My interview with Dan Leahy
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Welcome to this episode of Create New Futures. Today I’m speaking with Dan Leahy. Dan is an educator with over 30 years of teaching and consulting experience, with a special focus on the emergent capacities of complex adaptive systems. His interdisciplinary work to enable the evolution of an organisational system transcends traditional boundaries. He is intuitive in reading situations and wise in addressing growth opportunities. Dan was the president of the Leadership Institute of Seattle — LIOS — for more than a decade. He is currently the director of the Seattle campus of Saybrook University where he provides strategic and operational leadership for the campus. His extensive experience includes designing and leading both graduate degree programs as well as corporate training programs.
In this conversation with Dan, we explore his calling and his journey with the Leadership Institute of Seattle, why to change the world you begin by changing the conversation, and the precious moment when a student’s eyes light up with a clarity about his or her sense of purpose. I asked Dan about audacious leadership and why it is so needed right now.
Dan it’s great to have you here. Welcome
Thank you. Good to be in a conversation with you again. Its been a while.
How are you? It’s been a while since you and I interacted last — I believe last summer — catch me up. What have you been involved in and what what are you doing these days?
Good question. I’d say the highlights are: I’ve been in the process of shifting from doing a lot of teaching work, the graduate program here, into the work around developing a Leadership Institute for Saybrook University. Some of it is returning to the roots of the old LIOS program. Some of it is looking at the evolution of leadership development that’s required now, particularly on the heels of the recent election here in this country.
Another thing that we’ve been involved in is — with a colleague — adaptive leadership training program for the Regional Transit Authority up here in the Puget Sound area. It has been a rich learning experience for all involved.
Great. So these are two things I will thread back into — leadership evolution and adaptive leadership — as we unfold the conversation. I believe we initially met some 12 or 13 years ago and have since interacted in a small group called Souls on Deck. It’s a small group of practitioners. I’m curious about your recollection as to how the group came together. And how would you describe the nature of our gatherings and what we actually do in these meetings?
I don’t remember the exact origins. My memory suggests that it was sort of a network of folks here in the Puget Sound area that were concerned about what’s been going on in the country on the planet in a variety of different ways. I’m not sure exactly why, but it was suggested: “why don’t we get together and have a conversation about this?”. So I invited some participants that had gone through a leadership program at the Whidbey Institute as well as a few other folks that had gone through another event called the confluence that was put on by a local agency, the Center for Ethical Leadership.
My sense was we were all kindred spirits and all were concerned about what was going on politically and what was going on ecologically. So we started meeting about once every six weeks just to be in a conversation about what’s going on and what’s working for us. For me the framework of that conversation was around generative communication. I think it was really anchored in a lot of Martin Buber’s notions of ‘I and Thou’; look what happens when individuals come together in a particular way that allows for new insights and new awarenesses to emerge.
Over the course of time it seemed like folks would ebb and flow in and out of that conversation depending on what was going on for them in their lives. So that’s my recollection of the beginnings and I really enjoyed and am nourished by the times we were able to get together.
If I attempt to describe Souls on Deck in conversation, it seems to me that we always attempt to translate and codify the patterns of emergent growth. We seek to find the global in the local and to identify the universal inside the person.
Very eloquent and that’s a very good point.
There’s something I call fractal awareness or fractal mindfulness. Fractals are recurring patterns. Where the micro reveals the macro. That’s what I mean by the personal revealing the universal. There is a way to identify and decode an anecdote. Say there are a number of people around the table and a couple of people describe a challenging conflict that they are going through or perhaps an exciting breakthrough that they are experiencing. We look to decode and understand the pattern and its inner logic and find whether there is guidance in those conversations. We are therefore as present as can be to listen to both what people are describing and also the emergent wisdom that’s represented in the experience people bring to the table. That’s how I experience what we were attempting to do in those gatherings.
As I listen to you, I’m thinking that that to me is the gift that you bring: really looking at tending to those particular kind of patterns or fractals. Christy, tends to bring in a particular perspective about what’s going on in something larger than just the human species. Each person seems to bring a particular perspective that comes from their particular expertise, and together that weave is the mosaic that makes a difference.
The beauty of what you are describing is that because there are different skill sets, different backgrounds, and domain expertise around the table, we are able to converse from different perspectives. We enhance and enrich each other in so many ways. That’s what we model that can happen in any conversation including in for-profit companies, governments, or any other institution. Different people around the table facilitate and enable that innate wisdom that’s in the system to reveal itself.
I think that if it were folks that had a perspective that’s similar to mine, I don’t know that I would get into that generative place. The lenses that I tend to bring into conversations come more from education or leadership development. But as I listen to you, Christy, Anne, or Malcolm, they look at things differently and I have come to really respect and value that perspective. So when they speak up I step back and go: “I hadn’t thought about that,” or “I don’t see it that way. Let me see if I can get more curious and learn more about their perception as compared to my perception.”
Yes. Which leads me to the signature line in your email that says ‘change the conversation; change the world’. This is a good place to start by asking you: how do you mean that? How do you bring this idea into your practice and into your work?
That started back when I first was introduced to this generative communication and generative conversation framework. I began to imagine that if I want to really change the world we’re going to have to change the story. Change the story and then things re-orient around that new narrative.
Back in that time I was still a clinical family therapist and there were a couple of different therapeutic frameworks that really spoke to me. I found myself drawn towards two: one was a narrative therapy and another one was a solution-focused therapy. Both of them are organized around the notion of how do you identify the exception to the current narrative and begin to encourage clients to focus more on that exception.
In doing so, their situation begins to change and it’s more something that they do within themselves and within their families as opposed to some external expert is telling them or directing them and what they should do is. Those processes continue to influence me. If I’m unhappy with current situations, I look for a re-frame that incorporates the reality of the situation but in a way that provides for imagination and innovation.
Yes. In my book ‘Create New Futures’, I assert that conversation is the currency of leadership.
Yeah I’m reading that. I saw it and thought, ‘OK this is the book for me. I like it’.
In the book, I discuss that we must create a new conversation, which is very much the idea in your signature line. And I proposed there that if we stay in the same old conversation then by design we’ll end up where we are rather than in a new place. Now the reality is that in a dynamic world if you actually stay in the same place and resist renewal and growth, you’re likely to be calcified out of relevance quickly.
So that’s why I’m attracted to your signature line. I’m curious if this is your experience even in what you just related to, early in your career, the idea of solution-focused therapy. Could you tell me little more about solution-focused therapy and how you got into therapy in the first place? I believe you were trained as a child and family therapist, so what brought you there? Through that journey, how did you evolve to identify conversation as the central tool, the central lever, or the central medium through which with which your work and your gift gets expressed?
That’s a big question. I’d say I ended up in the clinical field because I followed a calling, if you will. Someone who I had been in the graduate program with went on and submitted a proposal for a particular grant to deal with runaways. The intention being to keep them out of the juvenile court system. The grant was one that was designed to have a set of practitioners that would be working in teams of two. They would take a runaway from the police department any time of the day or night and take them home. They would stay there in the home until the family was able to identify what local resources they’re going to connect with to address whatever it was that led to the person running away in the first place.
This person was in my graduate class and after graduation he got that particular grant and then he called me up and said, “Hey I think you should apply for this.” I said, “No, no, I’m going to be a school counselor,” and he said, “No, I think you should apply for this.”
So I listened and I applied. I thought there could be no harm in doing that. The person that interviewed me for that was one of the first four graduates of the program that I was just graduating from. In the interview he said, “Okay, I see that you’re in the same program that I just graduated from. This is either going to help you or hurt you in this interview.” I thought, “Well this is going to be interesting.” So I perked up.
I got hired and found that to be a very stimulating two and a half years working with families. Then I decided I actually wanted to get more professional training. So I applied for and got a position at a local mental health center. There was a small group of folks that were really committed to peer consultation. We had a one-way mirror set up there and we would take turns bringing families in front of the mirror each week ,which led into specific training in a variety of different modalities.
I found myself getting more and more interested in and engaged in the work. It led to working at a group health here in the Puget Sound area with another team of practitioners that did peer consultations about once a week.
At this stage of the game, what are the important epiphanies and insights that begin to shape your approach and your philosophy to therapy and to those meaningful interactions that you participate in?
The first thing that comes to mind is being with a group of peers that I trust and respect and being in an ongoing conversation and reflection about my work in the field. They would view me working with a client and then I’d get real direct feedback that I found valuable. There was an openness to learning as opposed to needing to convince them that I knew what I was doing. I did what I did and I was open to their feedback about that. That’s one element is of it.
Part of the the power of this process is that people’s eyes were on you in real time through this process correct.
Yes, that was essential. It was not like I was going to describe a session that I had with somebody; they actually observed it.
That reminds me of my Air Force experience. In the early days, people would get back to the briefing room and debrief what happened during the flight. This was before there were cameras and everybody would tell a different story of what happened. When they brought cameras into the cockpit and then, when I graduated as a fighter pilot and practiced flying with more advance technology, you could not make up stories, when you found yourself back in the debrief. We sat down and looked at what the cameras were telling us and you could tell stories a bit around it but more or less you were on camera. That was the objective factual case. And you’ve had that experience in the therapy space because people were looking at you, watching and observing you while you are actually leading the conversation. They’re looking at your inflection, your body language, your intonation, what you’re saying, how you’re responding and all that.
Yes, I couldn’t hide and I really respected these folks. That was another key element for me. These are my peers and my friends. Their feedback was important to me. As I think it was for them as well. It not only developed me as an individual practitioner but I think it was part of us developing as a team of practitioners within that mental health setting.
What else would you say at this point in your evolution and learning are you discovering or articulating for yourself in terms of the human condition and observing the complex system that’s called a human being . Especially working with family dynamics; what are some other important comments do you offer yourself at that stage as you develop proficiency in your space?
I think of a person I consider to be my mentor, Donald Williamson. He is somebody that’s very well known in the field of marriage and family therapy in this country. He wrote a book back in the ’80s called ‘The Intimacy Paradox’. He wrote about the family of origin work and specifically that when you get to a certain stage in life it’s important to begin to re-write or re-author your story of your family of origin and of your growing up. That re-write comes from more of an adult place, as opposed to as a child or adolescent or young adult within the family system.
But wait…there’s more?!
This post has been adapted from Aviv Consulting. Listen here for the full interview and story of Dan Leahy.