Analogue leadership in a digital world

The Intersticia Effect

The Intersticia Effect

Written by Louise Sibley, Intersticia UK Director

We arrived for the retreat a raggle-taggle bunch of Fellows, Founders & Coders, advisers, directors, siblings and partners, spread across 3-4 generations, not sure what we were going to do and (some) even why we were there, beyond being together.

Yet in the course of a short weekend – a few short hours for the online community – we allowed a strong community to emerge with a common path of travel. The purpose of this reflection is to explore how that happens.

The group in Devon was self-selected and, on the face of it, an oddball gathering with membership of the Intersticia community and being in the UK all we had in common. Covid and vital commitments meant many were absent, including the Intersticia Fellows around the world. All would have been invited to this gathering, and several of whom joined us online for a few short hours – but absence rather than presence was dominant at first. Even programme organisers Anni and Sam (Crock) were locked up on the other side of the world and nine hours away by the clock.

Often when a group of disparate people in a very loose organisational framework without shared purpose come together, the success or failure of the gathering is attributable to the organisers’ preparation, to clarity of objectives, a formal agenda (to manage expectations) and stated desired outcomes to be met or missed. In our case, preparation had indeed been done, and there was an objective – to reconnect the community – but agenda and outcomes were absent – an unusual experience for someone like me with a formal education and 40 years of corporate conditioning. Despite the absences of people and formality, value and promise emerged.

Anni and Sam organise Intersticia to connect and support potential and emerging leaders in any discipline from any country. The community is small and the members are personally chosen one at a time. The formal side is financial – an individual grant from the Foundation or a funding for programme such as Founders and Coders – but beyond the formal process there is an ethos which drives the choice of individuals and programmes. This is not about the eventual success of the beneficiaries in conventional or monetary terms. The connective tissue is ethical and an idea that people from any field, brought together and supported, can help look after each other, and so – by extension – care for the world, and act as its stewards, whichever part they find themselves in.

There is both content and process involved but Intersticia is informed by ideas that have emerged from the Tavistock Institute, specifically the Leicester Conference and group relations. At some point of personal readiness, Intersticia’s Fellows are invited to attend the Leicester Conference or one of its country spin-offs. Anyone reading this who has, will understand. It is nearly impossible to describe if you have not.

So this weekend in the lovely surroundings of the Dartington Hall Estate – itself home since the 1920s to an ‘alternative’ community of artists, musicians and ecologists – I got to see what the result of a community run along Tavistock lines can look like.

The first principle is that if you give a group the twin boundaries of a space and a time, and hold those boundaries in place, something will emerge that is unique to those people present and change (unspecified) will result. This is a matter of trust. The selection of different generations to be present is deliberate. There is no hierarchy – equal citizenship is understood – but the senior members of the group seem to ‘hold’ the space, their experience is felt in the unconscious.
Within the group, no person was called on to contribute ‘expertise’ or ‘knowledge’ (unless asked) but the different potential contributions were felt and came forward as they needed to.

Next, there is the designing of a framework (or preparation) which will allow people to explore. This seems to me to be an art form. It spans both the formal ‘time’ and the leisure time. So we had two online meetings with time for group discussion and 1/1s. Carefully expressed questions (about the Gift and the Wish for each of us) expanded into personal discussions during which we self-examined and listened. Our pairs were carefully selected so that a match between a present member and an online member were made. This was spatial design, not random. For those of us at Dartington, three meals were taken together as part of the programme (the traditional breaking of bread with others, as old as Genesis) and informal gatherings grew out of those.

Finally, allowing the random or unexpected to take on meaning. We took advantage of an opportunity that was ‘presented’ by the fact of being under the wing of Schumacher College (on the Estate). This was a group discussion with the founder of the College – Satish Kumar – about education and change, followed shortly after by a Deep Time Walk with Stephen Harding. This was a 4km walk across the Estate, where every step we took symbolised 1000 years of planetary history. Stefan – a scientist performer – has designed this walk to impart a feeling of wonder for geological time and to make the point that our human history spans scarcely a millimeter within that – yet our impact has become devastating.

These two powerful interventions could easily not have found a place in our agenda but they were offered and wisely we took them up – an example of coherence that can come from discovering what is present, when you do not really know. In the short feedback of the following day, several members of the group said they would continue to think about the challenge thrown down by Satish and Stephen ‘ what can Intersticia do to look after our world?’ . The full-on rain of the next day (part of the weather system which brought floods to the UK and German over the Monday and Tuesday) seemed designed to underline the point.

Next morning, before leaving, and still in full processing mode, I coined to myself the term ‘The Intersticia Effect’. It is difficult to pin down or fully account for the value of a retreat, often, and this one is no different. But connections and relationships are the supreme agency of change , and so taking really good people, setting them down in a safe container for mind, body and spirit, while giving them time to explore beyond the normal boundaries, is going to lead somewhere.

It would have been so easy to cancel this gathering – already delayed by a year – with Anni unable to travel, and so much doubt as to whether it could actually happen. I am absolutely grateful we went ahead. We have reconnected the community for another year, and we have been given a lot to think about for its future meaning. That is quite enough for now.

Brave Conversations Global 2021

Brave Conversations Global 2021

We have just beamed out our latest Brave Conversations event as a part of the 2021 ACM Web Science Conference which has the theme Globalisation, Inclusion and the Web in the Context of COVID.

This is our 16th Brave Conversations event, but the first we have deliberately crafted to be truly global in both it’s reach and it’s intention.  We were joined by a group of people from around the world but particularly the Global South, many who have joined us before, and refreshingly some very welcome new faces and ideas.

The times of Covid

One topic that consistently emerges in all the conversations that I’ve been having is that of how different countries/regions/cities are dealing with the virus, with an example being the emergence of Vaccine Nationalism and Vaccine Envy – politics is never far away from a crisis.  What we are seeing is an overt display of how cultural values manifest even within countries based on local agendae and geographies – a look at how Australia’s two largest cities have responded gives just one example of stark differences.

This Covid Pandemic has brought rich opportunities to learn, especially about how different jurisdictions interact with their citizens via online technologies, and how the influence of Social Media in spreading fear and fueling suspicion are having very real consequences on the management of public health.  Here in Australia the appallingly mishandled rollout of Covid Vaccines accompanied by the power play between State and Federal Governments has led to the country squandering its initial advantage in handling the Virus which has resulted in a repetitive cycle of shutdowns leaving people confused and increasingly running out of trust.

Of all the elements one needs in a crisis Trust is at the top of the list and Governments around the world have sought to harness digital tools all in the name of “keeping the public safe”.  We now take it for granted that we have to check in to cafes and restaurants via a Government approved App, that CCTV cameras will be used to spot fleeting interactions between people in shopping centres and travel of all kinds is being monitored.

The free world doesn’t seem quite so free any more and perhaps what Covid is beginning to teach us is that we should all become far more conscious and aware of the mindsets which we hold and how they help or hinder us as we all collectively begin to co-construct the post-Covid world.

These mindsets are at the core of how we are build our technologies but more importantly how they are being used.

The Web of the West meets the Web of the East

East is East, and West is West and never the twain shall meet.  (Rudyard Kipling)

The West and East are meeting rather a lot these days, and increasingly so.

At our last Brave Conversations Bangalore our guest former Infosys Founder and CEO Kris Gopalakrishnan commented that

The most significant impact will be in Asia which has over 50% of the world’s population and is less developed economically so there will be big shifts in this area.  This will result in a shift to more Eastern values based on harmony, peace, and a more multi-cultural heterogenous perspective.

Co-host of Brave Conversations Ibrahim El Badawi and I have been reflecting on this and the more we talk the more we keep referring to the work of Joseph Henrich and his concept of WEIRD – people who are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic.  As someone brought up in a non-WEIRD culture but who has moved to live in a WEIRD one Ibrahim is a perfect commentator on what he sees as the contrasts drawing on Gert Hofstede’s 6D Model of Culture as one way of framing things.

We drew on this for our Global Brave Conversations and it proved to be rich territory for conversations which compared and contrasted different socio-technical challenges which are emerging.  The inter-relationship between the Web and the World was thrown open and we were thrilled at how open, honest and vulnerable were how prepared everyone was to explore new opportunities and ways of seeing the world around them.

For me this provided a perfect introduction to the 2021 Web Science conference.

WebSci 2021

The 2021 Web Science Conference sought to do what Web Science does best:  to reveal, interrogate and explore how the Web and Societies globally interact.  Themes such as algorithmic bias, surveillance and The Future of Web were held, sometimes in dual languages such as Jennifer Zhu Scott’s keynote on Global Digital Infrastructure.

But the theme that I believe was most important is that which focuses on how Governments and systems of Governance are evolving as the Covid catalyst is speeding up the development of the Metaverse, that collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet.

According to a number of sources (see Mary Meeker and World Internet) there are now over 50% of humans connected and whereas

the previous 50% of humanity has shaped the Metaverse of today, it is the next 50% of humanity that is shaping the Metaverse of tomorrow.

This is where the work of Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Dr Kieron O’Hara (see article) is coming in to its own as they describe the Metaverse of Governance which is evolving in to the Four Internets:  Data, Geopolitics and the Governance of Cyberspace. (book coming out shortly).  Having bombarded Wendy and Kieron with articles for the past few years it was a real treat to have the opportunity to explore these ideas in conversation during the Meet the Authors Panel last Wednesday as part of the Conference.

In his introduction to the Four Internets book Internet pioneer Vint Cerf comments that predicting the future is never easy but this is precisely the challenge that is at the heart of Web Science.  Since its inception the Web Science community has sought to research the evolution of online spaces (merging with the physical to become the Metaverse) through the dual lenses of both technical and social disciplines in order to understand their development, and, yes, as much as possible, try to predict what might happen next.  As we increasingly rely on these digitally mediated systems which are becoming the connective tissue with which we run our lives we need Web Science more than ever.

For those of us in the WEIRD world who are already connected our very survival depends on how we study, nurture, maintain and steward the Web and all it defines in to the 21st Century.  Which means that we owe it to everyone else to ensure the systems we’re building are inclusive, fair and beneficial to all mankind.

My thanks to Ibrahim El Badawi and Leanne Fry as my consistent colleagues in this venture, and to all in the Web Science community who are doing this important work.


Welcome to our first Yalla Apprentices!

Welcome to our first Yalla Apprentices!

The Future is being written in lines of Code. (Kathryn ParsonsKathryn Parsons)

In a recent interview former UK Bank of England Governor Mark Carney stresses the need for diversity in all sectors of the economy. It is important not only because it provides opportunity to a greater number of people but, quite simply, because it makes economic sense. In addition, given that digital technologies are now underpinning virtually every aspect of everybody’s lives, there is a moral imperative to ensure that the decisions we allow our technologies to make are not framed through the lens of one dominant perspective. The technology sector is still overwhelmingly white and male (as two iconic female tech innovators,Dame Stephanie Shirley and Professor Dame Wendy Hall, recently discussed in this delightful conversation) and this needs to change as a matter of urgency.

Intersticia is driven by the mission of providing the support and resources for a Fellowship of individuals, who share the common vision of caring for our Worldand all who live in it. Over the past eight years we have carefully crafted a community of people who come from all walks of life and share this vision. A big partof this is in promoting public education, through activities such as Brave Conversations and our Digital Gymnasia, but it is through our partnership with Founders and Coders (FAC) that we have been able to support individuals to become better equipped to help lead humanity in the digital age by themselves becomingbetter technologists.

Founders and Coders is guided by its values of cooperation, inclusion and social impact. FAC began investing in Palestinian coders in 2017 by providingcurriculum, mentors and course facilitators through both Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG) and the Israeli Not for Profit Kav Mashve(now Web Ahead) which promotesequal employment opportunities for Arab university graduates within the Israeli business sector. Intersticia began supporting this work by funding the FAC’s Tech for Better Founders Programme which brought graduates from the London-based Code Academy together with graduates from the GSG Code Academy to work on Tech for Better projects.

Our original vision was to provide the opportunity for graduate coders to gain experience working on real, needs based client projects, whilst simultaneouslyencouraging and developing diversity in codingthrough focusing not only on the coding itself, but on entrepreneurship and community building.

We supported three cohorts (First Founders Cohort, Second Founders Cohort and Third Founders Cohort) and from this the Yalla Co-Operative emerged whichoperates from London, Berlin and Gaza and seeks to harness the power of technology to solve societal challenges, spread knowledge and transcend borders.

Yalla is unique in its cross-border ownership and deep social focus and it is the courage of its Founders that provides an ongoing opportunity to experiment withnew ways of growing a diversely based tech start-up whilst providing support for people in areas of conflict and instability.

We have now taken the next step with FAC and Yalla with the commencement of the Yalla Apprenticeship Programme which is designed to take this one stepfurther by combining a mix of practical experience with tailored learning for the Code Academy graduates whilst simultaneously supporting the growth of Yalla itself.

We began in January 2021 by engaging FAC Founder and Intersticia Fellow Kristina Jaggard as the Programme Co-Ordinator and complemented this by engaging Ahmed Elqattawi, whom I met when I visited Gaza in January 2019 and is also now an Intersticia Fellow, to work with us on the ground in Gaza (for more on thisand the objectives of the programme see this previous post).

The Apprenticeship opportunity was advertised through Gaza Sky Geeks to both current and recently graduated Coders, and we held an Information Session on2nd March which was followed up by a formal application process which attracted fourteen applications. From these eight Coders were selected and asked toprovide a short video telling us a little about themselves, and this was followed by a twenty-minute online interview. A short-list of our applicants then undertooka technical test with some pair-coding together with interviews with the core Yalla team. After much deliberation – because all of the candidates were impressiveand more than capable – Israa Ahmad Al-Jamal and Adham Haisami, were awarded the first Yalla Apprenticeships.

We had originally envisaged beginning the programme in early May 2021 but by 10th May the conflict between Israel and Palestine had escalated to the pointwhere this became untenable. Following on from the Ceasefire on 21st May, 2021 we determined that, if Israa and Adham were ready, we were keen to get themstarted as soon as possible in order to begin to rebuild their lives and gain some hope and confidence in a more positive future.

If you see a better world you are morally obligated to go and make it. (Genevieve Bell)

Much of the conflict that happens within humanity comes from a lack of understanding of other people and their cultures, a dominance of short term self-interest, and an unwillingness to compromise. Intersticia, Founders and Coders and Yalla are committed to working against all of these by deliberately crossingborders and tirelessly working towards creating a better shared future for us all.

We are thrilled to have Israa and Adham join our community and look forward to seeing how they grasp this opportunity and make it their own.

Israa Ahmad Al-Jamal

Israa Ahmad Al-Jamal is a graduate in Computer Engineering from the Islamic University in Gaza who then worked in Web Development and recently graduatedfrom Gaza Sky Geeks Code Academy as a Full Stack Developer. Israa comes to Yalla with an array of organisational skills (particularly juggling a young family,study and work) together with an interest in design and embroidery to complement her fascination with technology. Above all what stood our for us is Israa’sfocus on the importance of teamwork and co-operation. As she said in her interview video:

“Shared joy is double joy; shared sorrow is half sorrow.”

Adham Haisami

Adham Haisami studied Software Engineering and is passionate about learning and trying new things. He loves traveling for what it can teach us about differentcultures and ways of thinking and has an innate curiosity to view and consider things differently. What stood out for us is Adham’s sense of empathy and desire to help people, which he encapsulated with the phrase:

“We all are the same, we all are humans.”

Dynamics @ Board Level 2020

Dynamics @ Board Level 2020

The Covid Corridor has provided me with the opportunity to take stock, slow down and focus on some key learning areas that I believe are critical to help inform what the post-Covid world might look like.  I will write about this in a later post, but one of the more formal educational programmes I did in 2020 was the Tavistock Institute Dynamics @ Board Level Certificate.

What follows is the assignment I submitted to complete this course.


We are responsible because we can respond to challenges to our reasons.  We act for reasons that we consciously represent to ourselves.  And this is what gives us the power and the obligation to think ahead, to anticipate, to see the consequences of our action.  It is because we can share our wisdom that we have a special responsibility (Daniel Dennett 2021).

We are essentially marching naked into this digital century without the Charters or Rights, the legal frameworks, the regulatory paradigms, the institutional forms and the kind of leadership that we need to make the digital future compatible with democracy.  (Shoshana Zuboff 2021)

On 11th March, 2020 Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, declared Covid-19 a Pandemic.

Over the past 12 months not only has this Pandemic touched every continent and nation but it has ushered in a step change in the way that humans individually and collectively have adopted, utilised and integrated digital information technologies into their everyday lives.

As we entered this interstice I determined that one of the most useful and productive things that I could do was to experience as many online Group Relations events as possible in order to learn from the breadth of experiences of how people were beginning to embrace a 21st Century digitally mediated existence.

This existence, which from the outset reminded me of E. M. Foster’s The Machine Stops (Foster 1909), began decades, if not centuries, ago.

A revolution doesn’t happen when a society adopts new tools, it happens when a society adopts new behaviours. (Shirky 2008)

The new behaviours we learn as we interact and engage with each other as groups, teams and systems mediated through digital communication technologies will both shape and inform how humanity embraces and faces the challenges of the 21st Century and the post-Covid world.

This paper seeks to consider my experience as a member of the Tavistock Institute’s 2020 Board Dynamics cohort, the first to be held fully online, and operating between continents, time-zones, cultures and mindsets during the most intense period of the Covid 19 Pandemic.  As for us all this was just one group within the greater global system and, as such, the value is in extrapolating the learnings from this experience to more fully examine it and how it informed other interactions and engagements.

The Shift to Digital

When I first applied to participate in the Board Dynamics course the expectation was that it would be conducted as a hybrid with the first two modules held online, and the second two face to face.  Those who more fully understand the nature of Pandemics would have realised from the outset the naïveté of such an expectation, but around the world the hope for a return to ‘some sort of normality’ by the Northern Hemisphere Summer was an important coping mechanism.

My interest in the course stemmed from both a curiosity about the direct application of Group Relations processes and academic research to the functioning of Boards as mechanisms of Governance, together with a desire to explore how this would operate in an online medium.

The Affordances of Digital Technologies

We have become digital on the last few years as well as physical beings. There is nothing in physical experience that can fully equip us with what that really means (Doc Seals).

Life online is very different to life IRL (in real life).  I have spent the past thirty years exploring this difference seeking to more fully understand how we humans interact with each other, and how the technologies interact with us.  The core of my work may be termed Web Science – the Theory and Practice of Social Machines (SOCIAM), which is an interdisciplinary approach to understanding how we are changing the Web, and the Web is changing us.

The World Wide Web was invented by physics researcher Tim Berners-Lee (see CERN) to try to solve the problem of information sharing between scientists, universities and institutes around the World.  It was envisaged as an academic project, but, as so often happens,

we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run (Roy Amara).

All technologies and artefacts have what are called affordances, a word originally invented by psychologist J. J. Gibson to describe the actionable properties between the world and an actor (Gibson 1977).  Donald J. Norman (Norman 1988, Norman 2018) expands upon this to state that affordances

  • provide strong clues to the operations of things
  • signal the perceived and actual properties of the thing
  • are properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used
  • when affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction needed

I first became aware of the importance of affordances as they relate to digital media when I read the work of Shoshana Zuboff (Zuboff 1988, Zuboff and Maxmin 2001).  At the time I was working in the graphic arts, the first major industries to be disrupted by digitisation and digitalisation due to the development of desktop publishing and digital printing, undertaking research into the emerging Web and its impact on the workplace.

Zuboff’s work in this space is seminal and the table below clearly articulates some of the different characteristics of information in physical (analogue) and virtual (digital) form.

Table 1 – The Characteristics of Digital Technologies (adapted from Zuboff and Maxmin, 2002)

The more people started using the Web the more it developed an ecosystem of its own driven by the twin aspects of (1) negligible transaction costs (Coase 1937, Malone et al 1987) which enabled the freemium model of electronic commerce (see Zuboff 2019) and (2) the network effect (Castells 2000).  By December 2019 just on 50% of the global population were connected to the Internet;  by December 2020, largely due to the Covid Pandemic, this had increased to 62.4%.

I have heard it said that giving people an internet connection is like giving them a car to drive, without any instructions on the road rules or basic mechanics.  That is pretty much the situation we currently face in terms of people’s understanding of the digital landscape largely due to the rapid digitisation of information and digitalisation of business processes and organisational systems and the paucity of digital literacy and digital fluency.

Digital literacy describes being how to use digital tools; Digital Fluency describes being able to understand why they should be used (Hopkins 2019).

We have evolved to operate in the physical / analogue environment and our senses enable us to interpret and function there and we have developed these through trusting these senses and the data we receive through them.

When it comes to the virtual / digital worlds we are only just beginning but as we increasingly interact online we are venturing into new environments where we cannot necessarily predict or trust the outcomes.

Figure 1:  Rowland-Campbell – Literacy Model of Information Technologies

Technology, Transparency and Trust

When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details.  (US Secretary of State George Shultz quoted in Bhalla et al, 2021)

Trust is essential to human relationships and at the core these are usually messy, inefficient and take time and brain power to develop and maintain (Machin 2019).  Maintaining key relationships is at the core of our learning (Fonagy 2015) and a key element of this is what Rachel Botsman calls trust friction.

Here emerges one of the most important digital affordances.  The designs built into most of our digital technologies, driven by the values and imperatives of the designers, are to remove friction, to make our lives easier and to more seamlessly integrate these technologies calmly into our lives (Weiser 1986 – 1989).  One of the reasons why digital devices have become so ubiquitous is precisely due to this affordance built into the user-interface design.

Many young people don’t realise that everything you see on the computer screen is a construct that was invented by someone.  (Ted Nelson)

This is a perfect example of Schein’s model of organisational culture (Schein 1994) where the values and assumptions of the technologists manifest in the artifacts.

Figure 2:  Schein’s model of Organisational Culture, (Schein 1992)

Through the Looking Glass

“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”

The Knight looked surprised at the question. ‘What does it matter where my body happens to be?” he said. “My mind goes on working all the same.’  (Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass, 1871)

When it comes to how we experience these new digitally mediated screen interactions we need to continuously remind ourselves that we are engaging in a space between presence and absence, being somewhere that is both on and off where our bodies and minds can often be disconnected.

Interacting online and interacting IRL differ in a number of important ways:

  1. Notions of Time – the online world synchronises time, we are all in the same temporal space even though we may be living in different geographies with different time zones, and therefore different body clocks. Our notions of time seem to have changed during this period of the pandemic – in some ways speeding up, in others slowing down – and different for each and every person.
  2. Notions of Space – in group settings we are no longer in the same physical environment, but inhabiting different physical spaces (for us) which present to others through the same sized screen window. One result of this is what we are now calling Zoom Fatigue (Bailensen 2020).   The information we currently receive through online channels is heavily dependent on aural and visual information but the somatic, which connects us to our physical presence, can feel disconnected until we experience the aches and pains of too little movement and the tiredness in our eyes (Microsoft is working on an interesting solution to this).

Figure 3:  Rowland-Campbell – Information Channels as we interact online

  1. Management of Boundaries – in the physical world we have the opportunity and time to change our mental states as we transition through physical space and time, to clear our thoughts from previous encounters and prepare and focus on what it is to come. In the virtual world unless we consciously create this interstice between one meeting and another the transition is through a few clicks of a button taking a matter of seconds.  In the digital space we are either on or off, it is very difficult to be anywhere in between which means that how we show up, how we are present (or absent), how we view ourselves, and how we leave can be very abrupt.  In addition the boundaries are porous and it is difficult to seal out the outside world which continually intrudes.

There is one other element which sits between presence and absence (Scharmer 2007), that of transparency.

  1. The digital world gives us the ability to easily record, edit, broadcast and replay our online interactions. This leads to far greater levels of potential transparency but can also create a persistent unease in the knowledge that we are continuously on show, on the camera and the stage.  Goffman’s Front Stage and Back Stage can merge giving little respite in between (Goffman 1959, Sternheimer 2020).

Imagined affordances emerge between users’ perceptions, attitudes and expectations; between materiality and functionality of technologies; between the intentions and perceptions of designers (Nagy & Neff 2015).

All of these affordances have been designed into the systems we use which become a part of our experience and how we experience others.

Group Dynamics Online

Our societies are increasingly structured around the bipolar opposition of the Net and the Self (Castells 2000).

Eric Miller states that Freud’s great insight was to shift the focus from the individual to the interaction between patient and analyst, the notions of Transference and Countertransference which Bion then shifted to that of the group and the processes of socialisation.  (Miller 1998).

What we think of ourselves is born in what we were thought about, we scrutinise the minds of others and we try to find ourselves within, to guess at our own feelings and thoughts (Fonagy 2015).

So how do we see each other as we show up on the screen?  How do we feel in these spaces and how does this impact our emotional responses?

The work of Solms (Solms 2021), Damasio and others suggests that our emotions stem from our feelings.

Our choices are grounded in a value system.  Feelings provide the value system which enables choice in unpredicted, novel situations (Solms 2021).

Given the lack of somatic information, which is often the primary source for our feelings, how is this impacting our engagements in the virtual space?  One way to consider this is how we react to the physical presence of others versus how we sense them online through their windows; another is how the back-channels (i.e., the chat function) can be used for side conversations, which is similar to passing notes in the back row.  Both of these elicit feelings and therefore emotions.  Finally, when there may be uncomfortable feelings in the virtual space instead of having to sit with them in a physical space where the ability to leave takes some time, in the virtual space once every participant has the option to turn off their camera and sit behind it, or completely leave the room.

There are entities where the behaviour of the whole cannot be derived from its individual elements nor from the way these elements fit together; rather the opposite is true: the properties of any of the parts are determined by the intrinsic structural laws of the whole. (Wertheimer 1924)

Every element of this impacts the virtuous cycle of respect, trust and candour (Sonnenfeld 2002) which is at the heart of how governance and corporate responsibility needs to operate.

The Modern Board

The concept of a corporate board

is a reflection of widespread political practices and ideas in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages which reflect both social norms and cultural values as they pertained to business governance, political and cultural ideas, together with assumptions about wealth-maximizing efficiencies (Gevurtz 2004).

For those of us who live in Western cultures these ideas constitute what is normal, but it is necessary to put these ideas in context.

The work of Henrich (Henrich 2010, Henrich 2020) shows that the Western mindset has emerged from the geo-political history of Western Europe (see also Marshall 2016 and Goldin 2020).

Henrich classifies Western people as being

hyper-individualistic and hyper-mobile, whereas just about everyone else in the world was, and still is, enmeshed in family and more likely to stay put (Henrich 2020). 

We Westerners are WEIRD – Western, Educated, Individualistic, Rich and Democratic (see also Stasavage 2020).   Henrich argues that this is one of the reasons that Capitalism emerged in the West driven by the rise of the individual (see Morris 1972, Nashef 2018, Curtis 2002 BBC).

The Discovery of the Individual is an eccentricity among cultures (Morris 1972).

This WEIRD mindset has created a positive environment for humans to flourish (Harari 2015, Pinker 2018, Roser 2021) but is also based on the assumption that humans need to be controlled, for our own good (Bregman 2020).

The limits and boundaries of Agency Theory (Simon 1957) are determined by its model of man.  (Davis et al 1997, Keay 2017)

If we consider governance, particularly as it is beginning to manifest online, from a more naturalistic and biological perspective (Bandura 2017) then the concept of the Social Machine as a symbiotic human-machine ecosystem becomes much more useful (Neff 2021).  This leads to a broader perspective where it is assumed that humans are driven by larger collectivist, pro-organisational goals (Argyris 1973, McGregor 1980, Maslow 1970) which is precisely what the online environment was designed to achieve from the outset (Levine et al 1999, Kelly 2010).

Changing Global Mindsets

The link between communication and character is complex, but unbreakable.  We cannot transform all our media of communication and expect to remain unchanged as people.  A revolution in the media must mean a revolution in the psyche (Toffler 1980).

Former InfoSys Founder, CEO and Chairman Kris Gopalakrishnan (Gopalakrishnan 2021) believes that the 21st Century will change as a result of the impact of information technologies.

  1. Information technologies have given individuals an unprecedented power and new kinds of freedom for their voices to be heard and to think differently about their lives;
  2. The most significant impact will be in Asia which has over 50% of the world’s population;
  3. There will be a global shift to more Eastern values based on harmony, peace, and a more multi-cultural heterogenous perspective.

As we continue to reach out globally we are creating societies online and

each society chooses which thoughts and feelings shall be permitted to arrive and which must be kept hidden (Eric Fromm as quoted by Susan Long, March 2021).

An Antipodean Perspective

Our people have been entrusted by the Creator Spirit with the care of the land and the associated ceremonies.  In most parts of Australia, they are unable to care for their land and ensure its continued fruitfulness because it has been taken over by the immigrants.  The spiritual line of succession, from the time of creation through countless generations, has now been broken.  And deep inside, our people live with guilt and hopelessness (Archie et al 2007).

Technology challenges us to assert our human values which means that first of all we have to know what they are (Turkle 2011).

I was born and grew up in a sunburnt country riven by guilt and sadness.  This duality underpins everything about Australia (and many other colonialised cultures) and as we move in to the 21st Century our greatest global challenge is to move away from the dominance of the WEIRD, and largely industrialised, thinking and embrace the power of more organic Dreamtime mindsets (such as those which harness Social Dreaming, Lawrence 2000) in order to better govern our social systems.

This is especially important as we become more embedded in the Technosphere which has become all too obvious as we all move our lives online.  As I have reflected on my own online experiences in groups there is one word that repeatedly comes to mind, and that is the word stewardship.

Stewardship refers to a human behaviour which is ordered such that pro-organizational, collectivist behaviours have a higher utility than individualistic, self-serving behaviours (Davis 1997).

Stewardship addresses the illusion of being able to manage and control up front (Long 2021) by being more inclusive, taking a longer-term view and understanding the symbiosis of humans and the systems, both natural and technological, that we inhabit.

My own work is based on the philosophy of Servant Leadership (Greenleaf 2002, Spears 1998) combined with a practical application through the principles of Sustainability where we seek to create an integrated value creation space, where growth and performance for the current generation pays equal and simultaneous consideration to all the elements of sustainability and to future generations(Avery 2006, Avery & Bergsteiner 2010, Rowland-Campbell 2021)

As I sat in the various modules and groups of the Tavistock Board Dynamics course I felt very keenly the Tyranny of Distance (Blainey 1966) and the mythic structure of Bion’s Groups (Bion 1961, Shambaugh 1985) as they ebbed and flowed through each module.

I felt alienated by the dominance of WEIRD values, not only in the predominantly European makeup of the Group, but in the very design and interface of the technologies themselves.

We each played our part in this, but the success of these events was largely due to the stewardship of our consultants, who did not lead but sought to serve each of us by providing the space to reflect and learn.


Corporations and Industrial Capitalism have driven the development of humanity over the past few hundred years and the associated governance and management systems which have underpinned them must be seen as a part its success.  But we are now questioning what success looks like?  As our environmental systems react to what is now being talked of as the crime of Ecocide it is imperative that we evolve how we manage and govern ourselves harnessing the smart machines we have invented but more importantly drawing on all of the smart people.

We are now on the threshold of a global opportunity, one that can take advantage of being in the unfrozen state between the old world and the new (Lewin 1947) that is to come.  As such

We have the opportunity now to not just do what we did yesterday.  We have permission to change things. Everything is now up for grabs.  (Former Xerox CEO Ursula Burns 2021)

A part of that change is to adopt a more natural and Eastern philosophy towards our corporate systems as part of a global ecosystem embedded in the natural world and inclusive of all humanity because the challenges we face affect us all.

This is the Stewardship Challenge for the 21st Century which should be the main guiding premise.


Articles and Books

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Bion, W. (1961).  Experiences in Groups: and Other Papers.  Tavistock.

Blainey, G. (1966).  The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia’s History.  Sun Books, Melbourne.

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Bregman, R. (2020).  Humankind: A Hopeful History.  Little Brown and Company.

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Greenleaf, R. K. (2002). Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (25th anniversary ed.). New York: Paulist Press.

Harari, Y. N. (2015).  Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind.  Penguin Books.

Henrich, Joseph (2010).  The weirdest people in the world?  Behavioural and Brain Sciences, viewed 28th March, 2021.

Henrich, Joseph (2020), The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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Keay, A. (2017). Stewardship Theory: Is Board Accountability Necessary?  International Journal of Law and Management, 59 (6)

Kelly, K. (2010).  What Technology Wants.  Penguin Putnam, New York.

Kets de Vries, Manfred (1978) Folie A Deux: acting Out Your Superior’s Fantasies.  Human Relations, Vol. 31, Number 10.

Lawrence, W.G. (2000).  Social Dreaming Illuminating Social Change.  Organisational Social Dynamics, 1(1).

Lawrence, Gordon, 2003) – Social Dreaming as sustained thinking, Human Relations, Volume 56 (5).

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Podcast, Video Interviews and Television Media

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Stewards for the 21st Century

Stewards for the 21st Century

Last year I participated in an online course run by one of Australia’s most prestigious Business Schools entitled Learning to Lead.  One of the first slides that was put up was one which said “It’s all about Me”.

I immediately had a visceral negative reaction. Why?

Because these words demonstrated to me everything that I believe is at the core of what is wrong with much of our current 21st Century leadership, starkly revealed by the  latest Edelman Trust Barometer 2021:

there is an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world.

For quite some time I have been musing on the word leadership and trying to determine what it means for me and the work we do as Intersticia.  When I’m quizzed about Intersticia I often struggle to find an easy answer.  If I say we develop and support emerging leaders people immediately assume we are a Leadership Development consultancy or we just provide educational scholarships, neither of which remotely describes who we are or what we do.

For me this UNSW leadership course, as with the World Economic Forum’s concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, represents an outdated, industrial age mindset built around the concept of the Century of the Self which emanates from the liberalism of Enlightenment thinking and it’s belief in rationality and the power of the individual as they key agent of change:

Our philosophies neatly separated man and nature, mind and matter, cause and effect. We learned to control. (Danny Hills)

In the mid 20th Century as the world emerged from an unprecedented period of self-destruction so rose the hopes for a better life built on shiny new technologies powering towering metropolises, global trading systems harvesting natural resources through unbridled capitalism.  This fueled a mindset of greed and consumption, of winner take all and Kardashian-type narcissism which led to rising inequality and has now culminated in what Shoshana Zuboff describes as

Surveillance Capitalisma marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures.

It has been our self-obsession which has resulted in the imbalance between us and the natural environment, and then … along came Covid and suddenly everything has changed.

Economies have been shut down, borders have been slammed shut and libertarian societies have introduced monitoring Apps but the air is cleaner and many people have had more time to pause to breathe it.

We are now all living in the interstice between the pre-and post Covid worlds.  This interstice – as Kurt Lewin so eloquently put it in his CATS model – is where the real opportunity lies and the real work happens.

Getting caught up in semantics

Much of my discomfort with the way the word leadership is used comes from the concept that it is something transactional and commoditised – with the right set of tools it can be taught and applied at just the right time.

I also feel that the term conjures up a zero-sum hierarchy where only one person can be a leader at a time, with everyone else lining up to follow.  This makes me think of the Messiah Complex and Great Man approaches which have so resonated throughout human history through most of our heroic literature where one lone individual comes to save us all from monsters, aliens and more often than not, ourselves.  Throughout the ages the tales of war and conflict seem mainly to have arisen due to the ego and hubis of individual so-called leaders who are either driven by greed and power, or who are corrupted, and who command the battle field – whether military, political or commercial – in order to win at all costs.  They need to be brought down in order to restore balance – the classic duality of good versus evil; light versus dark that underpins our mythologies and religions.

Finally, I feel that the word leader is becoming anachronistic and irrelevant. We have always lived as a species within the natural environment but we are now globally inter-connected as never before supported by the intertwingularity of the technical systems we have constructed and the networks of minds who collaborate.  This is enabling us to solve complex problems (vaccines for Pandemics) and operate virtually across time zones but it is also resulting in a new level of transparency in how we live our lives, both personal and professional, and who holds the power to influence.

This transparency is revealing the fundamental differences in how different societies operate as the balance between notions of privacy and personal freedom are pitted against those of health and security.

Rethinking Democracy

In his history of Democracy author David Stasavage states that

If we see seeking consent as a basic ingredient of democracy, then we can say that democracy itself occurs naturally among humans, even if it is far from inevitable.

Throughout history societies have drawn upon the different skills and capabilities of people in order to govern themselves.  Whether the system was proto-democratic or autocratic in nature seems to have depended on the balance between how much rulers needed their people and how much people could do without their rulers.  As early societies became more settled developing technologies enabled more sophisticated bureaucratic institutions which were exploited by more autocratic systems (listen to Stasavage interviewed by Sean Carroll; also Yuval Noah Harari).  It may be that the reason that proto-democratic and consultative processes became more embedded in Europe was due to the slower progress of science which gave societies more time to adopt and refine democratic governance processes time before bureaucratic autocracy could take hold.

The relationship between Science and Society is symbiotic and one that autocratic leaders keenly appreciate.  This is why those in positions of power and authority need to more fully understand the implications of the tools being developed, but also be more consultative in how decisions are made.  The Pandemic has shown that those governments which have listened to the Science seem to have managed things better, but what does that mean for what we do next?

Management controls, Leadership Guides … Stewardship Nurtures

Technology challenges us to assert our human values which means that first of all we have to know what they are.  (Sherry Turkle)

At our recent Brave Conversations Bangalore I interviewed former InfoSys CEO and Chairman ‘Kris’ Gopalakrishnan.  I asked Kris for his thoughts around the development of information technologies in to the 21st Century and he felt there were three areas of major change:

  1.  Information technologies have given individuals an unprecedented power and new kinds of freedom for their voices to be heard and to think differently about their lives
  2. The most significant impact will be in Asia which has over 50% of the world’s population and is less developed economically so there will be big shifts in this area.
  3. This will result in a shift to more Eastern values based on harmony, peace, and a more multi-cultural heterogenous perspective.

So the question is how can the East bring it’s philosophy and culture to solve some of the problems of the world?  How do we use Eastern values to move from a consumption led to needs led system?

Historian Ian Morris suggests that the forces which cause societal collapse include:  uncontrollable large scale migration, breakdown of major states, spread of epidemic diseases in new forms, spread of massive famine, and rapid climate change in a way that people can’t control.  All of these seem to be converging in the 21st Century but this time we are armed with tools which our ancestors did not have.

The first is over a century of social science which has analysed history and society through multiple lenses.  For a start we have truly begun to question our own mindsets and analyse how we see ourselves and each other, revealing some of our cultural biases and limitations (see Joseph Henrich’s work on WEIRD values, Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations, and East and West).

We have taken this in to our organisations to analyse the differing roles people play, how power and influence operates and how we can work more effectively.  This, of course, has resulted in the development of Leadership Development programmes as a label and a whole field of research.

The word lead comes from the word loedan – to travel – thus one definition that has always resonated with me is that a leader is one who takes the hardship of finding a better way of doing things for the common good and then selflessly shares the knowledge with others by guiding them on that path. (Avijit Dutta)

This sharing to me is the key to leadership, because it implies that leadership is a collaborative activity, it is not a thing, it is a process, and it includes others who take equally important, but complemenary and different roles.

Those who lead require others to follow especially Managers, the people who embrace process, seek stability and control, and instinctively try to resolve problems quickly—sometimes before they fully understand a problem’s significance. Leaders, in contrast, tolerate chaos and lack of structure and are willing to delay closure in order to understand the issues more fully. (Abraham Zaleznik)

But is this really following? Or is it the other way around?

Robert Greenleaf, who crafted the concept of Servant Leadership, and whose ideas have always informed much of the work I have done in the leadership space, believed that

The servant-leader is servant first (which … ) is sharply different from one who is leader first. … The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types.

Greenleaf stressed that a core component of Servant Leadership was to be a steward (Larry Spears), someone who is guided by the long term interests of those they serve and exercise their free will to make a conscious choice in favour of service as opposed to self-interest (see Peter Block) in how they use their personal talents, abilities, power and authority and where they direct their energies.

The power and potential of the Steward

Instead of being all about me it’s about us in the broadest possible sense

The word steward seems to have a range of roots including the Old Norse stivadl, Old English stiward (house guardian) which evolved to Middle English meaning the act of caring for or improving with time which morphed in to the Scottish name Stewart and Stuart.  Much of the literature seems to reflect the fact that the term was hijacked by the Christian church in particular referring to the Book of Genesis and humankind being stewards of the Earth (as evidenced in theological writings of people like Douglas John Hall).

Regardless of how one views the term

the word stewardship refers to a human behaviour which is ordered such that pro-organizational, collectivist behaviours have a higher utility than individualistic, self-serving behaviours. (Davis 1997)

The concept of being a steward is driven by something beyond oneself and links to a concept of time beyond the life of one human being, an appreciation of the symbiotic relationship between all living things, and the idea of being responsible for sustainability.  This can be articulated in the idea of being a good ancestor, something which Kevin Kelly feels is an outcome of understanding the power of networks and appreciating that taking a longer term view, even for entrepreneurs and start ups, is what builds successful companies – what goes around comes around.

Many years ago I met Macquarie University academic Professor Gayle Avery who wrote  Leadership for Sustainable Futures which became the Honeybee and Locust framework.  Avery’s model is underpinned by the idea of an integrated value creation space, where growth and performance for the current generation pays equal and simultaneous consideration to all the elements of sustainability and to future generations As part of a natural system Honeybees are natural stewards, but we as human being have a greater responsibility.

With great power comes great responsibility

In the 20th Century we learned how to annihilate ourselves with atomic weapons, in the 21st Century we are learning how to create artificial life.  As the rate of technological progress increases and the machines we build become smarter and begin to build their own progeny we need to think deeply about the types of people to whom we entrust the power to determine our future.

Our history tells us that we have favoured the leaders, those who showed the way and enlisted others to follow.  But we are entering a dangerous phase where we have made a Faustian Bargain with the future.  Our obsession with shiny toys and smart machines relieves us of the toil our ancestors endured to craft their homes out of the Earth, but we have become slaves to the machines we have built, and we are pillaging the planet to feed those machines and the lifestyles they provide.  Whilst I wouldn’t advocate going back to pre-industrialised times something tells me that the smart move next is to embrace the ‘and‘ and harness the wisdom of our history to inform the power of our knowledge and technology in order to craft a new mindset based on appreciating the mystical fundamentals and wonder of the cosmos that awed and inspired our ancestors whilst applying the power of our technologies.

The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technologies. (E. O. Wilson)

We need to do much more than lead as we change our institutions and systems, we also need to consciously and proactively embrace the principles and behaviours of stewardship if we are to secure and protect the fundamental human values upon which societies around the world are built.

When it comes to Intersticia as I consider the fine young people who make up our community, not all of them will become leaders who need to step out in front because I don’t think they necessarily want to.  But there is no doubt in my mind that they are already exceptionally fine Stewards which is why we have chosen them, and they choose to continue with us.

July 2024