‘You should read this.’ The email was from Vernice, someone I admired and trusted. The link led me to an article titled “From Personal to Planetary Transformation.” Interesting.
The article pointed out that most of our responses to global challenges were limited to solving specific problems, rather than to addressing whole systems. The author called for ‘secular, sacred, strategic action.’ In other words, wisdom in action.
It was written by a medical doctor and epidemiologist who had decades of experience in designing global development and health strategies in the United Nations. In the article, she described an approach that had been developed and tested in more than 60 countries to address issues like HIV/AIDS and maternal mortality.
This short article was my first introduction to Dr. Monica Sharma, who was then Director of Leadership and Capacity Development at the UN. I contacted Monica and told her that I was working with a problem that demanded a whole systems response. More specifically, climate change. I wanted to hear more about her approach to scaling change, in the hopes that I could apply it to climate change and transformations to sustainability.
Monica was generous with her time, but had no interest in wasting it. During the first minutes of our conversation on Skype, she asked me directly:
“What are you passionate about creating in your lifetime, Karen? What measurable results will you generate?”
It was not the typical “getting to know you” conversation. I probably said something about world peace, social justice, climate stabilization, and a planet where all species can thrive. This was a little bit too vague for Monica, so she pushed me. What measurable results will I focus on? What systems and cultures do I need to shift in order to achieve them? What do I stand for, as a human being, both for myself and others?
Six months later I was boarding a plane for Singapore. I explained to my husband and three children that I was going to meet an Indian woman whom I had only talked to a few times. I had no idea what we were going to discuss, but I knew it would be important.
If you’ve seen the movie The Matrix, you’ll remember that Neo meets the Oracle in a small apartment, where she shares her foresight with him. With this scene in my mind, I met Monica at her son’s apartment. I didn’t meet a cigarette-smoking, cookie-baking Oracle, but a small woman who was both wise and “unmessablewith.” She was enjoying a visit with her two lovely grandchildren, while also explaining to me how transformative change works in practice. In the few days we spent together, she did not share foresights, but insights on her “conscious full spectrum response” to transformations.
My academic mind was spinning with excitement as she explained to me the difference between frameworks for understanding and frameworks for action. Upon returning to Oslo, I translated her approach into what Linda Sygna and I refer to as the “Three Spheres of Transformation,” a reference to the practical, political, and personal dimensions of transformative change that together form a seamless whole.
This was in 2010. Fast-forward a few years. I was frustrated again. I had read many of the books Monica recommended, joined every project or initiative to that might contribute to systems change, and started practicing vipassana meditation, or “insight meditation.” I was not the only one in my community working tirelessly to address climate change. Yet despite all the talk about the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, we were still not seeing measurable results at a scale that would make a difference.
Then I remembered the words Monica had repeated again and again: “you have to design differently to make a difference.” This was an “aha!” moment for me: It wasn’t that I needed to change what I was doing, but instead I needed to do things differently. And that would take both tools and practice.
To make a long story short, I found myself participating in a three-part “Leadership for Results” program that Monica Sharma was leading at the U.S. National Park Service in Fort Collins, Colorado. Dr. Kirsten Gallo, Chief of the Inventory and Monitoring program at NPS, had been using Monica’s approach successfully for several years. She had experienced significant results, and was eagerly sharing it with her team of 400 Inventory and Monitoring employees working in national parks all over the United States.
At the course, I learned how to work with more than 40 tools to design for systems change. I also learned the importance of being change and leading change. This included overcoming my fears, having the courage to “show up,” being steady in my stand, letting go of a “fix-it” mentality, and most of all, recognizing that everyone has the potential to lead transformative change.
After this program and two others that we organized with Monica in Norway in 2019 and 2020, it has become clearer to me how we can work with Three Spheres of Transformation to generate “fractal” patterns that repeat at all scales and generate results. I understand how to align projects for maximum impact. I also recognize that this approach is not based on thinking and writing – two things that I love to do as a professor at the University of Oslo. This is about practice, and it takes continuous practice.
In my first conversation with Monica, she told me that she was committed to supporting 100 global leaders, each of whom is expected to reach one million people, using tools and templates that generate results for one million people. Each one is also expected to nurture ten others who will in turn reach one million people each. Today, Monica is “doing well with the numbers” — her leaders (56 to date) include individuals working all around the world on racism, women’s rights, public health, education, art, media, data technologies, and many other issues, including climate change and sustainability issues.
cCHANGE is committed to generating results on sustainability through a whole systems approach to change. Our goal is to reach one million people using Monica’s approach, and to nurture change agents who are fearless and ready to do things differently in order to make a difference. This requires courage and commitment, and it means that we need to show up.
The good news is that people who are committed to results do not have to fly to Singapore or Colorado to learn and practice these tools. The 2021 Transformational Leadership for Sustainability (TLFS) workshops with Dr. Monica Sharma will be held online. The program starts in March, and if you are open to doing things differently to make a difference, we invite you to show up.
More information about Transformational Leadership for Sustainability can be found here: transformational-leadership.no
Applications for the 2021 spring program which will start in March close on the 22nd of February 2021.
Photo by Nora May Engeseth
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