Inviting Nature in the boardroom

c. 1,600 words


I'd completely forgotten that we had this onion and it has now sprouted out the top. 

I looked at the bud. It was a beautiful spring green colour. At least 10 centimetres long. And strong. It seemed to say 'I'm doing my thing and you can't stop me'. Even the low temperatures of the back of the fridge where it had rolled itself hadn't discouraged it from bursting into life.

Looking at it, I saw the life force of Nature. The kind that just does the thing it's meant to do, like trees growing leaves in spring, lionesses hunting for their pack or waves crashing onto shore. A force that can't be stopped, and that we should be honouring as something that's bigger than us.

As living beings, humans are also an expression of the force of Nature. We grow hair just like trees grow leaves. We make dinner just like lionesses hunt. We crash into bed exhausted at the end of the day just like waves crash onto shore. That natural force within us also guides us into doing more complex things like investing our time and energy in work that we believe in and organisations we feel connected to.

Unfortunately it's become harder and harder for us to connect with this natural force to the point that we find ourselves feeling disconnected from our needs and wants. We live in built-up spaces where concrete separates our bodies from Nature. We drive cars on this concrete to move faster than legs could ever carry us. We use phones to connect with people across the planet instantly with no respect for the limits of geography.

We live faster than ever before. Throughout our body, the millions of sensors in our nervous system are activated more and more to the point of overwhelm, and many of us find ourselves constantly dipping in and out of fight, flight or freeze responses.

Our nervous systems can't keep up with the pace.

As a result, we end up focusing on our immediate needs, the ones in the parts of our nervous systems that scream the loudest. This also means that we end up ignoring important needs that we don’t even realise we have, just because they’re harder to listen to. 

If only we were able to soothe our nervous systems and reconnect with the deeper parts of our bodies that are less vocal yet just as important, we might end up casting our attention on very different things. Things that feel more aligned with our deeper needs. Things that we find more meaningful.

Organisations are suffering from the same problem. 

After all, an organisation is a collective of humans, a collection of nervous systems—teams, customers and shareholders—that interact with each other in service of a common goal.

The thing is, if teams, customers and shareholders are so constantly overwhelmed that they are unable to connect with their deeper wants and needs then there's no way that organisations will ever be able to connect to its own collective deeper wants and needs. Its purpose. This is how so many organisations end up focusing exclusively on urgent work and constantly delaying the more meaningful work that would serve their purpose better in the longer term.

You could argue that I've got the causal relationship wrong and that it's the way organisations are set up today that’s causing people’s nervous systems to feel so overwhelmed. That's probably true too. I'm not sure which comes first, and it doesn't really matter. What matters to me is how we move forward.

So how do we calm our collective nervous systems down? And how do we reconnect with our deeper needs?

Shruthi Vijayakumar does that with playfulness and a wide open mind. 

Shruthi is a leadership coach who facilitated a thought-provoking session at the Doing Better Together event which I attended in November 2022 (relevant links at the bottom of this piece). She kicked off the session with a short and down-to-earth breathing exercise that helped soothe our nervous systems so we’d feel more receptive to whatever thoughts and feelings might emerge from within us as the session took place.

She then explained how she guided boards of NGOs and organisations in New Zealand through an embodied exercise that aimed to help them connect with the deeper wants and needs of their organisations. To do that, she placed a cushion that represented Mother Nature on a chair in the room and invited board members to sit on that cushion whenever they felt like they wanted to get a sense of what the slower and more powerful life force of Mother Nature was guiding them to do. A simple invitation to pause for a moment and reconnect with the less vocal yet sometimes more meaningful parts of ourselves and of our ecosystem that want to be heard.

While I love that idea, I can see how applying this to some of the Very Western Businesses I know would not work. Even with Shruthi's expert guidance. 

So many of us are so disconnected from our bodies that it would take more than a few shared breaths and grounding exercises before we could tune into whatever they have to say, let alone listen to what the wider ecosystem we are a part of might have to say. The mere idea of sitting on a cushion to embody Mother Nature would be laughed off in many boardrooms.

Still, I'm excited by the idea of bringing some of those ideas into organisations. So many of them would benefit from driving work more consciously from a place of purpose. Just like the onion knows that its purpose is to grow a bud, humans and organisations can figure out what their own version of growing a bud looks like and then make it happen. Or rather help it emerge and flourish, since it's what should be happening anyway.

But neither Shruthi nor I would start by putting a cushion that represents Mother Nature in the boardroom. We're reasonable people. I would work my way there progressively.

First, I would start by inviting people to embody someone that they know and have met. A customer they know is having a hard time getting what it needs from the organisation, for example. 

This is not a new idea, many teams are already creating 'customer journeys' where they map the steps a typical customer goes through before and after they buy a product or service, as well as the typical pain points that those customers face. What I am inviting those teams to do is to create those journeys from a place where they embody a specific customer, rather than a place where they imagine what that customer's experience must look like. Stop thinking with their heads, sit on the cushion, feel the 'energy' of their customer and voice their experience from that place.

Once people are comfortable embodying other people, I'd invite them to embody groups of people, like customers as a concept rather than as specific people. Then I'd invite them to embody more nebulous things like systems, one of the values of the organisation, or even the problem that they're trying to solve. At some point, I could gently introduce the idea of embodying Mother Nature too.

Of course, I'd definitely get push back from skeptical people who "have no time for this kind of exercise". 

The whole process does take time. At least it takes time for people to familiarise themselves with it. Once it's well understood, it becomes part of the things that people do organically in meetings, just like starting a conversation by asking a nearby person how they're doing.

Also, this kind of exercise won't work if you're facilitating it for a group of people who are resisting the whole idea. I wouldn't start doing this with just any team. Find the path of least resistance—or, ideally, the path of greatest enthusiasm. Start with teams that are looking for new ideas to help them solve big systemic problems that they know can't be solved just with their heads, like a team that is trying to figure out the (real) purpose of an organisation. Or work with teams that have a big problem to solve, have exhausted all the problem-solving tools they can think of, and are desperate to try something new.

You might not start with the boardroom, but each person counts.

If enough people are able to do this in the same organisation, they will drive that organisation with purpose. And the more organisations are purpose-led, the more we’ll drive meaningful systemic change. 

At the same time, the hidden beauty of exercises like these is that they also invite us humans to reconnect meaningfully with what truly matters to us deep inside, in a world where we rarely give ourselves the time and space to do that, to the point where many of us have forgotten how.


You can check out the recording of Shruthi Vijayakumar's session at the Doing Better Work Together event. Shruthi introduces a model that shows the various layers that people in organisations can operate at to do more meaningful work together and she gives practical tips on how to explore each layer of that model.

Note: the photo at the top is an extract of a photo by Bryan Blanco on Unsplash.