s comforts and conveniences—which are causing so much social and ecological devastation—because we offset the losses with deep care and connection. This can only happen by working each day to bring more wholeness to our relationships with ourselves and each other—and the planet we rely on for all life. In Mettamodernity, we give up being positional, powerful, righteous, and smart in order to be relational, connected, and collaborative. We maintain strong but subtle, soft, and porous boundaries in interdependent living and working with others who can handle this level of care and tending.

If you want to rapidly upgrade your capacity for transformational leadership and build your Embodied Wisdom as you go, consider using our highly accessible, self-paced, and on-demand course, The Essentials Of Transformational Leadership. Or feel free to reach out to me for coaching. I currently focus on helping powerful people fuse hearts (embodied wisdom, relational repair, intimacy re-ups, rhizomatic working and earning, deep care in the form of purpose, etc.) with smarts (leadership status, entrepreneurial power, get shit down prowess) to meet the historic moment.