The democracy we deserve

Elections ought to bring out the best in people. People are passionate about positive change, whether they’re standing for appointment or not.  So why is it politics seems permanently shrouded in a toxic haze of negative aggression?

There are two actors in our democratic process – the would-be leaders and the voters*.  We judge the candidates endlessly, but perhaps it’s time we took ourselves more into account.

There is an expectation that leaders should be ‘strong’ and somehow omniscient. We want them to have all the answers, and be right all the time.  This last, in spite of the certain fact that everybody knows, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Politics, and all of the machinery surrounding it, colludes in this fantasy – each party** saying how well they did, and how hopelessly wrong their opponents have been.  There has never been, nor ever will be, a government that got it all right.

Democracy presents leaders with the great challenge of balancing the apparently conflicting requirements of inclusion and decisiveness.  That’s probably one of the reasons Churchill so famously said ‘democracy is the worst form of government – apart from all the others’.

So is it fair to criticise as sharply as we do, or to protest about things with such vehemence, without taking into account the complexities of life?

We are all very quick to claim our ‘rights’ – the right to protest, the right to freedom of speech, and all of the other freedoms which the ideals of democracy bring.  People know they can fight for their rights – and this familiar territory is the arena in which we choose to hold our democratic debate.

This is where it seems to me our problem with democracy lies. As long as we assume our leaders carry all of the responsibility, and that we are merely spectators, we will continue to get the hefty servings of disappointment and failure that are our just desserts.

So whilst it’s important to point out the problems, and protest about the things which don’t work, it’s equally important we ourselves are not unreasonable in making our points.

Reason is at the heart of the ‘scientific method’ and we constantly turn to science for the comfort of facts which reassure us we’re heading in the right direction. When scientific researchers select only the evidence that conveniently fits their theory, they are quite rightly condemned for bad science.  And yet, this is exactly how most of our political debate is conducted – both by the politicians AND the electorate.

For leadership to function well in a democracy, the first task is to accept that democracy, reflects our experience of life – it’s a continuous process of learning, adaptation and change.  If we want our leaders to succeed, ALL of us need to take responsibility for being constructive in our dealings with differences, and for checking our own assumptions as closely and objectively as we can.

If we’re able to do this – resolutely focused on the development of our collaborative skills – then democracy has the potential to serve a very different dish from the one we currently find so distasteful.   If we build on the best of what works, we can be magnificent.  Or we can fight amongst ourselves around the dustbins of failure.

So draw a breath next time you’re about to weigh in to a political debate. Consider your purpose, the thing you’d most like to achieve. Ask yourself if the question or opinion you’re about to offer will help us move forward together. And be prepared to learn something new.

Challenge by all means, but before you criticise this or that political figure, remember that only the very brave or the foolhardy are prepared to step into the today’s deeply hostile gladiatorial arena.  They are forced by the baying of the crowd (that’s us) to adopt aggressive tactics in a battle for survival in which everybody will get maimed. Think how much you’d like to stand before the crowd before you raise your voice.

We can change the game.

If we claim our share of responsibility for the way our democracy conducts itself, and look to be constructive, we can effectively move the contest to a festival ground.  We can mix without fear of mortal attack, and explore the richness of difference the world has to offer.  In our collaborative mood of acceptance and accommodation of each other, we can reasonably expect to find improvement, and at times delight.

If we escape the the toxic haze of that claustrophobic arena, we’ll make leadership a much more attractive proposition.  A place where inclusion and decisiveness can sit more easily together.

We have to watch ourselves as closely as we watch those who would lead.  Then, and only then, will we truly be ‘all in this together’.

That’s the democracy we deserve.

Quantum Leap for Happiness Science Required

Stop people in the street and ask them if they recognise happiness as an important and serious subject, and most would probably say it isn’t worthy of the name of science. They’d be wrong of course. Chemists, biologists and neuroscientists have been having a crack at the subject for a long time, and the lead on happiness science has been firmly grasped by the Positive Psychology movement backed by the power of data from brain scanning and computing technology. But where’s the physics?

Great physicists have historically had an interest in arts, culture and philosophy, but I’ve not seen any significant contributions to the science of happiness from this quarter. Noticing a paper called ‘The curvature of Constitutional Space: What lawyers can learn from modern physics’, I thought I’d see how my knowledge of physics might apply to the science of happiness in order to advance the case for happiness as an appropriate (and in fact vital) subject of political and economic debate. You can read the article in full here.

Opening Spaces for Change – issue 1

If you’ve found my blog, you’re probably a change agent who’s interested in leadership, learning and get things done. If not, then serendipity has gently touched you with a world of opportunity, so linger a moment anyway.   I’ve just begun publishing a monthly newsletter for people who believe we need to adapt if we’re to flourish in the 21st Century, and so ask deep questions of themselves, their colleagues and the systems we’ve created to figure out where we can make things change.

Personally, in 20 years of work on CSR, leadership and change, I’ve not found a better way of facilitating groups of smart, energetic, passionate people who want to ‘make a difference’ than through Open Space Technology.  So the newsletter aims to to share opportunities to use Open Space, to share useful learning from OS experiences and to offer ‘hot’ themes from online professional networks as food for thought.   Here’s the first one:

1. OS Events Update  

Social Enterprise a refreshment of Open Space for those developing social enterprises, Bristol Venue TBC, 23rd October, 2-6pm. The theme is ‘Grand Designs – how can we work together to achieve our visions?’ £30

Prosperous Cities an accord of Open Space for those re-shaping cities, London venue TBC,  25th October, 2-6pm. Two short presentations from Happy City and China Dream/UK Dream, followed by three hours of OS. £40 

Walk Your Talk a magnificence of Open Space at Buckland Hall, Brecon from28th Nov to 1st Dec. The theme is ‘Prosperity – how can I balance the books to flourish?’  £340 includes 3 nights, 9 excellent vegetarian meals & all drinks/snacks.

All events – register by mail: 


2. Open Space news

Here’s an interesting example of spontaneous Open Space, when an audience asked the audience rather than the panel on the ‘Top Table.  If you’re planning a conventional debate, you could deliberately prompt an OS session from the ‘Chair’.

Here are some Open Space book references from the OS World Community site, together with a brief ‘users guide‘ from the same source.

Back in July this year, I ran an Open Space for Bristol’s Voluntary & Community Sector Assembly to draw out the priority issues for VOSCUR’s Voice & Influence team to focus on in the coming year.  VOSCUR’s Chief Exec, Wendy Stephenson (and others) made a point of saying how nervous they’d been about such an open event to begin with, and how delighted she was at the way it all turned out.  The event report is available in the Autumn edition of Thrive! magazine, which will be live any day now. 


3. What’s Hot 

The debate about economic measures has momentum – check out Happiness, the next big metric? from the Guardian (16/9/2013).  In a similar vein, the Association of Sustainability Practitioners (Linkedin group) flagged up Goodvertising holds the key to sustainable development, and Alliance for resolving Intrapersonal conflict (Linkedin Group) has an interesting piece on how to Maximize your ‘Aha Moment’.


 4. It’s Not OS, but it’s good 

HAPPINESS HABITS an 8 course of evening classes to build resilience and wellbeing with Miriam Akhtar, at the Unitarian Chapel, Brunswick Sq, Bristol BS2 Sept 30th – Nov 18th.  £160 for members of this e-mail list.  

MAP OF MEANING a two day workshop with Lani Morris and Sue Howard at Heythrop College, UCL, Kensington Square, London W8 5HN. Price according to status from £340 – £960.      

5. Serendipity Spot 

This may be just right for you – or it may not!   I’m reviewing William C Frederick’s ‘Natural Corporate Management‘ by Greenleaf – it’s a well structured read and a great affirmation of the work we’ve been promoting for the last 5 years!

You may be interested in the Langley Group’s White Paper on Emotional Intelligence at work.  The link goes to their website, which offers the paper for free.  

Feedback on this newsletter, our website or twitter pages always welcome, and if you’ve got something to share, let me have it!                   or 07836 706978

Live test New Release staff engagement tools to improve wellbeing and performance at work

a workshop for directors & HR personnel

10am-4pm on 23rd may 2012, Leigh Court, Abbotts Leigh Bristol BS8 3RA

Happiness at Work is a major advance in staff engagement, providing insights into drivers of happy and rewarding work that go far beyond any previous HR device. Nic Marks, director of NEF Consulting and creator of the survey tools will be in Bristol to explain how it works through a live test with an outline of the management potential produced by instant results.

The survey does a catalytic job of informing and motivating staff, and Mike Zeidler (Happy City Initiative) and Mark McKergow (Solutions Focus at Work) will introduce ideas for the most effective ways to tap the energy for change and make constructive, creative and responsible action the norm, even when staff are short of time and under stress.

All three hosts have international expertise on wellbeing, performance and the future of the workplace.

The workshop costs £150/head including VAT, £99/head for charitable organisations. There are 25 places and you will need to bring a web-enabled laptop.

To book e-mail

The Serious Business of Happiness…

modoto ltd has slightly disappeared off the radar over the past 18 months or so because we’ve been dedicating pretty much all our time to Happiness.  The Happy City Initiative is gaining some recognition (we’re included as ‘rising stars of tomorrow’s green scene’ in this weekend’s Observer magazine) as people begin to understand the power and scope of our initiative for change.

The first hurdle to ‘getting’ what we’re doing, is the word ‘Happiness’ itself.   We’re so bombarded by ideas of happiness as pleasure, that people often struggle to distinguish between the two.  This confusion has deep roots because the marketing and advertising machinery of economic growth has devoted its considerable skill to persuading us that things which give us pleasure are the route to happiness.  This has never been true.

Pleasure is always short-lived. No matter how pleasurable the activity/thing is, an overdose of anything will begin to pall in time, and ultimately become repulsive.   Happiness as we’re viewing it is a set of universally recognised qualities in life.  Irrespective of culture, geography, age or any other factor, we KNOW that people value relationships most highly and that we ALL thrive when we have a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and place.  Noticing and naming these things for ourselves is an incredibly powerful thing to do, because happiness is the magic key to social and environmental transformation, not simply an ephemeral bit of joy.

Since everybody has their own ideas about happiness, it’s a conversation we can all have.  The magical part (the bit that leads to social, environmental and yes, economic transformation) is that conversations about happiness built on the points above, draw people into positive, constructive engagement in ways that overcome some of our most intractable challenges. This is hugely important.

In business terms, there’s plenty of evidence around to show that employees are looking much more actively for a good work life balance, and that many are making changes that de-prioritise cash if it relieves them from being in the stress/burnout zone.   This shifting perspective should come as no surprise to any forward looking organisation, since it’s so clearly linked to the shifting landscape of 21st century business.  We’ve overdosed on consumption to such an extent that people are searching for meaning, and that search for meaning is highlighting the effects of our industrial impact on environment and society.

So what can we do to adapt?  We’ve developed a ‘Happiness Challenge’ that helps people get to grips with the meaning, importance and value of happiness as a focus which improves work and life in many ways.  The challenge, which starts with teams inside an organisation and develops to include stakeholders and eventually local communities, is a sure-fire way to build a positive, happier workplace where people thrive and success naturally flourishes.

We’ve got the evidence to show that a happiness focus is incredibly effective as a way to increase creativity, pro-activity and to reduce interpersonal conflict.  We know it enhances collaboration and negotiation skills, and these things quite naturally increase job satisfaction, improve health and retention rates, and as a result, directly boost the happiness of customers and suppliers.

The challenge itself is a 10 week programme including group workshops, on-line and supported learning, coaching and action with trainer mentoring throughout.  It’s based on live issues and features leadership, positive psychology and cross- cultural facilitation. Expect practical, challenging fun with effective outcomes to make your organisation flourish.

The Happiness Challenge launches in September. To register interest and receive full details, write to

modoto continues to offer facilitation, coaching and leadership support and will happily tailor a bespoke event or programme for organisations which are serious about positive change.

The Hungry Elephant

Well budget day has been and gone, and unsurprisingly, nothing has really changed.  Small things have, but nothing of consequence.

The biggest problem we face on earth is the idea that growth is more important than anything else, and economic growth remained the unquestionable centre of yesterday’s announcements.  At the Happy City Initiative, we believe the best thing for business is the same thing that’s best for people, and that is the prospect of long term prosperity.  Annual growth forever is an utterly destructive nonsense that will surely rip apart both people and planet.

The resources do not exist for this kind of fantasy, and anyway, if we re-directed our efforts towards better measures of prosperity, we’ll find plenty to do that enhances life more meaningfully than simply selling more stuff.

Let’s stop confusing our ideas about Happiness.  Selling more stuff to get richer so I can buy more things that make me happy is all about Shortwave Happiness. It doesn’t last.

Developing our sense of community, care for the places we live and how we live in them are the ingredients of Longwave Happiness. This CAN last.

We believe there’s heart-felt truth in the desire for sustainability and social cohesion, but these things cannot, and will not become a reality until the banking systems have been reformed in favour of service to the public, and the notion of growth as our ultimate goal has been dropped.

So we’re here to stand for a new, practical and applied form of people-friendly economy that works in the interests of all of us.  We created the Happy City Initiative to name the ‘Elephant in the room’, to help people see and act on an alternative vision, and to help provide the skills which make us all masters of our own economy.  Let’s not forget the elephant of growth REQUIRES our unhappiness to feed itself. If we become content with who we are and what we have, our interest in consumption fades.

Call us if you’d like to focus your team on the skills which promote long term prosperity, are good for business, good for people, and good for the planet.


Changing British Life?

Give the government a choice between a nice long pole and a horse to help them cross a high wire, and it looks like they’d go for the horse.   There’s no doubt that they can see the wire, and that they understand how important it is not to fall off – but for some reason (perhaps an inherited love of horses), they seem determined to take the wire at a canter.

Cameron has just talked about budget cuts, emphasising the need to reduce our budget deficit and keep the confidence of the market.  He’s said “How we deal with these things will affect our economy, our society – indeed our whole way of life. The decisions we make will affect every single person in our country. And the effects of those decisions will stay with us for years, perhaps decades to come”.

He’s right of course – but he’s got there by using the right formula in the wrong order – and that means he’s likely to get it wrong in the future.  As Bill Clinton’s campaign team so rightly said ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, but the decisions are NOT actually about debt and trade.  The real issue is that we’re living as though we had three planets at our disposal, and the key driver for that sorry state of affairs is our attitude to finance.  The ‘markets’ are simply made up of people playing a game by a set of rules that make no allowances for the real world effects of their activities.

So yes, we need to reduce debt, and yes, we need to head for recovery – but the government needs to make it clear that a recovery has to address our financial hedonism, or it will involve the ultimate cost of life.   The efficiency of public spending, certainly needs addressing, but the banks and banking system should be squarely in the frame at the same time.

At the moment, it looks to me like the government is preparing for Beechers Brook, and they don’t stand a chance of crossing that wire.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Sustainable Change

Indiana Jones is a committed pioneering, flexible, multi-talented, adaptable, high energy risk taker at the cutting edge of his field.   I always believed he was just an archaeologist who liked adventure holidays – until I was approached by Chris Chapman.

Chapman visited me in June 2007 on the pretext of interviewing me for his Masters degree on “Change Agent Skills & Strategies”.  I remember that the sun was out and my guard was down as we sat in the garden chatting about ‘making  a difference’.  At the time I had no idea how I was being manipulated, but  soon came to see I’d been stripped like a bamboo in a Panda Pen.

Chris used his considerable charm to talk to 5 other unsuspecting Change Agents, before retiring to his Irish bolthole to hatch an audacious plan.   He used the information we gave him, studied, added his own experience, and set out to describe in detail the traits of exceptional Sustainable Change Agents. He later returned with a plan for world domination. It’s time to tell all…

Continue reading

Book Marks

This year I’ve decided on a whim to try and keep track of the books I read and what I thought of them.  If you’ve thoughts on my thoughts – do share.  Also happy to receive suggestions along the lines of ‘if you liked that, you’ll enjoy this…’  Thanks for dropping by.

Reviews below: Can Any Mother Help me? – Getting Up and Down –  The Secret Life of Trees –  English Constitutional History –  Taming Your Gremlin –  The Happiness Purpose –  Three Cups of Tea – Piracy, Turtles & Flying Foxes – Digital Fortress – Toby Alone – A Face to the World – The Long Road Home – Being White – Cycling into the Sunrise – Letters to my Grandchildren – Bel Canto – Paradise Now – Winner Take Nothing

Currently reading:

What are your optimistic about? by John Brockman, Pocket Books, 2007
Tao te Ching by Lao Tse


Winner Take Nothing by Ernest Hemmingway, Jonathan Cape, 1934.  This book is a masterclass in descriptive writing. Wikipedia tells me this is his third short story collection, in the period when he was summering in Wyoming and wintering in Key West.  The 14 tales aren’t so much stories with a beginning and an end, but artful vignettes that snap fragments of people’s lives. I really enjoyed them – particularly the ‘homage to switzerland’ which retells the same scene in a railway station cafe three times with a different central character for each part.   The only reference to the title is in a poem at the beginning of the book which reads ‘Unlike all other forms of lutte or combat the conditions are that the winner shall take nothing; neither his ease, nor his pleasure, nor any notions of glory; nor, if he win far enough, shall there be any reward within himself’.  Worth reading for the skill of the writing. 6/10

Paradise Now by Jari Moate, penpress, 2010.  Jari Moate is an excellent writer whose style reminds me of Ben Okri. Paradise Now is filled with delightful and surprising descriptive turns of phrase, and the story itself is shrouded with a sense of questing mystery. The main character, Elektra, is filled with uncertainty and her doubts raise questions which aren’t neatly resolved. The book, once finished, isn’t finished with you.

Set in Bristol, the plot centres on the convergent paths of a local artist who shoots unexpectedly to fame, and an Afghan shopkeeper who seeks to avenge injustice.  The Company [sic] represents the forces of corporate greed, but the ‘bad guys’ aren’t a caricature of evil.  The only parody Continue reading

Language & Leadership (Gurteen Knowledge Cafe, Bristol)

This Script is what I intend to say at the Gurteen Knowledge Cafe at Pervasive Media Studios in Bristol on 26th November.  At least, that’s the idea – I retain the right to digress at will….

Judge me by my own criteria… one of my central messages is that if you are clear for yourself about the purpose of the language you are using then you are far more likely to achieve that purpose.  Continue reading