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Interview with Program Leaders

This Q & A style interview with Art Shirk and Kyoko Seki is a glimpse into the Co-Active Leadership Program. With more than 20 residential training days spread over 10 months, Co-Active® Leadership program participants dive into the heart of what it means to be fully expressed as a human being able to make a positive impact in the world. Existing coach graduates looking for their next step or all who want to transform their ability to lead others from the heart should read on.

Many people have the idea that leadership is something that’s dependent on certain personality traits, such as charisma, or the ability to clearly articulate a vision – not unlike Barack Obama – but what kind of leader does the Co-Active Leadership Program create?

Art Shirk: Well, part of Co-Active® leadership does stem from personality traits such as charisma or humor, etc. An important part of our philosophy is that every human being has the capacity to express themselves in authentic and natural ways that are engaging and compelling. Unfortunately as we go through life, that authentic and unique part of ourselves often gets covered over or blocked by more superficial ways of being. In the Co-Active Leadership Program, our starting point is what we call “Creating From Self” which entails digging down to access our most authentic expression of ourselves: getting out from under the limitations that block that authentic expression and allowing the most authentic leader within to come forward. In many ways, this is like a pre-requisite to the Co-Active Leadership Program from my point of view -- it is the foundation that we build on. From there the real experience of Co-Active leadership takes off.

From that starting point, the Co-Active Leadership Program builds the capacity to connect deeply with others, and to lead from that inter-relatedness. Co-Active leaders are able to create intimacy, and to allow others to create intimacy with them. That might sound funny because we don’t usually use that word (intimacy) when describing leadership. But, in truth, when we are in the presence of powerful leaders, we have the experience that they are connected to us deeply - it is not superficial.

Often we operate in life as though we are isolated and separate from the world around us - other people, places, the environment. If we allow ourselves to access the parts of ourselves at our most wise, we discover that this is an illusion. And, there is a paradox here - while we are unique individuals, we are also deeply connected - ultimately to everything around us. In the Co-Active Leadership Program, we discover, explore, and practice our capacity to build and lead from that connection.

Kyoko Seki: In the Co-Active Leadership program, there is a fundamental belief that everybody is a leader, and has a unique and special gift to offer to the world.

I used to want to change myself as a leader; to be more logical, more visionary, more charismatic, and…and…and. However, I discovered 9 years ago when I took the Co-Active Leadership program, that creating an impact on the world around me, was much more compelling and powerful when I embraced and fully expressed my own authentic self which by contrast to the things I thought I needed to be, was very intuitive. I let go of the idea I needed to become someone else to be me and it’s been much easier and more fun since then.

To evoke leadership within ourselves, we must stop pretending to be someone else and fully step into the expression of our authentic selves. This program supports every participant in discovering his or her unique and authentic power and to begin expressing it with full permission.

The Co-Active Leadership model talks about taking the lid off our passion. Tell us more about that and how it relates to being a leader in the world.

Kyoko: Many of us have lived our lives for so long, with a lid shut so tightly over our true identity, suppressed for so long, that we’ve forgotten how to access our passion inside. Some of us may have been busy pleasing others, working hard to be socially successful, being a good person for others, and so have forgotten to look deeply into finding what it is that we truly yearn for ourselves and for the world. The Co-Active Leadership program supports participants in remembering their deepest desires both for themselves and for the world.

Personally, I believe that this information has been already embedded in our souls and so the process is more like a journey to “remember” our sacred path. Once people remember their deepest desires and passion, they get grounded in his or her stance as leaders and become unstoppable in moving things forward to manifest the world they want to see, no matter what situations they confront.

Art: For me, this is about freedom in life...freedom to be our most authentic selves...freedom to reach out, to pursue our highest dreams...freedom to say no. We all have ways that we have learned throughout our life to shrink back, play small, stay comfortable, avoid rejection, avoid risk-taking.

Over the years we build automatic ways of responding to the world that are reactive rather than creative. We respond to situations from a place of fear or control rather than passion and creativity. The good news is that we know, even from a neurological perspective, that our patterns of responding to the world can shift over time, with practice. In the Co-Active Leadership Program, we work on becoming more and more adept at “taking the lid off” so that we are more able to express ourselves authentically, connect with others more freely, be accessible to others more genuinely, and take more courageous steps toward what our hearts most fervently desire.

I strive to see each and every course participant in the most authentic, powerful, courageous, creative, and magnificent leader that he or she truly is. Sometimes, though, we all show up differently...from our more “lid on” selves. To me in the Leadership Program, this is simply an opportunity to practice recovering back to our higher selves. We are all human...there is huge compassion in the Leadership Program for all of the challenges that we go through in life, and the ways in which we may stumble.

I want people to know that they should come to the program exactly as they are, and bring with them the very highest dreams they have for what is possible.

In what way can the Co-Active Leadership Program empower our ability to form powerful and equitable relationships with others?

Art: Wow, this is quite a question. Well, the truth is that my capacity to connect with others dramatically shifted when I did the program myself over ten years ago. It actually opened up a whole new world for me. I found that I was able to go into a whole array of new situations in my work as a consultant with a degree of confidence that I had never had before - or, to step in front of a room in a workshop or board meeting or team meeting in a whole new way. And, at the heart of it was a new capacity to open myself to connect with others.

I think there are various things that are “at the heart” of Co-Active leadership. This, for sure, is one of them. In my programs, I’m committed to each person discovering a radically new way of leading through their relationship with others. It is amazing what happens when this takes place. In the program, each person has the opportunity to create something in the world with another person. That experience changed my life, and today one of my closest business partners is that person that I originally did that work with. I have seen people do extraordinary things that they never imagined they would possibly do through this capacity to form powerful relationships with others.

Kyoko: Often we think that we need to compromise ourselves to some extent to work with someone or persuade the other to do things our way. The Co-Active Leadership Program encourages the participants to live in a paradox of 100% - 100%: two people showing up fully and allowing the other to do the same. When that happens, the true magic of co-creation occurs and the unique gift of that particular combination of people naturally emerges.

During the course, the participants will practice giving and receiving 100% in working with their partners over and over. I have witnessed many times in the program that the participants recognized their edges in the relationship and went through a huge transformation in relating with to others.

When Co-Active leaders talk about reading the space, what do they mean by that and why is it important to leadership?

Art: That sounds so incredibly new-age, doesn’t it? Yet, over the past decade there has been more and more written on this topic; at the top of the list would be the book authored by Peter Senge titled Presence. Through research in social intelligence (by Daniel Goleman, for example) we know that there is an energetic field that imbues the environment within and between people in a group. We feel this most directly in our one-on-one relationships. If you expand that awareness outward, you can notice that you become aware of the “energetic feel” of larger spaces. For example, when you walk into a room where there is underlying tension or disagreement, you can feel the discomfort in the room.

Powerful Co-Active leaders use their capacity to sense this energetic field that exists between us. We all have the capacity to open ourselves to the space around us...to allow ourselves to be connected to it...to allow ourselves to be informed by it.

For me it is related to our deep sense of intuition about what is happening beneath the visible surface around me - and even more than that my ability to sense what wants to unfold. It is a bit like imaging a large boulder that is poised at the top of the hill, just at that point where it will begin to roll down. There is an energy of potential in that boulder that is poised to begin rolling... it is about to unfold. As Co-Active leaders, we build our capacity to use that intuitive sense for the sake of having the impact that we want to have. This is a rather sophisticated skill.

For me, it is one of the most powerful aspects of our work. I must say that once you have built this capacity, you can never go back - you become aware of the world around you in a whole new way.

Kyoko: One time, I was leading the workshop with my co-leader. While people were nodding and smiling, I felt that something heavy and even anger in the room. When I spoke my observation and asked what was happening, I learned that there was a conflict among participants. Rather than following our timeline, we changed our schedule entirely and used this conflict in service of creating real learning for the participants about themselves. It brought much deeper learning than the original plan.

Space is ally for leaders since it gives us information on what is really happening and it helps us respond to the situation powerfully in the moment.

We live in a world with a low tolerance for when our leaders fail to live up to expectations. How does the Co-Active Leadership program address this?

Kyoko: One of the greatest gifts I received from the Co-Active Leadership Program was not just the permission to fail but also being able to be responsible for that failure. As human beings, it is impossible to be perfect and we naturally fail from time to time, especially when we need to take a risk in creating an impact as leaders. In the Co-Active Leadership Program, people learn how they can be authentic enough to embrace their failures when they happen, and, from that same place of power, be responsible for the impact they've had.

One of the most amazing speeches I have ever seen in my life was made a long ago by the president of a Japanese manufacturing company. He is a well known successful business leader in Japan. Yet he was being accused by the employees that particular year, because he had failed in his management decisions and so therefore employees' salary had been cut as a result. After he had listened to everyone of his employees who wished to speak, he started his speech. He admitted that he was responsible for the outcome, apologized sincerely, expressed his deepest appreciation to all his employees from his heart and then presented a plan to transform the situation for the future. His heart-felt expression of his responsibility about his failure was stunning. With applause by employees, trust was restored . This is unusual to witness in Japan where there is an extremely low tolerance for failure especially in the company. His leadership ability to be responsible for his failure, rather than hiding it or trying to make an excuse for it, restored trust with his employees.

Art: In true CTI fashion, we celebrate failure! If you think about systems—organizations, communities, political arenas—in which there is low tolerance for failure, what happens?

Over time, the operating principle becomes, “If you take risks and fail you will be knocked down, so keep your head down.” That is no way to lead, and true leadership does not come from that place. With that belief in place, people become risk-averse, cautious, and work hard to keep the status quo.

In our model, we believe that there must be a simultaneous focus on giving oneself “full permission”—meaning mustering the courage and will to take bold action—combined with being “responsible for impact.” Being responsible for impact does not mean being cautious or shrinking back; it means staying aware of the impact that one is having in each moment, and gauging action depending on the results you are getting. There is another important concept here which is “stay.” Leaders sometimes do swing out and fail or make mistakes and, they stay to respond to that impact, to correct course.

I believe that authentic self expression as a leader must include not only making mistakes, but creating spaces (teams, organizations, families, communities) where others are able to express themselves and step into leadership, too. That is what it’s all about. In my Leadership Program, participants quickly learn that there is room to swing WAY out...to take risks for the sake of their learning and growth.

How have you been able to practically apply your learning from taking the Leadership Program to make an impact in the world yourself?

Art: My leadership group was called the “Arrows” and it was about 10 years ago. As part of the program I did a project with a woman named Sonia, who was from Colombia, South America. Now it is ten years later, and Sonia and I are business partners running a Coaching and Leadership Development school in Bogota, Colombia, and we are beginning to do deep conflict resolution work with people in Colombia that have been victims or perpetrators of violence in the Colombian civil war that is still going on. Ten years ago I could never have imagined that I would be doing this type of work. Sonia and I are examples of participants in the Leadership Program who really committed ourselves to getting every bit of value we could from the program. We participated full out, and have been allies ever since. Like many things, you get out of the program what you put into it...but I can promise people with a very high degree of confidence that if they give themselves fully to the process, they can expect life-changing results.

Kyoko:  I took the program in 2001 and I must say that I am still impacted by the program and its impact is getting bigger and bigger even now. It was as if I received a life time inquiry by the program: “why are you here on this planet and what are you going to do now?” My answers to this inquiry have continued to shift and become more refined, as I evolve as a human being.

Through my journey, I came to know that I am here on this planet to evoke human memory, that one heart in harmony with the universe can light the world. My life time desire is to create the world peace where people connect with each other beyond cultures and languages, but first I believe that must start from a place of internal peace within us, with the realization of our oneness with the universe and its power. I believe that world peace will never be manifested without individuals making an effort to obtain internal peace first.

I have been holding peace circles in Japan to convey this message and support others to evoke their memories that they can have internal peace with a realization of their oneness with the universe. The community is growing.

As a leader of the Co-Active Leadership Program, what would you say to someone who’s procrastinating about whether to take the program of not?

Kyoko: Listen to your deepest truth in your soul. You were born on this planet to offer your gift at this time. The world is waiting for you. The time is now.

Art: This program is not for everyone all of the time. When people do not feel ready to commit themselves to a deep learning process, or do not believe they will be committed to doing the work, or are not experiencing a gut-level “hunger” for transformative growth in their lives, my guidance is that it may not be the right time. And, there is nothing wrong with that! We all have periods of time in our lives when we are on the edge and hungry for growth...when we have a sense that there is somewhere we want to get to, and we want a giant structure to help pull us forward...and, other times when we are not in a growth period. I find in my life that I have gone through cycles like this. I think that when people are ready for this, they know it deep down -- they have a sense of calling or yearning mixed with a bit of fear or excitement. For these people, I say...well, jump in...if not now, when? And, for others when it does not feel right, I say...wait until it feels like the time is right.

About Kyoko Seki
Kyoko brings the power of subtlety, intuition, and truth-telling to her work in training leaders around the world. Her approach is symbolized by the moon, always reflecting the brilliant light of others back to the world, while directly influencing strong tidal currents everywhere. From this, she passionately engages leaders in embracing their own light and shadow as they are, thus enabling them to bring their true gifts forth as leaders. Kyoko is a senior faculty member for CTI® Japan, where she has developed leaders and coaches since 2001. Prior to her engagement with CTI, Kyoko specialized in intercultural communication, conflict resolution and team building.

About Art Shirk
Art's playful blend of humor and deep respect for all that's entailed in 'being human' are at the heart of his work as a consultant and coach focused on putting transformative learning into action for individuals, teams and organizations. Art has worked as a leadership and organization development consultant at a range of organizations. He is a founding partner of Coaching Hall International based in Bogota, Colombia. Art earned his doctoral degree from Columbia University in 2006 from the Department of Organization and Leadership at Teachers College. His doctoral research focused on essential aspects of the Co-Active Leadership Program experience.