Laughter & Leadership Go Hand in (Clapping) Hand

Islandwood workshop 4

Earlier this month, at the EMERGE Leadership Residency in Islandwood, we “learned” to laugh. I’d asked attendee Sue Z. Hart, to introduce us to laughter as therapy as part of our opening session on Friday night.  In addition to being Marketing Specialist for the Trades Division of Green River Community College, and Founder of the mission-based Building Beyond the Walls, Sue is a certified laughter therapist.

Sue shared her personal story of using laughter to help her heal from the serious effects of a car accident years ago, some of the science related to the benefits of laughter, and then led us in a serious of truly outrageous exercises that had us, yes, laughing.

Because I’m not miked at our workshops, we’ve developed “whoo-hoo!” as the emergent call back to attention after breaks, group work, etc.  Now you’ll find us “Ho Ho HaHaHa Whee-ing” too!

I exported the simplest exercise (clapping and sing-songing Ho Ho HaHaHa with a rousing Halleluah-style Whee) to our workshop in Los Angeles. I shared it as a remedy for long hours in a technologically state of the art but windowless interior classroom and was delighted when participants began asking for us to do it again. What an energy boost!

Leaders can’t afford to be stuffy – at least not Emergent leaders. Besides the fact that laughter helps keep us going when the going gets rough (now that’s original!) it is known to be a type of social “glue”.  Laughter can build connections among individuals and forge a sense of community.  Thus laughter is an important tool in the toolbox for Emergent leaders.   As part of the third primary component of the Emerge Leadership Model, community Emergent leaders rely on community, both to attain results and to provide moral support for leaderly work.

We’ll be (seriously) polishing this “tool” at the first annual EMERGE Summit this February 28th.  The theme is “Building a Beloved Community.” If you have participated in one of the EMERGE Leadership workshops in California, Oregon, Washington, or Hawaii, you are welcome to attend, and can register at:

(If you are not an alumni, let’s make you one! Sign up for our newsletter to learn of future workshops as they are scheduled.)

(The EMERGE Leadership scenario presentations have always been incredible, but the laughter session may have added a special something. The photo shows one team acting out the “ready, fire, aim!” leadership technique. Not!)

The EMERGE Participant Profile: Curious?

SmilingFolks_IslandwoodYou might wonder just who attends the EMERGE Leadership Workshop.  Given the content, you know it’s someone who is dedicated to doing what they can to accelerate the adoption of sustainability in the built environment and in their communities.  Although the workshop does provide professional CEUs, that’s not what they are here for. We seem to be drawing very special individuals, capable of and committed to doing good work.

Last year, we started including several questions regarding our participants’ professional career arc in the pre-workshop survey, to give the Faculty some background and help us better prepare for the workshop.   The surveys are confirming what we thought to be true:  With a few exceptions, most attendees, whether they operate in the for-profit, non-profit, or government sector, have a good amount of professional experience under their belt.  In this current year, for example, there’s an average of 15 years career experience, ranging from 2.5 years to 30. In addition, attendees usually have some current leadership responsibility, with a list of titles that include President, Vice President, General Manager, Project Manager, Project Coordinator, Program Manager, Senior Associate, Director, Principal, Senior Job Captain, and of course, Owner.

Frequently, attendees have recently been asked (or voluntarily stepped up) to take on expanded leadership responsibility in their current role, with a focus on sustainability.   Just as frequently, they are considering a transition from their current position or role, hoping to use their experience and talent in a new context.

Many of our alumni are design professionals, including urban planners, architects (building, interior, landscape, historic), engineers (structural, civil, mechanical), while others are in construction (build-design, trades, project management), and still others are policy planners and analysts specializing in sustainable topics. Each workshop generally includes a few advocates working for (often directing) non-profits focused on sustainability.

I’ll be meeting this year’s cohort in person at our upcoming workshops at IslandWood (January 9-11), and the Southern California Gas Company’s Energy Resource Center (January 14-15).  (IslandWood registration is filled; we do have some room in the LA workshop, but you’ll need to hurry!)

And many of these high caliber alumni will get to meet each other at the first annual EMERGE Summit, planned for February 28th, 2015.  I’m looking forward to it!

More later.

Vets: Interested in Green Building Leadership? Two Comp Seats for You at LA workshop

bootsA special retraining opportunity for vets interested in green building leadership has “emerged!”  Southern California Gas Company is graciously offering its two complimentary seats at the January 14-15th EMERGE Leadership Workshop to two veterans who are interested in attending, but currently do not have the means to register.  Turnaround is tight, but we want to make this happen! Are you, or do you know of, a veteran who has or is currently attending an energy efficiency certification training program in the LA area? Similarly, do you know of a veteran who has or is currently attending LEED or Living Building Accreditation training?  Or has construction supervisory experience gained while in the military and would like to expand that capability into green building leadership? This is a great opportunity to both gain leadership knowledge pertinent to the green building field AND connect with other green building leaders. Please contact me immediately at, or 206-200-1864. Information on the workshop is at:

Are you in Q2?

In the late 90s I had the opportunity to attend an executive leadership breakfast keynoted by the late (and great) Steven Covey. I’d read several of his books, including the classic, Seven Habits of a Highly Effective  People, as well as First Things First and had had good experience applying them to running my sole proprietorship.  Covey’s talk centered on creating effective teams within an existing structure.  I had primarily been hoping for an injection of positive energy – and Covey certainly provided that. But it also turned out to be an important and very practical turning point for my business.  Although not exactly what Covey was talking about, I was inspired to come up with a new framework for my company.  I was so excited I couldn’t even leave the parking garage.  I sat in my car, sketching out an entirely new team-based structure for O’Brien & Company.  In 2011 I transferred ownership of O’Brien & Company to three employee-principals, and although the framework is more sophisticated, and team definitions have evolved, the team structure is still intact and works well for the company.

The point of this post, however, is not really to discuss team-based structure, but to encourage use of a planning tool Covey promoted in his writing, and that I had adopted by the time the above event occurred.  This was the important/urgent matrix (see below):

Q1 Urgent, Not Important Q2 Urgent, Important
Q3 Not Urgent, Not Important Q4 Not Urgent, Not Important

Spending most of my time in Quadrant 2 (that is handling important matters that were not urgent) became my goal – and it became a mantra around the office…”Are you in Q2?”

New hires quickly picked up on the lingo, and we all learned that practice makes perfect!   Like anyone else I could easily “relapse” into Q1 behavior, but the more I practiced Q2 behavior (you might say “recovery”) the more I was able to practice it, and benefit from it.  What is Q2 behavior? In our office shorthand, it was interpreted as prep and planning. If we were acting on something important (it mattered to our values, our bottom line, our brand) without prep and planning, then we there was a good chance we were in Q1 (or about to be!).

Spending time on personal development (which is one way to interpret my attendance at the Covey event) and then taking advantage of the privacy of my car to sketch out an idea for improving my company’s performance (rather than quickly returning to the office and diving into my in-box) are two examples of Q2 behavior…both of which have had lasting, positive effects.

With practice, it’s become easier and easier to detect when I am on the slippery slope into Q1 (or even Q3). If I feel the least bit agitated, I know it is NOT time to act, but time to PAUSE.  This pause helps me identify whether I am  about to take action on something that matters and whether there is some planning or prep I could be doing to make that action more effective.  So a four-step routine for acting more effectively: 1) Stop the action when agitated, and 2) Ask yourself, “Am I in Q2?” 3) If not, imagine what Q2 behavior would look like in that particular situation (which of course IS Q2 behavior) and 4) Act in accord.  For anyone hoping to take a leadership role, developing this routine is essential to success.

Emergent Leaders Look in the Mirror First

OntheWayHow many of us in leadership positions have run into a snag, either with a client, a colleague, a Board Director, or other figure in our sphere of influence, and used a “tried and true” communication technique to get back on track — and the results were less than stellar?

I certainly have my share of such experiences.  It’s not because those techniques are faulty.  It’s because I skipped a step — actually two steps. I needed to impartially review what happened and discern my role in what happened.  In Leadership and the New Science, Margaret Wheatley says “We would benefit from knowing how much interpretation we do.”  An impartial review, where I ask myself what happened first – factually –  then what, then what, and so forth, makes it much more likely that I will realistically see my role in what happened. This is because I’ll be less defensive as I describe the situation to myself.

Once I have personally completed this exercise, it will be much easier for me to approach the person with whom I’m experiencing the problem calmly. And thus, more likely to resolve the situation creatively.

Once you are clear about your role (and we always have one) in the original mis-fire, it may be possible to go through the “what happened” exercise with the individual you hope to work things out with. This can be particularly important for long term relationships. I found this exercise helpful with employees, where we were not just resolving the situation, but practicing a kind of discernment that would come in handy for the employee as he or she grew in professional responsibility.

The point is to foster fact-finding, rather than fault-finding, even when you are the subject of the study! The neat thing about learning this discernment process, is that with enough practice, you can “witness” the action while you are in the middle of it, and even begin to “foresee” how the action might go before it occurs. Both are leadership capabilities of an emergent leader that will help you avoid problems in the first place.  And perhaps more importantly, make the most of every interaction with your colleagues, clients, or employees.

Foresight and witnessing are two important practices of an emergent leader. We’ll be discussing this and more at the upcoming EMERGE Leadership Workshops this January. Learn more at:




Why Scenario at EMERGE?

ob-featured-postScenario planning is a significant component to the EMERGE Leadership Workshop. Why so? If you are like me, you’ve read a ton of books on leadership. (Some of the best are in the Resources Section of this website!) But it was when I practically applied the principles I’d read about, that I began to really “get” how the particular advice worked (and if it worked to my satisfaction) in my world. Scenario planning is a big part of the EMERGE Leadership Workshop to give every participant an opportunity to apply EMERGE Leadership principles and practices to a realistic situation before they leave the workshop environment and re-engage in home and office routines.

There are a variety of techniques adult education can incorporate in order to enhance learning, but scenario planning is particularly appropriate for EMERGE Leadership training. This is because the EMERGE Leadership Model emphasizes collaboration as a means of both identifying and implementing more creative solutions. EMERGE participants are working to help each other learn the material, while they are sorting out how the material can be applied “back at the ranch.” And, they are practicing collaboration in a safe, contained environment.

The scenarios are based on issues of concern reported by participants in a pre-workshop survey, and are only included in the scenario team planning exercise if the individual concerned about it explicitly gives permission to use it. The leadership issue of concern can be a personal one, such as “I’m concerned about how my attempts to introduce sustainability into projects at my company are perceived,” or “I lead a City green building team, and feel I could be more effective.” Or it can be at the broader, organizational level, such “We’re planning our succession, and want to make sure the next generation of owners carry on (perhaps enhance) our sustainability initiatives.” Or it can be even more far-reaching, such as “I’m working on a state-wide energy initiative, and don’t feel I have a strong enough coalition to succeed.”

MikeFowlerFor issues such as these, the exercise assignment identifies a desired deliverable (For example, a plan for building a coalition to achieve a state-wide initiative) and conditions that must be taken into consideration when developing that deliverable. These conditions often act as constraints, but not always. Sometimes they can be re-invented as an asset.

EMERGE Participants choose from the custom scenarios developed for their workshop and then work as a team for 2-3 hours on the scenario, and then on a creative presentation of the results of their work. We provide lots of arts and crafts supplies to make this fun (and therefore more memorable!) Faculty and other attendees constructively critique the presentation, and discuss the implications of the solution envisioned by the group, in particular how it reflects the EMERGE Leadership approach vs. conventional leadership.

For individuals who are “living” the particular scenario back at their workplace or in their community, the scenario team planning process can be very helpful – they often leave with their group’s planning flip charts in hand with every intention to use them. (With the group’s permission, of course.) And their team members get to enjoy when the scenario becomes realized successfully. Some examples:

Bravery + EMERGE Workshop = Integrated Design Center

Emerge Leadership Project Creates Energy for Change

The EMERGE Leadership Workshop is  intentionally designed for application in the real world, to solve real problems and create effective life-sustaining solutions in and through the built environment. Scenario-planning is absolutely key to this intent.



Time, Money, Energy: Why Waste it?

IMG_9861I was recently talking to a prospective attendee for the two-day EMERGE Leadership Workshop scheduled for January 14-15, 2015 at the Southern California Gas Company’s ERC/Classroom. Fantastic guy, a highly motivated, successful entrepreneur. He had recently spent thousands of dollars at a leadership conference led by one of the nation’s famous motivational speakers. I’m sure it was energizing, but frankly, I winced to hear it. There are lots less expensive ways to pick up general leadership tips and showmanship.  Read one of the hundreds of good books on leadership. Practice what they preach. Take a leadership seminar offered by your local chamber of commerce.  Join Toastmasters to polish your own motivational speaking.

If I’m going to spend my precious time, energy, and professional development budget on leadership training, I’d want to know that it is custom designed for me. Since my interest is in accelerating sustainability in the built environment, I’d want the content to be framed with that in mind. I’d want examples to “fit,” and I’d want exercises to help me develop solutions that I can apply in my world. I’d want the connections I make at the workshop to be high value, because I live in a high-stakes world. I’m trying to save the planet. Really.

I’d also want to know that I’m not going to be lectured at, because if that’s the case, I may remember that you moved me, and maybe even informed me, but I’ll be forgetting 95% of what you tell me. I work in the world of design, construction, and planning, so I want to do some of that to really “get” what you’re telling me in words.

Next, I’d want to know that people who have taken the training have ended up doing something really good with it. Like, successfully form a coalition to support a new energy performance policy. Like, open up a design collaborative center providing green building services and training on Main Street. Like, become the “go-to” person for city staff and council for sustainability questions. Like, experiment with an “agile” design-build process on the next residential building project and share lessons learned. Like, start up a new architectural firm focused entirely on sustainable design and operated in a socially responsible manner. Like, create a succession plan for the next generation of owners, ensuring sustainability will not be lost in the transition.

Finally, I’d want the leadership approach to accommodate the fact that although I’m committed to making sustainable building practice the norm, I rarely (if ever?) have the authority to just “make it happen.” I have to collaborate with others to get results.

This is what I’d hope for. Which is why the EMERGE Leadership curriculum is designed the way it is. Come join us this winter at the Islandwood Leadership Residency or the LA Emerge Leadership Workshop.

EMERGE won’t make you a greener building professional

Just a more effective one. Many of you have spent lots of professional development hours, dollars, and energy reading articles, attending conferences, and investing in expert consultants to learn how to build, design, and plan green projects.  Not altogether a bad investment, of course. It’s very important to imbue your passion for sustainable projects with substantive technical skills.  There’s a key ingredient missing in this scenario though, especially if your goal is to move people and their projects beyond “just enough” to earn a plaque, media attention, or even a bonus for project certification.  Effective leadership — with an eye on empowering changed behaviors around investment, design, planning, construction, development — is what’s missing.

Many assume that leadership is a trait (as in charisma), or a bit of good luck (as in celebrity), or granted (as in a title).  Leadership can be learned. This is good, for if we wait for the few with the gift of eloquence to guide us, we’ll be missing too many opportunities to inspire and direct change within the multi-layered systems in which builders, designers, planners, and community advocates operate. Leadership can also be assumed. Also good. We needn’t wait until we’ve landed an upper-management position (although that’s nice!) to lead.

Our built environment reflects the values of our communit(ies). It also shapes them.  As emergent leaders we can use our projects to inspire and conspire, through the brick and mortar and site decisions we make, yes, but more importantly through the process we use to make those decisions. And we can do this from any chair.

The EMERGE Leadership Workshop recognizes that for a green building professional aspiring to lead effective change in the field and in their communities, passion and technical training needs to be supplemented by practical training in leadership principles that recognize the significance of mindset and process.  The workshop presents these principles, and through interactive exercises, including realistic leadership scenarios, gives you a chance to practice them. A complimentary follow-up mentoring session makes sure you aren’t left hanging with some great ideas you can’t seem to apply in real life. In addition the EMERGE Leadership Project makes sure you will remain in contact with your EMERGE peers to support you as you apply your “stretch” leadership goals out in the field.

Kathleen O'BrienDavid EisenbergThis year’s workshops feature nationally recognized green building experts and authors Kathleen O’Brien and David Eisenberg. (Local guest faculty as time permits.)

You’ve got the passion; you’ve got the green building technical skills; now complete your quiver with advanced leadership training designed specifically for green building practitioners with the kind of weight you’d expect from proven green building leaders.

We’re offering the same great content in two distinctive venues. The Islandwood Residency, January 9-11 (Bainbridge Island, Washington) offers a natural setting with a more relaxed schedule and on-site lodging. The SoCal Gas Company’s ERC Classroom January 14-15 (Downey, CA) offers convenience and commuter economy. More details are at:



Bravery + EMERGE Workshop = Integrated, Collaborative Design Center Opening December 5, 2014.

I was past gleeful this past Saturday when the opening of the Leading Force Energy & Design Center (Center) was announced as part of a presentation at the Guild’s Green Building Slam. The Yakima-based Center was the subject of a case study team exercise during the December 2013 EMERGE Leadership Islandwood Residency. Woohoo, I say!

LFEDC BG class (2)The Center’s grand opening is scheduled for December 5th, 2014 just a short 364 days from the date of the original exercise, a time-line that defies gravity. And this is no ordinary showroom. Says Steve Weise, EMERGE Alumni and the project’s author, “The idea is to offer a collaborative space that provides integrated consulting and training to contractors, subcontractors, and the public. The goal is to help budget-minded owners develop healthy, energy efficient projects.” (Apparently they aren’t waiting for the grand opening. The photo shows a group of local contractors after a Built Green training held at the storefront.)

The case study team exercise is a key component of the EMERGE Leadership workshop experience. Based on pre-workshop surveys, I create a set of 4-5 scenarios that workshop participants can then choose from. The self-selected teams then address their scenario using a set of questions as a framework for their process, while applying emergent leadership principles presented by EMERGE faculty. The scenarios can be a blend of conditions and leadership issues presented by various participants in their surveys, but key is that the scenario as a whole is both realistic and challenging. Sometimes a participant offers an idea for a sustainable business venture, as Steve did in this case.

In the case study “Cooperative Business Making” the group was tasked with creating a strategic plan for an “investor that has an idea for a business that promotes sustainable building in her region through a cooperative venture. She is not a practitioner, but wants to create a self-supporting environment that would help make practitioners be successful.” The team was asked to address several conditions, including the investor’s desire to achieve the mission while earning a “reasonable return on the investment.”

Workshop participants began work late on the first day, and completed their work early on the second, when they were primarily preparing a 20-minute presentation on the results of their work. (I provide lots of props and art supplies and these usually show up in one form or another in the presentation.) After the presentation I led a 10-minute critique, with other workshop participants and faculty chiming in and asking questions.

WeiseGroup1I’m always impressed at what the teams deliver, and the “Cooperative Business Making” team was no exception. A substantive reporting of how such a business could be developed using emergent leadership principles, it was amusing to boot – because I’d used a “she” in the scenario write-up, investor Steve wore a head scarf for the presentation. (See photo.)

Case studies have run the gamut from issues with clients, to community organizing, to sustainable business management. The intent of the case study exercise is to learn through doing, and since the case study is based on real life scenarios, to provide participants facing those particular conditions with a tool to help them achieve their leadership goals. In Steve’s case, he’d had “various meetings and written some thoughts down, but it took the EMERGE team, with like-minded passion and a great knowledge base, including business experience to add logic to the passion and come up with a strategy.” With his team’s permission, Steve took the flip charts from his team’s planning sessions and presentation and used them to plan the project with his network back home in Yakima.

And today, that Center is located at 17 North Third Street #101, Yakima, WA 98901. On opening day December 5th, a public open house is scheduled from 10am – 4pm, with a grand opening for professionals scheduled from 4pm – 8pm. Sounds like lots of fun, with a combination of classes, refreshments, and live music. Terry Phelan, another EMERGE Alumni, and member of the same case study team, is a founding member and will open up a satellite office of her firm Living Shelter Design in the Center. Woohoo again, I say!

Other realized examples of EMERGE workshop case studies that I know about it include a statewide energy policy initiative, a contractors’ company-wide adoption of sustainable operations, and a sustainable design firm start-up. If you have an idea you’d like to take the lead on, bring it to the next EMERGE Leadership Workshop. We’ve got two this winter, January 9-11 (Islandwood), and January 14-15 (Southern California Gas Company’s ERC). In a recent call, Steve said, “All it took was the bravery to put it forward.” Just so.

EMERGE: Learn and connect to improve your career effectiveness

“Thanks again for…(the) amazing Emerge Leadership program.  I’m still benefiting from its wisdom and the connections I’ve made through it to the larger green building community,” says Bronwyn Barry, Co-President North American Passive House Network, and Director of OneSky. Bronwyn is one of the super dedicated green building professionals in the private and public sector that have participated in the EMERGE Leadership Project’s programs, including its centerpiece, the two-day EMERGE Leadership Workshop.

And SBAers should take credit! The EMERGE Leadership Project is a direct result of SBA grads asking for help taking the comprehensive technical learning they received in the Seattle area SBA program and implementing it in their projects, workplaces, and communities.

Learn and connect with like-minded professionals at upcoming EMERGE Leadership Workshops, with Faculty Kathleen O’Brien & David Eisenberg. Says Jana Chamales, Former Director & Instructor SBA-San Francisco “Kathleen O’Brien is a visionary leader and teaches from an authentic understanding of the green building industry. As the founder of the Sustainable Building Advisor Program, her new EMERGE training is design to give CSBAs an opportunity to gain stronger leadership skills and take green building to the next level.”

Winter Schedule

Islandwood Environmental Education Center, Bainbridge Island, WA. January 8-10, 2015. This retreat setting residency offers on-site lodging and a more relaxed schedule. Earlybird deadline November 18th! More details:

Southern California Company Gas ERC, Downey, CA. January 14-15, 2015. This two-day workshop offers commuter convenience & economy pricing. Earlybird deadline November 30th! More details:

Two options, with the same purpose in mind: Amplifying your capability & your will to lead toward the change we all know is a must: adoption of sustainable building & development as the norm, not the exception.   Contact Kathleen at 206-200-1864, or

SPECIAL PRICING for SBA Grads as a thankyou for your inspiration: The EMERGE Leadership Project offers a “local champion” discount and that includes SBA grads! Combine the Earlybird and Local Champion discount for the lowest possible rate. Affordable, and “Life-Altering.”  (so said Alexandra Ramsden, Sustainability consultant, SBA grad, and EMERGE Alumni)