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The key to transformation is not hacking the form

A window of blue opens in the clouds and a patch of sun breaks through the light rain. A magnificent rainbow arcs overhead. Nothing extraordinary in this, yet if we see it clearly, it’s showing us something profound about how all forms—including rainbows—come about: how they arise, transform, and fade away. The rainbow is instructive in its simplicity, as it requires only three interconnecting conditions to come about: rain, sunlight, and a particular angle of view.

The discerning leader will recognize this interplay of conditions and perception is also how far more complex forms come about, from widgets to buildings to social networks and democracies. Since we as leaders are in the business of changing forms, i.e., transformation, we do well to understand how form happens. Trying to change a form by hacking away at the form itself is generally as unproductive as it would be to try to remove a rainbow by chainsawing its red-to-purple bands. Yet remove the rain, the sunlight or the angle of view, and the rainbow goes away. The key to transformation is not going after the form itself—the form is merely the outcropping. Rather the key is to change the energies that produce the form, including the activity of perception. Through this process of resonance—i.e., vibrating with—the energies we direct individually and collectively vibrate with and alter the energies supporting existing forms, thus making old forms vanish and new forms possible.

As a potent example of this phenomenon, consider what’s happening in our American democracy today. As historians and journalists such as Jon Meacham, Michael Beschloss or Rachel Maddow frequently write and talk about, the greatest danger to democracy doesn’t come from attacking its forms, such as a flag, a pillared building, or a voting booth. If the forces supporting the form are still strong, a damaged flag, building or booth can be replaced. Even the violent attack on the Capitol building was quelled within the day and the processes of democracy could proceed. The much greater risk to democracy is coming from eroding the energies that hold it in place, namely truth and trust in institutions and the rule of law. Vapid conspiracy theories, falsehoods repeated as facts, the made-up perception of unreliable elections, eroded trust in the courts, and a chaotic Congress are doing much more to weaken our democracy and transform our country to a more primitive, negative state. Signs of a transformation being negative are when it feeds more rage, fear and grievance.

Conversely, we can use the same principle of shifting underlying energies or perception to create positive transformation. For example, the Healthscripts program piloted by Cox Health (which I’ve written about elsewhere), doesn’t tackle the form of diabetes or hypertension at the surface with another drug (i.e. form). Rather it changes the conditions that otherwise hold diabetes or hypertension in place for some patients. In particular, it reduces food insecurity, provides healthy, locally grown foods, and gathers patients in a physician-facilitated circle that provides nutritional guidance and a caring community that could never be prescribed. As another example, Patagonia doesn’t approach its regenerative aspirations merely through the form of its products. Rather it changes the conditions and perceptions out of which its products are produced and consumed, from creating an ethos of repairing rather than discarding garments, to changing the form of ownership of the corporation itself to honor the earth and future generations. We can tell when a transformation is positive when it’s characterized by greater healing, love and joy.

The capacity to bring about positive transformation, which some would define as leadership itself, is enhanced by working with underlying conditions and the energies of their relationships and not merely surface forms because this interconnected view in which we, ourselves, participate is closer to reality. Two wisdom traditions that have deeply informed me—Zen and physics—converge on this point: life is a flow of energy and all objects, including us, as well as perceptions are resonances within this vast sea. Whether we fully grasp this reality or not, here are three ways we as leaders can put it to practical use in bringing about positive transformation.

1 – Look for the underlying conditions and the energy of their relationships.

When we tune ourselves to look beneath the surface and notice energy, we notice more of it. Team climate, workplace culture, the quality of relationships, the feeling we have about our work are all examples of energies that in-form the forms we produce. That’s why a change in strategy often requires a change in culture, i.e., “the way things are done around here,” as Warner Burke defined it. As an example, the quality movement did not focus on inspecting and correcting finished products, so much as on fostering a culture of ownership and driving out fear at every step in production.

Underlying conditions to the forms we would change are also forms, either matter (e.g., raindrops in the case of a rainbow) or energy (e.g., sunlight, perception). But by working at this more fundamental, subtle level, we can change how these conditions resonate together, which gives us more options in how to bring about transformation at the surface, while providing enduring support to it.

2 – Focus on the process; changes in relationships precede changes in form.

When we address forms with forms—launch our product against a competitor’s product, treat a symptom with a drug, replace a dilapidated building with a new park—it’s clear from the start that we’re doing something, whether it’s effective, enduring or not. In working with the energies of underlying conditions or perceptions, even if we’re having effects, they may not be visible for some time. A characteristic of resonance is that it can build up in latent ways to what Malcolm Gladwell called a tipping point before a seemingly sudden transformation is evident. If our process is fundamentally positive and attuned to conditions—and elements of healing, love and joy are good indicators—we do well to trust it. Our leading indicators of being on the right track come from directionally correct changes in relationships, not flashy outcomes. In the latency leading up to transformation, we do well to trust creating the right relationships and let the outcomes emerge in their natural timing.

3 – Reframe Perceptions.

As the physicist, Max Planck observed, “When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.” Leaders have long been taught the power of reframing to focus and inspire others. Examples of reframing include seeing the opportunity in a problem (“It’s not a failure but showing us how to win.”) or positioning today’s work in the context of a mighty vision (“We’re not bricklaying, we’re building a 300-year legacy for humanity”). Reframing can also work in negative ways, as in the earlier example of eroding democracy. One doesn’t have to directly tamper with voting booths, but simply reframe perceptions that others are tampering with them.

Powerful as it is to reframe by changing our point of view, from a Zen leadership perspective, reframing is even more powerful when we disconnect from any single point of view, i.e., ordinary ego-based perception. If we are free to roam through any perspective, even in our imagination—become the other, become the future, become the whole picture—we take our personal bias out of it. When we see in this radically new way, what we see will change, opening creative possibilities for working with it. Reframing reminds us that perception is not a passive act, but is itself a resonance that, in physics terms, collapses the wave function of probabilities to a particular this or that. If we feel disempowered or dissatisfied with the form of things, the first place to look for change is in how we’re looking. 

While hammering away at the surface form of things can cause visible change, the key to transformation runs deeper. It involves working with the energetic underpinning to forms, focusing on the right shifts in underlying relationships and reframing perceptions to lead toward the forms we want. In this way, attending to energy and interconnectedness, we lead closer to the truth, one with the great dance out of which even our form arises. We quit chopping at rainbows and learn to play in the dynamic interplay of sunlight, raindrops and our own perceptions.

About the author: Dr Ginny Whitelaw is the CEO and founder of the Institute for Zen Leadership. An 86th generation Zen master, she has a rich scientific background and >25 years developing leaders integrating mind and body as one. Learn more about the Institute for Zen Leadership and join one of its entry-point programs: FEBI-4U introducing 4 energy patterns in your nervous system, personality, and the world around you, and/or Zen Leader 1, taking you through 6 foundational “flips” that will forever reframe your leadership.

This article has been kindly repurposed and was originally published on on 1st March 2024. You can read the original here