[OSList] embracing paradox as a leadership competency

Birgitt Williams via OSList oslist at lists.openspacetech.org
Mon Mar 14 06:58:33 PDT 2016

Thanks Michael, Tony, Daniel, Skye, and Marie,

Great contributions. Thank you. I appreciated the images of oscillating, of pulsing and of breathing in describing embracing paradox. I felt that oscillating and pulsing reflect my experience of sequential handling of paradoxical concepts, experiences etc with the oscillation increasing in frequency until it is no longer apparent. Michael…thank you for reminding us of the breath, one of the essential components that as facilitators we draw attention to in an OST meeting. There is the in-breath, the out-breath, and the relax or stillpoint or fulcrum point between the two actions that reflects that state of being in between two opposite actions. I feel it is worthy and also can be great fun as facilitators to explore what I think of as paradox and the competency to be in that stillpoint and what Michael refers to as mutuality and Harrison refers to as open space, seeming variations of the same concept.


Some of the paradoxes of working with OST that come to mind for me in my current moment of contemplation about the importance of facilitators of OST growing their leadership competence with paradox:



~the experience of being in an OST meeting and the experience post-OST meeting in the organization especially in organizations mandated with lots of regulatory mechanisms

~the experience of the facilitator as highly controlling during the opening to facilitate the opening of space for important conversations immediately followed by being extremely detached while people self lead and self manage

~being fully present and fully invisible simultaneously


With appreciation for the wisdom showing up,



From: OSList [mailto:oslist-bounces at lists.openspacetech.org] On Behalf Of Michael Herman via OSList
Sent: Sunday, March 13, 2016 1:22 PM
To: Tony Budak; World wide Open Space Technology email list
Subject: Re: [OSList] embracing paradox as a leadership competency


thanks for starting this, birgitt.


first, because i know words matter to you, i want to suggest an alternative to "paradox," which is about apparently conflicting statements or ideas.  i would broaden it to distinct or even opposing experiences, ways of being.  i want to offer the word "mutuality" which describes what we can practice in these moments of apparent conflict.  and the beginning of this practice is pulsation, which i think is this sequencing you describe.  


we talk a lot about circle in this community, and marketplace and bulletin board.  harrison's fourth mechanism, breathing, or what i often generalize to pulsation, or in agile circles, to iteration gets little attention, but is no less important.  


i learned the practice of "mutuality" sitting with a partner, pulsing awareness between noticing all of the sensations that let me know that i AM and being aware that the person sitting in front of me also IS.  we practiced pulsing back and forth, noticing self and other, until it became normal to be aware of both as distinct AND as one, simultaneously, paradoxically.  in this way, i came to understand mutuality as a way of being with someone, or some group, or otherwise holding-without-collapsing apparently opposite experiences or positions.  


i think this sense of mutuality, of being separate and one, simultaneously, is what we are inviting everyone to practice when we facilitate open space meetings.  for me, the four principles (nobody's in charge) and law of two feet (you can go wherever you need to) are held mutually.  learning and contributing -- how often and quickly groups learn that bringing a question for their own learning ends up being simultaneously a contribution to the whole group -- leading by following, i think.  inside and outside.  sellers and customers.  individual and community.  plenary and breakouts -- these happen in apparent pulsation, and then how often is it that everyone discovers that while in so many breakouts and side conversations, they've all been talking about the same issues?  one and many, simultaneously.  in so many ways we invite people to pulse awareness between distinct or even opposing points, while holding both as real.  


i've heard a tibetan description of this as the experience/practice of taking in the vastness of the starry sky at night and still being able to hear the dog barking at the bottom of hill.  i've also heard the tibetan sense of "mutuality" translated as "equalizing and exchanging self and others."  both of these images fit my experience of opening space and ost.


and when we practice in this way, the result is the spontaneous arising of the compassion, love, freedom, and joy.  that is, the wish for others to not suffer, for things to go well for them, self-direction and -organization, and a gratitude and delight in what is.  now substitute problem solving for not suffering, achievement for things going well, empowerment and thank you, and it sounds a lot like open space, again.


the law of two feet tosses OS participants into a pulsation between what's happening in the room and what's happening in their own bodies and minds.  this can be in conflict, or paradoxical, but it's always simultaneous.  we ask them to maximize learning and contribution, taking in and giving into.  in every single moment, as often as each one of them can manage to notice it, they have a choice between staying and going.  


i believe this is the core of what we do as leaders and facilitators and what our practice naturally and automatically, implicitly, invites participants into. 









Michael Herman
Michael Herman Associates

312-280-7838 (mobile)





On Sat, Mar 12, 2016 at 7:34 PM, Tony Budak via OSList <oslist at lists.openspacetech.org> wrote:

Here is an extract from  <http://timebankswork.net/tiki/tiki-download_file.php?fileId=10> "Is leadership only for heroes?",  by Zoe van Zwanenberg

"The work of leadership
In our drive to provide simple answers with clear deliverable outcomes for complex problems we have latched on to the notion that strong, effective leaders are what will make the difference.

Current belief is that the work of leadership is to define not just what needs to be done but how it will be done and by whom in a defined linear format. In this model the work of leadership is to be all knowing and to take the blame when things do not work out in accordance with the master plan.

The certainty that this type of leadership provides should then enable us to see our way out of the complex mix of dilemmas and relationships that face us. This seems to presume a straight line of cause and effect and also a simplicity of relationships between problems and solutions that our everyday experience of the world would deny.

It is also based on a very simple and value laden model of leadership – that of the leader/hero who provides direction, goals, standards and behaviors that all can follow.

If the work of leadership is to provide answers, then we are resigning ourselves to being a dependent community of followers yet reserving the right to sacrifice the leader when the answers do not address the real problem or prove unacceptable."

Click here for the short article <http://timebankswork.net/tiki/tiki-download_file.php?fileId=10> 


On 3/10/2016 9:21 AM, Birgitt Williams via OSList wrote:

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Facilitators, change agents, consultants, coaches, moderators and trainers, in my experience, struggle with their role and power as leaders. Years ago, I learned a lot from the late Angeles Arrien about the power of leadership: the power of position, the power of influence, the power of communication. In our roles especially as outsiders to an organization and to the lives of the people involved, we have all three of these powers. I have been active in my pursuit of understanding leadership since I was fifteen and catapulted into leadership positions that I may or may not have been ready for, despite what the adults around me might have believed.

In recent years, one of the leadership competencies that has grown and expanded in me is the ability to embrace paradox, to simultaneously hold two seemingly opposing views or emotions, with both being valid for me. For example, I can recognize in myself to be in extreme gratitude for something simultaneous to feeling extreme anger…containing both emotions simultaneously, not sequentially. I have come to understand how important this is as a leadership competency, and I write about it on this list as I feel it is a most valuable competency for facilitators of OST. I remember way back when Harrison teaching about OST assisting the people in a system working with both chaos and order. I was fascinated by this topic. And yet, today, I admit that as I learned about chaos and order, I seemed to have an internal picture of one, then the other, then the other, kind of like a teeter totter with possibly some kind of balance point at the fulcrum. As I expanded my capacity to handle paradox, I was able to genuinely grasp chaos and order both existing simultaneously.


In understanding and working with OST, I think it is important to embrace paradox and to expand our personal capacity to handle paradox in even very stress filled situations. For example, a paradox that we end up contending with is that everything is open space, and Open Space Technology is a tool. What is the benefit of grasping this paradox, you might ask? If I approach OST as a tool from the simultaneous perspective of ‘everything is open space’, I am going to influence different outcomes than if I approach working with OST only as a tool. 


I wrote about embracing paradox recently, so you can see I am feeling deep interest in this topic at the moment http://www.dalarinternational.com/the-power-of-limits. What are your thoughts about ourselves as leaders? What are your thoughts about the importance of expanding personal leadership competency with embracing paradox? Or maybe, in working with OST you are currently developing other leadership competencies? I am interested to see if anyone has interest in showing up to this topic.


With blessings,



Birgitt Williams


President & Senior Consultant of Dalar International Consultancy, Inc. 

 <http://www.dalarinternational.com/> http://www.dalarinternational.com 

Co-founder of the Extraordinary Leadership Network http://www.extraordinaryleadershipnetwork.com

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Supporting leadership development for leading in a culture requiring agility and flexibility in a performance environment of constant change.


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