Changing the Story Changes Everything: What Does It Take?

This article is dedicated to the late Bryan Ungard, former Chief Purpose Office for the Decurion Corporation. I did not know Bryan personally, but I know of his work, and it has enhanced and inspired my current thinking and action. I hope that I can pick up the baton and carry it forward a bit with honor.

“Real flourishing requires a paradigm shift.” –Bryan Ungard, speaking at the Teal Around the World Conference in March 2021.

Guest post by Betsy Sheppard

(Post two of two – see post one)

The waves of disruptive and destabilizing events we are experiencing across the globe are symptoms of a deeper underlying condition that must be diagnosed and addressed. As described in Part I, it is difficult for humans to detect a slow erosion, a gradual change in conditions. Returning to the fish in water analogy, if the pond the fish are living in gradually becomes toxic to their survival, they may not sense it and act until it is too late. Equally important is that while immersed in the pond, the fish cannot see or imagine any other reality than their current pond, so they stay put.

For a human being, it is hard to transcend the story you’re living while you’re living it. In developmental terminology, the story or map of reality is subject to you and cannot be changed until you make it object. In other words, the ability to pause and reflect on the context in which you are operating is essential. What is non-conscious must become conscious by bringing it into the light.

What Story are We Living and How Might it be Different?

Mariners are familiar with the nautical term, a dead reckoning. The captain and crew must accurately calculate the current position and assess surrounding conditions to chart a new course.

Today, we are stuck in a pattern of beliefs and behaviors pulling us in the direction of human downgrading rather than human brilliance and flourishing. The dominant paradigm in play is based on a behaviorist philosophy that believes external rewards and punishment are necessary to influence behavior and improve performance. It values control, prediction, conformity, and being right. Organizations for example use job descriptions and pre-defined standards of excellence to evaluate and rate employee competence and performance based on the judgement of others. This approach tends to limit individual and organizational potential because it narrows and restricts the field of what is possible.

The new course that is needed for complex, rapidly changing conditions is based on a developmental philosophy that sees people and organizations as having unlimited potential. This philosophy is grounded in the intrinsic human yearning for purpose, meaning, belonging and love. Instead of a map of reality based on a closed, rigid, machine-model perspective that uses standards, rewards and punishment, a developmental approach espouses a living, generative, open-system perspective that values and cultivates the uniqueness and potential of everyone.

Carol Sanford, author of the Regenerative Business and the Regenerative Life, has been helping organizations and individuals improve paradigm discernment for decades, enabling them to evolve individual and collective capacities and to radically transform their way of engaging with the world.

Carol believes deeply in the evolutionary, open-ended potential of all humans and living beings. She argues passionately and with great conviction that humans must move towards a more life-giving, life-sustaining, regenerative paradigm to tackle the challenges of our time.

According to Carol, “transformation of the world lies hidden within the undeveloped capacity of every person. The energy for change doesn’t come from heroes, it lies within every living thing waiting to be expressed.”

A Natural Process

Human beings have an amazing capacity to adapt and make sense of the world in more complex ways, developing over time a mental model that is more expansive, less ego-centric and less reactive. Development is a natural unfolding, an evolutionary process of becoming more of who you really are. You can envision it as peeling away the layers of social conditioning to rediscover and reconnect with your essential nature, allowing you to express more of your unique essence in the world.

Development cannot be forced or coerced. Parents and leaders cannot develop someone, but they can certainly interfere and stifle development by assuming that they, as a “superior,” know what is best or right for another person. A “carrot and stick” behaviorist approach causes people to cover up weaknesses, withhold information, and hide aspects of themselves to look good and please others.

Development can only come from direct experience. It is an individual process of discovery with the freedom to experiment, to make decisions, to experience failure, to accept responsibility for mistakes, and to be open to aspects of yourself you have not yet uncovered.

Even though development is a natural process, it requires ongoing deliberate work to expand what the mind can see, little by little with consistent practice. It takes conscious intent to train the mind to observe where your thoughts and reactions are programmed to go, enabling you to redirect them and create new mental patterns and pathways. For development to occur, it is essential to allow for moments of stillness to sit with complexity, with not-knowing, with fear, doubt, anger, and frustration, allowing clarity to emerge. According to Bryan, “development occurs from the inside-out. You have to seek it.”

Letting go of a fixed belief in our own certainty and remaining open to the flow of life enables self-reflecting, self-correcting, self-accountable, self-evolving behaviors to take hold. These qualities are naturally available within every human being looking for the opportunity to emerge.

Raising the Bar for All Humanity and the World

The meaning of Homo Sapiens is the wise species. Humans have the unique capacity to pause, to reflect and to choose a response. We can imagine and create things that do not exist. We can hear the call of our souls and listen to the knowing of our hearts. We can sense a deep connection to others and all living systems and derive self-worth from our contribution to something larger than ourselves.

Perhaps we have forgotten our true nature as human beings and the true nature of life? What if we envisioned living a new story that awakens human brilliance and dramatically expands what is possible for us right now? A new plot line could emerge with entirely new roles helping us grow our capacity to restrain heroic impulses, to hold complexity and contradiction without fear, to love ourselves and love others more fully, and to live with a greater sense of awe, wonder, appreciation, and acceptance of the constantly changing nature of reality.

Bryan devoted the final years of his life to discovering and demonstrating that business can be done differently. He learned that “the paradigm of flourishing is how life works.” He discovered that changing paradigms cannot be confined to individual development within and for an organization; it must be connected to the world around you. “Understanding how life works requires starting from wholes not parts. The work happens out in the world first.”

The choice is ours. We can activate the brilliance within very human being with conscious intent. Each of us can reconnect with our own unique essence and learn to express more of it in the world. We can evolve our capacity and rise to meet the challenges around us.

“This ability to disrupt our programming and form new cognitive connections based on direct experience that then becomes embodied through repetition — practice — is one of human beings’ greatest attributes. In this lies the potential to overcome our basest reactions for survival and manifest our highest evolutionary potential to survive.” Rev Angel Kyodo Williams, “Radical Dharma”

Who do we choose to be? How do we choose to respond to this moment in time?

Bryan Ungard (1960–2021) was the Chief Purpose Officer for the Decurion Corporation, a Los Angeles based company that was recognized in the book An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. As a DDO, Decurion’s purpose has been to provide places for people to flourish. Over the 15+ years he spent at Decurion, Bryan helped build an entire philosophy and operating system that created the conditions for people to develop more fully into themselves while enabling the organization to achieve excellence. In the last five years of his life, Bryan had been exploring an integrated and systemic approach grounded in a higher order living paradigm — a new way of seeing the world, being in it, and acting toward breathing new life-generating energy into ecosystems (e.g., customers, communities, industries, social-ecological systems, and so on). He believed genuine human development, in contrast to learning, knowledge, and problem solving, was the door to that possibility. Bryan passed away on May 17th, 2021.