A conversation with Leigh Marz, BA Ecology, ORSCC
As an ecologist, confessed naturalist, coach and author, Leigh Marz instinctively understands the interplay between and within systems. Enroute to discovering Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC™), Leigh supported youth and women in crisis and served as executive director for a national violence-prevention program. These days, she creates reflective, collaborative spaces in which business and NGO leaders, scientists, engineers and creatives can innovate toward a more sustainable future. Leigh’s client list has included the Green Science Policy Institute, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Harvard University Office for Sustainability, Google Green Team, the Environmental Protection Agency and IKEA.
In 2017, Leigh partnered with policymaker, meditation teacher and writer Justin Talbot Zorn to write an article on silence for Harvard Business Review (HBR). The two were surprised to see it go viral, and have followed up on this first foray with the release of their book “Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise.” It is an ORSC-infused reflection on our innate need to cultivate quiet which asks the question - “Is silence simply the absence of noise - or is it a presence unto itself?”
Leigh is a CRR Global faculty member and an ORSC Certified coach. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Ecology from Wittenberg University, studied ethnobotany with the Kuku Yulangi Aborigines, and is an Authorized Team Diagnostic Assessment and Leadership Circle 360 Profile facilitator as well as an instructor and choreographer of dance.
In this Relationship Systems Intelligence (RSI™) Concepts in Action interview, Leigh explains why nature is the ideal setting for tackling big-picture issues, how ORSC helps her create a nurturing atmosphere for transformation, and why cultivating a relationship with silence is so necessary in a noisy world.
On her career path
I didn’t start out in coaching. I studied ecology and the interrelationship of things. There wasn’t immediate work for that as a person graduating with a BA, so I could either go back to school (which I couldn’t afford), or go to work.
That work was runaway crisis and shelter work with young people, especially those in crisis. One of the things I loved to do was to take them out into nature. They often felt like failures in their own environment, but in nature they could have some success. Perhaps they would learn about an edible plant, or how a plant might be used for bushcrafting. They'd feel a sense of competency, and something innate in them woke up.
I transitioned into battered women's shelter work and gun violence prevention, and from crisis work in supporting women leaving abusive relationships to educating the clergy, police officers and community members. Then I moved toward legislation and regulations to help frame domestic violence as a public health issue rather than a social pathology. At the forefront of that work were incredible activists, especially physicians, who were making the shift into looking at it as a public health issue.
Throughout that decade of working in crisis environments, there were times where the workplace environment was spectacular, respectful, ethical, and loving. There were also times where those work environments were abusive. In a sense, it mirrored the thing that we were trying to address - power and control issues. A parallel process was playing out in these workplaces.
I didn't have the power to change that until I became an executive director (ED). Having come from some environments that were pretty disappointing and abusive, I felt committed to learning how to create an ethical, loving work environment, and to being as good a leader as I could possibly be.
It was when I became an executive director that I really came in contact with ORSC. Being an executive director is often very isolating. There’s only so much you can share with the board, and with your staff. At that time CompassPoint, the thought leaders in non-profit management, had just put out a white paper that they called Lost Leadership. It looked at how executive directors were leaving not just their jobs, but in very short order were completely burned out. They were leaving the entire sector, never to return again.
All of the big foundations were very concerned about this turnover. In response, they pooled their resources to award coaching and support to 25 executive directors. I was among the group put into cohorts and given professional development opportunities. I was fortunate enough to receive one of the original ORSC coaches, Grace Flannery, as my executive coach. Her work was transformational and really changed my life.
In the end what I started to suspect was that while I loved the work of domestic violence and gun violence prevention, I was a wee bit more interested in the process. The “how” needed a lot of help. I ended up resigning from that position and going into coaching and consulting. ORSC was the first place I landed, and the place I was most interested in.
On her current coaching work
I call myself a collaboration coach. It describes my role in pulling people in different sectors together - business, NGOs, scientists, engineers, government entities - and helping them to work together on a complex and shared areas of interest. Over the last couple of decades, that has included climate change and removing toxic chemicals.
On her secret self
I'm really a naturalist. I actually just got back from the Galapagos Islands. It was so amazing. I have never encountered that much life - it was spring, mating season. Life trying to make more life in every direction, just a cacophony of life.
Growing up, my sibling and I spent a lot of time alone and together in nature. It’s a place of comfort, of magic, dreaming, and self-transcendence, which I think is really good for us humans to experience as much as possible. The self becomes smaller and vaster at the same time.
I’ve had great opportunities, I went to Australia to study ethnobotany alongside the Aborigines there - the foods they eat and the things they use for bushcrafting. Those were life-changing experiences that taught me about that web of interconnectivity in a very real way. It’s strange that so many of us are moving through the world, thinking otherwise, with the delusion of separateness.
On feedback loops
We are organisms, sensing the environment with all of our different channels. When a feedback loop is tight, you can see or sense the results right away and adapt accordingly. In a complex environment like an ecosystem, a tight feedback loop allows us to maneuver ourselves through. As coaches we can create tight feedback loops, so we can see the results.
It was really quite impressive to see the different islands and these different universes in the Galapagos. Because of the distance and animals being unable to travel, the feedback loops felt very tight. If something small changed on that island, you could see it. It really did feel like evolution was on display. You were witnessing it not in some really abstract mental way, but in a very immediate feedback loop. We heard about conservation efforts that had been started not that long ago and were working. The immediate response was there, and it filled me with hope.
When I was working with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, we looked for small safe-to-fail experiments that would allow a really tight feedback loop. If what you're trying to do is become a facile, nimble sensing organism, we're at our best when we're in that complex environment.
On when she’s most on purpose
My sense of my purpose is to honor and celebrate life, and to invite others to do the same. There’s definitely a celebration part - finding the aliveness and the fun. When I'm with a client - like when I'm with a woman who's decided to leave an abusive relationship - I’m on purpose. I am helping her honor her life, mobilizing any resources I have, listening to her deeply and celebrating her decisions.
When I'm coaching a system and they're trying to address some big hairy problem, and we're making some headway, there's some truly novel thinking happening. Strategies that have never come up before. When tired, exhausted workers who feel so much pain about the state of our ecosystem are able to enjoy this process, relax, feel a sense of hope, and come up with novel creative ideas, then I'm on purpose.
I'm also on purpose when I'm creating dance choreography and transmitting that in an immediate relationship. We become this fascinating organism, like a murmuration of birds. I've gotten to know that experience pretty well. I felt that same sense of honor and celebration in writing my book, the interviews that came and the conversations and the directions we went, and even in my partnership with my writing partner.
On what dance adds
Throughout my entire life, I've danced. The body gets marginalized, and professionally it tends to get really marginalized. I wouldn't be the coach, the writer or the human I am if not for dance. There's some transmission - not verbal, quite ineffable - that takes place. The dance I do is not a performance or that perfectionistic kind of way of holding dance. It's about feeling joy in our bodies, even understanding that our bodies are this incredible temple of information. I'm at my best as a coach when I'm connected to that.
At different times in life, I have dipped into or struggled with depression and anxiety. I can pretty much guarantee that if I call my mom and say, “Mum, it's not going so well. I'm struggling,” her first question will be, “Are you dancing?” And the answer will be “No, I forgot.”
On her superpower
My superpower is also to celebrate and honor life, and inviting others to do the same.
I work with a lot of scientists and engineers who are often introverted, which is awesome. They can be reserved in a number of ways. Their knowledge can be very deep but narrow in some particular areas. For some it doesn’t include a lot of social skills, and they will be the first to tell you that. So giving permission to move outside of those boundaries - to cross boundaries - is my superpower.
On what piqued her interest in ORSC
I think it was the the brokenness of the nonprofit sector, those abuses of power. That looked like overworking staff, a false sense of crisis all the time. A martyred approach towards the work, as opposed to looking at it as something that needs to be sustainable. People were burning themselves out, or being asked to burn themselves out.
When I encountered ORSC, it occurred to me that this work environment was not so radically different from nature. Just as I would look at the sustainability and health of a natural environment, we could do the same in a work environment. When I watched Grace Flannery work her magic, I instantly knew I wanted to be a part of that.
What piqued my interest is that we might be able to actually get the work done in a better way.
On her favourite ORSC tools
I start every project with High Dream, Low Dream. That surfaces marginalized thinking and really creates a massive amount of space around which we can create agreements. It's always in my toolkit, and people love it. At first, they may say things like - “What, is she trying to stir up trouble?” - but what really needs to be said gets said. That's a glorious thing and the sign of a really good tool.
Another one is looking at the original myth of organizations and myth change. The mind-blowing time we did that was with the Energy Foundation, one of the larger climate change foundations in the world.
The organization had been founded 25 years earlier, when Eric was a young student at Stanford. They were challenged by Hewlett Packard and a combination of foundations to come up with a plan for climate change. They were given six months, and all these parameters, and a fictitious 100 million dollars to do it. He and several others came up with a really comprehensive plan - spent six months just killing themselves to nail this challenge.
Then the head of Hewlett Packard picked up the phone and called them to say he’d received the report. Eric said, “What did you think?” and he replied, “It’s perfect. Now, here's your 100 million dollars. Go do it.” To think that that story had not been transmitted to all of the people who are working there is mind-boggling! It was extraordinary.
On innovating with ORSC
The meta skill of spaciousness, of silence, of presence - it’s much of what I'm emphasizing right now. There's a tendency when we're learning how to coach and learning these magnificent tools to overdo it. We fill the space with too many words, pile on questions without giving people the chance to answer them, and cram too much stuff in too little a period of time. So one of the most powerful things we can do as coaches and systems workers is to create that container and space, to make room for presence and attention. For something new to emerge takes space. There has to be some space for it to wiggle out.
What's lighting me up right now is some of the work I've been taking to clients, chemists who are concerned about the toxic chemicals in our products. We'll go out into the redwoods and spend time with these cross sector groups really reflecting upon the the problem and connecting with nature. It's hard to create great strategies about saving the world when you're in a cement building with no windows and fluorescent lighting. So we go to the natural world to connect to these deeper questions and to meaning. It really supports much better thinking. I’ve been doing that work for about a decade.
Silence supports deep, meaningful and enduring work with teams.
On the original myth of her book
A mutual friend, Sarah Mitchell, introduced me to Justin. She had this intuition that we needed to meet. Justin and I earmarked some time to have a deep conversation. And when we did - we geeked out on all sorts of things, on adult development theory, complexity theory and what we wanted to do in the world.
I mentioned that I’d been thinking about writing. Justin had written hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of article, and said, “Let's write something together! I love writing with people.”
We pitched some ideas to HBR, and the very last one was silence. The editor, Katherine Bell at that time, wrote back and said, “Write about silence. Thanks.” So we wrote an article called “The Busier You Are, The More You Need Quiet Time.” It went viral and became their most shared article in recent years, and was also translated into a few languages. We stepped back and thought, “What is this telling us?”
We still hadn't met in person yet.
We decided that if we were going to write a book, which seemed like the right thing to do, we needed to weave our families together, and we did. It’s been a five year journey. Our friend who initially introduced us, she said, “I just have this feeling you should meet. You two could be brother and sister.” Turns out she was absolutely right. This really is a divine partnership. So joyful. Everything has flowed since then, every step of the way. It's so awesome when you feel like you're on the right path and with the right people.
The book is about silence, of course. The first part is really about what silence is, and why it matters to us. It looks at noise - auditory, informational, and internal. What’s in our environment that is grabbing our attention, what’s becoming increasingly relentless through screens, and what’s in our minds that gets in the way of our ability to perceive and to intend what we do with this precious life. The second part is a field guide to getting beyond the noise.
ORSC absolutely shaped this book. It could easily just be about what individuals could do to bring more silence to their lives, and it is about that. It's also about what we can do as families, as friends and in our workplaces. There are insights from ORSC Faculty sprinkled throughout the book as well, including some from Yuri Morikawa, Janet Frood and Faith Fuller. I do hope that our ORSC community finds it meaningful.
Personally, the deepest silences I've ever known have been shared silences. Silence is magnified when it's shared.
On her biggest inspirations
I was raised in the deep south of the Bible Belt by a lesbian mom, who did not “pass” as anything other than a lesbian. An atheist, lesbian mom. So I grew up in queer culture, and the inclusivity, warmth and acceptance of the LBGTQ+ community completely permeates who I am. That’s a starting point.
I'm a student of Buddhism and have done a lot of extended retreats. That was another lifeline for me. Understanding impermanence, really tuning into awareness, attention and non-attachment, bearing witness to my own greed and aversion at different times. Getting schooled in all those things, but in a compassionate way. I owe a lot to Buddhism.
When I met my husband, I converted to a secular Judaism. I’m so intrigued by the culture of Judaism and rituals like Shabbat. It’s a weekly pause, where we have a meal, invite friends over, put down our phones and just enjoy each other's presence. This combination of Buddhism and Judaism has been the perfect fit.
The exploration of consciousness which I first learned about in Buddhism is where I really engage the deepest silence in my life. It's also part of what motivated our book.
On her heroes
I was born from a miracle, which feels pretty good. I say my mom’s a miracle because she was born at two pounds, on an island off Mobile, Alabama. Her grandmother was a midwife and kept her alive. Mom survived a lot of physical and sexual abuse, polio and an iron lung, addiction. And yet by the time my brother and I came - she just poured pure, unconditional love into the two of us. We talk a lot about rank and privilege in ORSC, and I would say my greatest privilege is being the recipient of unconditional love. I wouldn't be writing this book or doing any of these great things, if not for that. She’s my hero. I'm forever grateful to her soul.
Jarvis Jay Masters is a hero of mine. He’s the main character in our book. Some people say Jarvis is the soul of the book, and I think that's a beautiful way to put it. He lives in San Quentin, on death row for a crime which the vast preponderance of evidence suggests and that I believe he didn't commit. He's a Tibetan Buddhist student of Pema Chödrön, and a remarkably beautiful being who emits quiet peace and compassion all around him. He is also the author of two books, “Finding Freedom” and “That Bird Has My Wings.”
We interviewed him at length for the book, and he's become a dear friend. I visit him whenever I can over in San Quentin, which is just across the bay. He's a brother and a hero, and I hope to have him at my dinner table soon when his appeal reveals that he's innocent.
On her recommendations
I'm very careful about what I put in my brain, very selective. I try to keep a lot of space in there, and just have a couple of incredible things knocking around.
Tricia Hershey is otherwise known as the Nap Bishop. She's a long time activist who was really involved in Black Lives Matter, and she speaks of silence and of rest as revolutionary. To break the cycle of violence, we have to break the capitalistic cycle, this grind of doing and doing and doing. Tricia does all kinds of posts on social media, the kind of posts that actually penetrate the noise and offer you this beautiful nugget of quiet.
Matthew Walker, the neuroscientist, wrote “Why We Sleep.” It’s a brilliant book - a great example of taking conventional wisdom and turning it on its head, bringing in good science and compelling story. “How to Do Nothing,” Jenny Odell’s great book about the attention economy, is also a wonderful read.
The Emerald by Josh Schrei is a mythology podcast, all about understanding who we are through a mythic lens. It's quite astonishing. You just kind of float down a stream of story. It's one of those pleasures I've been giving myself, as well as the Poetry Unbound podcast with Pádraig Ó Tuama. Other poets include Ntozake Shange, E.E. Cummings, Pablo Neruda, Tracy K. Smith, Rumi, Hafiz, Diane Ackerman and Marissa Davis.
I would not forget to read poems. Susan Sontag says great art leaves silence in its wake. Poems come with their own silence inserted.
On why systems coaching is needed now
It really goes back to that place of interconnectivity. It’s an actual reflection of reality that we treat our system as a system. The rest is delusion.
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