In search of happiness?

During a coaching session, my coachee's request fell like a sentence: I am looking to be happier.

What makes people happy is happiness. But what is happiness? Luck (the good luck charm) or the state of fully satisfied consciousness.

There are countless quotes on happiness:

"Happiness, wrote Roger Martin du Gard, is not a cup of coffee that you get, it is above all an aptitude".

Arthur Schopenhauer defined happiness by its absence, writing that

"the happiest part of our existence is the part where we feel it least."

It would therefore be something we seek but would not be aware of when we have it.

This search for happiness would ultimately take us away from the heart of our life, from its very essence.

For the last thirty years, happiness has been associated with a certain material enjoyment: the individual house, the individual car... One of the classic images is the American house of Victorian architecture with the driveway adorned on each side with a well-mown green lawn in front of which is parked a large and comfortable car. The famous Victoria Lane from Desperate Housewives is an example.

Happiness is also about feeling good, about feeling comfortable in one's body, in one's mind, about having a balanced life. The development of the practice of well-being disciplines such as yoga and its derivatives is a witness to this.

But is the material, physical and mental self-fulfillment enough to be happy?

Certainly, satisfying one's desires and personal satisfaction is a condition of happiness.

However, there are several forms of desires:

- those which are dictated to us more or less consciously by our education, by society, by advertisements, by our mental representations;

- those that emanate from our innermost being.

What are my true desires? Or rather what is my deepest desire? This seems to be the fundamental question to ask ourselves, which can also be formulated as follows:

Is my desire the result of a diktat or does it emanate from my deepest being?

Am I in coherence, aligned with my ultimate purpose, my own identity, my values and my beliefs as represented by Robert Dilts in his pyramid?

This is where the importance of being free, truly free, comes into play. Freedom, more than being able to satisfy those desires, is being able to identify those true desires that are aligned with our deepest and most fundamental self. To open this self to express itself freely without constraint.

To achieve this, we must act against our ego.

Happiness would therefore be to be able to make room for our deepest self, the one that allows us to enter into relationship with otherness, and more broadly with the Nous, that is to say the community that surrounds us.

Coming back to my coachee's request to be happier, the question could be: how can I make more room for myself and thus curb my ego?

So I ask him to specify what it is to be happy for him. What does he need for that?

To be happy for him is to feel good, to experience joy, to be in a feeling of fullness and accomplishment of what he is made for.

So I ask him what he is made for?

He answers that he doesn't know, that he has never really thought about it.

Of course, he is a teacher, but that doesn't mean that he is "made" for it. Before being a teacher, he was something else and will certainly be something else afterwards. This question of "what is he made for?" seems to go beyond the simple professional vocation. What is the meaning of his life? Why is he on Earth? What trace will he leave?

Step by step, we moved from "being happy is feeling good" to this question of the deepest self: Who am I called to be, apart from the injunctions I may have received from my parents, my entourage, society, etc.?

He became aware that, in order to be happier, he had to answer this question, in complete freedom, without being attached to what is superficial and temporal, without letting himself be influenced.

I ask him how this awareness will be useful to him in the future?

He answers that he will take the time to identify the criteria that push him to make this or that choice, to be more attentive to his motivations in order to be able to verify if they are in coherence with what he is fundamentally.

To conclude, I ask him about the needs he would have to ensure that he puts this time of discernment in place and does not get caught up by external diktats.

He quickly identifies the need to have a clear warning signal as soon as he risks straying from his self.

As soon as he notices a rush to make up his mind, to want something at any cost, it's a sign! It is then urgent to choose nothing; it is time to tame this first impulse, especially if it is ardent, and to consider all the options while being attentive to what they generate in oneself: a deep and lasting joy or a short-lived and quickly thirsty desire.

This is how, step by step, he will detach himself from that which distances him from what he was made for, from his first vocation, in short, and his life will take on more meaning.

Owning Our part

Owning our part: from denial-based business to a regenerative economy - Part 3

Denial is being challenged

In her wonderful paper, the renowned systems-thinker Donella Meadows (1999) explains how, on a housing estate in the US, where houses were more or less identical, the electricity consumption was 30% lower in a particular block, compared to the surrounding blocks. Whilst insulation, number of appliances, cost of electricity, etc., were all the same, the only difference was the positioning of the meter: in the entrance hall for those houses that used less electricity, but in the basement in the other houses. Passing in front of it and therefore having constant access to its information is what made the difference. Any unusually high activity could be noticed quickly, its root cause found, and corrective action taken. In that way, the positioning of the meter brings “information to places where it wasn’t going before, therefore causing people to behave differently”.

Today, humanity too has access to information that it never had before. Beyond the traditional media, we have new broadcasters of raw and unfiltered information: the IPCC for Climate Change, but also Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, the Panama leaks, etc. Moreover, we now bathe in a platform that spreads and connects all this information in an instant: the Web.

In that context, we are flooded with evidence of the consequences of our actions, and of the interconnections between what we do here and the impact it has there—and in turn, back here.

This flood of information could exacerbate our individual and societal denial and disowning, or, as the electric meter does for those households, it could give us the impetus for transformative action.


From denial-based business to a regenerative economy

This transformative action would require us, to quote Lawrence again, to move into the depressive position, where we “shift in primary concern from the survival of the self to a concern for the object upon which the individual depends”. Whilst Lawrence refers here to an intra-psychic dynamic, we could extend his argument to the organisational and social levels: shifting our primary concern from the survival of our business to a concern for the objects upon which our business, and indeed ourselves, depend: the natural ecosystems, and the socio-systems they harbour.

It entails shedding the blind-spots that keep us in the “false world”, and mentally and wholeheartedly inhabiting the “true world”, where outcomes (and no longer just outputs) become our orienting principles, where the direct and indirect impacts of our activities are no longer relegated as externalities, but come back to the centre of our strategic decision-making.

This is what the regenerative economy is about: taking up roles in organisations that can generate personal prosperity, system prosperity, and, last but not least, ecosystem prosperity—all at the same time, without one being ignored at the expense of the other two. Figure 2 outlines what it would look like.

leadership trough purpose

Returning to the diagram that we presented earlier on in this article (Figure 1), this means entering the space of “leadership through purpose”: that is, a space in which I mobilise the System I work in to produce an impact in the world that is congruent with the world in which I want to live (and want my grandchildren to be able to live in).

For many, this may take the form, as it did for Michael, of quitting “the old” to foster “the new”, for instance, leaving a twentieth century organisation in order to set up a smaller company, organised from the outset around a clear purpose of having a positive impact in the world. We can’t know yet just how much this trend will spread, but given the level of unpredictability that is characteristic of our current era, we could imagine a future where big dinosaur companies crumble down and disappear, whilst alongside them, new, purpose-led organisations sprout and grow to replace this outdated business ecosystem.

However, for many this may not be an option, and the question can only be framed around: “how can I lead through purpose within my existing organisation?”.

In many organisations, this is possible through bringing more data from the field and engaging the key decision-makers around those data. However, in order to get them there, guilt and shame (that one will most likely feel in realising the part one has played) will need to be contained, so that it does not flood people and induce regression.

Our experience in working with businesses is that this requires a different approach to the one used in group relations conferences or in psychotherapy: for instance, since directly naming those feelings would likely drive more defence mechanisms around them, it would be more productive to enter the transitional space of play by setting up an offsite meeting exploring together possible futures.

Once the “sensing” (see Scharmer, 2013) of the Context and the System is achieved collectively, you can move to pointing together the limits of the current model, stressing what cannot continue into the future if we want to maintain the financial health of the company and, at the same time, contribute to a world that meets our needs, expectations, and requirements and those of the generations to come.

The time will then be ripe to engage the group in imagining desirable futures, accessing their playfulness, imagination, and creativity to solve the basic equation of the regenerative economy: what would it look like for our company to manage to boost its own prosperity, that of its employees, and at the same time contribute to the prosperity of our ecosystems? What would we stop doing, what would we start doing, and what would we do differently?

Fundamentally, rather than just pointing to what has been wrong in the past (which will only exacerbate guilt and shame, and its associated defence mechanisms), one has to bring those decision-makers to create stories of possible and desirable futures that will stimulate their desire to engage in the necessary transformation. This is the philosophical underpinning of the blockbuster documentary Demain in 201510: don’t engage people through guilt, shame, and fear about the state of the Earth, but rather with optimism, hope, imagination, and creativity.

Actions, therefore, will not be driven by a concern for reparation, that is, mending the broken for which we feel so guilty and ashamed. Rather, they will unfold in a spirit of regeneration, for instance, enabling life to push through and develop the conditions for more life11.

In some organisations, a different approach is possible, mainly because they have reached a new level of maturity, becoming what Frédéric Laloux (2014), in his groundbreaking book Reinventing Organizations, calls Teal organisations. According to Laloux, Teal organisations enact an emerging paradigm for the twenty-first century, and they thrive in terms of business, because of three pillars around which they function: self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose.

In this particular conceptual framework, wholeness means the capacity (and the freedom) to bring the whole of yourself to work—something Michael could not do in his pharmaceuticals company. This in turn links with the concept of evolutionary purpose, that is, the impact an organisation is here to generate in its ecosystem. According to Laloux, companies thrive when people, who can be fully themselves at work, self-manage, to sense and respond to the opportunities and threats in their context according to the evolutionary purpose of the organisation that they are employed to enact. In doing so, Laloux notes, people naturally develop an awareness of the impact of their activities on the world around them, and a motivation to reduce negative impact and foster positive impact.

These new models of organisations, along with the whole movement of “liberating leadership” (Carney & Getz, 2009), are gaining a lot of traction in the business world. One way to engage your organisation in transformation could therefore be to start a process of transforming into a Teal/liberated organisation.



Owning our part can be daunting, as it requires facing the guilt and shame of having contributed to co-creating a world that is not so healthy to live in. For those of us who are used to holding a space for those feelings to be named, and worked through, a new approach may be required, if we want to help people past the fear of entering such a space.

In this new approach, imagination, and creativity, together with a commitment to working with the data from the field, can help first create a safe container called “desirable future”, that then serves to help us access our competent selves and navigate this transitional space. Only then, and at their own pace, will these feelings find a voice to be spoken, and our owning them will fuel the drive for regeneration.


Il purpose come modo per superare la scissione

Owning our part: from denial-based business to a regenerative economy - Part 2

Purpose as a way of working through this splitting


Figure 1, adapted from the work of the Grubb Institute1, can help us understand what is at work in Michael’s experience.

In that framework, Michael (a Person) works in a pharmaceuticals organisation (a System) that has an impact in the world (the Context). Through his actions, Michael contributes to co-creating an organisation that, in turns, contributes to co-creating the world. As a Person, Michael lives in this world, and indeed dreams of a world in which he would like to live—a world that he would like to improve, in which one could find more health, more well-being, more happiness. Twelve years ago, he had in fact joined an organisation to fulfil its stated purpose (to improve world’s health) because it was coherent with his own intention for the world.

For all those years, however, the world he wanted to live in was the antithesis of the world his company was contributing to co-create. At a conscious level, Michael was not aware of this. Personal and societal defence mechanisms (such as filtering data, blocking out certain questions, refusing to venture into certain conversations, etc.) helped him stay disconnected from this “true world”, enabling him to operate in a “false world” in which the world he lived in was not the result, in part, of the outputs of his company.

In other words, in order to live in that reality and remain sane, Michael had to unconsciously operate a clear split, within himself, of these two worlds. Engaging with NGOs, with church groups and other solidarity initiatives in his private life; and applying his talents to branding new molecules for his company in his professional life.

Where he found true purpose in his private life, this was absent from his professional life. Worse, the formal purpose claimed by his company as a mission statement (solving the world’s greatest health challenges) proved highly disconnected from the enacted one2 (finding lucrative markets for molecules they developed).

In Figure 1, where the three circles meet is the place where one can lead with Purpose, for instance, mobilise the System to enact a purpose that has an impact in the world congruent with the kind of world one intends to live in. From his position, Michael felt it impossible to access such a leadership space, and chose to stop contributing to co-create a System whose enacted purpose ran against his own. So he left to launch a business (a new System) in which his personal and professional purposes could integrate into one. Just as Dubouloy describes the shift from “false self” to “true self”, we coin here the idea that Michael’s decision was an enactment of his intention to move out of a “false world” and into a “true world”.

From individual to collective denial: the role of organisational defence mechanisms

The denial, defence, and splitting dynamics explored above in detail are damaging for self, and, one could argue, damaging for the world too. For many, whether they work in the business world or simply comment on it, there is a perception though that, however regrettable this may be, this kind of consideration about the impact of our activities on the world doesn’t have its place in business, where, after all, all that should matter is “what is good for business”—the rest being just externalities. So as long as the business grows, all is good, or so they would like us to believe—thus laying the foundations for collective denial and disowning.

Part of the tragedy, beyond the degrading impacts of those activities on our living ecosystems, is that, from even a business perspective, there could not be greater misconception. Any business (System), in order to thrive, has to continuously monitor the world in which it evolves (Context), and anticipate where it is heading in order to modulate its responses to that emerging world—rather than trying to filter out external reality in order to continue on its path of producing the kind of responses it has always had.

To frame it through psychodynamic language, building defences against anxiety can be functional up to a certain point, but never actually resolves the anxiety itself, nor its source. Psychological maturation is what will help work through the anxiety, by addressing the issues that generate it in the first place. But by leading us to believe that “all that should matter is what is good for business”, a societal denial can be sustained by a collective narrative that then makes it very hard to get to the reality of the world we are creating (the “true world”), constantly “selling” us a “false world” which, even if analysed within a business paradigm, would fail its own test.

An illustration of this can be found with the former businessman and now President of the USA, and the huge walls he is attempting to erect. Whilst the most publicised amongst those is the phantasmagorical erection of a wall between the USA and Mexico, another one, more subtle, is already at work: the psychic wall between what the evidence-based science says about climate change, and the policies he is driving through Congress. Whilst those may (or may not) yield temporary success for business, they will certainly increase the rise in sea levels along the coasts (Miami is already facing huge challenges), droughts and wildfires in California, and soil depletion and soil toxicity throughout the land, to name but a few. At this rate, America in fifteen to twenty years time will not be a place in which business can prosper because there won’t be any customers—so busy will they be at trying to survive the conditions they’ll be swamped in.

Denial of climate change is also coming at a high cost for those very industries we might have thought could gain the most out of this denial: the fossil fuel industry. Throughout the world, the first hit seems to be the coal companies, where several of the top players are facing bankruptcy. As the divesting movement has gained traction, and the COP 21 Paris agreement has prompted more and more countries and financial institutions to stop funding coal (an estimated six trillion dollars have been divested so far3), the industry was not able to react quickly enough. Their business model relied on the world using coal, and doing so at a growing rate.

As the evidence mounted of the impact of CO2 on the rise in temperatures, undoubtedly many of those working in the coal industry (unconsciously) experienced an inner split between securing an income for their family today and creating a perilous future in which to live for those very children they were happy to be able to feed today. This splitting necessitates psychic defences in order to last, meaning that at an individual level, rationalising, leaving out data, cutting out feelings, etc., are used to sustain this disconnection from an otherwise unbearable reality.

But beyond these individual splitting processes—and indeed, perhaps even driven by them—it is a true organisational defence system that was created in order to keep the business going4. At its core, it involves creating a culture that leaves out data that challenges the status quo, promotes those who reinforce the dominant story and excludes (through intimidation and/or sacking) those who speak up for alternatives. We see here similar dynamics to those analysed by Amy Fraher (2005) in the cockpit of planes involved in crashes—leading here, for this matter, to the crash of the organisation itself.

Next on the list, unless they react quickly, are the oil companies. Where coal has been used primarily for generating electricity, and can therefore be replaced more and more by nuclear or renewable energies, petrol has gained a reprieve, since it is still greatly needed for transport, food, and building, to name but a few. However, financial institutions are already evaluating the risk of “stranded assets”, that is, being left with assets invested in oil firms that have lost a lot of their value, and are likely to drive a similar turn in the market to the one that has prompted the fall of the coal industry. The risk thus is growing of financial institutions massively divesting from oil companies. What then is keeping oil companies entrenched in this deathly scenario?

Activities vs purpose: mistaking the “what & how” with the “why”

Denial and splitting in the fossil fuel industry are defence mechanisms probably engineered to protect from at least two sources of overwhelming affect: guilt and shame on the one hand (we will explore these later in this article), and an anxiety at the prospect of imminent death on the other, built on a phantasy that in a 2° world5, these companies are destined to die. As a defence against the overwhelming anxiety generated by the prospect of dying, a lot of work and energy is spent trying to continue to exist in the same form (business as usual), even at the cost of bringing the whole ship into a crash.

This, I believe, is because those companies have over-identified with their “what & how” (their outputs), rather than connected to their deep “why” (their outcomes) in order to continuously reinvent themselves. As Simon Sinek (2009) suggests in his theory of the golden circles, true leadership stems from organising around the “why”, not around the “how” and “what”. Yet oil companies are now suffering from having defined their existence around their product (oil), suggesting that they exist in order to bring oil to people and society—rather than clarifying what purpose this oil is meant to serve in society.

Let’s imagine though that oil companies had spelt out that their vision is a world where man can travel, work, produce food, and build cities in ways and speed that he never was able to achieve before, and that their purpose was to provide people and society with cheap energy to help achieve that vision.

For over a century, they used cheap oil to do this. But as evidence mounts that their actions contribute to pollution-induced illness and death, and to global warming (i.e., damaging the Context), they can now re-evaluate their activities (i.e., operations within the System, not the System itself) in order to find another cheap energy to fulfil their vision. Turning to renewables becomes a radical change in strategy, for instance, a spectacular change of product but also a return to the roots of the organisation’s purpose (the etymology of “radical” is the Latin for “root”).

Unfortunately, without that vision, any attempt to switch from oil to renewable is experienced as a betrayal, as an attempt to kill the original business. This paranoid phantasy serves to reinforce the defences and, paradoxically, brings the organisation to a quicker death: whilst giving us a false sense of reprieve in the short term, denial ends up, in the long run, failing to save us from the death that the real problem (if left unaddressed) will inevitably bring. Refusing to explore the “why” and staying focused on the “what & how” comes at a high price.

Another case in point is the French electricity industry. Despite starting with a loose definition of its product (electricity), it gradually evolved towards being a single-product company, with nuclear energy representing about three quarters of its production. At the time, it enabled France to develop some level of independence in terms of energy sourcing, in particular at the time of the petrol crisis in the 1970s (a good example of a System adapting to threats coming from its Context).

Its internal organisation, however—its culture, its beliefs—became suffused with the dogma of nuclear energy. And what was once a strength, is now turning into a huge liability, both financial and environmental. As the cost of maintenance and dismantling is being re-evaluated, it is becoming clear that it has greatly underestimated the cost of its operations. But, as a prisoner of its own model, it is still, for example, trying to develop a nuclear plant in the UK, despite evidence that this will worsen its financial situation.

A recent government-sponsored study is even suggesting that France should continue to build nuclear reactors at the rate of six per decade6 if it wants to retain its knowledge and skills about nuclear technology, even though an increasing number of business analysts are confirming that “nuclear is dead”7.

And as if all this wasn’t enough, increased scrutiny is being applied to the safety of European nuclear plants following the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and is bringing evidence that older plants are at greater risks of facility breakdown; in the words of a key player in the industry, “Europe is now at increased risk of a nuclear disaster”8.

Yet what is happening to mitigate these financial and environmental risks? Not much. As the industry has over identified with nuclear as its raison d’être (thus mistaking outputs for outcomes) and organised a rigid system to crystallise it9, it is now trapped in a super-egoistic story that fails to include evidences from the reality principle. In his article “Turning a blind eye, the psychoanalyst John Steiner (1985) explains how, in Sophocle’s Oedipus tragedy, the choir, from the onset, speaks the truth to the protagonists and to the spectators, but it is as if everyone is choosing to turn a blind eye—to pretend that they don’t know. Oedipus’ own blinding at the end of the tragedy is an acting-out of this process of continuing to not want to face the reality that we know we have contributed to co-create.

So why do we continue to turn a blind eye? What is the function of this dysfunctional behaviour? Undoubtedly it must help protect us from the overwhelming anxiety of having created a situation that we know will lead us to catastrophe, but that we’re not sure we know how to get out of. But more importantly perhaps, looking at what we contributed to co-create and owning our part would certainly unleash in us a great sense of guilt and shame, so powerful that we may fear being unable to survive them.

However, as Gordon Lawrence (2005) puts it in his paper “Totalitarian states of mind in institutions”, “the paradox is that this kind of social defence against psychotic anxiety and, of course, thinking, encourages the conditions for the very psychosis that is feared to erupt.”

Denial, splitting, and defending have had a useful developmental role—but now they are threats to our very survival, as they keep us locked into creating a world that we know, unconsciously but also consciously, is not conducive for more life.


Ownership sul nostro contributo: da un economia basata sulla negazione a un'economia rigenerativa

Owning our part: from denial-based business to a regenerative economy

Article published on “Organizational and Social Dynamics”


In this article, we explore a core set of organisational and social dynamics at work in the business world: the denial and disowning of the part we play in co-creating the world we live in; and the splitting needed to protect us from the guilt and shame that owning our part would unleash. We begin with exploring the Winnicottian splitting between the “false self” and the “true self”.

We then venture into new territories, by exploring the denial, disowning, and splitting that is needed in the “business as usual” economy to keep business going and avoid acknowledging its degrading impacts on social and ecosystems, creating, to paraphrase Winnicott, a split between a “false world” and a “true world”.

Mainstream organisations have tended to structure this splitting formally through organisational defences, but are now at risk of being flooded with their split off parts. We then ask ourselves what can be done to start addressing our impact truthfully, and contribute to a shift from a degrading economy to a regenerative economy. The importance of containing and working through the guilt and shame that this might generate is explored, as well as the notions of purpose and purposeful leadership.


Keywords: systems psychodynamics, social systems, organisational change, leadership, defences.


On a recent radio programme, a leading French environmentalist summed it all up: “I think it’s better to drive your old diesel car to work if you work on an organic farm than to feel proud of cycling to work when actually you work for Monsanto.” In saying that, he shone light on one of our long-held collective blind-spots: we co-create the world that we live in, not only by our actions as citizens and consumers, but also (and perhaps primarily) by our own contributions to the impacts that the organisation we work for has, directly or indirectly, on the world.

In other words, we may have spent too many decades focusing on professional competencies and career trajectories (outputs), when perhaps a more fundamental question was left off the radar: what world are we helping our organisation to co-create (outcomes) thanks to these professional competencies and career that we invest in it?

In this article we will explore the conscious and unconscious dynamics at work when, through the roles we take up in organisations, we contribute to shaping the world we live in, and what leverage we have to align these actions with our intention.


Bursting the bubble

Michael is a man in his forties, who read at one of France’s best business schools, and was moving towards a promising career. Throughout his childhood he was told, as most of us were, how important successful studies were—the key to a fulfilling career, to achieving one’s full potential.

As he graduated from his prestigious business school, Michael got offered several tempting jobs. He opted for one of the big three pharmaceuticals companies, and did so for several reasons: first of all, the overall mission of the company caught his altruistic self; contributing to the world population’s health, and solving some of the greatest health challenges was a quest worth embarking on. The company’s huge resources also meant that much would be possible, and that boldness and creativity would not only be encouraged, but also met with the appropriate means for action. Finally, joining such a big, international company meant entering a field in which his own career could grow and blossom.

As the years went on, Michael became, quite naturally, identified as a “high potential” by the company’s talent management department, and was offered several career opportunities, including leadership posts abroad, where he was able, each time, to confirm his potential for becoming, one day, one of the top fifty executives in the company.

Twelve years after joining, however, Michael decided to quit. Not for a competitor, with higher salary and even greater career prospects. Not because he had enough of the health sector and wanted to explore another industry. No; Michael resigned and decided to launch a business that, despite being in the same field as his previous job, was the antithesis of what he had been doing: he left one of the Big 3 to launch a natural health products business.

Michael’s story illustrates many others at the beginning of this twenty-first century. At the heart of it, we find a recurrent pattern, in which brilliant graduates, full of potential, choose to resign from a promising career not for a better paid job or one that holds greater perspective, but for something altogether different. In other words, they quit not only their job, but the very paradigm in which career has been “sold” to them, in order to find something that could not be found in this current paradigm, and could only exist in a new one.


Career development and splitting

Most of us—and most certainly Michael—were asked throughout our childhood the eternal question: “what do you want to be/do when you’re older?”. Undoubtedly, this question was meant to be helpful, to enable us to draw from within us a vision of what our adult life might look like—thus helping us identify the type of studies that we might need to undertake in order to fulfil this vision.

Of course, this envisioning question also served as a container for our parents’ anxiety, providing reassurance that their offspring would indeed “do something with their life”, but also giving them the opportunity to reframe the vision in order to help their child “aim higher”.

In that context, children over the last few decades have been thinking in terms of professions and in terms of industries: being a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, working in a bank, in finance, being a consultant …. In their own unconscious, and that of their parents (and of society more broadly), those professions and those industries carried certain values, and served as markers of success, both in the eyes of those around them (external sources of gratification) but also in terms of financial achievement.

In her article Les ‘hauts potentiels’ et le ‘faux-self’”, Maryse Dubouloy (2006) explains the impact that such a construction of one’s possible future has on the individual once (s)he is confronted with the reality of the work environment. Anchoring her argument in the work of Winnicott, she suggests that very early on, in order to secure their parents’ love and positive regard, children will over develop those capacities, attitudes, and behaviours that they sense are more highly valued by their parents, at the risk of leaving other parts of themselves dormant, or at least under developed. In the process, they thus develop a “false self” that they present to the world, and hide in their own unconscious (through a splitting process) who they really are, their “true self”.

Having worked with dozens of those high potentials managers, Dubouloy started identifying a pattern, where after brilliant studies and excellent beginnings in their careers, those high potentials often go through a deep inner crisis when confronted with an event hitherto unusual for them: a big failure, such as a lost contract, a missed promotion, or being fired. For the first time, their over-adapted self can no longer “save” them; it can no longer provide the gratification they have constantly sought, leaving them with a huge sense of emptiness and of worthlessness. Unaware, they stumble across the chasm between their false and true self, between the false promises of narcissistic security on the one hand, and the unbounded possibilities of being who they truly are, which at this precise moment does not feel at all liberating but rather oppressive and persecutory.

Michael’s story finds many echoes in Dubouloy’s work, yet it offers a new dimension to, and a new perspective on, the chasm. The false promises and the development of a false self are indeed present here too. Undoubtedly, Michael did well at school, fought hard to enter one of the best and most prestigious business schools in France, and chose a big, internationally renowned multinational corporation to work in, because it matched the expectations his family had on him, and embodied what success looks like in society.

At an unconscious level, Michael most probably operated a splitting of his self into a true and a false self, unconsciously ensuring that his public persona matched external expectations (thus providing him with external gratification) whilst suppressing his true self from his conscious experience. Michael’s resignation, therefore, may well be linked to a desire to let his true self come forth, although data do not entirely match what Dubouloy has indicated as the usual triggers for such an internal shake-up: Michael’s decision did not follow a failure-induced crisis; he didn’t lose out on a promotion, nor lost a contract, or anything of the sort. Could there be something else at work here?

Looking at the data again, we can see that Michael’s decision came about when he began to realise the impact the pharmaceuticals industry had on the world, and therefore his own contributions to that impact. As a marketing director, his job was to ensure that an increasing amount of customers would buy the company’s drugs. Increase in sales was therefore a key indicator of success. However, at the same time, research began to show that increasing use of antibiotics were actually one of the root causes of antibiotic resistant microbes.

In some ways, the more antibiotics he helped sell, the more antibiotic resistant microbes he would help develop. Another insight came when, at a conference for the pharmaceutical industry, he discovered that of all the drugs produced by all pharmaceuticals companies, probably about 15% were more effective than placebos—whilst the remaining 85%, of course, produced a lot more side effects than placebos.

Slowly but surely, Michael also came to realise that the business model of the pharmaceutical industry requires people to be ill in order to work; the mission statement that originally attracted him to the company (contributing to the world population’s health) actually relied on its shadow side: requiring people to be ill. Promoting health was therefore not expected, because it ran the risk of putting the company out of business.

So much so that, as a marketing director, he was once asked to contribute to finding a way of selling a molecule that the R&D department had discovered, but for which there was no known disease. They ended up finding broadly-linked non pathological behaviours that they could then package as a syndrome, in order, later on, to frame it as an illness. As he puts it, “we entered the meeting with a molecule, and we left with an illness.”

In other words, what really came through for Michael after twelve years in his job, was not just the splitting he had to operate in order to “be successful” in the eyes of others and of his false self, but, perhaps even deeper, the splitting he had to do of the impact he himself was having on the world through mobilising his skills and competencies at the service of his company. I use the expression “even deeper” because, in many ways, the splitting of the impact that our professional actions have on the world is not just an intra-psychic dynamic; it is also, and perhaps first of all, a societal dynamic.

It is induced by the very paradigm in which most of us are invited to imagine ourselves professionally, when asked “what do you want to do/be when you’re older?”, rather than “what do you want to contribute to when you’re older?”. A paradigm that values career progression intrinsically without inquiring into (and even less evaluating) the impact those increasing professional responsibilities end up having on the world. Perhaps shifting the frame in that way could yield huge transformations.





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What if subtraction helped us to be in touch with purpose? Thinking and acting by subtraction - Part two

So what can we do?

The solution is not to eliminate addition completely, it is not in binary and polarized thinking... what we can do is, every time we think about a problem, remind ourselves that there is also the possibility of taking away. So it is not a question of stopping adding, we have seen how this way of thinking, of solving problems, of interpreting the world is essential. Rather, it is a question, when we are reflecting, for example, on a possible solution, of having the two alternatives equally present, of giving ourselves the possibility of also using subtraction. The more we are connected to purpose, the more this alternative will make sense.

This lecture is a way to help you be more aware, hopefully starting now something will help you, when you are thinking in additive terms, to subtract.

We will see in the next session the links between the deep connection to purpose and the possibility of taking away.

You have been working on purpose for a long time and you know by now that it is the "raison d'être" of the company, its why, the collective purpose that holds you together, but also the connection between the role of each and every one of you and the system. Now try to think of your role not in terms of a series of things to do but in terms of "why does it exist?" and "what contribution does it make to the company purpose". It is interesting to think of your role in these terms, first focusing on the "why" and then on the "how" and the "what", following Simon Sinek's Golden Circle model, and once this is clarified, linking ourselves to the "subtraction" and asking ourselves whether the how and the what only respond to an additional logic, which risks distancing us instead of helping us to focus on the essential. I know that many people may now be thinking "OK well, that's easy to say, but how do you do it?"...I therefore propose to open up some possibilities on how to put this into practice in business life but also in private life, starting from some axes of reflection.

  1. Meetings. There are some traps that can drive us to multiply meetings. Among them: thinking that operational meetings serve as motivational levers, when teams are in a phase of loss of meaning (the meeting that is needed, in these cases, is precisely on the 'why', possibly, certainly not on the 'what' nor on the 'how') or even worse, to test the group's commitment. Or meetings used in a self-referential manner, to fill loneliness.... I think of how many times recently I have heard "the staff must go back to the office" for no particular reason but only so that the hierarchies don't feel too lonely 😉 and in the same field, meetings convened to avoid the so-called "video call amnesia" that strikes us when we delude ourselves of our multitasking capabilities only to realise that if during the video call we have done something else then we don't really know what was decided and why... There is an acronym that renders well another contemporary dynamic that is FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out, the fear of being forgotten if we do not participate and attend everything that happens, which can push us to add meetings, events, business lunches etc. Finally, yet another bias, that of social conformism, which can push us to attend just because others go there...On the decision to subtract or add meetings, in addition to highlighting the value added on purpose, there is a simple tool that can help us to remain anchored and grounded in reality, the tool that I invite you to discover "How much does my meeting cost?" by going to this link and which can help us decide
  2. On subtraction or addition decisions in to-do lists, the idea, which is not new, is to manage one's time better. For those who need sophisticated ideas and tools, I recommend reading the famous "Getting Things Done", otherwise there is this simple matrix that can help us eliminate is not very new, it is a bit vintage indeed, but used well it can be the start to free up space:

Warning. Once you've freed up 20/30% of your days don't fill it up again!!!

  1. A new role in project groups, the subtraction manager. Why not make subtraction explicit, make it embodied, to help each other remember it, out of the additive routine? In project groups, one can then identify the role of "chief subtracting officer" who will have, among his or her objectives, that of reminding group members of the importance of subtracting, asking what to subtract in order to better achieve the objectives, a creative and challenging role that can prevent the project group from getting bogged down in a flood of activities that do not serve the purpose.
  2. Other areas of work subtraction: subtracting priorities (no, not everything is a priority!), subtracting people in copy of an email, subtracting sent emails, subtracting key points and slides from a presentation, subtracting the number of objectives, leaving only what really generates value on purpose, the OKR methodology offers interesting insights...
  3. Some subtraction ideas also outside of work... Subtract things brought on trips (with the airport crisis this way you only bring hand luggage and light!!! ), subtracting trips as we have been forced to learn to do over the last two years, emptying our social networks of relationships that make "noise", subtracting the things we have in our homes.. Marie Kondo teaches us how to empty our cupboards, subtracting space from our living spaces: the bigger the house, the more we tend to fill it, subtracting unnecessary consumption and never before has the focus on subtracting energy consumption been so closely aligned with the contextual conditions... in addition to freeing ourselves individually, we can make a collective contribution to the regeneration of the planet.

We move towards the conclusion of this moment together...summing up in a few points:

  1. It is not a question of no longer using addition but of also being aware of the possibility of subtraction
  2. Being connected and connected to purpose deeply helps us to make choices in one direction or another
  3. But our brain does not help is wired to add; therefore, we need to have tricks that help us subtract
  4. Can you think of anything you feel like subtracting? What can you do as a small step in this regard?

Thank you for your attention!


What if subtraction helped us to be in touch with purpose? - Part one

The following post is an excerpt of a talk that Nexus gave at one of two conferences, held at a large multinational company, on the day that is annually dedicated to a collective reflection on purpose. We will publish it in two parts, corresponding to two blogposts, one, this week,  introductory and one, next week,  dedicated to a more practical reflection with cues for action. 

Some time ago in Nexus we happened to read the book Subtract, written by an American researcher, Leidy Klotz, and the result of a series of observations and research; the book generated in us many reflections, it is as if there had been a before and an after, and these reflections have become transformations both in our work and in our personal lives.

We are telling you about them by linking them to the theme of purpose because, as we shall see, we found the idea of subtraction particularly suitable to celebrate this day and to continue the reflections we started last year around "purpose and regeneration" and "purpose and happiness".

To warm up, I propose a little exercise... try to think about improving a trip, since we are in the pre-holiday period, think about your next trip and how you could improve it... if you don't have to travel, think about how you would improve your house and write the results in the chat room... some said they would like a bigger house, a swimming pool, a trip with more time, more stages... others instead, and they are more or less half, reasoned differently, they said "I would like a house with fewer things" or "I would like to get rid of many objects"... perhaps the title of the conference influenced you a little, but this is good because, as we will see, since the idea of subtracting is not intuitive, it is good that there is something, like a title, that when we make a decision helps us to remember it.

I will now show you this figure and ask you how, with the minimum number of moves, to make it symmetrical:

Here again I see that you are now paying attention and in solving many and many have given themselves the opportunity to think about subtracting the top square, rather than adding squares. You may be surprised to know that of the adults who were involved in the same game, only a small fraction, 12%, came up with the solution 'by subtraction'. The others came up with additive solutions such as this one:

This game is part of a series of activities that were used to test the initial intuition that is the systematic preference for addition, the automatism that makes us think that the solution to a problem lies in addition.

In this seminar we will explore three points together:

  1. Why do we keep adding?
  2. What does purpose have to do with subtraction?
  3. How do we actually subtract?

Leidy Klotz, the researcher and professor at Virginia University who popularized the importance of the concept of 'subtraction' through his book 'Subtract', tells us that one day he was playing with Lego bricks with his son Ezra and that when faced with the problem of 'how to improve a construction', the child spontaneously started to remove bricks, while for him, the father, the natural answer was rather to add Lego pieces. From the surprise, felt by the researcher in this situation, came the intuition that later gave rise to numerous researches, repetitions of the experiment, consolidation of the theory.

But where does it come from, why this compulsion to add? Why do we add to prove we are competent? Why do we keep producing endless checklists for the sake of ticking them off and producing new ones? Why do we keep adding friends on social networks? Why is subtraction not taken into account?

There are several explanations that researchers have hypothesized, partly biological and partly cultural, let us look at some of them together. One hypothesis is that the compulsion to add is linked to other biases, fixed and often unconscious reasoning routines of our brain. For example, the sunk cost, i.e. the bias that makes it difficult to disinvest once we have invested because we perceive the losses and not the possible gains (that bias for which once we have paid the cinema ticket we stay even if we do not like the film, to put it in simple terms).

More generally, loss aversion could be another explanation, along with favouring the status quo over uncertainty due to change. Another, very fascinating, explanation could come from afar, from the evolution of the human species from nomadic to sedentary and, with the conquest of sedentarity and agriculture, from the acquired possibility/need to start accumulating objects, food, etc. in dwellings that became fixed and in urban agglomerations. And in this evolution, the search and accumulation of food becomes crucial for survival and continues to drive us despite modern conditions of relative abundance.

It should not be forgotten, however, that evolution is a balancing act between adding and subtracting, think for example of the ability to work with wood; but also of the very interesting phenomenon that takes place in our brains, which we might familiarly call 'synapse pruning' that allows us to regenerate our brains during the night's rest, eliminating what is not being used so as not to waste energy in its maintenance. And nature teaches us the same thing. In a healthy ecosystem, nature selects and promotes life on the one hand (thus adding) and at the same time promotes death by helping what is no longer needed to die. It is the process called regeneration that we talked about last year in relation to corporate purpose.

So perhaps we can reconnect with subtraction, but we have to make a little effort.

The compulsion to add can in fact cost us dearly: adding work all the time, adding meeting after meeting to a project, adding tasks to the to-do list, adding items in the house, food, cigarettes, social engagements, friends on social networks... The costs that the habit of adding generates are very high.

On an individual level, the stress, the feeling of never having finished, of being out of control, the 'mental load' that makes us wake up at night because we remember something we haven't done, the cluttering of our homes with useless objects... and on a collective level the excessive consumption that is making our planet uninhabitable.

Organisational Purpose: Starting with Why

Purpose is a powerful way of motivating people for action; of clarifying the ultimate goal your organisation is setting for itself, the primary "Why" that won't change even if you might pivot several times on your "What", and perhaps your "How".

In this short video, we bring together several approaches to Purpose-lead organisations, in order to help make sense of how to use this concept in a very practical way.


What being Purpose-led really means

Over the past few years – and we should all be grateful for it! – there has been an ever stronger emphasis on becoming a Purpose-led organisation, and for leaders in those organisations to lead with/from purpose.


Purpose: the new key to unlocking organisational performance?


The rationale is simple: if you are clear about your organisation’s purpose, decision-making will become easier (not necessarily easy, but at least easier!), because there will be no misunderstanding about what should orient them; as soon as they’ve integrated that purpose, your staff will know what to do without you having to tell them, leading to lots of virtuous cycle loops of more meaning at work, more autonomy, more well-being, less bureaucracy, more efficiency, etc. Your customers will be more intentional in choosing you, and more faithful in staying with you; and your shareholders might even relocate their decisions in a “shared-value creation” paradigm (see Michael Porter’s work), rather than in the narrow view of the sole “shareholder value” paradigm.

In other words, leading with Purpose can only be win-win, can’t it?


Well, it’s not that simple… As always, walking the talk is the primary challenge, even more so that we may not always be aware of how much our walking may diverge from our talking. And here’s a way to think about it.


Over 70 years ago (yes, this issue of Purpose is not new!), the Tavistock Institute was already exploring these issues, naming it “Primary task” at the time. A bit later, the Grubb Institute, who worked closely with the Tavistock, introduced the concept of Purpose, seen as “the impact that an organisation intends to have on its Context; the primary reason why an organisation exists”.


Three levels of Purpose


Gordon Lawrence, who worked for both institutes and was a leading figure in that field at the time, suggested, in the mid-70s, that there were in fact 3 levels of Purpose. Because his words were a bit ‘jargonny’, we’ve adapted them to the following:

The Formal Purpose is what used to be called, up to 5 years ago, the “mission statement” of the organisation, and has now often been rebranded as the “statement of Purpose”. As its name indicates, it is the formal expression of what the organisation sees as its primary reason of being – the formal description of the impact it wishes to create in the world.


Take Renault for example, one of France’s leading car manufacturers; their website describes their Purpose in this way: “We make the heart of innovation beat so that mobility brings us closer together”. Beyond “heart” and “closer together” – probably here to access our own emotional field – the key words in that statement are “innovation” and “mobility”. Put it succinctly, Renault’s purpose is to innovate in the field of mobility.


If you ask their staff, or their customers, they will probably tell you a different story. For them, Renault is a car manufacturer. From a staff perspective, Renault’s Informal Purpose (that story that we tell ourselves in corridors’ talk, or in meetings behind closed doors) is to make lots of cars that lots of customers will buy, in lots of different countries. A customer’s perspective on that informal purpose is probably a variation on that description, something like: Renault makes innovative / reliable / nice cars with a good quality/cost ratio.


There is yet another level of purpose though; one that is less visible, but nonetheless very much at the heart of any organisation’s activity. We call it the Enacted Purpose, and by that we mean the impact that the organisation is actually having on its context, whether it is aware of it or not. It is inferred by our assessment of those impacts – including those that are not always included in traditional impact assessment, and tend to be named ‘externalities’, or ‘collateral impact’.


One take on Renault’s activities could lead us to suggest that its enacted purpose could be to contribute to climate change, by creating machines that release CO² into the atmosphere. Of course it is not their intended purpose, but their impact on the world is such that an external eye could identify it as their enacted purpose.


Leading with Purpose

Renault is clear about the place of its Purpose in the company's strategy and operations: "Our Purpose is the foundation of everything: our values, our strategic plan, our orientations in terms of social and environmental responsibility" ( website on 22/02/2022).


However, in a purpose-led organisation, the challenge for leadership is to ensure that all three levels of purpose are aligned as much as possible, or at least that all actions are aimed at aligning them – as the figure below illustrates:

In order to do that, leaders will need to undertake an honest assessment of where their organisation is on those three levels, and take the corrective actions to reduce the gap between them.

They might also need to revisit the very statement of purpose that they’ve formally adopted. For Renault, it could go something like: “We make the heart of innovation beat so that environmentally-friendly mobility brings us closer together”.


Funny how 2 words can make such a difference! By inserting a connection to its own impact on the world’s ecosystems, Renault would go such a long way in creating the conditions for transforming its enacted purpose, setting out to leverage innovation not only at the service of mobility per se, but of an environmentally-friendly mobility. This would open huge avenues of transformation, not only in terms of products (moving to electric cars for example), but also of business models (see the carpet company Interface move from selling to leasing for example, where product ownership remains with the manufacturer, who’s much more inclined to ensure a much longer shelve-life for its products).


Leading with Purpose in the 21st century


As we just saw, leading with purpose is a double-edged sword: whilst it may be tempting to attract employee and customer loyalty with an inspiring formal purpose, it will only work, in the long run, if leaders ensure that they strive for aligning formal, informal, and enacted purposes.

Could this be a put-off for organisations wondering about becoming purpose-led organisations? Well, I hope not; for in the 21st century, we have no choice but to transform our businesses so that their impacts move from being degenerative, to being regenerative. And engaging one’s company around defining its purpose could be such an energising, fruitful way of doing it.


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.