Leadership Alchemy – developing leaders in complex times

Alchemy= “A science (no longer practiced) that sought to transform one chemical element into another through a combination of magic and primitive chemistry. Alchemy is considered to be the ancestor of modern chemistry.” The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy

The wonderful books I have been reading of late, such as Joshua Cooper Ramo’s “The Age of the Unthinkable” and anything by Nassim Nicholas Taleb “Black Swan” and “Fooled by Randomness” speak of the unpredictable world we live in.

While the world has always been unpredictable, my sense is that it feels like it is getting more so by nature of our ever increasing complexity, and the accelerated acceleration we are undergoing, plus the alarming stress we humans have placed on our environment.

These authors and others, plus my observation of the nature of humanity, has affirmed for me that in our times the solutions to our current problems will not come from the obvious places. They will not come from our elected leaders, or our government, nor from the corporations and industries that have been around for a while. We need to give up any expectations of these people and organisations to move us forward significantly.

It will not work to take the best of the scientists, the theoreticians, the politicians. They have had plenty of time and their solutions are like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Same order thinking producing same order results with some minor tweaking.

We need to add to this mix of the usual suspects the fringe dwellers and positive deviants. The musicians, artists, performers, athletes, children, elders. We need to shake things up. It is the wonderful principle of alchemy, in our case, leadership alchemy. To bake a cake you take some ingredients that on their own taste horrible…raw eggs, butter, flour, baking powder, cocoa, salt!  But put them together in the right amounts, with the right environment, and the right temperature, and you get a delicious creation that leaves people begging for more. It really is quite magical.

What is required is a form of leadership alchemy. This new science of taking a diverse groups of leaders, both recognised and acknowledged leaders and lesser or unrecognised  leaders from the arts, education, sports, emerging businesses; and through a combination of mixing them up, spicing then with some dialogical processes, the right environment, the right questions, plus some deep contemplation and mythical/magical/mystical experiences, plus a bit of heat and stress through provocation; to create a new order of thinking and leadership that will be able to create the bridge from here and now, to a future that considers the whole first, for the care and support of the whole of humanity and our environment.

Leadership alchemy doesn’t fit the classic mold of leadership. Its not about hierarchy, authority or status. It doesn’t rely on one person. There is a deep recognition that we are all in this together, and today it might be my turn, but tomorrow it is yours, and the next day it might require four of us. Or a whole community.

Solutions will come when we bring the fringe to the table. When we introduce the positive deviants into the system, and allow them a place to speak and contribute. These people and systems and communities who have refused to live in the model of the traditional way of being and doing. Those people and communities and systems that live in the questions…like…how can we…


…harness the endless energy of the sun, wind, water…in an affordable way?


…develop the capacity of people and leaders to thrive in chaos, to step up when required and down when no longer needed, to not need leadership to satisfy a bruised ego, or to to inflate their coffers?


..meet people where they are at and provide elegant solutions that support them for them and not so we feel better?


…provide ways for children of rich nations to live in gratitude and not entitlement?


…build an economic system that puts at the centre the value of production of any goods or services for the intentional enhancement of the human race, the ecology, the whole, and not just to make a buck?


…at the same time build an economy that respects the global commons…the air and water and forests and minerals, and IP that belongs to all of us?

Leadership alchemy requires sitting in these questions and more…with the willingness to find the elegant place between the tension of the need to provide solutions quickly and the compression of  habit to resort to old models of thinking…we need the positive deviants, the artists, creatives, left of centre’s…to challenge our every thought, to ask us provocative questions, to throw our own process of thinking into chaos. And in that as well we need silence, a space and place to integrate, reflect, not think. Plus some stress and heat, for this is how nature grows. It is not a passive process.

Leadership alchemy does require an element of the transrational.  We have to include the synchronous, the perfection in chaos, the elegance in the mystical, and the ability to let go to the unknown.

A leadership alchemist in training has to learn, as one of the most critical steps, how to thrive and live in chaos, uncertainty, change. They need to be revolutionaries, able to think at the highest level of systems, with the biggest view, and at the same time, speak, act and live with infinite care and compassion, considering the unfolding effects from the micro to the macro. And they must be able to speak at a level of truth that we simply have not heard for a long time. They must be able to risk, and yet have the consciousness to risk with the integrated perspective of wisdom. And they know without any question, that they work as a network of leadership alchemists, rich in diversity, open and curious, flexible, humble, and intrinsically aware of their connection to the whole.

How do we support the development of  leadership alchemists? This is the very question that I am sitting in with a group of my wonderful friends and colleagues from around the world. Richard Hames, author of the great book, “The Five Literacies of Leadership”, Cynthia McEwan and John Schmidt from Avastone ConsultingLaurent Larbourmene, and others…its is an extraordinary conversation.

I would love to hear your views on what it takes to become a leadership alchemist…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*