Idealization, death of idols, and rebirth: accompanying the regeneration of leaders and their organisations

The years I have spent coaching business leaders have often led me to the terrain of the shadows: that of our inconsistencies, our contradictions, our shortcomings; those aspects of ourselves that we prefer not to talk about, even to ourselves...


Working with the shadows has allowed me to discover that there are generally 3 people inside the leader sitting in front of me:


  1. The idealised leader: i.e. the idealised image that the person has of what a leader should be, of the behaviours and style that a leader should demonstrate. This idealised image is generally the receptacle of personal and systemic projections that the person has introjected: parental injunctions, then those of teachers and other authority figures, cultural injunctions, both national and organisational, so-called definitions of leadership which emphasise qualities that are generally heroic, and often superhuman. While the coachee often begins coaching with the desire that it will enable him/her to become this 'idealised leader', one of the purposes of coaching is to allow this unattainable representation to die, for as long as it is active, it will only stifle the unique being, unlike any other being, who seeks to embody his/her own style.


  1. Coaching must therefore strive to start from the real me in a leadership role: as a human being, promoted into this role, what am I really experiencing? What are the strengths I bring to my role, the energies and talents that are unique to me? But what are also my internal tensions, my ambivalences, my paradoxes? What are, therefore, my shadowy areas, and what scenarios from the past still govern them, what wounds, what unfulfilled needs of the child I was continue to live in the adult I have become...?


  1. Once the idealised leader is dead, and once the terrain of the real self has been worked on, coaching can then accompany the birth of the self that wants to be born in this role of leader... or not! Who am I, what is my deepest intention, what talents do I bring to the world - and how can I free myself from the idealised leader in order to imagine a new way of being fully myself, in a leadership role that I would take on in this new way, and not according to the old personal and systemic mental patterns that I had introjected. How to remain free enough, too, to realise that maybe being a leader (at least in this organisation) is not for me, that maybe it was more someone else's desire that I was trying to fulfil, and that it is in fact another role that I am called to?


As I have worked with many different organisations, I have found that this three-dimensional pattern generally applies very well to their situation.

One type of organisation among others is religious congregations which - as I have learned from coaching them - are often faced with issues very similar to those of other organisations with which we are perhaps more familiar: multinationals, SMEs, NGOs, etc. Issues of leadership, innovation, change management, conflict management, resistance, etc. One of the things that sets them apart is the enormous projections they are subjected to, both by the outside world and by their own members. And this is perhaps why this model applies particularly well to them, even though I have also tested it successfully in large companies, which are seeking, for example, to reinvent themselves.



  1. Indeed, one of the main obstacles to overcome for these religious congregations is the idealised Congregation: the receptacle of external projections of their so-called wisdom conveyed by numerous books, or by a collective unconscious that has perhaps never really freed itself from the clergy as bearers of supra-human, almost divine qualities. But also internal projections coming from the members of the Congregation themselves on their Charism, their Mission, on all the good that their congregation has done, and continues to do, in the world. When I meet a congregation for the first time, it is often this idealised congregation that they present to me: the greatness of their founding history, the fervour of their members in spreading - and therefore living - the Gospel, the Word of God, etc. At that moment, I feel them trapped in this straitjacket of projections, in which none of the problems they experience, and for which they ask me for help, can exist, can be explained, or even thought about - and therefore be resolved. Paradoxically, this virtuous, all-powerful image of themselves renders them powerless to act to transform the problematic situation in which they find themselves.


  1. My job is therefore to enable them to connect to their real congregation, i.e. to the lived experience of all the members of this congregation today; and to name its strengths, its energies, its talents, its achievements, but also its dysfunctions, its paradoxes and its shadow areas, born or maintained by problems of structures, of processes, but also and often first of all by an inadequate grasp of the role of member, and of the role of leader. Today, I realise how essential this passage through the shadow zones is, because it is what allows us to reduce the gap between the espoused theory and the theory-in-use (as described so well by Professors Argyris and Schön of MIT). And it is this passage through the shadows that also allows the death of the Idealized Congregation, and opens the space for something new to emerge.


  1. And in this “Paschal mystery” that follows the death of the idealised Congregation, we can then facilitate the emergence of the Congregation that seeks to be (re)born ... or to become something else. For some, it will be by revisiting their Purpose, their fundamental Mission, and adapting it to the realities of the 21st century that they will find new ways of living and working together, and of impacting the world - ways that are much more congruent with the needs of the world, their Charism, and their real capacities (no longer fantasised through their glory years) to act in this world. For others, they will realise that they are living in the dusk of their congregation, the challenge being to pass on their charism to lay people and to focus their energies on the challenge of making ageing their new missionary territory.



In my experience, this model can be applied to all kinds of organisations, except for start-ups, which, as the name suggests, are just born. But for any mature company, for any NGO with some success behind it, for any public service that has been able to fulfil its mission in the past, the obstacle is the same, which this model can help to overcome: what idealisation has been built up around our organisation, and its past glories, which today stifles our ability to reinvent and regenerate ourselves? By putting words to it together, and letting these idols die, you will find the path to your regeneration.

Leading Transformation: From a visionary leadership to a leadership of Co-Creation

I was in Rome the other day to facilitate a Leadership Training for the General Government of a religious congregation – the equivalent, in the religious world, of a CEO and his/her executive team.

Their request sat within a broader intention: to lead the transformation of their organisation, made up of some 6000 priests missioned over 5 continents, living in several hundred communities (the basic organisational unit) spread over some 70 countries.


Two key questions structured their intention:


  1. How can we engage the whole organisation in this transformation?
  2. How can this transformation be more than a restructuration, i.e. more than just closing down some existing realities, merging Provinces (the equivalent to geographical managerial units), or “simply” reallocating human and financial resources ?


In order to help them, I initially introduced them briefly to Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, and in particular the lesser known use of the U figure, the one suggesting that in order to go beyond restructuring and a reengineering of processes, one has to engage in the transformation of mental models, i.e. the way in which, consciously but more often unconsciously, we construct in our mind our organisational reality: the purpose of the organisation, the various roles, and the key relationships and processes that enable the organisation to function.


As the figure shows, it is only when we have made explicit our current mental models, and connected to our own Intention (what is the new that we want to generate?) that we can develop new mental models, which will lead to new processes and structures for the organisation.

The 3 phases of the other, better known use of the U model would still apply: in order to engage in transformation, the organisation will need to Sense the emerging reality (both internal and external), imagine a new way of engaging with it (Presencing), and then engage in Realising it.


Whilst these two U frames were helpful to situate at what level the transformation should happen, and the key phases of the process likely to generate it, a core question remained: what kind of leadership was requested of them to fulfil their Intention?


To answer that question, I presented to them the Leadership matrix that I have developed through engaging with many organisations in consulting to their organisational transformations.

This matrix is structured by 2 axis:


  • The horizontal axis is linked to time, and defines whether the leadership is primarily turned towards the past, or the future
  • The vertical axis is linked to the level of engagement of the organisation, i.e. whether the process intends to engage parts of the organisation, or the whole organisation



In my experience, most organisations still engage with change through Traditional Leadership. They entrust a small part of the organisation (the CEO, an executive team, or special project team) to think about what doesn’t work in the current way of functioning, and then to come up with solutions. The assumption here is that a small group of smart people who takes the time to really look into it will understand what is not working, and know how to fix it.

Unfortunately, Traditional Leadership has shown time and again that it doesn’t work! Here are a few reasons why:

  • It remains focussed on the past. Traditional Leadership doesn’t question the model itself (key structures/processes/roles, products, markets, image, business model, etc.), and whether it is still fit for purpose, but rather tries to fix and repair the recurrent dysfunctions, seeing them as unavoidable rather than symptoms. It does not, therefore, check whether the current way of functioning is adapted to what the future is likely to become (given internal and external trends), and whether it might actually be the very model that needs to evolve.
  • It does not access collective intelligence. Assuming that a small group of smart people knows best is not only erroneous, it is risky! The broader you can extend your net to capture what is really going on in the business, the more chance you have to understand and therefore react appropriately. Limiting your access to real data to a small group increases the risk of missing out key information
  • It does not access your biggest resource: the collective will. How many more “change management programmes” will we need to integrate the evidence from the field that if you don’t engage people in being authors of the evolutions, you will only ever manage to get a minority on board; the rest will either disengage (i.e. passively resist) or actively resist.


Given the shortfalls of Traditional Leadership, some organisations have tried different approaches.

Amongst them, Participative Leadership has displayed some promising features, primarily in engaging a much greater part of the organisation in exploring what changes may be necessary. As people are being consulted, their knowledge of the issues at stake, and the proposed solutions, increase, which then feeds into a greater sense of and desire for engagement. However, Participative Leadership too is problematic:


  • It often remains turned towards the past, i.e. exploring possible changes to be made rather than the transformation that is required (as in Traditional Leadership)
  • The core analysis, and the core solutions-building, are often still left to a few, the participative dimension of the process being synonymous here of consultation, rather then co-creation.
  • As the responsibility and authority for analysis and solution finding is not distributed, commitment based on a sense of shared meaning and authorship tends to fade away relatively quickly, pointing to the low level of resilience of such processes


Another way of avoiding the pitfalls of Traditional Leadership is to engage in Visionary Leadership. In this approach, the focus is clearly on the Future: what is the future that we are likely to encounter? What is our current level of resources, and our mode of operating, and can we, as we are, really embrace the future or do we need to evolve? Are our products, or is our Mission, adapted for this emerging Future? Are they what this Future calls for?

In the 21st century, these are leadership questions every organisation needs to ask itself, and explore in truth: looking at what is, not just at what we wish to see.

In that way, a Visionary Leader, or a Visionary Leadership team, are clearly going in the right direction: looking at the future, and trying to prepare the organisation for it.

However, Visionary Leadership does display some major shortfalls too:


  • Too few involved: as in Traditional Leadership, handing the Visionary task to a few only limits access to data and creativity in solutions.
  • Resistance more than engagement: once the visionary person or team has identified what needs to evolve, it then has the task to engage the rest of the organisation into implementing the transformation. But most of the organisation has not had a chance to connect to what the Future may be, and therefore how we might need to evolve. Their sense-making of why we must change, and of what changes are needed, is therefore very limited. As a result, they will not be able to espouse the proposed changes just like that. A great amount of time and energy will therefore be needed to either convince them, or, if all fails, to coax them into implementing the changes. In either cases, even if the small group had come up with great ideas, their implementation may prove to be inefficient, and the process itself to have low positive impacts
  • Low organisational resilience: when only one person, or a small group, is engaged in exploring the future and proposing necessary evolutions, what happens to the organisation when they leave? Whilst Visionary Leadership may produce highly innovative ideas and strategies for the future, it fails in delivering one key elements needed to embrace this future: the capacity of the organisation as a whole to implement it quickly and efficiently, over time.


The fourth type of leadership in this matrix is the one that, at the beginning of this 21st century, holds most potential for organisations. Indeed, Leadership of Co-Creation holds on to both of the 2 key parameters:


  • It looks wholeheartedly at the future, anchoring the organisational conversations in an exploration of what the future may be, and therefore will require of the organisation
  • It engages the whole organisation in doing so. One of the key features of the leadership of Co-Creation is the transformation of the very perception of what the role of the leader is. Here, the central role of leadership is to provide and sustain the conditions in which the whole organisation can engage in a truthful exploration of what the future is likely to include, and take responsibility for proposing and implementing the solutions that seem most conducive to the organisation fulfilling its purpose in this emerging future.


Whilst the Leadership of Co-Creation manages to deliver a transformation that makes sense to all parties involved, and not just parts of the organisation, it does not equate to some kind of enlarged, referendum-based democratic process. Nor does it require the dissolution of traditional roles of authority and decision-making. To the contrary, existing roles are very often crucial to the success of a Co-Creation transformation process; what is transformed, however, is not the role, but the way it is taken; not the role itself, but the mental representation held so far in the psyche of the organisation of what the role is. For example:


  • At the heart of a process of co-creation, everyone is involved in making sense of the strengths and limits of the current model, from their own experience in their role, in their part of the organisation. Connecting to future trends in and around the business, everyone is then involved in imagining what transformation may prove vital for the organisation. Those in leadership roles bring their own perspectives, from their role, in order to contribute to the collective sense-making. Their decisions will then be based on the collective sense-making, not on the partial views they inevitably had at the beginning of the process
  • They are accountable for the decisions they will take; those are based on proposals generated by the collective, which the process invites to be responsible – and accountable – for the solutions it offers. This mutual accountability means that the main task of leadership is no longer to convince, or “sell” good solutions – but to ensure that the conditions are not only conducive for people to be co-authors, but also for them to feel responsible and accountable for its outcome
  • Co-Creation doesn’t mean putting everyone in a big room for huge collective discussions – even though such social technologies as World Café or Open Space can make this possible. It means, however, a constant transformation of how leaders engage with their teams; a change in disposition in which the leader’s task transforms into ensuring that others create solutions, rather than be recipients of them.


Once I presented this matrix to the General Government of that congregation, they were able to name the kind of process, and of leadership, that they wanted to engage in: Co-Creation.


All we needed to do then was to look in more details at how they could do this ...

Leadership, forgiveness, regeneration

"Forgiveness liberates the soul, eliminates fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon." Nelson Mandela

I returned today from a 4-day workshop, "Mon Leadership Incarné", in which I accompanied a group of women to discover themselves and their leadership, through work on the body, cognition, emotions but also the spirit, in immersion in nature.

During the workshop each participant explores herself, in relation to her own roles and the organisations and communities to which she belongs, in connection with the external context. The aim is to be able to connect to her source of energy, how it manifests itself in the world (behaviours) and the impacts she actually produces, in order to work on her empowerment.

The lab starts with a reflection on one's professional and personal history, on the motivations behind the ups and downs, and continues with work on several levels (body, spirit, emotions), on one's present and on how one manages to take one's leadership more or less effectively. An opening on the future is then proposed through a very deep exercise of discernment around a question, a problem, a situation, a decision that the person has to take, ending with a day of grounding through a kit of different tools. With regard to this group of women, what struck me about this workshop was the emergence of a common issue, which I feel is very close to me personally at the moment, the subject of forgiveness.

One of the participants, whom I will call Sara, told the following story during the first sessions of the workshop, dedicated to the re-reading of the past starting from the present. About five years ago her organisation decided on a significant transformation of its governance and processes, which impacted her role not necessarily in the direction she had hoped, pushing her to change country, have to learn a new language and take on responsibilities she did not necessarily consider in her development trajectory. She adapted to the demands at the time and is now in a situation she enjoys, doing activities that make her feel aligned with both her organisational and personal purpose. During the workshop, in particular during this first phase of review, something from the past resurfaced and she realised that it is as if a knot of resentment and rumination accompanied her and was still present for her, preventing her from feeling fully satisfied, fulfilled and able to use her full potential. The important insight she had is that this knot concerns the change in the past, not so much in its content and consequences for her, but in the way it was handled by her boss at the time. Sara's problem is that she feels that the communication of this change was done in a violent, bureaucratic way, without any empathy or respect for the consequences it would have on her personal and professional life. A communication that took place in a meagre, quick way, with no possibility of reply; with not much room for negotiation: what she would have liked was to be heard by her manager, to be able to at least tell her how heavy the decision taken was for her. If we analyse this story there are some key elements that emerge:

- The fact of not being able to find a space for dialogue in the past produces in Sara a resentment that does not go away, a rumination that continues over the years; I think that many and many of us will be able to recognise this feeling: we relive our anger by thinking back to that thing that someone did causing our suffering.

- Time has not healed anything, indeed in the present moment the wound is reopened and the pain felt is intact, the burden continues to be present and carried;

- The pain came, in the past, from the perceived lack of empathy with the decision that had been made (much less from the decision itself, which turned out to be good for Sara). No attempt at dialogue was undertaken, Sara was very angry and sad about this behaviour to the extent that she did not consider opening a space for conversation with her manager;

- Her judgement on how she was treated in the past did not change, the behaviour of the person in charge is still experienced as unjust; Sara does not justify what happened, does not deny its seriousness or minimise it;

During the workshop Sara had a very powerful insight into the fact that this past episode is preventing her in the present from taking pleasure in taking leadership in her current role. Having had a negative role model she fears repeating mistakes and is unable to take full ownership of her role, which now actually requires her to feel responsibility, to inspire, to feel connected to others. During one of the debriefing moments the group suggested the word "forgiveness" and her face lit up. Has the process of "letting go" begun?

Forgiveness starts with a decision to process anger towards another person who has deliberately done something unjust or harmful against us. To say that it starts with a decision is not to say that it is only cognitive. Sara had already tried rationally to see the reasons for her manager's actions and to tell herself that it was not serious after all. What had not happened until now was the passage through what in U-theory is the opening of the heart, which is essential for "letting go" to take place.

Forgiveness does not mean denying or worse ending up approving or excusing what has been done to us, which will always remain, the past cannot be changed. Instead, it means recognising and accepting that someone has caused us pain, suffering, produced a wound. And that we can let go of this pain, suffering, wound, because the weight we are carrying invades our space of creativity, vitality, energy.

Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation, indeed this idea can rightly distance us from forgiving. For the space of reconciliation to open up, the other party must also recognise that he or she has hurt us; reconciliation is sometimes not possible, the other person may be dead (I am thinking of forgiving family situations that have caused us wounds that are difficult to heal) or may not have changed and still be a threat to us.

Forgiveness, on the other hand, means opening up a space to be able to bring the other party inside, a space of empathy in which, without apologizing, we are able to transform the negative feelings we have experienced, letting go of the burden we have carried, accepting to run the risk that in relationships we can make mistakes.

Sara couldn't give herself permission to take her leadership in her current role. I don't know what she will do in the near future, although her clear intention coming out of the workshop is to have a clarifying conversation, not necessarily a reconciling one, (forgiveness can be 'one way') to let go of the past, making way for a future in which she and the people around her can regenerate their relationships, allowing life to flow again within the group.


Bernard Tapie, the collective imagination, and regeneration

In France, a remarkable man has just died. His name was Bernard Tapie. For decades, he marked the collective imagination of the French; loved or hated, he embodied for many of them the symbol of the 'self-made man', the living example of the businessman who fights, who has the rage to win, and who succeeds in some very nice moves.

Bernard Tapie is a bit like our local Steve Jobs or Elon Musk: a 'boss' who is held up as an example, the one through whom success comes. He is the embodiment of "where there is a will, there is a way", the example cited in leadership training courses because, according to fashionable theories, he has all the assets of a leader: charisma, determination, lack of scruples when it comes to making important decisions, etc.


Let's leave the man aside and look at what this image of Bernard Tapie - like that of Steve Jobs or Elon Musk - reveals about our collective imagination:


  1. That the archetype of the leader remains, above all, male. When we accompany our clients, or when we train the leaders of tomorrow at ESSEC Business School, we often introduce the following question at the beginning of the workshop: who are the 3 people who most embody what leadership means to you? More than 90% of the answers, given by women as well as men, are men's names...
  2. That this leader is alone. Alone against all, against all odds, overcoming adversity by himself. Alone in driving what will ultimately make the difference (an idea for new markets, new products, new conquests...). In our collective imagination, Tapie, like Jobs and Musk, have no team, no partner
  3. That to lead means to conquer
  4. And that it is this leader, a man, alone and conquering, who will shape our destiny - for good or bad


There are many ways of deconstructing all these fantasies about what a leader is, but precisely because they are fantasies, and therefore deeply rooted in an emotional, even visceral part of ourselves, it is not by reasoning that we will succeed.


Allow me therefore to propose another approach, better adapted to the times ahead. An approach based on an intuition, on a 'leap of faith' of sorts: if we want to avoid that a biospheric (i.e. climate AND biodiversity) change comes and puts an end to the viability of the human species on this planet, we will have to learn to function like Nature, and not against Nature.


And how does Nature work, in terms of leadership? Well, imagine yourself in a 100-year-old forest: there are trees, bushes, plants; a stream that feeds not only all these plants, but also the animals and insects that have come to live there. Each element has not just one, but several functions that are beneficial to the whole ecosystem: the tree captures CO2, regulates the temperature, structures the soil and retains water in it, nourishes the soil when it sheds leaves or branches or when it dies...


Where is the leader in the forest? There is none.


In the forest, one is never alone. You don't conquer anything, except perhaps the space in which you can flourish. We exist because of others, who themselves exist because of us, entangled as we are in a complex web that weaves our common destiny.


If there is any leadership in the forest, it is that of initiating my contribution to the ecosystem, the one that will allow others to do the same, and thus launch a series of virtuous circles that, as Janine Benyus so aptly puts it, will allow life to create the conditions for more life.


If we want to transform our impact on this earth, if we want to move from a predatory, extractive economy to a regenerative one, then the first step will be to regenerate our own mental models about the kind of leadership we need to get us there.

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have got it all wrong

We are at a crucial point in the history of humanity. We know what the problem is: our human activities, since the start of the industrial revolution, have increasingly degraded our living environments, which has led to climate change (global warming, more frequent and more violent hurricanes, flooding, extreme forest fires…) and to the erosion of biodiversity around the world.

We also know what the solutions will need to look like, will need to involve: starting from now, and into the future, our human activities will need to work in symbiosis with natural ecosystems, rather than against them. In fact, given the breadth of our impact on Nature so far, our human activities will need to do more than that; more than preserve Nature, more than being “sustainable”: they will also need, to some extent, to contribute to restoring some of the natural capital that we have spent, some of the ecosystems that we have eroded even though we, humans, depend on them for our own survival.

Our human activities will therefore need to be REGENERATIVE.

The task at hand may seem daunting, impossible. The scope of the transformations required may feel so overwhelming that it might be easier to minimise the actual problem, or to seek an escape from it, however wild they may sound, i.e. flying to Mars and start a new human colony there.

In the early 60s, when JFK set the aim of landing a man on the Moon, everyone thought it would be impossible. Yet his Intention galvanised his country, and soon

many efforts converged from all sorts of fields to engage in an unprecedented display of collective intelligence, leading to Neil Armstrong’s moon-landing in 1969.

Today, we’re at such a “Moon moment”. Yet Bezos, Musk et al. have it all wrong. The star we need to reach for is not out there, external to us. It is inside of us. We need to pull together and be creative in order to transform what we produce and how we produce it – rather than build spaceships in order to continue producing what we’ve always produced just so that we can take it with us to another planet.

As humans, we have great, renewable energies inside of us: intelligence, creativity, solidarity, empathy, a capacity to collaborate with others, etc. It is time we apply those to meet the greatest challenge humanity has to face, and discover how we can, together, transform our businesses into regenerative businesses.

And for that, there is good news: some regenerative businesses already exist and are having beneficial impact, combining value creation with the restoration of natural ecosystems.

So stay tuned, for we, Nexus, are going on a journey around the world to meet them and discover what they do and how they do it, and we will be sharing those stories with you so that more and more people can be inspired by these examples.

Soon, a critical mass of businesses will start shifting towards becoming regenerative and, suddenly, that inner Moon we are seeking won’t feel out of reach after all.