Complexity in the Mountains

August offered me an 8 day wilderness trip in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana, accompanied by my two brothers.

I came here for the first time in 1973, for a geology field school. I’ve been returning for the past 43 years, exploring new territory each time. This time, we poked around a new part of the high plateau, in particular seeking to visit some of the remnants of the once grand glaciers that shaped this landscape, and now are dying in the face of climate warming.

The Beartooths are a spiritual home for me. This is the raw wilderness in which I tested myself as a youth and discovered, within, a capable adult. It is rugged, wild, gorgeous, and filled with natural wonders, real awe, and countless unanswered questions. It is empty; next door Yellowstone pulls in all the tourists; we literally saw no other people for most of our time out.

Sometimes causality is mysterious, yet every phenomenon has roots in causes and conditions

Sometimes causality is mysterious, yet every phenomenon has roots in causes and conditions

Exploring the Beartooths is best done off-trail. Traversing this wild plateau of lakes, boulder fields, snow, waterfalls, and alpine gardens is both liberating and challenging. Route-finding is a central part of the deal. We get to decide what destinations call us out of nearly limitless possibilities. And, we get to discern the best way to get there, which is often unclear and involves complex trade-offs of terrain difficulty, elevation gain, weather risk, and energy reserves.

Sound like leadership? Yes, the Beartooths are a fabulous place to practice the game of leadership. Playing in natural systems provides valuable metaphors and practices to help us navigate the complexities of our leadership contexts. Here are some examples:

Everything perfectly reflects the conditions in which it arose. Asking “how did this come to be?” reveals underlying conditions and processes that favored certain plant species, prevented fish from entering that lake, or arranged large rocks in particular and specific patterns. We saw these phenomena everywhere: iron staining on the rocks on one side of the creek but not the other, moss growing around the rocks, little Zen waterfalls produced by nature.

Sometimes causality is mysterious, yet every phenomenon has roots in causes and conditions. As leaders, we are wise to inquire into the conditions that give rise to particular behaviors. Rather than trying to alter a symptom that is not to our liking, there’s often more leverage in shifting the underlying conditions that birthed the symptom in the first place.


There’s always a way…

There’s always a way… It’s fun, in these mountains, to choose a quest. – “Hey, let’s climb that peak. Discover what this remote lake is like. Descend this preposterously steep snow slope, etc.” – This is the game. The most interesting destinations, actually, are the ones where we don’t know if it’s possible. Usually, it turns out that it is, but it’s the adventure, the excitement of the chase and the discoveries along the way that make it worthwhile. The biggest obstacles, and the joys of getting past them, are usually not revealed until we are fully committed. Evoking a desired future, through declaring commitments, is the essential act of leadership. Often we don’t know how to get there. Kennedy declared that the US would put a man on the moon by the end of the 60’s; Google declared their purpose as making all the world’s information available to everyone. These are audacious commitments. And, if a commitment is strong enough, the way generally becomes clear.


… unless there isn’t

… unless there isn’t. Sometimes, a destination or a route proves impossible or unwise. There actually isn’t a way forward. A descent route turns out, halfway down, to have a cliff band insurmountable without ropes. Or, retreating glaciers leave steep and loose moraines across which travel is very difficult. After climbing a peak for great views of four different glaciers, we ran out of time to return via the floating slabs broken off one of the last glaciers in the range. In our 60’s now, there wasn’t enough margin of energy and time to return by this longer route. While this circumstance wasn’t foreseeable, there’s nothing to do but let this aspiration go. As leaders, we often make personal and collective aspirational commitments without knowing how it will play out. Safe, small commitments reduce this uncertainty; bold commitments always invite the unknown. When things turn out to be impossible or unwise, we can learn to say “Oh well. Now what?” and not have a big story we tell ourselves about failure. That’s not to say that we don’t learn when we make mistakes. Only that we move on quickly and gracefully to whatever is next, grateful to have had the chance to play in the first place.

Stay in action. There are lots of places in the Beartooths where there are extensive boulder fields to cross, climb or descend. One way to move in this challenging terrain is static. We balance, using poles, stabilize ourselves on a boulder, assess the next move, and then take a step. After each step, we stop and decide what’s next. This is pretty slow going, but feels conservative and safe and predictable.

The second method is dynamic, and best done without poles. We move fluidly across the rocks, crossing creeks, staying in motion. Our gaze is always scanning two or three steps ahead, and we adjust and correct fluidly and constantly as we move across the boulders. Moving this way is much faster, more fun, and actually easier. This

Dynamism requires trust in our capacity to make adjustments on the fly when our foot placements and balance aren’t quite right.

Dynamism requires trust in our capacity to make adjustments on the fly when our foot placements and balance aren’t quite right.

Dynamism requires trust in our capacity to make adjustments on the fly when our foot placements and balance aren’t quite right. As leaders, we often make moves that aren’t guaranteed. In a fast-moving world, we have to trust in our own improvisation, keeping things in motion and adjusting as we go. A move in the right direction produces new information and changes our circumstances; we can fine-tune as we go.

There are countless other parallels. My meaning-making machinery was going full tilt during our wild and wonderful 8 days in wilderness.

Leading is a similar process of reading the conditions, establishing aspirational commitments that aren’t guaranteed, accepting reality as it appears, and staying in action towards what we care about.


Your turn to consider the context in which you are leading:

  • What curious results are you noticing, and what might they reveal about underlying conditions?
  • What could you trust more about the way forward?
  • What if your initiative turns out to be not viable? How could you be OK?
  • And, where might you be bolder at staying in dynamic action, without knowing all the next steps?

Please add your comments and reflections!

Mindfulness Tips for Behavior Change

Mindfulness has been receiving wide attention lately in countless books, published research papers, and mainstream business literature. The physical and psychological benefits of mindfulness are indisputable, and the implications for coaching, behavioral change, and leadership development are profound. Coaches and clients alike can leverage their change work through these simple tips.

Mindfulness: What Is It?

mindfulness is a practice of paying moment by moment attention to our experience, as it arises, without judgment

mindfulness is a practice of paying moment by moment attention to our experience, as it arises, without judgment

Simply put, mindfulness is a practice of paying moment by moment attention to our experience, as it arises, without judgment. We cultivate mindfulness through any of a wide range of sitting practices, which can be as simple as closing the eyes and counting our breaths. Over time, mindfulness practice:

  • Develops our capacity to observe our experience objectively,
  • Replaces the inner critic with a neutral acceptance, and
  • Allows us to stay present with strong experience, and to choose an effective response.

Stay with me a moment. This will appear to diverge, but it’s temporary… we will come back to connect mindfulness into the change proposition that is central to all coaching and leader development.

The Top Down View Of Habits

Please understand that our culture tends to view behavior, and the patterns of default behaviors we call habits, through the lens of results.

In this view, organizational goals and objectives provide the context for all behaviors. Feedback, competency models, and change methodologies are designed to motivate leaders, and to support the development of new behaviors that are aligned with organizational goals. All of this takes place on the macro level of visible behaviors and organizational context.

A Bottom Up View Of Habits

However, habits are simply conditioned patterns of behavior that have become hard-wired and default responses to life’s complexities. We learned them at an early age because they worked then. Yet, given who we are now and our current challenges, we all have long-standing habits that limit our creativity, render us less effective, and/or cause suffering.

A bottom up view is that our habits arise from unconscious patterns of neuronal connections. Behaviors that worked in the past (say, when we were four years old!) become automatized by the nervous systems’ built-in learning mechanisms. Biologically, this is a great way to save processing bandwidth, time and energy: we don’t have to re-learn what danger looks like, or how to respond to it!

Once learned, however, our habits of thought and action become embodied and automatic. Never mind that our boss giving us difficult feedback about our sales presentation has little to do with our mother scolding us when we left a mess at age four; our nervous system reacts in the same way, and reacts far faster than if we thought it through and made a rational decision!

Five Mindfulness-Based Tips For Working With Habits

The bottom up view lends itself to exploration via mindfulness.

When, through practice, we pay attention to the nuances of our experience, we discover that all behavior arises from subtle unconscious impulses below the level of awareness. We begin to see that these “automatisms” can be directly experienced as urges to action before they lead to actual behaviors. We begin to intervene with ourselves, in the present moment, to choose more wisely how we engage with others and with life.

Tip One: Start Practicing

Begin some kind of mindfulness practice. (Guidance for this is important, and easily available; two starting points are Chade-Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself, another Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness.) Research shows that as little as 8 minutes a day of regular practice can have measurable long term benefits. The main thing is to start, and to stay with it. Don’t be an overachiever… this isn’t about “getting it right.” It’s about starting, and simply doing it. Every day, even if just for a few minutes.

Tip Two: Track Sensation

Mindfulness practice emphasizes accepting our experience without judgment

Mindfulness practice emphasizes accepting our experience without judgment

Include, in your mindfulness practice, specific attention to the sensations in your body. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s influential work on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction includes body scans, a formal practice of directing attention into the body.

Tracking sensation (for example, our breath) can immediately slow our mental chatter and settle our nervous system, bringing us into the present moment. Sensations help us recognize, for example, that we feel impatient, or that we are sensing a disproportionate urgency that may lead to actions we will regret.

Tip Three: Accept Your Experience

Mindfulness practice emphasizes accepting our experience without judgment. We are not seeking to change anything, merely to be present with our experience. Our stance is neutral; we notice our judgment arising, and we simply accept that it’s there, and let it go.

This acceptance short circuits the sometimes automatic commentary and interpretation that naturally accompanies all experience. Through acceptance, we come to see the external situation as it is: objectively and dispassionately. And, we see, and accept, the internal reactions, judgments, and impulses that arise automatically in response to our situation, but which might not lead to the wisest course of action!

This neutral stance allows for a much more creative and expansive range of choices than the narrowed, reactive automatisms that often drive our behavior.

Tip Four: Observe Yourself In Action

Change requires being able to observe ourselves doing what isn’t working, and knowing what an alternative might be. Then, we must interrupt our well-rehearsed automatic tendencies and, in the heat of the moment, replace a habitual behavior with an unfamiliar one.

Self-observation is a rigorous daily practice of reflecting, and writing down notes, about the internal experience of our habits in action. For example, we come to recognize the subtle urges in our body that arise immediately prior to interrupting someone, or the way our own mental commentary comes in and prevents our listening to the person we are speaking with. These internal experiences are made more visible by mindfulness.

Tip Five: Learn to Stay Present with Action Urges

Impulse control is a demonstrated benefit of mindfulness. When we recognize, and stay present with our urges to take action (whether to grab a second cookie or to vent unskillfully in a meeting!) we discover the freedom to either act on the urge or not.

Familiarity with, and acceptance of, our habitual urges (which are revealed in sensation) liberates us from their automaticity. What we formerly were driven by, we now see objectively, simply as a phenomenon that is present, but one that has less and less hold over us. This is tremendously liberating.


Mindfulness means witnessing ourselves in action. Doing so translates directly into greater choice, creativity, resourcefulness, and resilience. While this calls for discipline and consistency over time, over time the neural circuitry of presence, choice, relaxed alertness, and non-judgmental acceptance becomes increasingly embodied as a set of physiological defaults.

The benefits are indisputable, and the investment minuscule compared to the rewards.