Leadership and Understanding Our Place In The Cosmos


Understanding our connection with the cosmos can sharpen our sense of what it means to lead sustainably, writes Chris Nichols.

I like predicting the titles of tomorrow’s leadership best-sellers; my money says that before long someone will have written ‘Leading in Our Connected Universe’. It’s coming for sure.

There’s a lot of boardroom interest in science – everything becomes more respectable if there’s science attached to it. We all have what Friedrich Hayek called, “physics envy”, except physicists of course who have to find something else to suffer from. But leaders shouldn’t be in awe of science. Instead, they should take more disciplined steps to engage with it and learn from it.

Take astrophysics. In one of the most moving and provocative film clips I know, cosmologist Carl Sagan’s thoughts are captured in a snippet known as The Pale Blue Dot. The Earth was photographed in the vastness of space by the robotic probe Voyager 1 from a distance of six billion kilometres away. Our planet occupies less than a pixel. It is a pale blue dot.

As Sagan said, astrophysics is a humbling science. All of our history and all of our lives, our past, present and knowable future is played out on that pixel. It is a stark reminder of our physical reality. We, and our planet, are part of an unfolding cosmic story and everything we are is intricately connected to that story. Understanding our connection and the physical fragility of our planet is becoming a vital leadership awareness tool for this century.

I am doing increasing amounts of work based on Swimme and Berry’s book The Universe Story, drawing organisational and leadership insights from the latest emerging science about the nature of our Earth and its place in the emergence of the wider cosmos.

I have just returned from leading a weekend workshop with my co-facilitator Jane Riddiford (www.globalgeneration. org.uk), designed to give people the opportunity to experience The Universe Story not just as abstract science but as a story in which we are all a part.

It’s an increasingly fruitful perspective for leaders interested in finding a robust connecting story to give an edge to their sustainability aspirations. Working with The Universe Story can create a sense of connection to a wider system that brings sustainable leadership challenges alive.

Our recent workshop brought together a Professor of Astrophysics; film makers; artists; writers; musicians; and several business leaders from diverse sectors including civil engineering, economics, professional services and banking. This fascinating collaboration was drawn together by a common interest in what the latest Universe Story can tell us about how to organise things in the business world.

During the weekend, we drank in the story and let it flow through us in as many ways as possible:

  • We walked the timeline, a 1.4 kilometre walk in which every 100 metres represented one billion years. We learned about the science of each stage of the history of time.
  • We used our bodies to sculpt and improvise, to play out our sense of ‘being the Universe’.
  • We ‘spoke the story’ in the first person, speaking as the Universe, noticing the insights and images associated with each phase of time.
  • We made music, becoming the story as a wave of sound created spontaneously and collectively using a shared musical technique (see www.groundedcreativity. com)
  • We drew, painted and wrote, paying particular attention to the implications of having this experience – how did it inform us as leaders and practitioners about what to do and how to do it in practice?

It was one of the richest possible experiences of creative working. We came out of it with a much sharper sense of why our leadership mattered and what should be on our agendas.

It reminded me that when we step into the work of leading sustainably, using our intellects alone isn’t enough; just knowing the science doesn’t change anything.

We need to bring in a much wider range of knowing and seeing. It can’t all be explained in writing so we made a film of the work and you can view it here.

To tackle the challenges we now face, stepping into the experience of being a living part of a messy creative planet is a vital part of leading. Intellectualising before experiencing guarantees a separation from the reality. As leaders we need to step in with all our senses alert: ‘lose your mind and come to your senses’ might be a suitable motto.

And notice that our leadership work is not separate from anything. Especially not from the Earth and the Universe. It feels like the most important work. Maybe I will write that book after all …


Chris Nichols is an Ashridge accredited coach and an experienced boardroom consultant and facilitator.

Follow him on Twitter @chrisnicholsT2i

Photo Credit: Mike Durkin from Flickr

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Chris Nichols is entrepreneur, educator, writer, speaker and artist. He is a director at Ashridge, and at his own companies, including GameShift and MouseHouse Media. He works worldwide, developing creative strategic leadership responses with leaders addressing the world’s most complex and pressing challenges.