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A gift from a stranger

Michael Jones

As we enter the season of celebration and gift-sharing, consider leaving a space at the table for the stranger: the one who communicates intangible gifts in the form of emotional truths about ourselves that we may not discover on our own.

To read more please visit management – issues.com

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This fall I have been invited to post regular monthly columns  with  Management – Issues  one of the top business and leadership sites on the web with a readership of over 70,000 mid and senior level leaders worldwide. The columns will expand on  themes from my most book; The Soul of Place: Re-imagining Leadership Through Nature, Art and Community.

In addition  to my regular comments I will feature  excerpts from these columns as they are posted  with links to the Management- Issues site.

I hope you enjoy them!

warmest wishes


Business: The Enterprise of Humanity

Business isn’t an exercise in numbers, it is an enterprise of humanity that is an inalienable part of life. So if we focus on taking care of the people in our enterprise and harness our intuitive capacity to co-create together, business will take care of itself.


Several years ago I read an interview with award winning broadcast journalist Bill Moyers and CEO and poet James Autry. Autry was among thirty-four poets that Moyers was interviewing as part of a PBS Series on The Language of Life through exploring commentaries on poets and poetry.

During the interview Moyers seemed puzzled as he tried to understand how Autry could cross over from celebrating his poetry at public festivals to reading it to his supervisors and staff in the competitive – and often tough- minded – world of the publishing business.

To which Autry replied; “ Its crucially important for business people to feel that what they’re doing in business is life. There is only life and business is part of that.” Autry replied.

Business is ‘an enterprise of humanity’ he added and art gives leaders permission to express a range of human emotions including pain, sorrow, fear and joy that they may not feel otherwise. Business is people and when we focus on the taking care of the feeling life and the humanity in the people in the enterprise, business will take care of itself.

In this context even the language of teams and teamwork may inadvertently conjure up many associations with the competitive language of battle and sports and so subliminally affected how we do business. In its place we may look toward the language of neighborhood, to fellowship and to being in community together.

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               Where is Home? Leadership and the Soul of Placemaking

       Michael Jones


Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place.

Your bright gaze will kindle this old shadow world to

Blaze up once again with the fire of faith.


– Rumi, One Song

 We are shifting from the industrial age and the age of information and technology to the biological age where we are asking how do we create spaces for life to happen and align our thinking with how nature thinks. In my new book The Soul of Place I explore how our relationship with place in nature, art and community deepens our connection with the core energetic patterns that form the undercurrents of life and living systems.


Patterns of Placemaking




The first pattern is Homecoming in which we ask; where is home and how do we find our way there? Most of our leadership metaphors are focused on growing up and upward mobility and the ladder of success. What if we balanced this upward organic motion with also growing down. To grow down is to have an embodied experience of place and   become native to the ground we find ourselves on. We have a curriculum for upward mobility; we need a parallel curriculum for homecoming – including making fertile the places we find ourselves. To come home to ourselves is to find our own personal myth and rediscover how our enchantment with nature, art and community connects us with the whole of life.

During a recent six-day retreat where we explored the soul of place we listened to the voices of participants express their hopes in a spirit of homecoming and welcome. Towards the end of our sharing we observed that our words felt distant and abstract. Later in the morning, when participants each shared an offering in the form of a project, story or question they wished to offer the group, we did so outside in nature on the rocks, among the trees or by the water. And each spoke at a time and place of their choosing while standing and feeling the ground beneath their feet. Images of digging in the dirt, making fertile ground, building soil and creating a home for new and fragile ideas guide us towards finding our deeper identity through place in ways that make visible the spirit and story of this place. So in the pattern of homecoming we may ask: what is this place asking of me? what is my gift and what am I uniquely called to do? How can I set a context for others to understand my perspective and what can I learn from noticing the felt life that is unfolding within my own interior landscapes of place?





The second pattern is Belonging in which we ask; what is the nature of our relationship with the people and places that we hold sacred? The urge to belong to a place is basic to the tissue that connects all of life – a pattern of aliveness that brings us into alignment with the ecology of nature and discovering how nature thinks. And in nature everything belongs to everything else. Belonging involves re-imagining our world to include; a new network, a sacred circle of relationship, and the connective tissue of life-giving relationships that align us to the essence of nature and how nature works and connects. How do our sacred relationships connect us to other communities? What would it mean for our perspective to become more global and inclusive of the stranger and not just our tribe? How do I belong to this place in ways I don’t belong anywhere else? How can I embrace diversity both within my community and with life in its largest sense?





The third pattern is one of Regenerativity. To be regenerative is to be committed to the conscious evolution of life. It involves a shift in focus from problem solving and making the visible, actionable to sensing patterns of flow and relationship that make the invisible, visible. In so doing we create beauty through seeing all that we do as a form of craft and embracing craftsmanship as the expression of place through the hands and the heart as well as the mind. To be regenerative is to act and, at the same time, to also be acted upon. To be moved to create through forces greater than ourselves is what connects regenerative action to the local conditions and other resources found in the places themselves.   Therefore to be regenerative is to ask; what is the nature of the place that I am creating from? What is the tone of this place and how as a leader do I want to carry this tone for both myself and others? What can we create together? Where are the places we go to find beauty and how can we fill a space in a beautiful way?




The fourth pattern is Carnival which includes engaging the life generating forces of ritual and transformative celebration. Whenever we gather together and enliven the senses through art, music, storytelling, poetry and movement we are evoking the Carnival spirit. Carnival is the upturning of the established order and – like the bright green blades of grass rising up through concrete – making a place in the world for the raw unformed impulse of life to burst through.The sense of gathering together on the public square or in the commons, bringing together diverse energies, expressing the democratic spirit and upturning the old for the new are a catharsis of this energy. It represents a third force reinstating our sense of home for ourselves in the larger world and in the universe.

Creating the Conditions for Life to Flourish

The primary question underlying the book The Soul of Place is: if we are entering the biological age in which our primary work is to come alive to community, to the creative spirit, to nature and ecology and with the soul of place where we find it – then what is it that causes life to wither or to flourish?

And the answer may be that life flourishes when our focus shifts from absolute truth to inner truth, from separation and isolation to connection, from efficiency and control to trust in the re-generativity of life and from scarcity and limits to abundance and joy.

For example:

  1. With homecoming our deference to external authority, absolute truth and the need for perfection shifts to valuing our own authenticity, including the wisdom to lead from the place within us that includes our gifts and the wisdom of our own inner nature.
  2. The belief in separation shifts to the search for belonging and an empathic resonance with our world, including an appreciation for our connection to home, to nature, to local wisdom and to who we essentially are.
  3. The focus on efficiency and control shifts toward a trust in the conscious evolution of life including the sense that we can approach life’s challenges with grace and ease and an appreciation for life’s natural unfolding and a willingness to let go and let be.
  4. And the belief in scarcity shifts to an appreciation that, while we may need to work within certain limits, the natural world bursts forth based on the principle of abundance and so is replenished, not diminished, by our efforts. Furthermore, when our work is aligned with nature, we not only sustain life, we create life.

When we deepen our relationship with place through nature, art and community we also steward the discovery and articulation of an overarching collective mythic narrative of place that brings these patterns of place alive. Most leaders don’t want to only belong to a job or even a career. They want to belong to a story, and particularly to a story that is mythic in its possibilities and place- based.

Too often the places we create remain placeless because they don’t include our stories. So nurturing these patterns of life and the fabric of the larger mythic narrative that holds them begins with coming together and telling our stories. Recounting these larger than life narratives of place is itself an act of joyous celebration and part of the leaders’ emerging work as stewards and placemakers.




Being the Soul of That Place


 By looking at place not only as something to return to but also something to grow out from –orienting us to the future and not only the past; and by realizing that a place is not an object or a thing, but a power and a presence, we can partner with place in a way that is itself deeply transformative, opening our hearts to the experience of beauty, aliveness and possibility.


The Sufi Poet Jalauddin Rumi once wrote; ‘wherever you stand be the soul of that place” When we stand in the felt experience of our own homecoming and align with the flow of life, the soul of place will blaze up once again and we will stand in our new life with the fire of faith.


Adapted from The Soul of Place; Re-imagining Leadership Through Nature, Art and Community MichaelJones, Friesen Press, 2014

also visit http://www.thesoulofplace.com




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 “You could listen to one of his songs and learn how to live.”

– Bob Dylan on the music of Woody Guthrie


Several years ago I was a thinking partner with John, a senior leader in marketing and sales with a global pharmaceutical company. The purpose of our conversations was to explore the relationship between artistry and leadership.

Many of our meetings occurred, not at the office, but on long walks along the wandering pathways of a lakeside park near my rural home. As we talked the wind, the light and waves and the cry of the gulls became a third partner that accompanied our explorations.

On one of our walks we discussed what it means to create respect in the workplace.

John started the conversation with an interesting insight;

“When I think of this process of respect it seems to involve a shift in our attention from goals and outcomes– to a reverence for each moment. Reverence opens the way to respect, and it is difficult to generate respect when your mind is focused primarily on a narrow set of goals.”

“Yes,” I said; The root of respect is to ‘look again’ When I think of respect in the context of an artistry I recall many years ago attending a piano concert at university performed by jazz artist Don Shirley.He opened the concert with a composition titled; ‘I Can’t Get Started’ and what I carry with me still is how all of life was contained in the experience of hearing those first three notes.”

My experience was echoed in the words of singer songwriter Bob Dylan, who said, in explaining his being absorbed as a teenager in the music of Woody Guthrie;

“You could listen to one of his songs and learn how to live.

Those notes had such a quality of reverence to them. And I think the reverence came from the respect he had for his audience, for his fellow musicians, for the piano, for the concert hall – even the cold wet weather outside – he held everything in his field with reverence.  It is as if it had taken him his whole life deepening the respect he had or his art in order to arrive at this place and bring everything he had into that one moment in time.

“For me, this is where the life of the leader and the artist intersect,” John said. “Leaders can learn a lot from artists about respect for the moment, of pausing and listening for the spaces between the notes. In leaders’ terms, it’s the space between the words. Sometimes leaders are so focused on outcomes that they can’t leave space to listen to other points of view; their mind is already made up. They know where they want to go and only want others to help get them there.”

“That’s what most impressed me with that piano concert,” I said,

“He wasn’t trying to get somewhere. Too often we miss the possibilities that attention to the moment might bring. If one leadership story is focused around realizing goals, there is another, a more artistic way of leading that is connected to the flow of experience. To find these moments we need to step off the path of our own habits and routines.”

In this context I recalled the words of poet W.S. Merwin, who

wrote; “If you can get one moment right, it will tell you the whole thing. And that’s true of your own life – each moment is absolutely separate  and unique and it contains your entire life.” (Merwin, 2005)

“That’s true,” said John. “These moments build up through a precision of listening and seeing. I sense that there is a gradual awakening of attention – of bringing back from sleep such elemental aspects of the human experience as our relationship with nature, as well as with poetry, music and the spoken word – all these forms of art awaken this inner perception.”

And this perception influences our own way of seeing. We can either look upon our world as an object  – lifeless and inert – or we can see it as a living presence that is continually unfolding  – each moment absolutely unique like musical notes on the piano keys  – and each part also containing within it the pattern of the whole.


W.S. Merwin, Departures and Returns by Christopher Merrill in Poets and Writers magazine (July/August 2005)

A Reverence for the Moment is adapted from Artful Leadership: Awakening the Commons of the Imagination Michael Jones  (2006, Trafford)

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The Roots of Aliveness

It has often been said that our span of awareness is a mile wide and an inch deep. The quality of our inner life is frequently overlooked in our efforts to cope the daily demands and expectations of our outer life. One enabling metaphor that helps us look at this is the ecology of a tree. The outer life is symbolized by the leaves and branches – they correspond to life of reactivity and busyness- of action plans, performance goals, desired outcomes and results. Sometimes we direct our attention down a little, to the trunk and lower limbs. Here we look at structures, strategies and processes. Where we spend the least of our time is the ground underneath. Yet it is the roots and the soil that give the tree resilience and the strength to grow and weather sudden changes year after year.

The shift from focusing on the trunk and the branches to the ground beneath corresponds to a shift of awareness from a factory/ production to a more adaptive/ artful mindset. Giving our attention to the ground of being beneath an organization, a community- or a tree involves an artful process of creating form out of the ambiguous circumstances and variable conditions we find ourselves in. This includes the very precise and complex interaction among many subtle variables including energy and space as well as tone, atmosphere, rhythm and time. The language shifts from action and meaning to story, to metaphor, to felt experience and the underlying stillness that holds it all.

Root systems, like artists learn to create in the moment, to search for the soil conditions that feel most fertile and ‘alive’, to inquire, to sense and absorb, to follow their attractions, invent and change course in the moment and feel their way. In other words, roots, in their search for connective and fertile ground , travel a road less traveled, just as we do as we seek to find our own way.

Yet we are still influenced by industrial age mind set that impedes our ability to adapt creatively in a time of complexity and sudden change. We still tend to rely, not on our own deep intuition but upon the perfection of external authority, of preconceived, of sequenced actions and mechanisms for scheduling and control.

As management theorists Henry Mintzberg and Alexandra McHugh write;

Strategies (and this may apply for life as well as leadership and organizational strategies) grow like weeds in a garden; they are not cultivated like tomatoes in a hothouse…sometimes it is more important to let patterns emerge than to foresee an artificial consistency… sometimes an individual actor …creates his or her own pattern…and other times, the external environment imposes a pattern. In some cases many different actors converge around a theme, perhaps gradually, perhaps spontaneously; …to manage in this context is to create a climate within which a wide variety of strategies can grow…to watch what does in fact come up and not be too quick to cut off the unexpected…

What can we do to create the ground for roots systems that are also resilient and life affirming?

Letting Go
We need to release our industrial age or mechanistic ways of thinking – including our needs for planning and control – in order to accept a much wider range of variations and possibilities. This corresponds to the musicians open stage, where their repertoire and what they do well may need to be set aside in order to be open to the aliveness of the moment – and to follow its leading wherever they may go. In other words, in a living process the process itself IS the content. As such, it tends to unfold based on what feels most right alive and true. It cannot be preconceived or created fully in anticipation or out of a concept formed in advance.

As a pianist and composer I go over a composition time and time again listening and feeling for the underlying pattern that is emerging from beneath. In this way I make a lot of mistakes and go down blind alleys as I explore the emerging compositions many changing ways. Each iteration contributes to enhancing and enriching my auditory imagination so that I am able to make better aesthetic choices later on. In this context to be iterative is not to correct errors or mistakes but to engage them so as to be more aligned with a process of emergence that lies beneath. Working in this way holds within it a sense of taking our art into our body, such that there is a sense of both naturalness and simplicity to it even when it may appear difficult and complex to someone observing it from the outside.

While a living process may often appear random, chaotic and even wrong headed from the point of view of the observer, it is actually highly efficient, coherent, even elegant and inevitable when experienced from within. The reason for this is that a living process unfolds within ‘liminal space’ one in which the continuity and smoothness of transitions generally unfold naturally and organically. This is particularly true when we trust that the container itself carries the seed of it own unfolding potential for what is to come next. It is when we try to move ahead by force of will or through tension, urgency or effort that this internal order is disturbed and our progress impeded.

One primary qualification for guiding others in a living process is less on what we know and more upon our capacity for holding presence with the unknown. That is, to be curious and open to whatever is emerging in our awareness that appears to be fuzzy, ambiguous or unclear. This capacity for sense making is amplified when we are together and diminished when we are apart. That is, there is a power that comes to us when we meet as an ‘ensemble’ where, for a moment, we forget ourselves and work for the benefit of the larger whole. Creating spaces for exploring what we do not yet know, spaces where we can be present to what is unformed and incomplete, sets in motion a process of unfolding order, a practice which has always been familiar for the artist but unfamiliar to others whose have been educated into a more parts – based mentality that is common in the industrial world. Once this living process is initiated, it will follow along the trajectory of its own unfolding potential – one that is natural, organic and unrepeatable – and which reflects the expression of wholeness as it appears to us in that particular moment.

All work is half rest. Nature cannot thrive in full flower all the time. Nor can we. We need time to empty to digest, assimilate and to be still. Dormancy and decay are as a much part of the life force as is growth and flowering. The absence of this deep time of gestation can lead to confusion and erosion of the force of life itself. Wayne Muller in his book Sabbath reminds us that a successful life can also be a violent life. To live a deeply rooted life is to find and create a home for oneself. Plants can only grow as high as they grow deep. To do otherwise is to be at the mercy of the atmosphere, we can only blend with its strong forces if we are deeply rooted within ourselves. Too often the sense of duty and responsibility overrides our intuition and good judgment. It becomes difficult to settle. Yet As Wayne Muller suggests, the world aches for just that – the generosity of well rested people.

French Painter Georges Braque once wrote; on art there is only one thing that counts: the thing you can’t explain. In the busyness of our days we often forget this mystery particularly as it relates to what lies in the ground beneath our feet. Yet what sits above can feel to us like an over worked and over – processed world – superficial, fabricated, manufactured and refined. Too often that which feeds does not fill us. We hunger for something real – words, ideas, connections, possibilities, food good enough to be eaten, food that still has the roots and dirt on. Perhaps these are the hungers we hold for leaders, to be people who live embodied and conscious lives, who are rooted to the land, who are vital and alive, who know what they love and where they belong, leaders who, when they speak, tell us who they are, how they live and… where they come from.

Rob Austin and Lee Devin Artful Waking: What Managers Need to Know About How Artist’s Work (Prentice Hall Financial Times 2003)
Michael Jones Artful Leadership Awakening the Commons of the Imagination (Pianoscapes 2006)
Henry Mintzberg and Alexandra McHugh ” Strategy Formation in an Adhocracy’ Administrative Science Quarterly, 30, no 2 (June 1985) 160 – 197 Found in Artful Waking P 26.
Wayne Muller Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives Bantam 1999

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Hi Everyone

This summer I am looking forward to  publishing a new book titled;

The Soul of Place; Re-Imagining Leadership Through Nature, Art and Community

Here is an excerpt

thanks for following my blog posts on Leading  Artfully


Re –Imagining Community

Finding Common Ground Through Stories of Place.

Michael Jones


We cannot talk about community without first talking about place

   Peter Block

Questions of identity and quality of place need to be in the forefront of our thinking now. Not only are they questions that inspire creative endeavors, these questions also inspire leaders and the communities they lead. And communities that foster a culture of place may hold a distinct advantage over those that see their priorities largely in technical or economic terms.

Each community has a story of place that defines its character and uniqueness. It is a story that reflects a community’s unique dreams, history, economy and people as expressed through its aspirations, accomplishments, challenges and possibilities.  Understanding the uniqueness of its stories of place is the foundation for building an innovative economy. And an engaged community is the most knowledgeable resource for creating a story for the future that reflects the uniqueness of the place in which we want to live now.

Stories of place are made more vibrant when rooted in the identity and unique heritage of a particular region and locality. These stories of rootedness to place contribute to regenerating community when considered in the broad context of the natural, built and cultural, economic and social environment that defines its current distinctiveness and future potential.

A story of place is how a community creates a unique brand for itself. An identifiable and unique place – based brand differentiates one community from another.  It also creates a shared vision that shifts a community’s thinking and values from focusing on parts and problems to focusing on potential and opportunity, from seeing change as expert and outside driven to co –creating together through a process of self discovery and collaboration and shifting the focus from   working with isolated symptoms and quick fixes to seeing the underlying patterns and connections between things as a whole.

For example; at a recent conference where a group of community leaders in Atlantic Canada were asked about what the story of place meant for them, they reflected on finding common ground in their deep ties to land and sea – to a mist filled land both gentle and unyielding and to the

enduring loyalty to their stories and community. This long history of living on a sea –

bound coast gave them the gift of a perspective larger than any one person or any

individual’s self interest.

For the Chippewa First Nations community near Orillia, Ontario one defining narrative

of place is that their land sits on the confluence of two distinct biospheres, where the

granite rock of the Canadian Shield to the north meets the limestone plain to the south. This is

The Land Between and their story is about living in a meeting place between two distinct ecosystems and how to make the best of living in not one, but two worlds.

Sometimes stories of place can be distilled to one story and a tagline that does not reduce the story to a slogan but instead speaks to the essence of the place itself.

For example;

In a partnership between a community art gallery that wanted to create a place to display the work of artists with mental health challenges in a partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association the story of place was ‘Gifts in Shadow’.

For Quaker Foods, their story finds its place in the American Heartland.  ‘Breakfast is amazing’ served as the story of place for reconstituting their product line with heart healthy oatmeal with which to start each day.

And for a San Antonio based engineering company that was a global leader in alternative energy technologies, their employee engagement strategy was constructed around creating a community of conversations, the roots of which originated in the shared experience of growing up in the  front porch culture of West Texas.

Community stories that are specifically place based achieve several things;

-They help individuals see their ‘value added’ role in how they can serve the larger whole

-They offer an opportunity for everyone to belong to a story.

– They serve as the common ground for building a long-term strategic plan.

-They elevate the collective identity of a community.

-They enhance the quality of health and well being for everyone.

-They reassert and build upon the significance of its heritage story

-They serve as a unifying force around which culture, tourism, economic development and social initiatives can align.

Stories of place move us to action by engaging diverse members in the community in continuous cycles of dreaming and manifesting in new and innovative ways.  They serve as the catalyst through which a community continuously regenerates and re – imagines itself and the form in which its sense of vocation  and  destiny may be realized.

This leads us to ask;

1. Where have we experienced a connection to place that has inspired our imagination? Where was it and how did it feel?

2. When have we had a similar experience in our community (buildings, nature, groups, neighbourhoods, heritage etc) where we have also felt most  ‘at home’ that is; places that offer the greatest sense of connection, aliveness, vitality and satisfaction?

3. How do these places inspire our aspirations and dreams – our story of place – for the future?

4.  How does this story reflect the richness and accomplishments of our heritage past?

5. In what ways does a sense of place create a unique brand or voice for our community  – that is, a signature theme that would draw visitors to the area?

6. What challenges and opportunities does the community face at the present time – the gap between what we want and what is – that a story of place may help resolve?

7. What gifts and assets do we have now in the community that would serve as catalysts for creating a story of place?

8. What leadership capacities will be needed to develop this story for the future?

Too often, we attempt to undertake large systemic transformational changes without

taking into account the unique characteristics of the place we are in.

Most communities are not at a loss for innovative ideas. What they may overlook

however is how to partner with these unique qualities and features of place  –

– the soil we inhabit – that enables these seeds of innovation to take root and grow.

By looking at place as both something to return to and also something to grow out

from –orienting us on a trajectory that includes the future and the past; and by realizing that a place is not an object or a thing, but a power and a presence, we can partner with it in a way that is itself deeply transformative, opening our hearts to the shared  experience of beauty, aliveness and possibility.


Michael Jones www.pianoscapes.com

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Following the Thread of Aliveness – Discovering What Our World is Trying to Be 

Michael Jones: www.pianoscapes.com


There is a thread you follow that goes among the things that change

William Stafford  The Way it Is

a Few weeks ago I gave a keynote presentation in Colorado  for an  Chamber of Commerce awards dinner recognizing the outstanding  gifts and contributions their leaders had brought in introducing  heath and well being to their communities.

I opened my presentation with a line from a poem by William Stafford, a much loved and prolific poet from the American Mid West.

“Your job is to find what the world is trying to be”

These words come from the last line Stafford’s poem Vocation – The words vocation and voice come from the same root vocare which means to follow what we are uniquely called to do.

And that is what these leaders held in common. They had discovered what they were uniquely called to do – and through finding their voice they had also helped bring into the light the personal voices of those around them.

As an improvisational musician I am instinctively drawn to taking a poetic line and exploring its melodic possibilities. So Stafford’s line may also read….

Our job is to discover what our life is trying to be

 or our job is to discover what our voice is trying to say.

 Implied in this question is that there is a natural order to how things unfold that will lead us to the things that really matter – poems, music, leaderful actions – if we don’t interfere.

Stafford believed that to be connected to this natural order we needed stay in alignment with what is already unfolding.  That is, to be careful to distinguish between what is occurring naturally from what we believe ought to be happening.  When Stafford did this – asking what these fragments of thoughts, patterns and images where trying to say – poems came to him freely and abundantly.

For leaders this means that instead of trying to impose their will based on what they believe ought to happen  – they instead maintain a heightened state of attention for what is already  alive in the situation and emerging  naturally. Though the future cannot be predicted, it can be imagined and felt. So rather than avoiding surprise, leaders can instead embrace uncertainty and learn from the unexpected.

To embrace uncertainty we need a central image that enlivens our imagination and helps us hold faith in the future as we cross uncertain ground.  For William Stafford this enabling image was the golden thread.

He wrote;

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change.  But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

This image of the thread (Inspired from a poem by William Blake which begins with the line, I give you end of a golden string) reminds us that in those moments when we are most uncertain and confused and don’t know how to proceed– life knows what it is doing.  In celebrating those leaders who received the recognition for their outstanding service to furthering community health and well being- we were also celebrating ourselves.

We closed the session sharing stories of a time when we felt most vital, alive and engaged as leaders. In this world of complexity and constant change when it is difficult to have confidence in a long term plan or strategy, there is a thread we can follow and it is the thread of our own aliveness.  We hear this aliveness in the stories we tell.  And if we stay the course we may in time discover that this thread of aliveness is also leading us to the place we will recognize as home once we arrive.


Michael Jones Leading Artfully; Awakening the Commons of the Imagination   Bloomington Indiana Trafford 2006

William Stafford The Way It Is; New and Selected Poems St Paul Minn. Graywolf Press 1999

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Leadership in a New Key

Creating Possibilities in a Complex World

A Leadership Retreat near Toronto February  15th to 17th 2012 (Download the brochure)

Michael Jones


The ‘key’ unlocks the doorway to new possibilities. The‘note’ creates the tonal atmosphere for these new possibilities to be received and understood. When the key and the note sound together they result in an inner music, a song that can be heard not just by the intellect, but also by the body, the mind and the heart.


We are entering a time when the primary leadership challenges are not technical but transformational  – a time when leaders to succeed will need to reach beyond their technical and strategic skills to connect with the inner music of their own imagination. As such we are on the threshold of a new leadership story. As our organizations and communities struggle with complex discontinuities and disruptive change it is becoming increasingly clear that leaders cannot apply the same strategies they used to create their current environment to   change them.

To create this new story will involve a shift from the formalities that characterize traditional hierarchical structures to creating communities of engagement and aliveness in which each can peruse their own leadership-learning journey in ways that are aligned with the organizations core mission and purposes.

This will include an understanding of  the regenerative practices of dialogue, reflection, listening and respect as core principles for taping into the organizations collective intelligence. Not only will tapping into this intelligence contribute to creating an environment that recognizes each persons individual strengths and gifts, it also creates a supportive environment in which the seeds of these gifts and aspirations may find fertile ground to take root and grow.

A basic premise for Leadership in a New Key is that leaders can reach beyond doing things differently or doing different things based on conserving the past or sustaining what they already know to creating the future based upon what they collectively imagine and want to create together.  To achieve this higher aspiration leaders need to be present enough with themselves for the future to come in. That is, to not only do things differently but to see differently. To be the kind of leader who can proceed boldly into the future sensing what is needed in the moment without relying upon a clearly defined long term strategy, plan or goal.

In this context to learn from the future involves a fundamental realignment in how we think of our mental models and institutions. We need to adjust our attention from learning from the ‘outside in’ to learning from the ‘inside out’ through asking not only what do we think and how do we act as leaders but to consider more fundamentally; where do we lead from.

To meet this challenge we need to step back to  ask; as a leader what am I uniquely called to do?   To listen and truly hear the answer to this question is a call not to action but to stillness- to quiet the mind in order to sense into the places where our deepest calling may be fulfilled. This involves connecting with and trusting the authority of one’s own inner wisdom. It also involves writing a new story of possibility   – one that helps the leader discover their own unique voice and a path to fulfilling their deepest destiny in bringing their gift to the world.

When we engage in this learning journey we not only plan our future, we enter into a conversation with and become a living embodiment of it. The power of leading through conversations is that speaking and listening about the questions that truly matter amplifies our ability to see possibilities that we could not see or realize on our own. From this new perspective we will always have enough ideas and innovative resources to create our possible future in the midst of the confusing and complex world that lies ahead.

In this context artistic experiences   including music art, poetry, conversation and reflection deepen a leader’s capacity for creating possible futures through learning to sense and make meaning of the subtle forces around them.  Listening into the spaces between the notes becomes an essential orientation for leading effectively and wisely in uncertain times.

The Leadership – Learning Journey


Leadership is a journey, not a goal.

In the absence of detailed charts to map our way we will need to learn to be ‘way finders’ again – capable of accessing the ancient wisdom of our past. This wisdom once taught us how, without the aid of chronometers and other navigational and technical aids   – to find our way across hundreds of miles of open uncharted sea guided only by the subtle but accurate reading of the winds, clouds, light, stars, sun and waves including the complex movement of currents beneath the boat’s hull.

We cannot go back entirely to this early time – but we can retrieve the quality of attention developed then to find our way now – and in so doing discover how together we can create the possible future that we could not envision or achieve on our own.

In contrast to more formal teacher led learning environments Leadership in a New Key is structured as an inquiry into possibilities that reach beyond our current organizational and leadership practices. The spirit of the gathering is captured in the question – What more can my leadership is? Our unfolding exploration will focus on expanding and enhancing our individual and organizational awareness, sharpening the sense of our personal and organizational identity, and developing the critical communication skills necessary to enable organizational learning and the creativity necessary to meet new challenges and create the possible future we would all like to be part of.

To cross the threshold from the old to the new story is a learning journey, not a goal.  The journey begins with The Call in which we ask; what are we uniquely called to do?  This is followed by The Adventure in which we ask; Where is home and fertile ground for my gifts to grow? The third stage in The Return in which we awaken to new possibilities through creating new stories of commitment, renewal and change.

Paradoxically our current mindsets which often value absolute truth and certainty can inhibit the deep listening and ability to see the world in different ways which this journey entails. Someone once said;, “if your cup were already filled, you would have to pour something out before you can add anything new.”

To embark on this learning journey something of the old must give way to take on something new. Leadership in a New Key will be exploring ideas that will challenge existing and traditional mindsets that have dominated business and community thinking for over a century. The growth challenge for leaders now will be how to maintain an appreciative and positive attitude of inquiry, respecting what they already know and have been doing, while opening to new possibilities.

Therefore, in contrast to traditional leadership development programs, this experience is structured not as formal ‘book learning’ sessions but as an inquiry into possibilities for leaders that goes beyond current theories about leadership. Because this dialogue is designed as an inquiry and a learning journey, we cannot know beforehand exactly how it will unfold.  A tightly scripted and controlled agenda would not fairly model the highly changeable adaptive and chaotic environment that now represents the leader’s real world.

What we can be assured of is that this leadership dialogue will create fertile ground for leaders now and into the future to enable them to create the kind of culture of possibility that they most deeply aspire to lead.

To learn more please write to Michael at michaeljones@rogers.com or check the  brochure left side bar on his home page at www.pianoscapes.com

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Follow Michael Jones on Pianoscapes1 Channel on YouTube.

Dear Friends,
Recently I have been posting new video segments on The Pianoscapes 1 Channel on You Tube – to help you navigate, here is brief menu and theme summary of what you can find there. Just click on each video thumbnail to watch or click on the underlined links to go directly to YouTube.

The Heart of Wood Buffalo Leadership Awards Ceremony: Parts 1 through 4 — An Overview
This past June The University of Waterloo Nonprofit Sector Link and the Suncor Foundation came together to work on the Wood Buffalo Capacity Building Project (WBCBP). This project is designed to improve the quality of living for all citizens of The Region of Wood Buffalo. I was guest speaker for the first Heart of Wood Buffalo Community Leadership Awards Ceremony (Videographer Sunshine Chen)

Part 1: Michael Jones in Performance — Pianoscapes
In this first segment I perform a musical interpretation of my original composition Pianoscapes. Pianoscapes was my first recording and the first release from Narada Records. Pianoscapes would go to serve as a benchmark for the emerging genre of contemporary instrumental music.

Part 2: The Heart of Creativity — Stories and Commentary
In this segment I share stories and commentary on my early influences in finding my own voice as a musician and leadership educator. I refer specifically to the influences in music from my grandmother and her love for the open skies and limitless spaces of the heartland of the Midwest where she came from – and in leadership from my grandfather who was one of the co- founders of the University of Waterloo based on an educational philosophy of co-operative education. I speak of how his early experiences of place in rural Iowa gave him a vision for how a university could serve as fertile soil for seeding a community and ‘technological ecosystem’ for the future.

Part 3: The Heart of Creativity — Stories and Commentary Continued
In this segment I share how as a young piano student growing up in small town performing the music of Elvis Presley is what ‘saved my life’ But it also set me on a path of seeking approval through playing other people’s music and many years past before I found the confidence to explore my own music again.

Part 4 – Michael Jones in Performance – After the Rain
In this closing segment I invite the audience to close their eyes and listen for the sounds of thunder, rain, wind and the sparkle of light on water as I perform an interpretation of After the Rain

Michael Jones — in Conversation
Dialogue and Artistry: What Leaders and Organizations Can Learn From the Imagination — Wasan Island The Breuninger-Stiftung Foundation
This past summer I was invited to present a two-day session on leadership, dialogue and artistry to The Architects for Learning – a group of international consultants who travel to meet teachers around the world and also return each year to the beautiful conference centre on Wasan Island in the Muskoka Lakes Region of Central Ontario, Canada hosted by the Breuninger-Stiftung Foundation. In this wide-ranging conversation with Christiane Zarfasse, Founder of the Architects for Learning Group, we reflect on the themes from my presentation and how creative artistry needs to be integral to creating a story of leadership that can shape our future. (Videographer Jan Betz)

Finding Voice – The Power of Story
York Harbor Maine – Dialogos Inc Leadership For Collective Intelligence
The art of story telling is not found only in the accuracy of stories, but in their vibrancy – the sense that the spirit of the story lives freshly in the storyteller with each telling. This highlights an emerging capacity for leaders which is ‘narrative competence.’ Michael shares his own stories with a group of senior leaders from diverse organizations including: The World Bank, BP Oil, The US Forest Service and The International Monetary Fund and others. (Videographer Jon Gibson)

Playing Rain – The Power of Place Part 1 & Playing Rain – The Power of Place Pt 2
Mount Madonna Ca. Chautauqua 2010
Peter Block a widely acclaimed leadership educator and writer says; The arts have a job to do no matter what the purpose of our gathering. The most businesslike, intellectual or problem-solving gathering needs an open mind, an open heart and a trusting network of relationships to achieve its purpose. Participating in art does this. In this presentation at the Chautauqua gathering at Mt Madonna California on transforming leadership – Michael reflects on how ‘playing rain’ … and wind and the beauty of nature… has inspired his own art and leadership.

Thanks and I hope you enjoy the videos — Michael

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The Art of Innovation – Creating Cultures of Possibility   

Michael Jones



“ If we are going to make things in our lives we might as well make them beautiful”

Steve Jobs

In my blog Leading Artfully I explore the nexus between leadership, innovation and community through the context of artistic processes.   Recent domains I have been writing about include;

– The Art of Touch (June 2011)

– The Art of Impossibility (September 2011)

–  The Art of Place- Making (April 2011)

While these domains are clearly relevant to creative artistry, we may question their connections to leadership. That is until we read Walter Isaacson’s wonderfully insightful book on the life and work of Steve Jobs. Jobs’ focus was to bring together creative artistry with technology and this involved a shift from invention to innovation.  He was not interested in replication but regeneration.  And he worked tirelessly in the service of beauty and collaboration in order to bring to market original and innovative products that would transform the experience of the consumer – and change the world.

In this blog I explore the legacy of Steve Jobs as an artist in showing us how to create cultures of possibility in order to succeed in a complex world.

The Art of Touch


I want tactile experience to set the toneSteve Jobs


What lies at the heart of the experience of touch, is delight.  From his earliest days at Apple, Steve Jobs was obsessed with delighting the customer with the joyful use of the product itself. He loved finely designed and crafted things like Ansel Adams prints and Bosendorfer pianos. He displayed a Bosendorfer hand crafted grand in the main foyer of the Apple offices.  This served as a daily reminder that they were not only engineers but designers and craftsman. Jobs wanted to remind employees daily to see their work as art and to carry this aesthetic throughout the flow of all of the phases of the design and manufacturing process.

Jobs had a vision that he wanted to marry together arts and great design that expressed the elegance of human touch  – and even romance.  What was most important for him was not making money but putting the quest for beauty back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as he could.

The ease of use, the simplicity of design, the flow of operation – all these and   more lay at the heart of Steve Job’s vision for creating not only functional but artful innovation This went beyond asking what the customer wanted because the customer themselves may not have thought that this was possible. So in place of focus groups, benchmarking and market surveys, his mission was to surprise the customer with innovations that they could not have dreamed possible in advance.

As a musician I love all kinds of music. music. I was accustomed to carrying five pounds of CD’s everywhere I traveled. I could not imagine that one day there might be a device that could carry many times that capacity which I could operate with the ease of touch and toggle lightly with my thumb as I held it in the palm of my hand. The key to creating this interface with the consumer is not strategy, but embodiment.

Communicating through touch invites an empathy with the other so that we can connect with the ‘felt sense of the experience’ itself. The simplicity of design, the ease, flow and intuitive logic of operations, the tactile pleasure and delight of the touch screen – all of these and more invite us to enjoy the natural and intuitive flow of experience itself with                       the confidence in knowing that each element was true to itself and couldn’t be more or less than what it is. This iterative movement of going over it time and time again in order to reduce complexity to its most essential and simplest form that is at the core of the art of innovation.

The Art of The Impossible


The journey is the reward  – Steve Jobs


Most dreams and aspirations that really matter seem impossible to do.  For Steve Jobs the journey to making the impossible possible was its own reward.  And it worked because they brought the fullness of their gifts to their work and they truly loved what they did.

The idea of cobbling together inventions from many diverse sources and transforming these into ground-breaking innovations and creating in the moment, this is what awakens the human spirit and enables us to tap into something that we often don’t understand and so cannot explain.

Widely acclaimed pianist Keith Jarrett reflecting on his recent improvisational concert last April in Rio on a ‘not perfect piano at all’ said in a recent NPR interview with Guy Fraz;

“It’s never the same… I have no idea, moment to moment, how to prepare for these things, either. What actually happens is so much in the moment, so much of a nanosecond. And I know a lot of people probably are skeptical about whether they really are always improvised. I myself even feel skeptical though I know they were.” (1)

Yet Steve Jobs reminded others that if it does not appear impossible it is not worth doing.  The only projects that are truly worthwhile are those that cannot be fulfilled within the span of our own lifetime.  For the truly artful innovator they often have no idea if their product will succeed. Too often we settle for incremental steps where replication and invention serve as substitutes for true innovation. We are content to play someone else’s music rather that to truly create something uniquely our own.

The Art of Place- Making


I want to create in that place between where engineers are working in tandem with designers   – Steve Jobs

Place is not an object or a thing- it is a power and presence  – that can inspire us to achieve what seems impossible to do.


When Keith Jarrett reflected that he did not know how to prepare for a concert he added;

When I get to the place, I try to absorb the culture that I’m in, listen to the language, think about where I am, and that’s about the only preparation that might be important, it was obvious when I listened to the CD (Rio ECM Records 2011 from his solo concert in Rio De Janeiro) that I was connecting to the culture. It wasn’t Holland, or Germany, or the States, or Japan — it was south of the equator. So that made me free of something, I think.”

Being rooted even temporarily to a place helps us achieve the impossible – it connects us to the ground of our own being and inspiration.

Steve Jobs was a student of place and place making. He believed that the right kind of building can do great things for the culture.  The simplicity of design flowed into the informal functionality of his living environment.  His most natural environment for innovation was a ‘skunkworks’ separate and apart from the main corporate operations where he could  – with the collaboration of a small creative team  – produce radically new product innovations.

The Macintosh was created in a modest building known as Texaco Towers several miles from the main offices in Cupertino. And Cupertino for Jobs was itself a place of significance. He describes how he got inspired by the history of El Camino Royal and how the royal road connected all 21 mission churches. He wanted to be a part of this history.

At Pixar they built a huge building around a central atrium that served as a ‘commons’ in that was designed to encourage spontaneous conversation and random encounters. If an environment doesn’t encourage this Jobs believed that you will lose a lot of innovation and magic that is sparked by serendipity.

But what perhaps mattered most to Jobs were the meetings that occurred in the place ‘in between’. Walter Isaacson in his biography of Jobs writes about how his heroes were people who could stand at the intersection of aesthetics and technology. It was building these bridges that Jobs was most passionate about and wanted to do.

Isaacson indicates that from his previous biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, the creativity that occurs when the feeling for both humanities and sciences is combined in one strong personality will be key to creating innovative economies in the 21 century.

(To read more about other strong leaders like PepsiCo Chairwoman, Indra Nooyi who work at this nexus between the humanities, business and technology – see my blog Thinking Outside the Building; Leading From the Space Between https://pianoscapes.wordpress.com/2010/12/)

Creating Cultures of Possibility 

If there is one common thread that runs through all of Steve Job’s work it is that products come and go. What matters most is creating environments – cultures of possibility – that reward the imagination. Ultimately this is the most important thing. And these environments stand out to the extend that they embrace a language that awakens the imagination. What awakened the imagination at Apple were words like touch and tone, simplicity, intuition and ease, beauty and aesthetics, dreams, aspirations, embracing uncertainty and making the impossible, possible.

The future will bring ideas, careers and possibilities for which we have no language to describe. Steve Jobs was giving us this language. It is the language of the artist. Steve Jobs was an artist and what he gave his voice to will continue to transform our world.



Walter Isaacson Steve Jobs Simon And Schuster (Canada) October 2011

Michael Jones Artful Leadership, Awakening the Commons of the Imagination, Bloomington Indiana Trafford, 2006

Roger Martin, Dean, Rodman School of Business, and University of Toronto:  Canada, like Steve Jobs, should zero in on innovation Toronto, Globe and Mail, Report on Business November 21, 2011

Guy Raz in Conversation with pianist Keith Jarrett Keith Jarrett Alone in Rio and Ready to Fail    All Things Considered   NPR November 14, 2011 http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/…/Keith.Jarrett.Alone.In.Rio.And.Ready…

About Michael Jones


A leadership speaker, pianist composer and creative facilitator, Michael Jones is widely recognized as a thought leader who integrates creative artistry in his presentations and workshops on personal transformation and organizational learning.  He is the author of Artful Leadership and Creating an Imaginative Life and has composed and produced fifteen recordings of solo piano and ensemble work that have been distributed worldwide. You can visit his web site to read other Leading Artfully blogs as well as featured essays, videos and music at www.pianoscapes.com




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